A View of the Open Sea

Part Two


Historical Notes: The basic facts relating to statehood here are true: the U.S. Congress passed an Enabling Act on March 21, 1864, opening the door for Nevada to become the nation’s thirty-sixth state. A convention was convened in Carson City on July 4 to draft and approve a state constitution; the document it produced was brought to a vote of the citizens of Nevada in September. It was approved by a wide margin and President Abraham Lincoln signed Nevada into the Union on October 31, 1864. ~~ Governor James Warren Nye is credited with shepherding Nevada’s entrance into the Union and, along with a few others, with securing the western states in the abolitionist cause.  The treatment of the Nevada statehood issue presented here, particularly Ben Cartwright’s participation, is fictional. ~~ Donald McKay was the premier American ship builder of the clipper era (although I treated his story as if its timeframe began about five years earlier than it actually did). While The Gazelle is fictional, Lightning is not; she was the fastest ship ever to sail the seas, faster than the steamships of her day.  ~~ This assumes Bonanza’s conception of the International Hotel, not the actual structure, which was significantly different.

Bonanza Notes: This assumes that the Cartwrights are the ages assigned by David Dortort: Ben was born in 1810, Adam in 1830, Hoss in 1836, Joe in 1842. ~~ Adam’s horse Sport is the original one, the one with attitude, who was in the credits. ~~ The layout of the ranch and barn also is from early in the series, when there were many trees and a bench in front of the house. ~~ And I played fast and loose with geography, just as Bonanza did; the house is up in the mountains, but only an hour from town—rather an achievement, given the actual distances.

Disclaimer: Ben, Adam, Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing, Roy Coffee and Dr. Paul Martin are not mine. Neither is Governor James Warren Nye, who doesn’t even belong to David Dortort; presumably, he belonged only to himself, but as he’s been dead since 1876, let me simply say that I hope he’s been portrayed respectfully. Everyone else belongs to me, whether I want them or not.  © 2003 as allowed



THE sun was almost blinding on the slope of snow, flawless and clean on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range. At the edge of a stand of pines, Ben Cartwright sat back in the saddle and marveled at how the blanket of white outlined the high peaks and then filtered down through the trees to the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Beside him, his son Hoss sighed comfortably. “Ain’t that just about the prettiest sight in the whole world?”

“Yes, it is, son. There’s no other like it.” Just for a second, Ben wondered what Lily Mercer would think of it … what she would say if she were sitting there beside him. He pushed the thought out of his mind. “It’s a fine place to raise a family, Hoss. I know it was hard on you to postpone the wedding last fall, but now, with spring coming, you and Eleanor can begin again. It’ll be a season of beginnings.”

“Yeah, Pa, I ain’t got no pleasant mem’ries o’ last fall. It darn near killed Ellie when her daddy died. But all that’s past now.”

“And you have your whole lives ahead of you.”

Hoss took off his hat and wiped his brow. “Didja ever think, Pa, ’bout how lucky we are ta live here?”

Ben’s voice softened. “Yes, we’re very fortunate. Not too many people have this to look at … to set them right when they might go wrong.”

“Yeah. I remember what you told me when I was a kid, and I reckon it’s as good advice now as it was then. You said to always try ta live up to the country.”

Ben sat up straighter in his saddle, inhaling the crisp, cold air. “That’s still true.”

“It’s just another way to say ‘do yer best,’ ain’t it, Pa? Do yer best and then do a lil’ more.”

Ben smiled. His middle son saw things in simple terms, loved and hated in black and white; sometimes it was easy to discount his intelligence. Easy, perhaps, but unwise. Hoss had a way of seeing to the heart of matters. “Yes, that’s exactly what it means.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes and then Hoss threw his father a grin. “Not too bad up here today, is it? You c’n feel how in another month or so, it’ll be right decent.”

Ben nodded. In the clear sunshine, their heavy jackets were almost too warm. “Yes, before long.” He patted Buck’s neck where the horse was sweating through his thick coat of winter hair. “What d’you say we call it a day? If there were any cattle down that ravine over there, we’d be seeing their tracks.”

“Sounds good ta me. By the time we get home, it’ll be dark anyhow.” Hoss clucked to Chub and the dark bay gelding led the way across an expanse of unmarked snow that only he could tell was a trail.

They rode for more than an hour, dropping steadily down the mountain, sliding occasionally on the icy patches and toward the end trying to beat the setting sun. It was dark when they trotted into the clearing in front of the ranch house, and they were surprised to see a carriage parked next to the barn.

“Gov’nor’s here,” said the old man who helped with the horses. “Got here an hour ago. I’ll see ta yer horses.”

Hoss nodded toward the house. “You go on in, Pa. Gov’nor Nye ain’t here ta see me. I’ll help Brownie.”

Ben nodded and handed over Buck’s reins. If the governor was here, it could mean only one thing: Something was happening in their campaign for statehood. He’d backed Nye on the issue ever since Nevada had been declared a territory in 1861, but it was not until he’d returned from San Francisco the previous fall that he’d been appointed chairman of the statehood committee. In the depths of trying to get over Lily Mercer, he’d welcomed the extra demands on his time; the long days had helped to keep his mind off his troubles. It had been Christmas before he’d suddenly awakened to find that, blessedly, the raw open wound of losing her was not quite as painful as it had been. It wasn’t healed, probably hadn’t even begun to heal, but as if he’d gone numb, he’d been able to move on.

He found Governor James Warren Nye relaxing in the blue chair by the hearth, enjoying a generous glass of whiskey and arguing a point of law with Adam. Joe, on the settee, looked about to fall asleep. Ben suppressed a grin as he shrugged out of his coat.

“Jim! I’m sorry I wasn’t here—”

“Don’t give it a thought, Ben. I’d have sent word if I’d known I was coming.” The governor rose to shake hands. “I just learned that Congress will be passing the Enabling Act next week and I thought you’d want to know. The way’ll now be clear for statehood.”

Ben’s eyebrows rose. “I’m glad to hear it.” He poured himself a bourbon before settling into one of the red chairs and observing his guest with interest. “Now, tell me why you’re really here. The governor of the Nevada territory’s not an errand boy.”

The governor chuckled. A heavyset man with disheveled white hair, he possessed a fine voice that sounded authoritative even in everyday conversation. “Well, this time I almost am. I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while, so I won’t beat around the bush. I need you and your committee to draft a new state constitution.”

Ben’s face clouded. “I’ve never done anything like that and I’m not an attorney. You know I’ll be glad to help you any way I can, but—”

“Ben, writing state constitutions isn’t something anyone has much experience in, and as for lawyers, you have two on your committee.”

“What exactly are we talking about?”

“The Act’ll require us to have a constitution—that’s the first and most important step, and since our last one was defeated, we’ll need another. Technically, it’s supposed to be written by a state convention, but in my view that’s leaving too much to chance.” The governor’s eyes were piercing. “I want to schedule a convention for June or July, go in with a document in hand, and negotiate whatever changes the delegates want. Then as soon as it’s approved by popular vote, the matter is back in Washington. The president’s told me that as long as we have an anti-slavery provision, he’ll see that we’re admitted into the Union.”

“Writing the first draft is a big responsibility.”

Governor Nye nodded. “Yes, it is. That’s why I came to you.”

Ben inhaled the strong scent of his whiskey and took a drink, rolling it on his tongue.

“I can’t think of a better choice, Pa,” Adam said quietly from across the room, and Joe seconded his brother.

He glanced at his visitor with a faint smile. “I guess the consensus is in. Jim, you know if you need me, I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Good!” Governor Nye set down his empty glass and stood up.

“Surely you’ll stay the night! It’s already dark—”

Jim Nye grinned. “I thank you, Ben, but there’s no rest for the wicked—at least, not until we achieve statehood. No, I have to catch the early stage from Virginia City in the morning, so I need to head on into town. Your man was good enough to take care of my horses and give my driver something to eat.” He turned to Adam and Joe. “Thank you, gentleman. I enjoyed our discussion and I appreciate your support. And Adam—I’ll give some thought to what you said. You may be right.”

Ben escorted him to the door and out into the chilly night. The carriage, a rather run-down landau, now stood in front of the house. Hoss was talking to the driver, his huge hand resting gently on one of the horses.

“Hoss!” The governor smiled. “It’s good to see you. I was so sorry to hear about your fiancée’s father last fall.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tie the knot—June the fourth, isn’t it?”


“My calendar is marked.” Nye put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I imagine you’d like this job to be done by then. I’ll do my best to keep the Southern faction at bay.”

“Jim, I think most of the people of Nevada side with Mr. Lincoln,” Ben replied, “but there’s no denying that men like Hec McWhirter could sway some of them with their Confederate arguments.”

“I’m afraid so.” Governor Nye sighed. “Our work isn’t over yet, but I know we’ll prevail.”

Ben and Hoss watched as the vehicle pulled away and disappeared around the corner of the barn, and then Ben wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders to walk back into the house. Already Hop Sing was serving up dinner and such important issues as statehood disappeared in the general appreciation of hot food after a cold day’s work. Then the great room quieted as everyone went through the recent mail, and finally Joe and Hoss settled into a game of checkers, Adam retreated behind a book and Ben turned his attention to paperwork at the desk. It was a couple of hours before Hoss and Joe pushed back from the table.

“Three games to two, lil’ brother,” Hoss said with satisfaction. “Y’re losin’ yer touch.”

Joe stood up and stretched his arms above his head. “Nah, big brother, I’m just bein’ nice to you. Once you have to play with Eleanor every night, you’re gonna have a hard time rememberin’ what it feels like to win.”

Hoss laughed complacently. “My bride’s a lotta won’erful things, Joe, but she ain’t no better at playin’ checkers than you are.” He looked over at his father. “I’m gonna hit the hay. G’night, Pa … Adam.”

“Me, too. G’night.” Joe followed his brother up the stairs.

For a few moments, there was silence in the great room, the only sound that of Hoss and Joe’s footsteps in the hall above. Then Adam closed his book and rose.

Ben glanced at him. “You going up, too?”

“Yeah, I have to ride up to the logging camp tomorrow.” Adam hesitated, and then withdrew a buff-colored envelope from his book and tossed it on the desk. “This was in the mail this afternoon. I thought you might want it separately.”

Ben’s brow furrowed. Other than something from the capital—which the governor would have conveyed, had there been anything—he couldn’t imagine anything coming to him that might demand privacy. He picked up the letter curiously.

Even before he turned it over and read the return address, he knew who it was from. The paper was of heaviest vellum, engraved in sienna-brown. MERCER. CLAY STREET. SAN FRANCISCO.

“I see. Thank you, son.”

“Sure. See you in the morning, Pa.”

Ben sat back in his chair, staring at the envelope without opening it. He didn’t even hear Adam cross the room and climb the stairs. And yet, seconds later, he heard a log break gently in the fireplace. Like an old friend, the warm ambience of the room wrapped itself around him, giving him the strength to confront his feelings.

He had to admit that it was a jolt to see the name Mercer in print—not that he hadn’t thought about Lily nearly every day since he’d last seen her. He’d been relieved to have a committee meeting in Carson City during the time he should have been in San Francisco on their winter trip. More importantly, he’d been pleased to feel only a detached sadness when Adam, who’d made the journey alone, returned and casually mentioned he’d gone riding with Lily Mercer and young Michaela Van Dine while he was there.

He sighed. It would just take time. This communication from her—the first tangible reminder of their brief romance—could be a step in his recovery. He started to rip it open, and then stopped, rummaged in his desk drawer for a paper knife, and slit the handsome stationery neatly.

It was so like Lily, he thought impatiently. The letterhead of the first page was an elaborate design of her initials. Entirely too elegant, it reminded him that although it had not been his decision, it was probably best that their relationship had gone no further. She never would have fit at the Ponderosa.

Then he propped the spectacles on his nose, leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath.


March 13, 1864

Dear Ben,

Please forgive the intrusion of this correspondence, but something has arisen about which I need your advice. As you know, Julia has her heart set on attending Hoss’ wedding. Unfortunately, Aubrey learned yesterday that business obligations will keep him in San Francisco for most of that trip.  Unless suitable escort is found for Julia and Michaela—Ted and Madison would remain at home with their father—it will be impossible for them to visit you in May. In short, Aubrey has asked that I accompany them to the Ponderosa in his place.

Under normal circumstances, I would have no second thoughts about complying with his request, as anything I can do to aid Aubrey and Julia would be my pleasure. However, given the events of last fall, I desire to know your feelings on the subject.  Above all, I do not wish to cause any inconvenience for you.  Please forgive me if I am assuming too much.  If this is of no consequence to you, I shall be happy to come with Julia and Mickey and enjoy renewing our friendship.  If it is inappropriate, I shall offer a plausible excuse and decline.

Please understand that I am respectful of your privacy and my own, and would appreciate this letter remaining confidential between us.  Hope all is well with you, Adam, Hoss and Joe, and that springtime comes early to the Sierras this year.

With kindest regards,


He sat staring at the flowing Spenserian script. Lily … here, at home, on the Ponderosa. He sucked in his breath, his throat suddenly dry. He tried to order his thoughts, annoyingly aware that his heartbeat had quickened and he wasn’t sure why. It certainly wasn’t with anticipation; all things considered, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to see Lily Mercer again. With their mutual friends, that unfortunately was not a possibility—unless, of course, he turned tail and ran like a frightened animal, which was not an option.

So, was he afraid? Yes … but not of Lily Mercer. He was just apprehensive about the first time he would see her again. And in that case, maybe this was a blessing. If she came to Hoss’ wedding with Julia and Michaela Van Dine, he would see her first on his home territory. Certainly that would be easier than having it happen at some dinner or party or even walk in the park in San Francisco. He relaxed in the chair. Yes, this could be a godsend. By the time she, Julia and Michaela returned to the coast, he would be at ease with the whole situation. It might be just what he needed to put it all behind him.

He sighed, suddenly aware of how much unspoken energy loving and losing Lily Mercer had required over the past five months. It would be good to get back to normal. He slipped a sheet of stationery—a business-grade white of some presence but little elegance—from the drawer and twisted the cap from a bottle of India ink. She needed an answer as soon as possible.


Chapter One

PERHAPS in compliance with Lily Mercer’s wish, spring did come early to the Sierras that year. Beneath the cloud-capped granite peaks, the scenery turned a thousand shades of green. The vast high meadows were emerald with windblown grass, and the lower valleys saw their dark firs accented by pale aspen trees that turned silver in the afternoon sun. White yarrow, blue-eyed mary, pink shooting star and a host of other wildflowers bloomed freely, decorating the verdant carpets like jewels on a fine lady’s gown.

Exhausted as they worked long hours in preparation for the coming festivities, Ben Cartwright and his sons were hardly alert to the joys around them. There were more than a thousand new calves to account for and the logs felled during the late winter months had to be readied for shipment. The on-going production of ore kept a full team of miners busy, while a new planting venture at the north end of the ranch seemed to inhale hours. And beyond the Ponderosa’s demands, Ben spent endless days in Carson City, negotiating the preliminary wording of the state constitution. The U.S. Congress had passed an Enabling Act for Nevada on March 21, and by early April he and his committee were deeply involved in hammering out the text of the required document.

In a triumph of timing, both the ranch work and the political duties were in order by late May. The day before the California guests were to arrive was the last one with a full schedule of work; extra hands specially hired would take up the slack until Hoss came back from his honeymoon and the Van Dine party returned home.

“So, is all quiet in Carson City for the duration?” Adam inquired at dinner that evening.

Ben arched an eyebrow. “I should hope so—at least until the convention. If the committee can agree on what ought to be in the constitution, I suppose there’s hope that the delegates can, too.” He shook his head as if to empty it of worries. “I’ll just feel better when it’s all over and the popular vote’s in.”

“Well, there’s not much you can do now, is there, Pa?” Hoss asked as he nearly emptied the bowl of mashed potatoes. “I mean, you done what you needed to, didn’ ya?”

“Yes. Unless the opposition comes up with something we’re not expecting, we should be free of all this until Independence Day.” Ben smiled. “Plenty of time to get you married off and back from your honeymoon!”

Joe chuckled at the smug grin on his brother’s face. “Hoss, as big as your wedding’s gettin’, why, folks’ll do well to remember statehood this summer. It’s something any self-respecting citizen will think about after he celebrates Hoss Cartwright’s gettin’ hitched.”

“Now, Joe, I don’ know as how I’m all that important,” Hoss rejoined modestly.

“It’s not you, brother,” Adam agreed. “It’s the fact that you found a woman brave enough to have you.”

But no amount of teasing could dim Hoss’ happiness. He reached for another pork chop.

“So, Pa, who’s this Lily Mercer that’s coming with Julia?” Joe asked.

Ben was glad that his mouth was full and he could wait for a minute before replying. He saw Adam shoot him a quick, interested glance. “Ah—she’s a neighbor of Aubrey and Julia’s that Adam and I met when we were in San Francisco last fall. Very nice woman.”

“Yeah? What’s she like? How old is she?” Joe’s eyes crinkled with humor, even though everyone at the table knew that he was half-serious.

Ben’s lips twitched with amusement. “Probably old enough to be your mother, Joseph. Her late husband was a friend of Aubrey’s.”

“Has she ever been on a ranch before?”

“I doubt it. She’s—well, you know, the whole way of life in San Francisco is very different from what we have here.”

“You mean Aubrey’s way of life is,” Joe said shrewdly. “Whew, that man knows how to spend money.”

“And make it,” Ben reminded him. “But you’re right. Lily Mercer lives a lot like Aubrey and Julia do.”

“Just wha’d’ya mean, Pa? Aubrey an’ Julia ain’t uppity, even though they live kinda rich. Is she real”—Hoss wrinkled his nose—“high in the instep, like?”

“No, as I say, she’s very personable. I’m sure you’ll like her.” Ben motioned to Hop Sing for coffee. “It’s more a matter of … we just do things differently here.”

“Hey, Pa,” Joe said, his grin nearly preventing him from speaking, “why don’t you make a little use of her while she’s here? We could drop a few comments—you know, nothing specific, just a few little suggestions—and before you know it, the story’d get back to the Widow Hensley that you’re promised.”

Ben nearly choked. “You’ll do no such thing!”

Joe’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Pa, it was a joke—”

“An’ besides,” Hoss interrupted, heedless of his father’s tone, “if yer gonna back somebody off, it should prob’ly be Eleanor’s Aunt Louise. I love Eleanor an’ her sister ta death, an’ I don’t even mind her mother, but that Aunt Louise is enough to drive a man plum’ crazy.”

Joe forgot his father’s reaction at the mention of Eleanor’s aunt. “You got that right. Pa, I swear, it’d be worth anything to get rid o’ that she-wolf.”

Ben frowned. “Joseph, Louise Calthrop is a little trying, but I think ‘she-wolf’ is a bit overstated.” He glanced around the table. Adam’s eyes glimmered with amusement, and Hoss and Joe were bursting with stifled laughter.

“Give yourself a little more time with her,” Joe advised. “You’ll throw anyone, even Lily Mercer, into the breach.”


Lily Mercer sat back against the worn leather seat of the stagecoach, almost lulled to sleep by its steady rocking motion. The trip so far had been interesting and not particularly difficult, as they’d stretched what was normally three days’ travel to four so as not to arrive in a state of exhaustion. It had begun with a steamboat from San Francisco to Sacramento, where they’d boarded a train to Placerville, in the western foothills of the Sierras. Then they’d scaled the mountains in a stagecoach over good, well-graded roads and taken the northern route around Lake Tahoe. They were due in Virginia City within the hour.

She shook her head and took a deep breath to remain awake; the enforced inactivity was making everyone drowsy. A prim matron next to her was drifting into a gentleman beyond her, both of them leaning toward the window like fallen trees. In the opposite corner, Julia Van Dine was nodding off. Only Michaela, across from her, had her eyes open; she was re-reading, probably for the hundredth time, her latest letter from Adam Cartwright. Lily smiled. The friendship between the sensitive ten-year-old and the eldest Cartwright son, who was nothing if not reserved, was a lovely thing to behold.

Nothing if not reserved. Yes, he could be quiet, even aloof. But every time she’d been around him, he’d been charming, a thoughtful man of uncommon intelligence. Her mind traveled back three months to February, when Adam had been in San Francisco to conduct business with Michaela’s father, Aubrey Van Dine, one of the most successful commercial agents on the west coast. He’d spent most of his free time with the little girl, and one afternoon the pair of them had invited her riding.

The memory brought a smile to her face and she looked up to find Michaela’s eyes on her. “I was just thinking of that day you and Adam and I rode all the way to the other side of the Presidio to see the ocean.”

Michaela grinned. “Boy, was he mad at Trifle!”

“As any sane person would have been.” The grey mare Trifle, from the Van Dine stable, was as brainless as she was beautiful. Adam put up with her antics better than most, but on that gusty afternoon, as she leapt and snorted at everything that moved, even he ran out of patience. The next morning, Lily had sent her groom to the Van Dine barn with her best gelding, who had remained there for the duration of Adam’s visit.

“He sure did like Zachary better,” Michaela confirmed, as if reading her thoughts. “He said he was like Sport, lots of fun, but pretty smart.”

“I’m sure he’ll have something wonderful for you to ride while you’re in Nevada.”

Michaela nodded and looked down again at the paper in her hands. “He says he and Uncle Ben chose some horses for us a couple of weeks ago. Hoss is making sure they’re ready.”

At the mention of Ben Cartwright, Lily lay her head back against the cushioned neck rest. She didn’t need to hold a paper in her hand to recall his letter to her.

March 18, 1864

Dearest Lily,

Of course we will be delighted to see you for Hoss’ wedding. While I’m sorry not to be able to remind Aubrey that the Sierras are fully as beautiful as San Francisco, there’s no denying that in the Nevada territory, a lovely woman is much more warmly received at any social function.

I had looked forward to seeing you in February, but as you know, meetings about our proposed statehood kept me in Carson City. Adam certainly enjoyed his outing with you and Michaela.

Please know that I appreciate your consideration of my feelings in the matter of the wedding trip. Hope this finds you well and happy.

As ever,


She had to admit that the “dearest” pleased her. As for the rest of it, well, that pleased her, too. It had to. She was the one who’d broken off their budding romance, but she was feminine enough to hope that he thought of her from time to time.

Now she would be seeing him before the day was out, and despite her best efforts at maintaining her confidence, she was a little uneasy. She chided herself for her nerves, at the same time curious about her own feelings. She was no inexperienced girl; seeing someone with whom she’d once been involved shouldn’t worry her. But the fact remained that since they’d climbed into the upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada range, she’d been feeling a little intimidated. The sheer grandeur of the sun-washed heights and the towering forests—the ancient sequoias, the firs, the massive pine trees—had overwhelmed her. And then Lake Tahoe … she had never seen a more beautiful body of water, not even the magnificent Lake Como in northern Italy or her own beloved San Francisco Bay. How, she wondered, did one live here and see such sights daily? Was it not too much for the senses?

It must be the altitude, she concluded. She just wasn’t herself. Everything seemed to be a little bit too much to handle, and the prospect of seeing Ben Cartwright again, of meeting his other two sons and seeing the Ponderosa for the first time, was daunting.

“Adam says he’ll be meeting us,” Michaela informed her, looking up from the letter.

Thank God, Lily thought. One new thing at a time!



Adam pushed his hat back off his face and sat up in the surrey as the stagecoach rounded the corner. He knew enough to wait where he was until the cloud of dust that accompanied the big vehicle had dissipated. The roads over the Sierras might be watered for the convenience of the passengers, but the streets of Virginia City were not. By the time he crossed the street, one of the freight office boys had brought out a step and was helping a plump older woman down. Julia was the next to alight.

“Adam!” she exclaimed and offered her cheek for a kiss. “It’s so good to see you!”

His eyes shone affectionately. “Julia, we’re happy to have you here. Did you have an easy trip?”

“Oh, yes! It was lovely—the mountains are so beautiful!” She turned back to the coach. “Lily! Do we have everything?”

“Just one stray book,” replied Lily, smiling out at Adam as she handed Julia a thin volume that had been left behind.

Adam reached up to hand her down from the stage. “Lily, how are you?”

“As well as can be expected, Adam,” she replied enigmatically. But her dark blue eyes were warm and friendly.

Adam wondered, not for the first time, what had gone on between his father and Lily Mercer. He could swear they’d grown very fond of each other when he and Ben had been in San Francisco the previous fall; there had seemed to be a special bond between them … until the day after a big party Lily had hosted. After that, he’d never seen them together again, and when Ben spoke of her, it was as if she were a rather impersonal acquaintance.

When he’d been in California during the winter, Lily had been the same way about his father. They were so carefully distant and circumspect about each other, he could only assume that whatever had blossomed between them had died. And yet, he wondered. He couldn’t help liking Lily Mercer, and more critically, he’d liked his father with her.

He kissed Lily on the cheek too and then turned back to the interior of the coach. “How’s my best girl?”

Michaela appeared in the doorway. “Very fine now that we’re here.”

There didn’t seem to be any need for words; all sorts of phrases hung in the air—I’ve missed you, it’s so good to see you—and were understood. She told him she’d been writing in her journal all the way across the Sierras and his lips curled in the little private smile he reserved just for her. “No problems with your imagination?”

She giggled. “Silly! You don’t need imagination in the Sierras.”

That single compliment to his home touched him more than he could have guessed. He ran a hand over the wave of dark hair that fell down her back. “Just wait till we’ve had a chance to take a good look at them.”

As the stage driver began tossing luggage to the ground, a wiry old man on the sidewalk caught Adam’s attention. “I got all the s’pplies loaded,” he said, shifting his wad of tobacco from one cheek to the other and spitting haphazardly at a brass pot next to the freight office. “Ya want I should get these carpetbags now?”

“Yeah, Brownie. Bring the buckboard around.” Adam plucked Michaela straight from the stagecoach and held her up with one arm, marveling once again at how small she was. He turned to Julia and Lily. “Your trunks came in yesterday and they’re already at the Ponderosa. He’ll take the bags—there’s not room in the surrey.”

Brownie snapped a pair of fine leather suspenders against the worn plaid of his shirt. “An’ Adam, don’t forget, I hafta stop at the Widda Hensley’s fer the rhubarb pies, so I’ll be a lil’ behin’ ya.” He snorted a half-laugh. “I don’t reckon she gave yer pa any way ta get outta takin’ ’em.”

Adam’s eyes twinkled. “No, I don’t expect she did.” He escorted his guests over to the carriage.

“Adam,” Julia said in a low voice that was brimming with laughter. “Did you hire that gentleman just for our entertainment?”

“He is a character,” Adam agreed, setting his young friend on the second seat and helping Julia in. “No, he’s been with us for a couple of years, but we’ve known him since I was a kid.” He lifted Lily into the front seat and climbed in beside her.

“Now, you have to tell me—is the Widow Hensley the lady who’s sweet on Ben?” Julia queried. “Aubrey told me there was one.”

Adam grinned reluctantly. “Yes, she’s the one Aubrey knows about. Lately there’s been another one, too, and it’s rather awkward because it’s Eleanor’s aunt.”

“Oh, my!” she giggled. “Poor Ben! Does he have any interest in either of them?”

“I’m afraid you’d have to ask him that.”

Adam loosened the reins and flapped them lazily on the horses’ rumps. He had almost turned the surrey around when the station master hurried across the street.

“Adam! I’m glad I caught you!” The man came up close to the carriage and lowered his voice. “You might tell your pa—McWhirter’s stirrin’ up trouble again. Roy Coffee said if I saw you to let Ben know he wants to talk to him about it.”

Adam frowned. “Harv, the majority of people around here aren’t buying what McWhirter’s selling.”

The station master glanced around nervously. “It’s different now, Adam. Roy thinks he’s gettin’ some money behind him.”

“All right. I’ll let Pa know.”

Adam clucked to the horses and the surrey rolled sedately down C Street. He threw a sideways grin at Lily. “Knowing your concerns about the Rebellion, you might be interested in that,” he said. “Pa’s on the governor’s Committee for Statehood. He’s been working on a preliminary draft of a constitution to be submitted to the state convention in July. The last thing they need right now is a bunch of rabble-rousers clouding the issues.”

“Is there much Confederate sympathy in Nevada?”

“Some, but not a lot. The governor’s put down most of the demonstrations, and since the Union victories over the past year, there haven’t been that many. About the only opposition left has been led by McWhirter and if what Harv’s saying is true, he’s stepping it up.”

“It’s imperative that Nevada become a state,” she said. “Mr. Lincoln needs the support. Heavens, he needs the votes in the next election!”

“I imagine he’ll have them.”

It wasn’t long before the homes and businesses of Virginia City thinned and the road led out through a flat stretch of dry vegetation before beginning a gentle ascent into the hills, becoming more green as it rose. Lily, mulling over what Adam had said, was conscious of a rush of excitement. Somehow everything seemed more vital here in Nevada—the question of impending statehood and the effect it would have on the Rebellion, the larger-than-life scenery, the sense of struggle and accomplishment. You’re being silly, she told herself. There’s as much going on in San Francisco as there is here in Nevada. This is just all new to you.

She watched Adam from the corner of her eye, noting that the differences weren’t  limited to her surroundings. Adam Cartwright was not the same man she’d come to know in California. Oh, some things remained constant—the clear hazel eyes that sometimes smiled even when his lips didn’t, and the sense of confident power in the way he held himself. But the well-cut suits of the city had been replaced by an outfit of all black that clearly was designed for work; his shirt collar was open, his sleeves rolled back over muscular forearms. Unbidden, she was reminded of the way Ben had turned back his cuffs at Michaela’s birthday party the previous fall … she’d been struck with the quiet strength of his arms and hands. Her eyes drifted to Adam’s hands, holding the reins with a casualness born of experience.

The biggest difference, she judged, was the gunbelt strapped around his hips. The black walnut handle of the revolver glowed like satin, as though it had seen considerable use. Reflexively, she looked around to see what might be so threatening, but the countryside was peaceful—no masked bandits, wild Indians, no wolves or bears.

Immediately she was lost in the spectacular beauty of the meadows which extended away to the forests. The sweet perfume of new growth seemed to be welcoming her and she could hardly believe what she was seeing. As the road led into the mountains, the fields blossomed with a variety of flowers, a riot of color that looked as though an artist had shaken his brushes and dotted the landscape.

“How do you like Nevada so far?” Adam’s voice took her off-guard.

She turned to look at him, unsure of what to say. Everything that came to mind seemed trite, and for some reason she just couldn’t settle for that. Not with Ben, not with Ben’s son, not over a subject which so flagrantly demanded honesty. The truth was, she loved the country she’d seen. It struck the same chord within her that the sea had so many years before, when as a little girl she’d first sailed from Savannah to New York.

“When I figure it out, I’ll be glad to let you know. But at the moment, I can hardly decipher my thoughts. All the books I’ve read, and the articles—they don’t do it justice.” She shrugged helplessly. “It’s like trying to define God in a few little words. He just doesn’t fit into the tiny perception of Man. … And your Sierras are awfully close to heaven, you know.”

His eyes locked on hers for a moment. “I’d say you’ve got the idea.”

She blushed faintly and looked away. “Adam, may I ask a question that’s not necessarily my business?”

“You can ask anything.”

“The little old man who’s driving the buckboard … maybe it’s just the mercantile in me, but—well, goodness, his entire outfit probably isn’t worth a nickel, and yet he’s wearing braces you might see on Aubrey Van Dine.”

Adam shot her an appreciative glance. “Very astute of you. Brownie’s rather a unique resident at the Ponderosa.”

“You said you’d known him for years.”

“We have. He was the scout on a couple of our wagon trains coming west. He turned up a few years ago, broke, not really able to do heavy work. Pa took him on.” He paused to shorten rein on one of the horses and call a command.  “You’ve seen him—there’s not much to him. The older he gets, the skinnier he gets, and lately Pa’s been afraid that one of these days his pants are going to fall off him.”

Lily chuckled. “So he bought him a pair of braces?”

“M’m-h’m. And since Brownie’s probably never in his life owned anything he could be proud of, Pa decided he was going to change that. Now, it’s entirely likely that one Saturday night in town, some liquored-up cowboy’ll hit Brownie over the head and steal them, but for the pleasure he’s had over the past few months, it just might be worth it.”

“Worth whatever they cost and then some …”

After that, they rode in silence for several minutes as the road climbed through a grove of sequoias, rounded a long bend and set out across another meadow. Just before a sturdy oaken bridge, Adam brought the horses to a stop. To the right, the water of the creek reflected the azure of the sky as it fled away between banks of tall grass. Huge pine trees anchored the landscape and he nodded to the tallest one, a spreading giant of untold years.

“Once we’re past that tree, you’re on the Ponderosa.”



Lily would never forget her first view of the Ponderosa ranch house. Later she would recall how great long driveways on English estates were planned to tantalize visitors with glimpses of the main home, culminating finally in one spectacular vista of the architecture in its setting. Here, it was almost the opposite. The trail leading up to the ranch house was well maintained, with no leg-snapping holes and few rocks, but it wove through dense forest. There was no other indication that anyone lived anywhere near until suddenly, as if magically, a large building—she would learn that it was a barn—appeared just ahead. A dull, rustic red, it seemed to fit right into the scenery, as if it were simply an outcropping of stone or earth. Only when they’d followed the road around it and into a large clearing did she see Ben Cartwright’s home.

It was a rambling log structure set in a grove of trees beyond the barn and the corrals. Greenery seemed everywhere; she had to look to see the house, it settled so naturally into the surrounding pines.

“You barely disturb nature’s handiwork,” she murmured to Adam.

“That’s the intention. It’s hard to improve on perfection.”

As Adam was helping the ladies down from the surrey, a Chinese man scurried from the front door to welcome them.

“I Hop Sing,” he said. “Rooms ah ready. And watah hot, if bath wanted.”

“A bath,” Julia echoed dreamily. “Lily, why don’t you go first? I’ll get Michaela started.”

Adam pushed open the front door. “Right this way.”

Lily wasn’t sure what she’d imagined Ben’s home would look like, but what she saw seemed just right. The great stone hearth was imposing, while the rough, parchment-colored walls were warm and appealing. The crimson draperies and dark wooden shutters gave the impression of cozy security on a chilly winter night, and the big, heavy furniture spoke of masculine comfort. A sense of the country around them was evident in the Indian blanket folded over the stair railing, even as the gold filigree picture frames on the desk spoke of another society. And touches of elegance were evident in the glass-fronted bookcase, the bronzes and the lovely oil paintings in their gold frames. It was a pleasant room.

As they went upstairs, Julia turned to Michaela. “I think that after our baths we’ll take a nap, because it’s probably going to be quite an evening when Ben and Hoss and Joe get here. Lily, what about you? Do you think you’ll lie down?”

Lily hadn’t really considered it, but suddenly the whole experience—coming to Nevada, being in Ben’s house—seemed to catch up with her. Through the open door to her bedroom, she could see a beautiful old cherry bed with what appeared to be a stack of feather mattresses. “I think that sounds absolutely wonderful.”


While Julia, Lily and Michaela bathed, Adam devoted his time to banking records at the desk downstairs, and when they retired to their rooms, he relaxed in his bath before dressing for dinner. House tradition demanded a little more formality on the first few nights of their guests’ visit, and he took his time with a dark grey suit, white shirt and black tie. Then as Hoss, Joe and Ben returned in the early evening and set about cleaning up, he grabbed a book that lay on the desk and slouched into one of the red chairs to wait for everyone to come down.

Lily was the first to appear. “Sit down!” She smiled when he rose to greet her. “It’s much too relaxed an evening to be so fearsomely polite.”

He turned to the tray on the table next to him. “How about if I’m polite enough to get you something to drink? We have a good sherry from Portugal.”

“Lovely.” She waited until he’d poured a whiskey for himself as well. “What’re you reading?”

He held up the leatherbound volume: La Comedie Humaine.

“Balzac?” she exclaimed in surprise. “Which story?”

“‘Etude de Femme.’”

She regarded him wryly. “‘The Study of a Woman.’”

One eyebrow arched dramatically. “You don’t agree that men have a lot to learn about that subject?”

“Oh, I agree completely! And don’t forget to read ‘Autre Etude de Femme’ as well.”

“‘Another Study of a Woman.’  By all means. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Lily chuckled. “Oh, my, Adam Cartwright, you do surprise me sometimes.”

He remained playful. “I can’t see how. I distinctly remember my father saying you told him to read more when we were in San Francisco last fall.”

“Yes, and I even recommended Balzac—” She stopped and swallowed. “Yes … I did. I did suggest a few authors for him to read. I just never figured you—um, you would really need to—” She had lost her train of thought.

He watched her curiously. “It appears you have great confidence in my knowledge of women.”

“Yes—no! I never gave your knowledge of women a thought—oh, heavens, let’s change the subject!”

Their verbal joust was cut short as Hop Sing arrived to set out a pitcher of lemonade for Michaela, and before they could resume, Hoss and Joe descended the stairs. Adam and Lily both stood up.

“Lily, I’d like you to meet my brothers,” Adam said. “Hoss, Joe—this is Lily Mercer.”

Hoss, who was fingering his necktie as if it were about to choke him, nodded, his blue eyes amiable. “Pleased ta meet you, ma’am. We’re real happy ta have ya here.”

Joe was smoother, his expression sweetly brash as he looked her over. “We always like to welcome a beautiful woman to the Ponderosa, ma’am. We’ll do our best to see that you enjoy your stay.”

It was not long before everyone else appeared—Julia and Michaela first, and then Ben, looking very dignified in a charcoal suit and pearl grey waistcoat. He ruffled Michaela’s hair and embraced Julia. “It’s wonderful to see you,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived.”

Then he turned to Lily, his face jovial. “Lily, how good to see you again.” His hands closed on her shoulders as he kissed her cheek.

She smiled up at him. “Ben. It’s lovely to see you, too.”

“Have my sons taken care of you? You’re to let me know if they neglect you—we’re not quite as exciting as San Francisco, but we’ll try to make sure you have a good time.”

“I love it here already. You needn’t worry about me.”

Presently Hop Sing waved from the dining room and Hoss led the way to the table.

“Now, the secret is not to sit too close to Hoss,” Adam informed Lily in a low voice that was calculated to carry to everyone. “It can get rather exciting next to him at dinner.”

She giggled. “Stop it! It’s my first night here and I have to be on my good behavior.”

Adam’s lips were quivering. “You’ll get over it.”

“And besides, ma’am, I’m sure brother Hoss would be real careful if he had someone like you next to him at dinner,” Joe said. “He’s usually stuck with just us, but he does have real fine table manners when he needs ’em.”

“What’re they talking about, Hoss?” Michaela inquired.

“Don’t you listen to ’em,” Hoss advised. “They just admire how I enjoy my dinner. And speakin’ o’ that, Mickey, you’re just a little mite. Could be you oughta sit next to me and see how it’s done. You gotta get some size on you.”

He proceeded to supply Michaela’s plate through a succession of courses that finally defeated even Lily’s legendary appetite. Julia was bubbling with laughter by the time they all moved back to the great room for coffee. “It’s going to be hard to watch our figures with Hop Sing’s cooking to eat,” she said. “Is he doing all the food for the wedding reception?”

“Most of it, with help from his family,” Ben nodded. “He won’t have it any other way.”

Joe grinned. “All but one of the desserts.”

“And what’s that going to be?” she asked.

“Now that’s what you’re all just gonna have ta wonder,” Hoss cut in before his brother could answer. “He can’t hardly tell ya or it’d spoil the surprise.”

“It’s the latest in Hoss and Joe’s rather famous collaborations,” Ben said dryly. “We’re all very interested to see how it turns out.”

“If it turns out,” Adam added under his breath.

Joe smiled dismissively. “It’s just a little thing a girl over in Carson City made for me last winter. Nothing much. I’m not a cook.”

“We got jars all over the kitchen,” Hoss added. “Gonna be the talk o’ all the women in Virginia City by the time the weddin’s done. Why, I wouldn’t be s’prised if Joe winds up meetin’ his future bride on account of it.”

“Joe!” Julia’s eyes sparkled. “I never would have guessed you’d be interested in the culinary arts.”

“The what? Oh—oh, well, I’m not, Julia. But this was just too good to miss—real elegant. You wait and see.”

In the mellow firelight, the rest of the evening passed quickly. It was not long before Michaela’s eyelids were drooping and even as she tried to sit up straight, she drifted slowly sideways on the settee.

“I think it’s about time we went up,” Julia observed.

Hoss turned to Adam. “If you ’n’ Michaela’re goin’ ta the lake like ya planned, you might wanna make sure Robbie polished the sidesaddles—I told him to.”

“I wouldn’t mind riding astride,” Michaela said quickly.

Ben intervened. “We’ll be glad to have you ride astride while you’re here, Mickey, but I think you should try it on a shorter trip. You wouldn’t want to get saddle sore the first day.”

The little girl nodded and fought a yawn. “Whatever you say. But I do want to try it.” She directed a challenging glance at Adam. “Unless you give me a really slow horse, I’ll bet I can beat you a lot more often if I don’t have to ride a sidesaddle.”

“We’ll see,” he returned. As she passed his chair, she detoured to drop a kiss on his cheek and he flashed her a smile. “Good night, sweetheart. See you in the morning.”

A few minutes later, Lily rose too. “I’m afraid I’m exhausted. It’s been a lovely evening.”

She climbed the stairs without a backward glance, hearing Adam say his good nights behind her, but unaware that it was by design until he spoke as she opened the door to her room.  

“If you don’t have plans,” he said, “would you like to ride over to the lake with us in the morning?”

“I’d love to.”

He nodded as he walked on.  “Ten o’clock.”

Lily closed the door behind her and leaned against it, relishing the silence but feeling her heart skip unsteadily. Ben hadn’t changed, she reflected. All of the things that had most attracted her were still there … the warm way his dark brown eyes rested the people he cared about … his indulgence of all the teasing and joking. The love and pride in his gaze when he’d watched Adam with Michaela had nearly undone her. And other aspects were the same as well. She could still see him in the big chair by the fire, his long legs crossed casually. He was so at ease in the world. She’d waited for something to be uncomfortable, but it never had been.

She sighed, glad that she would be occupied in the morning, so that she ran no chance of encountering him and disturbing the pleasant balance they’d established this evening. Probably, she reflected, that was why Adam had invited her to ride with him and Michaela.

Then she pushed all thoughts of Ben Cartwright out of her mind and went in search of her nightgowns.


In his room at the back of the house Ben pulled off his boots, weary from head to toe. The evening had gone better than he’d anticipated, but it hadn’t been easy. Not sure of what to expect from Lily, he’d simply convinced himself that he had to play a part—and if he did say so himself, he’d played it damned well.

Lily … thank God he’d prepared himself. She looked, as usual, stunning. She’d chosen a dress of raw silk in pale cocoa and navy stripes, with a complicated fancy bodice. It was beautiful, but it exuded the kind of style that only wealth could buy. He sighed and shook his head. There was just no way that she could fit naturally at the Ponderosa—she was too citified, too elegant. Pretty, of course … her dark auburn hair, swept off her face and done up in back, had glowed with a life of its own.

Quite obviously, she’d given no thought to the loss of what they’d had together the previous fall. She had moved on comfortably; it hadn’t been difficult for her to come to his home, particularly since it appeared that she and Adam had become such good friends. He smiled ironically. She and his eldest son had been like kindred spirits since the first night they’d met.

He stretched as he slipped a nightshirt over his head. An early meeting with a neighbor meant there were precious few hours for sleep—certainly too few to waste any worrying about what might have been.

Chapter Two


AS  IT HAPPENED, Ben’s early meeting was cancelled when the rancher became ill. Already up and dressed, he redirected his time to correspondence at his desk and then spent a frustrating hour with Hop Sing in the kitchen trying to fix a leaky pump. At last, his shirt drenched, he went upstairs to change and at mid-morning, decided that with nothing going right in his day, perhaps a ride would help. Certainly his favorite view of Tahoe would. He got his gunbelt and hat from the rack and headed for the barn.

Adam was saddling the sturdy bay gelding he’d selected for Michaela when Ben arrived. “His name is Conejo,” his son was saying to the girl.

“Papa hired a tutor to teach us Spanish and French, so I know what ca-nay-ho is,” she replied. “It’s ‘rabbit.’ Does he jump around a lot?”

“I hope not. I think he was named that because he’s very quick, so you pay attention to him.”

“I will—hi, Uncle Ben. Are you going to go with us?”

“I thought I might, if you don’t mind.”

“We’d love it,” Michaela assured him. “Lily, did you hear? Uncle Ben’s coming, too!”

It was only then that Ben noticed the sidesaddle on the horse in the last stall, a dark bay mare named Skylark. Dressed in the navy habit she’d worn for Michaela’s birthday picnic, Lily emerged from behind the horse, as surprised by the turn of events as he was. That was just marginally comforting, he thought; perhaps things weren’t quite as easy for her as it had appeared.

When they were ready, Adam threw Michaela up into her sidesaddle and Ben performed the same office for Lily. The day was going from bad to worse, he reflected; so many things brought back memories of his time with her in San Francisco. He couldn’t help recalling how he’d helped her dismount at Michaela’s picnic, when the black horse had moved suddenly and caused her to fall so provocatively against him. He grunted in disgust and swung up on Buck to follow the others.

The first part of the ride was easy, as they climbed gradually through the dense forests that surrounded the ranch house, trotting occasionally in the open spaces and fording a succession of icy-clear mountain streams.

From the start, Michaela was entranced with the abundance of wildflowers in the woods. “What’s that one?” she questioned Adam, pointing to a distinctive cone-shaped plant of red blooms.

“It’s called snow plant,” he replied, and identified a profusion of small, bluish flowers as Jacob’s Ladder.

“Those are interesting names. But why call red flowers snow plants?”

“Some years we have snow under the trees for a lot longer than you’d think,” he explained. “They’ve been known to push up through it to bloom. And those white flowers that look like lace are mountain whitethorn.”

“How do you remember the names?”

“It’s not hard if you see them every year. Remind me on the way back—if we run across any monkeyflower, we should pick it and take it to Hop Sing. He uses the leaves in salads.”

“You eat it?”

“We do. We learned it from the Paiutes. You’ll like it.”

Watching them, Lily relaxed in her saddle and decided that she could hardly ask for a more pleasant morning. Even Ben’s last-minute decision to come along could not shake her delight. Above the dark canopy of pine branches, she knew the sky was a faultless deep blue, with great snowy clouds only at the mountain tops, as if to extend the peaks farther up toward the heavens. Around them in the trees, the voices of several birds rose in official greeting. Adam tried to identify them for Michaela, but the series of notes was too diverse to catch and soon they all were laughing at the confusion.

At last they came out into a wide meadow and Adam touched Sport with his heels. The chestnut bolted forward, flinging his tail at the prospect of stretching his legs on the loamy turf. Michaela sent Conejo after him, in seconds ranging up alongside Sport, and then Adam gave the gelding his head and both horses flattened out into a full run. Lily couldn’t help smiling at the sight of the two figures tearing out across the expanse of waving grass, Michaela’s voice drifting back in the serene morning air. When Ben pulled up next to her, he too was beaming.

“After you!” he shouted and held the buckskin until she urged Skylark forward.

Immediately she felt a rush of exhilaration—the clean mountain air that bathed her face was intoxicating. Before her, she could see Michaela and Conejo hanging tight on Sport’s flank; behind her, the buckskin’s hooves pounded in pursuit, but she didn’t look back as they followed Adam and Michaela into a wide lane that led through an alley of ancient trees.

Suddenly the child was shouting with laughter, and a second later, Lily became aware that the terrain beneath them was undulating. Skylark’s ground-covering strides left them slightly airborne as they navigated the dips and rises, and she felt her own laughter gurgling in her throat at the carefree, soaring feeling. She could hardly contain a wide grin when finally she pulled up at the end of the lane. A moment later, Ben slid to a stop beside her, his eyes alight.

“I had a feeling you’d come this way,” he told Adam, chuckling. “It’s been a month of Sundays since we did that.”

“Let’s do it again!” Michaela cried.

Adam caught her reins. “On the way back.”

“What in the world was that?” Lily asked breathlessly.

Adam shrugged. “It’s just a funny way the land falls. Joe was the first one to do it at full speed, back when he was a kid. We save it for special guests”—he winked at her—“like you two. … Now, come on. We don’t have much farther to go.”

He selected a trail that ascended sharply through the trees and they rode in silence until they reached a bluff and dropped down its grassy side to an open space, where the brilliant spectacle of Lake Tahoe unfolded before them.

Lily’s breath caught in her throat. What had been amazing from the surface of the lake was nothing short of incredible from the mountains above it. A deep and unfailing royal blue stretched to the horizon, bounded by the shaded indigo of the shallow waters and the dark green of the forests that grew to the shore. It looked like satin, as if a silvered bolt of cloth had been thrown down among the trees.

For a few minutes, no one spoke and the only sound was the faint rustling of the wind. Adam reined Sport to the right, moving off a little farther along the incline, and  Michaela followed him. Lily simply sat still, drinking in the scene, feeling the peace of the mountains steal over her.

She felt rather than saw Ben stop the buckskin to the left on the hill above her, and finally, unobtrusively, she allowed her eyes to be drawn to him. It was the first real, thorough study she’d been able to give him. The fancy suits were gone now … this was Ben Cartwright as he was day to day, in his own world. Within seconds her heart began to pound.

He was looking out over Lake Tahoe, his face very tan under the pale grey hat. His back was straight, his broad shoulders thrown back and imposing in a flowing white shirt like the one he’d worn at Michaela’s picnic. Today, however, only the sleeves hung gracefully; the rest of the shirt was molded to his body by a honey-colored leather vest that was fastened at the waist with silver conchos. Dark leather gloves emphasized his hands on the buckskin’s reins.

He caught her stare then and started down the slope toward her. There was something about the ease with which he sat the big horse that riveted Lily’s gaze; he was completely at home in this realm, confident of his place. As surely as the big granite peaks lived like sentinels above Lake Tahoe, Ben Cartwright belonged on their hillsides, among their stately trees. The strong, solid force of the man and his surroundings was palpable … and inside herself, Lily began to tremble.

Last fall, when he asked for strength, I had only fear to give, she thought suddenly. For one fleeting instant, she knew the fierce joy that might have been hers if only she’d opened the door to Ben Cartwright … allowed him to love her, loved him back. A man of this stature was not for the faint of heart; he required a strong woman—a strong partner … but what happiness a woman might know in return! Just the prospect of it made her overwhelming fears seem trivial. And the sorrow of her loss was almost too much to bear.

She jerked Skylark around and slapped her hard with the reins, sending her back up the hill in a mad scramble. At that moment, she hadn’t a coherent thought; she had no idea of where she was going or when she would stop—or how she would explain herself when she did. She just had to put as much distance as she could between herself and Ben Cartwright.



Sitting quietly with Michaela, Adam heard Skylark’s grunt of surprise when Lily pulled sharply on the bit. He caught only a brief glimpse of her face as she drove the horse up the hill and then saw his father’s startled expression. Ben started to turn Buck to follow her, but Adam, with a stab of foreboding, moved faster.

“Stay with Pa!” he called to Michaela and squeezed Sport with his knees.

The excitable chestnut needed no further command; his ears pitched forward, sensing a race against Skylark, and Adam was nearly catapulted out of the saddle before he picked up the gelding’s rhythm and settled into the chase. He bent low over the horse, urging him faster and feeling the slap of branches when Lily veered off the main trail, running blindly down an old, unused logging track.

It was not long before Sport came up beside Skylark and Adam leaned over to catch Lily’s left rein, forcing her to slow down and finally to stop. “What are you trying to do?” he demanded. “Kill yourself?”

She didn’t answer. Surrounded by dense undergrowth and old trees, they had halted in an opening where even the sun failed to pierce the gloom.

“Well? Lily, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “Please, Adam, let me go. I have to go back to the house. I can’t stay here.”

“What the hell happened?” His voice elevated several notes in concern.

She wouldn’t face him, but just trembled so violently that she could hardly sit upright. He let go of Skylark’s rein and sat back in his saddle. “Look, take your time and relax,” he said with false calm. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you, but you’ve got to tell me what’s going on.”

“Adam, I truly don’t know what’s happening to me,” she faltered, “but I know I can’t be around your father right now. I have to get back to the house—please, will you take me?”

“Don’t you think that’d look a little strange? What would you want me to tell him?”

“Anything—anything except that I can’t face him. Make up something, Adam. For his sake.”

“Lily, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but I’m not getting in between you and Pa—”

“Adam, I wouldn’t hurt him—I’m trying not to hurt him. Please. Please help me. I’ll explain it all to you when I can. I promise.”

She was starting to spiral out of control again. Adam set his jaw. “All right … for my father—but you’d better have a good explanation.”

“I’ll have the truth, Adam, whatever that is.”

He turned Sport. “Stay here.”

He found his father and Michaela where he’d left them on the bluff.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked, his face worried.

“Nothing, Pa. Lily’s just feeling a little sick, that’s all. I’ll take her back to the house.”

“Well—” Ben addressed Michaela. “We’ll ride over to that other lookout another time, my dear.”

“There’s no reason you can’t do it today,” Adam intervened hastily. “I’ll take Lily back and we’ll see you when you get home.” He caught Michaela’s eye meaningfully. “You make sure he shows you everything. It’ll be a while before we get back over in this direction.”

“I will,” she replied. He could see her trying to understand what he couldn’t say in words and he felt a rush of gratitude when she turned brightly to his father. “You don’t mind, do you, Uncle Ben? I’d really like to see Lake Tahoe from that other place. I want to draw it when we get back.”

Ben stared at Adam for a long minute and then smiled at Michaela. “Of course not, Mickey. It’s my pleasure.”

Before his father could raise any objections, Adam wheeled Sport away. Lily was waiting for him in the clearing, her eyes averted and her shoulders hunched over as if she’d been defeated by something. It didn’t help his temper to realize that he would have to wait to find out what. Without a word, he took her back down the mountain, using the quickest—and hardest—route, moderating the pace only for the horses’ sake.

Brownie came out of the barn as he lifted Lily down from Skylark. “I’m going to walk Mrs. Mercer in and then I’ll be back to take care of Sport,” he told the old man, and turned Lily toward the house. He accompanied her all the way to her room before he spoke again. “I don’t know what’s going on, Lily, but I expect you to tell me.”

“Adam, I—” She looked haunted.

“I know, not right now. After dinner tonight. Before, if you’re up to it—but no later than after dinner. Do you understand?”

She swallowed and nodded. Then she ducked her head and slipped through the doorway.


Ben watched Adam ride over the crest of the hill and shifted thoughtfully in his saddle.  Something was up; he just wasn’t sure what. Lily was one of the most resilient women he’d ever met … the idea of her suddenly “taking sick” was ludicrous. There was no explanation—unless it was something as mundane and embarrassing as perhaps a part of her corset had broken or her time of the month had arrived unexpectedly. A slow, lopsided smile curled on his lips. There was a subject he hadn’t considered in years!

He suddenly became aware that Michaela was studying Buck intently, and he let his smile extend to his eyes. “You know, if you’re going to count every hair on his hide, we’ll probably be late back to dinner.”

She shook her head. “No, I was just trying to decide who he is. Adam once made me figure out who all of our horses would be if they were people.”

“Really? And who would Buck be?”

“A schoolteacher, I think. He’s very wise, and I’ll bet you can count on him to set a good example for the other horses. He’d probably dress in shabby brown suits because he wouldn’t be too concerned with his appearance.” She gazed at the silver ornament which decorated the buckskin’s bridle. “Except that he might have one really lovely pin to wear on his coat—something that maybe a girl he loved gave him when he was a student.”

Ben regarded her with interest. “That’s very astute—you’re more right than you know.” He patted Buck’s neck. “And tell me, how do you see Adam’s Sport? Who is he?”

She giggled. “Oh, Sport’s easy! He’s an opera tenor.”

Ben tried to wipe what he knew was a silly look of astonishment off his face. “What do you know about opera tenors, Mickey?”

“Papa and Mama had one to tea last winter. He gave a recital at our house. All sorts of people were invited, and they were all excited that he could sing something that had a lot of high C’s in it. At first I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss would be, but then I knew—each time he got ready to sing a high C, you could see the happiness welling up in him, and he would lean back and just fling out this beautiful note.”

“And how is that like Sport?”

“Well, Sport’s that way. He’s such a show-off, but he really does have talent. I was watching him in that field this morning, before he got to running fast. He was swapping leads with almost every stride—you know, leading with one leg and then the other. Just because he could.

“That can be very annoying,” Ben said.

“I guess. But Doyle—you remember Doyle, our coachman—told me that in the really fine formal riding schools, they teach horses to do that on command and it’s considered quite special. And then when Adam let him loose—gosh, he loves running. Like that tenor loved to sing.” She shrugged. “He seems to have so much fun. I think it’s really nice that Adam plays with him instead of trying to force him to be something he’s not.”

“Sport could use more manners.”

“With another rider, I suppose.”

“You may be right, dear.” Ben lightened his voice. “Now, what about it? Want to ride over to that other overlook?”

“Yes, please.”

They rode side-by-side to the next vantage point and Ben enjoyed Michaela’s unrestrained enthusiasm for the view before her. He answered her questions about how they’d come to live on the shores of Lake Tahoe and their early days at the Ponderosa, and by the time they turned away from the promontory to head back to the house, he’d begun to understand better the uncommon alliance she enjoyed with his son. When they returned by another trail, he apologized to her that they wouldn’t be repeating the ride over the rolling lane.

“That’s okay,” she replied. “I don’t mind. We can do it again another day. Besides, Lily really liked it—I wouldn’t want to do it without her.”

“That’s very generous of you.”

“Uncle Ben, why is it so different here? When Adam’s in San Francisco, we always go to look at the ocean and it’s very beautiful, but it’s not as splendid as this.”

Ben smiled. “There’re many beautiful places on this earth, Michaela. Which ones you love best are entirely up to you.”

“I guess I love this one best. I hope Lily likes it, too. … The last time we went to look at the ocean, we took her with us. She wasn’t quite the same this winter, and Adam and I hoped we could make her feel better.”

In spite of himself, Ben allowed a ripple of curiosity at her words. “What do you mean, she wasn’t the same?”

“Oh, you know … she was kind of quiet, just not like she usually is. She’s been getting better, though.”

“Well, I’m sure you and Adam helped her. Sometimes there’s nothing better than just being with your friends.”

“I think so, too.”


Lily stood by the bed, shaking as though she’d just run for her life. Oh, my God, she thought. With a sick feeling, she suddenly was reminded of the afternoon last October when she’d broken off her relationship with Ben Cartwright. She’d nearly lost her equilibrium that day—the fears and insecurities had seemed to come at her from everywhere, sweeping away her thoughts. It was not pleasant to remember.

I hate it when I don’t know myself, she reflected. I hate not knowing how I feel about something, particularly something—someone—as important as Ben Cartwright. Last fall, she’d been so sure. As lovely as he was, as much as she had come to care for him, she could not risk her life over him, and that’s what it had felt as though she was doing. Giving one’s heart away was courting disaster, because if the loved one left, for whatever reason, the poor heart would be broken … as hers had been when Howard died.

She had never expected to care for Ben as she had; if she’d realized what a hold he would take on her mind and spirit, she’d have tempered their friendship from the beginning. But as the comfortable rapport between them grew, she hadn’t guessed its potential—until, with the speed of summer lightning, both of them had awakened to each other in ways they couldn’t control. He had shown definite signs of becoming the sun, the moon and the stars of her universe.

And so that accursed afternoon … the day she’d told him she could not see him, couldn’t love him. Her stomach turned queasy again just remembering it. She’d hurt him so badly, and hurt herself as well. After the initial session of nerves and terror, she’d lain in bed for three days, pushing him out of her heart and her thoughts. It had been many more days before she’d ceased being jumpy and short with her staff, before she’d resumed going out, getting used to hearing friends ask if she were feeling all right. Yes, thank you, I’m feeling just fine, thank you … No, I’m not. I’m sick inside. I feel like half a person … And then she would remind herself that at least she was safe; she would never again know the life-stopping loss of a love.

That was what had gotten her through it: the knowledge that essentially she’d had no choice. She certainly hadn’t the inner fortitude to survive another loss. She did, however, have the strength to accept her fate, and by drilling herself that there was no other way, she’d reconstructed her life. Quite well, actually. With her flurry of social activities and causes, she’d become the veritable patron saint of San Francisco. If a bit grey, life was nevertheless good, and she’d actually set out for Nevada believing all that emotional upheaval was behind her. Now she wondered how she could have been so stupid.

She threw herself on the bed and tried to figure out what had so totally destroyed her morning—and, it was beginning to look like now, her life. Gingerly examining the brief memory, she saw him again … saw the leather vest and the long black tie that was knotted at his throat, filling the space where his collar opened and draping over his chest. She longed to touch the vest; it looked as soft as velvet or silk. She was not going to think about that chest, or how solid it seemed when one was held safe against it.

He was so much like the mountain range that was his home. Last fall, she’d come to know his gentle side, his sense of humor, his warm caring—and yes, his passion. She had only guessed at that other powerful dimension … the part of him which was as timeless as the hills around him. And she’d never really seen it until today.

What in the hell am I going to do? she asked herself, and allowed a small, sad smile. Every swear word she’d ever heard through the open cabin window on her late husband’s ship came back to mind from over the years. She couldn’t remember ever uttering one aloud before—so today, she thought wryly, would be a good place to start. She’d messed up good and proper this time.



Somehow Lily made it to dinner that night. After her trauma, Adam was amazed that she looked as normal as she did; a little pale, she was decidedly subdued, which puzzled Hoss and Joe after her good spirits of the night before, but for the most part she simply looked tired.

As everyone rose from the table, he slid his hand under her elbow and said smoothly, “I promised Lily a moonlight stroll.”

She managed a feeble smile at the startled faces around her and accompanied him out.

“They’re going to think we have some sort of assignation,” she protested as he closed the door behind her.

“I don’t care what they think,” he replied shortly. “I want some answers.” He led the way first to the bench next to the big pine, then decided it was too close to the house and steered her instead toward the trees beyond the barn. “You can take all night if you want to, Lily, but we’re not going in until I know what you’re up to.”

“I’m not ‘up to’ anything,” she argued in a voice that wound up more of a wail.

The note of pain caught his attention and he didn’t speak again until they were well out of earshot of the house. “All right …” He made a visible effort to be more sympathetic. “Look, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not trying to hurt Pa—but I want to know what happened today.”

She looked at him hesitantly. “How much do you know about your father and me?”

“He hasn’t discussed you. It’s not the sort of thing he’d talk about.”

“All right, then.” She steadied her voice. “You might have guessed that when we met in San Francisco last fall, we became—we—”

“I suspected.”

“Your father wanted to see if we could carry on our—our friendship … see what could develop between us.” She wrapped her arms around her body and shivered. Automatically Adam took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. “Thank you. At any rate, I was not very wise. In fact, I was thoroughly frightened. You have to believe—I never would have led him on. I didn’t know how I felt, except that I liked him very much, until the night of my party. Then I realized that I was falling in love with him, and the next morning I panicked.”

“That’s understandable,” he allowed. “And my father can be a very understanding man.”

She shook her head ruefully. “I didn’t give him a chance.”

“I see. So what happened today?”

“I realized that I’d made a mistake. I can’t explain it, Adam. When he turned to ride toward me and I saw the Sierras behind him, I just knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that without him … my life is empty.”

Adam whistled through his teeth. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I am! I asked myself that all afternoon and the truth is—yes.” She sighed and her voice became subdued. “I suppose I’ve loved him all along; you might think you can just end love, but you can’t—or at least, I can’t. I did a good job of fooling myself—I was very blind. But I’m not now and I won’t be again.”

Adam exhaled a long, thoughtful breath and gazed into the trees. In the moonlight, the pure white of his shirt stood out eerily against the navy satin of his vest, but his expression was hidden in shadow. When he finally spoke, he wasn’t having to manufacture his sympathy. “What’re you going to do about it?”

“For the moment, nothing.”

“Do you think that’s fair? He deserves to know how you feel.”

“I’ll tell him after Hoss’ wedding.”

“Why wait? What if he feels the same way about you?”

“What if he doesn’t? There’s a very good chance he doesn’t. He certainly gave no indication of it last night.”

“He wouldn’t.”

“Perhaps … perhaps not.” She grasped his arm. “Adam, I’m not trying to play games or be difficult. You think I wouldn’t like to run in there right now and throw my arms around him? Tell him I love him? I’d give everything I own to do that. But what if he doesn’t still love me? You know your father—he’d feel terrible about it, right now when he should be so completely happy for Hoss. And there I’d be, like some ghost he couldn’t exorcise! He wouldn’t even be able to walk into his own house without feeling bad, thinking he’s hurting me. You know that’s how he’d be.”

He nodded reluctantly and turned away. In the dim light, she was very lovely … and her distress was immensely touching. For a second, he almost forgot that she was his father’s woman—and then he saw her eyes and the pain that wasn’t for him. It’s too bad Pa isn’t standing here in my place, he thought.

When she spoke, her voice was carefully moderated. “At least this way, no matter what, it’s what he expected when he said it was all right for me to come here. It’s what he’s prepared for.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, as if trying to alleviate a headache. “All right, I guess that makes a certain amount of sense. But what now?”

 She sighed, her eyes a rapidly-changing reflection of hope and fear. “I suppose … now I just need to get a hold of myself. I have to be myself, so that if he’s forgotten what we were to each other, he’ll have a fair chance to remember it. And if it’s not to be … then pray God I have the grace to accept that. But it’s not going to be easy.”


Chapter Three

BEN awakened before dawn, restless and fitful and unable to go back to sleep. For several minutes, he lay in bed, watching the dark sky beyond his window slowly lighten and then flame with the sunrise. The stillness of a spring morning usually was inspiring; today, it simply made him impatient. He threw back the covers and got up, padded to the wash stand and splashed his face.

The clock on his mantel read five minutes until six. It seemed strange not to have every hour claimed by some form of work. He’d told Michaela he’d take her out to the cattle herd and that she could ride astride, but that wasn’t until mid-morning.

There was one thing he could do. Adam had said Roy Coffee wanted to see him; he could ride into town and be back to join Julia and the children for breakfast if he didn’t waste time. He shaved, dressed hurriedly and headed for the barn. In the cool morning air, Buck would be ready for a run.

He found Roy poring over paperwork and the last of a pot of coffee that he declared was “strong enough to walk to Texas.” Ben declined to share.

“I don’ know if this is sumthin’ that oughta concern us or not,” the lawman told him, “but I’ve got a bad feelin’ about it, Ben.”

“What’s going on?”

“It’s Hec McWhirter, as usual. He’s been talkin’ around, and The Advocate’s publishin’ everythin’ he’s sayin’ and doin’. The dif’rence this time is that I’m startin’ to hear talk that maybe he’s right. Talk from folks I don’t usually hear from—like Al Pennin’ton at the Truckee Union Bank and Marcus Strasser at Stockmen’s Savings, and some o’ the miners.”

“What’s McWhirter saying that’s giving him so much currency?”

“Well, mainly he’s sayin’ that as soon as we’re a state, the U.S. government’s gonna pass a special tax on the silver mines to finance fightin’ the Confed’racy. Accordin’ to him, it’s gonna be a real stiff tax that’ll cripple our economy.”

“That’s utter nonsense!”

“I know and you know—you are sure, aren’t you?”

“Of course I’m sure. For one thing, there’re plenty of ways Congress could raise money from the Nevada territory without waiting for statehood, if it needed the funds that badly. But even if it did consider a war tax, the money couldn’t be collected until next year, and by next year the Rebellion will likely be over, the way it’s going. So it’s highly unlikely that would happen.”

“Well, someone needs to tell that to the folks who’re list’nin’ to McWhirter. The ones that worry me, Ben, are the mine owners. Made sense that they’d be squawkin’ if they were afraid of more taxes—but if it’s as you say, how come they’re against it?”

Ben exhaled sharply. “That’s what I’d like to know. And just which mine owners are backing McWhirter?”

“Ellington o’ the Blackbird, Harrison o’ the Pericles, folks like that.  Nobody from the Ophir or Gould & Curry or the Yellow Jacket—none o’ the big boys. But heck, Ben, even the littler ones have money and people’re liable to listen to ’em.”

“The question is, what do they stand to gain from this? I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody—and maybe it’s the mine owners you mentioned—hasn’t been behind McWhirter all along. But why?”

“Beats me.”


It was quiet when Adam, carrying his boots, crept downstairs. The sun was barely up and the house was still asleep. He’d have enjoyed sleeping in, but the glow of gold over his windowsill had prevented it.

On the porch, he shoved his feet into the boots and headed to the barn. It was cool and pretty out, the sort of day that would make one fall in love with the Sierras … although, at this point, it didn’t look like their guests needed any help along those lines.

Halfway through the barn door, he came to a halt. He was not, after all, the first one up. He catalogued that Buck was gone, so his father was already out, but that was no surprise; what brought him up short was Michaela, perched on the wall of Sport’s stall, chattering away at the chestnut gelding. Sport’s nose was deep in his grain bucket, but his ears flicked back and forth politely.

Michaela turned around before he could speak. “Hi. You’re up early.”

“I could say the same about you.”

“I thought I’d get a start on things—like getting to know Sport.” She grinned. “Since I have to convince you to let me ride him before I go home.”

He shook his head. “No.”

“You said you’d think about it.”

“I reconsidered.”

She stuck out her tongue.

“Sweetheart, I know you ride very well—it’s just that as good a horse as Sport is, he has a few bad habits. I put up with them, but I’d rather not risk your getting hurt.”

“I know he pitches his head like a son-of-a-gun, but I—”

His eyebrows rose. “You’re not furthering your cause with words like that.”

“You said use my imagination in my writing. I’m just trying to make my language more colorful. It’s easier to practice with talking than with writing.”

“Well, find some other words. ‘Son-of-a-gun’ isn’t acceptable.”

“Boy, are you grouchy this morning.”

Against his will, he grinned. “No, I’m not. How can I be in bad mood with you here?”

“It’s beyond me. Sport and I are feeling great.” As if to agree with her, Sport snuffled a final time at his feed bin and turned to rub his muzzle against her knee. “Adam … what was going on between Lily and Uncle Ben yesterday?”

“What d’you mean?”

“Well, Lily was all upset. I didn’t say anything to Uncle Ben, but I wondered.” She struggled with her words and then finally shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s just something funny between them. I can’t explain it.”

“I think it’s just that they’re friends, Mickey. And friends sometimes have disagreements.”

“Yes, but they didn’t argue. And don’t you think they’re more than friends?”

“What I think is that it’s best to let people work things out for themselves.”

“You mean, just let Lily and Uncle Ben find out for themselves that they’re more than friends?”


She nodded thoughtfully and then asked, “Why don’t they just say something about it?”

“Ah … well, adults usually take the long way around things.” He smiled at her. “Doesn’t mean it’s the best way; it’s just how we do it.”

“That’s not a very good answer.”

“No, I suppose not. … All right, look—when you say they might be more than just friends, well, for adults, that’s a big thing. I’m sure it is for people your age, too, but if you mean what I think you mean, which is that Pa and Lily are sweet on each other”—he nailed her with an inquisitive look and she nodded—“then it’s just not something you take lightly. You wait and make sure that those feelings are valid.”

“You mean so you won’t get hurt?”

“Yes, and so that you won’t hurt the other person, too.”

“How could it hurt someone to tell them you like them?”

“Well, it’s not that it hurts their feelings so much as it puts them in an awkward position if they don’t like you back that much. And sometimes, they might like you better as they get to know you, so you don’t want to scare them off by saying something too early.”

“I think maybe you’re not telling me everything.”

Adam flushed. “Maybe not everything. Some things, I think, would better come from your mother—and not right away. Do me a favor and leave a few things to learn when you get older.”

“Has something to do with kissing, huh?”

“What makes you say that?”

She grinned. “Whenever something comes up about that, Mama always says wait till I’m older.”

Adam leaned over the stall partition next to her. “It’s all about growing up, Michaela. It’s best if you do it a little at a time.”

“Did you do it a little at a time?”

“Ah … no. I didn’t have a choice.” She was staring into his face, her eyes so painfully honest that he couldn’t hide his own feelings. “That’s why I’d like to see you do it better.”

“I see.” She scratched gently next to Sport’s ears and the big gelding closed his eyes. “That’s why you tell me some stuff, isn’t it? So that I have it easier than you did?”

He nodded and then his eyes betrayed a humor that lightened their sudden seriousness. “It helps that you’re a rather advanced thinker and can make use of what I say.”

She stuck out her tongue at him again, even though she was clearly pleased. When she finally spoke, it was in a voice that Adam recognized; she was trying to fit the new information into her own experience. “I guess I can understand not always saying what you feel. I don’t always, especially if I don’t know exactly how I feel. Maybe that’s it for Uncle Ben and Lily.”

“Could be.”

“So … if I can’t say ‘son-of-a-gun’,” she giggled, her expression telling him she’d repeated the phrase just to get a rise out of him, “how do I make my language more creative?”

“Ah …why don’t you pick one subject and come up with as many different descriptions and adjectives as you can? Make your mind reach.”

She nodded. “All right. I’ll try that.” She braided the top of Sport’s forelock and frowned restlessly. “I want to write something special.”

The bald ambition of her words struck Adam. He knew well enough that she had no ulterior motives; she just wanted to do something good because good was what one should want to do. It made her statement resonate all the more within him.

“Do you think I’m crazy? Is it stupid for me to say that?”

“No, sweetheart, it’s not crazy at all.” He pushed a strand of her hair out of her eyes. “And if anyone can write something special, I know it’ll be you.”

She ducked her head shyly. “Thanks.”

He lifted her off the wall of Sport’s stall. “Now, c’mon, let’s get some breakfast.”



Ben was back at the Ponderosa to begin the day with everyone else, which he decided was a good thing, because by mid-morning, they’d all scattered in different directions. Adam drove Lily to see a waterfall near one of the north meadows, while Julia went with Hoss to work on his new house, something Hoss initially opposed on the grounds that guests shouldn’t be working. He’d quickly changed his mind when he realized that Julia and his betrothed, Eleanor Vance, seemed predestined to be friends.

In the barn, Ben advised Michaela on getting Conejo ready, enjoying her concentration as she figured out that if she stood on a box and he helped a little, she could throw one of the lighter saddles up on the horse’s back. Conejo seemed to like her and stood calmly while she pulled the cinch as tight as she could, and in her gentle hands, even lowered his head to receive his bridle, something Ben had never seen him do for anyone else. As they rode out to the herd and the day went on, he was proud that she didn’t shrink from the rougher aspects of handling cattle, and he was almost as disappointed as she when he told her she’d ridden long enough for her first day astride. He felt so bad about it that he unwisely agreed to race her on a flat stretch of road and suffered a sound defeat, which, he decided, was actually worth it because she nearly bounced out of her saddle, she was so thrilled to win.

In the evening, they were invited to dinner at Providence Ranch, the home of Hoss’ fiancée and her family. Dressed and ready before the others, Ben was the first one down. He had just poured a short whiskey when he heard someone descending the stairs and glanced up to find Lily.

“You’re looking very fit,” he said, realizing it was the first time he’d been alone with her since San Francisco. “No more spells of sickness?”

“No.” She smiled at him. “I think it must have been the altitude, or maybe I was simply overwhelmed by the Sierras. I’m thinking very clearly now.”

Something in her quiet certainty resounded within him. For once, he didn’t feel quite so off-balance around her. Perhaps they were achieving some sort of peace between them, he thought, or maybe he was finally beginning to get over her … but noticing the way the skirt of her dark green gown swirled when she walked, he realized that wasn’t very likely.

She sank into the red chair opposite his. “I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like this room.”

“It’s not what you’d call fancy.” He handed her a sherry.

“No. It’s better than that—it’s comfortable. It makes one feel quite safe.” She looked around. “I can’t help but think there are some interesting stories here … like the horns over the fireplace. Are they from one of your bulls?”

Ben nodded. “Yes, as a matter of fact, they are. They belonged to Domino, the last longhorn sire we used here. I’m a little sentimental—he was a great old fellow.”

“Why do you say he was the last? Don’t you breed cattle now?”

“Yes, of course. But we’re breeding in a new line from England called the Hereford. We brought a herd sire from New York a few years ago—” He broke off. “You can’t possibly be interested in this.”

Lily’s eyebrows arched. “Is this where you tell me that you’ve never known a woman to be interested in cattle before?”

He chuckled. “No. I might think it, but I’ve learned not to say that to you. Good heavens, Lily, I know men who would be bored talking about cattle.”

“Well, it may not be—to use one of Aubrey’s words—scintillating, but I have to admit that I’m a little interested. Until you put beef on a plate, I know absolutely nothing about it. So why don’t you have something from your first Hereford sire, rather than the last of a line you no longer use?”

Ben stared at the horns which extended like wings over the fireplace. “Domino helped put us on the map. I guess you’d say he’ll always be remembered here.”

Before she could respond, the muffled thud of steps in the hall announced the arrival of Joe and Adam, and the others were not far behind. There was a good deal of confusion and maneuvering as everyone got organized, and then finally, like a small army, they set out for Providence Ranch.

It was early twilight when they arrived at the spread which was about half an hour from the house. Ben couldn’t help remembering—as he always did when he visited there, now that Ed Vance was gone—what it had been like in the beginning … back when they’d all just settled on the eastern side of the Sierras. Ed and Aurora Vance had been the first family to arrive after them, young and hopeful and just as broke as he had been. Eleanor had been a baby then, and they’d all helped each other through those early winters. Time and again, Aurora had come to the Ponderosa to nurse his two boys, painstakingly showing him how to make remedies for all manner of sickness, before he’d married Marie. And even though their temperaments had been very different, she and his third wife had become close friends, the only two women for miles sometimes, perhaps not soulmates but certainly staunch allies.

He’d been back to Providence often since Ed’s death, but it was still painful. The tall, broad-shouldered rancher had been one of his closest associates in the fight to establish a rule of law and a viable school in Virginia City; never hot-headed and endlessly patient, Ed had stood by him in so many difficult situations. He missed his friend sorely—one of his dearest memories was their mutual joy when Hoss and Eleanor had announced their intention to marry.

Joe held the horses in front of the ranch house, and once again, Ben was struck by its homey New England quality. Aurora Vance was from Rhode Island and Ed had built her a house which would have fit easily on the far-away east coast. A white clapboard building with black shutters and a sloping shingle roof, it was surrounded by carefully planned and tended flower gardens.

He stepped down from the surrey and helped Julia out.

“It’s very pretty here,” she said, taking in the colorful blooms and the grove of pines that surrounded the house. “How do they run it, since Eleanor’s father died?”

“Ed had the same foreman for years, and he’s stayed on with Aurora,” Ben answered, nodding at a large barn and a low, rambling bunkhouse about fifty yards away. “Once Hoss and Eleanor are married, it wouldn’t surprise me if he starts reporting to Hoss.”

Inside, the impression of cozy security was furthered in a parlor of patterned wallpaper and settees with sinuous curves and tufted upholstery. The tables and chests had an angular, Gothic look and featured marble tops, some now decorated with doilies and lace runners. Ben smiled as he recalled a few years back, when Ed had ordered it all for his wife; the family was doing well from their cattle ventures and the silver mines, and his friend’s first thought had been to give Aurora and the girls what they’d have had if they’d been living “back home.”

He came out of his reverie as introductions were being made, thankful to learn that illness had prevented Aurora’s sister, the predatory Louise Calthrop, from joining them.

He smiled, too, as he regarded the woman who would soon be his daughter-in-law. Eleanor was just what he’d hoped for his middle son; a tall girl of statuesque lines, she was not lost next to Hoss. Her hair was of a rare golden hue that verged on red, and her vivid green eyes possessed a friendly merriment that reflected a nature as sweet and kind as the man she loved.

Her younger sister, Edwina, enjoyed the same coloring and generous personality, but added a liveliness that made her popular with the territory’s young men and a constant challenge to her mother.

And their mother … Ben greeted Aurora Vance warmly, trying to hide his concern at how hard Ed’s death had been on her. Overnight, it seemed that her normally pale blonde looks had gone ashen. Without the spark of energy that characterized her daughters—and herself, when Ed had been alive—she appeared not golden, but merely colorless and too often brittle. She had long been a bit staid and opinionated, a little out of place in the west, but she’d always had a good heart and he grieved for her as well as for her husband.

As he settled into the big, overstuffed chair that had been Ed’s favorite, he pushed the sad thoughts from his mind and concentrated on enjoying the evening. He watched as Lily chatted with Eleanor’s mother, perceiving that everyone had given their hostess over to her as if they had escaped a tiresome duty.

Aurora’s voice carried to him. “You lived in New York! That’s not far from where our family is from—it’s so different back there, you know—”

As if she felt his gaze upon her, Lily looked up. For a moment, their glances fixed, and she smiled quickly with her eyes. Then she turned back to the conversation. A slow warmth crept over him; it was as if they were back at her party … that night in October, when she’d attended to her guests as he’d waited for her—enjoyed the festivities, but waited for her. From across the room, he’d feel her speak to him. As though he’d absorbed a little of her quiet composure, he sank more comfortably into the chair and sipped the whiskey Edwina had brought him.

It was not long before dinner was ready and Ben thought with a private grin that for Hoss’ sake, it was a good thing Eleanor came from a family of accomplished cooks. From the opening course of wild mushroom soup through the grilled trout, the Providence beef, the potatoes, fresh asparagus and relishes, to the salad of spring greens, the meal could not be faulted. Imported wines encouraged conversation that ranged over several topics, involved much laughter and engaged everyone at the table.

By the time dessert was served, the atmosphere was quieting and Mrs. Vance turned the discussion to Nevada’s social conventions, and how important proper behavior would be at Hoss’ and Eleanor’s wedding. Replete with Eleanor’s Citron Silver Cake, Joe rolled his eyes theatrically and enjoyed watching Adam and Edwina struggle to hide their laughter.

Aurora Vance sniffed at their disrespect and continued as if she hadn’t heard them. “Our younger residents simply must be taught how to go on, and how will they learn if a good example isn’t set for them? Why, I’m afraid that if spirits are served at our reception, some of our guests are liable to forget where they are! How they might carry on!” She paused and added, “Don’t you agree, Mrs. Mercer?”

Lily, holding a glass of sweet dessert wine, blinked in surprise. “Well, I certainly think that young people everywhere need to learn the standards of society,” she managed, “but I also think it’s a good rule simply to make sure your guests enjoy themselves.”

“Yes, but you live in San Francisco. It must be a good deal different there.”

“Oh, not really. You’ll remember that as little as ten or fifteen years ago, San Francisco was not so unlike Virginia City now.”

“And I know you’ve attended functions in New York and other sophisticated cities,” Mrs. Vance persisted. “What have you found there?”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m not much of an authority. The truth is that my friends are very relaxed.” Lily dimpled and then spoke earnestly. “I’m sure that you don’t have to worry about this at all. These are Eleanor and Hoss’ friends; they’ll all behave themselves, they’ll be so happy for the bride and groom.”

“Yes, my daughter and Hoss have many friends—they’ve both been upstanding members of the community for most of their lives. But not all of our citizens are schooled in the social graces. Perhaps you’ve just never seen how contentious some of them can be.”

Lily laughed. “Well, I was born in Georgia—and I’m sure there’s nothing more contentious than a gathering of young planters!”

“Georgia?” Aurora Vance’s voice altered. “Your family is from the South?”

“Savannah,” Lily confirmed. “We only married into New England.”

“Well, then … I’m glad to know that. I suppose we should agree not to discuss the current—conflict—our country is enduring, although I wonder if that will be possible, given the controversy over our impending statehood. Certainly Ben’s feelings about that are well known. The Cartwright family supports the Union and Mr. Lincoln, you know.”

Sensing what might be coming, Ben interjected politely, “Aurora, I think—”

But Aurora Vance would not be deterred and again addressed Lily. “I quite understand what your opinions must be if you grew up in the South, Mrs. Mercer, but I wonder, as a Christian, how can you possibly defend the practice of slavery?”

Lily flinched, but before she could reply Ben spoke again, his voice firm. “Aurora, you’re jumping to a conclusion there—and an erroneous one, I might add. If you’d asked Lily, I believe you’d see that her sympathies lie with Mr. Lincoln.”

“Well … I’m happy that you feel that way, Mrs. Mercer, and I’m sure it’s a relief to Ben. You probably know better than we how difficult southern sympathizers can be. But how are your family doing, so deep in the Confederacy?”

Lily heard the sterile tone of Mrs. Vance’s voice and forced a smile, infusing it with warmth for Hoss’ sake. “I no longer have family in Georgia.” From the corner of her eye, she caught Joe’s flushed cheeks. He was on the verge of speaking and his stormy eyes gave little promise of courtesy. “My parents are both deceased,” she added hurriedly.

“Were you acquainted with slaves?”

“Oh, yes. Everyone was.”

“And you countenanced it?”

Lily sighed. Across the table, Michaela’s eyes were wide with concern for her. “I see that it will do no good to tell you that not all slave owners are cruel,” she said. “My father owned slaves; it was not something I was happy about, once I was old enough to understand it, although I can say truthfully that I never saw a man, woman or child abused on our property.”

“Simple ownership is abuse!”

“I agree.”

Before Aurora Vance could expound more volubly, Ben suggested that they speak of something else and their hostess seemed to recover her sense of hospitality, announcing that coffee would be served in the parlor.

A desultory hum of conversation settled in as Joe and Edwina initiated a checkers game, and Aurora showed Julia and Michaela a complicated embroidery stitch that was becoming popular back east. Hoss appeared about to nod off in a big chair by the fireplace, rousing only when Eleanor brought in the coffee and began distributing cups.

Adam, shifting uncomfortably in one of the tufted chairs, suppressed a smile as he watched his father call Lily’s attention to a beautiful old Bible that had been in the Vance family for generations. Ben was pointing out the intricate illuminations of the opening letters, his fingers close to Lily’s as she appreciated the texture of the paper and the gold embossing at the edge of the book.

He sipped his coffee and transferred his gaze to Hoss and Eleanor. No matter what had happened during the evening, one had only to notice the engaged couple to know that all was right in the world. His brother and Ellie had been close friends as children, even though she was almost four years younger than he. Between the two of them, they’d rescued more injured animals than populated the London Zoo, Adam reflected affectionately. But then Eleanor had been sent east to care for a sick cousin, and everyone had thought that the bond between the shy, awkward Cartwright boy and the willowy, pretty Vance girl would founder on the separation.

When she came home a few years later, it had seemed at first that everyone had been right. Hoss had been seeing a young lady over in Genoa and Ellie took up with a banker’s son. But the innate understanding between them had resurfaced gradually, and soon there were few weeks that they didn’t ride or drive together.

Adam realized that he’d probably been the first to discern that something more might come of their friendship. The tip-off had been that around Ellie, his brother was as calm and confident in himself as he was with one of his horses. After a while Hoss had stopped riding to Genoa, and at a picnic in the late summer of 1862, Adam had noticed that Ellie wasn’t spending any time with the banker’s son. Still, it had been a few months longer, well into the fall, before their relationship had blossomed into romance. He could remember a dinner at the Ponderosa, noticing Hoss catch Eleanor’s eye and then shepherd her out to the porch to talk. There had been some shadowy difference in the way his brother had leaned toward the girl as he opened the front door, and in how his hand had rested at the small of her back as he guided her out. After that, whenever Hoss was not at home, he could be found at Providence Ranch.

Adam set his coffee cup aside and rose. A breath of fresh air and a bit of solitude suited his mood and he was hardly necessary to anyone’s conversation. He retired to the porch.

He found plenty of night air but little solitude, as Eleanor soon followed him out.

“I want to make sure you aren’t bored witless,” she told him.

He sat down on the porch railing. “Of course not.” He grinned. “I’m endlessly entertained watching you with my brother.”

Eleanor laughed. “Adam Cartwright, sometimes I have the hardest time believing you and Hoss are actually brothers.”

“You mean because he’s so nice and—?”

“And you’re unpredictable? Yes. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d tremble at the thought of marrying into your family.”

“Ah, but you do know me. And you know that I absolutely believe we’re very lucky to get you.”

Before she could reply, Hoss emerged through the door behind her and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s not that I don’ trust ya, older brother. But I don’t want ta waste a nice spring evenin’ on the porch with my bride.”

Adam chuckled. “I’d wonder about you if you did.”

Eleanor leaned comfortably against Hoss and Adam couldn’t help but remember all the other women Hoss had courted; his brother had usually been so nervous he could barely touch them, offering his arm or handing them down from carriages as if they were made of porcelain. He was so easy with Eleanor that she seemed already a part of him.

“Well, I’m glad to get you both alone,” she said. “I feel dreadful about the things my mother said to Mrs. Mercer.”

Hoss glanced at his brother. “Aurora’s been a lil’ strange lately. Not quite like tonight, but a lil’ … well, kinda diff’rent.”

Adam leaned back against a post. “I wouldn’t worry about Lily; I’m sure she’s fine. But what’s happening with Aurora?” He looked at Eleanor. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so, but it’s kind of you to ask. I think it’s just a lot of things—our wedding, knowing how much Daddy would have loved it. And my Aunt Louise.”

“Aunt Louise don’t half shut up,” Hoss said. “She’s enough to make anybody lose their sense. I sure was glad she couldn’t come tonight, even if it’s not very nice to wish somebody sick.”

Adam’s lips curled upward. “Hoss, the only people here who aren’t glad she couldn’t come are Julia and Lily and that’s because they don’t know her. Sorry, Eleanor.”

Eleanor giggled. “Don’t apologize! You’re entirely right. I don’t think I could have stood watching her throw herself at your father … or lecture my mother on proper etiquette … or, oh my heavens, I shudder to think of her reaction to Mrs. Mercer.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose and Hoss regarded her in surprise. Eleanor glanced from one to the other. “Surely you know what I mean …”

Adam and Hoss exchanged an amused glance. “Eleanor, maybe after you’ve been in the family a while, you can teach us how to read the female mind,” Adam offered patiently.

“Not on your life,” Eleanor returned with spirit, running her arm around Hoss’ waist. “You don’t deserve it if you’ve missed what’s right in front of your face!”

With a twinge of misgiving, Adam inquired hesitantly, “Exactly what are you talking about?”

“Why, Mrs. Mercer, of course. Adam, for pity’s sake—she’s very attractive and she’s lovely and she’s staying with you. You can’t imagine that would please Aunt Louise!”

“Yeah, but Ellie, ain’t nothin’ goin’ on between Pa and Lily,” Hoss replied artlessly, and Adam breathed a sigh of relief. “An’ Julia an’ all of us are there—ain’t nothin’ improper about it.”

Eleanor stood on her toes to plant a kiss on her beloved’s cheek. “Tell that to my Aunt Louise!”

His eyes gleamed. “Well, no offense ta yer family, darlin’, but if Pa’s gonna go get up an interest in somebody, I’d a whole lot rather it be Lily than yer Aunt Louise.”

Eleanor sighed. “You have such a wonderful family … I wish I could say the same about mine! They’re enough to scare off anyone less courageous than you!” She regarded her husband-to-be from beneath long lashes. “You’re not having any second thoughts, are you?”

Hoss stared down at her and then sent his brother a daring glance. “Just ignore us fer a minute, will ya, Adam? I gotta make sure my bride don’t go gettin’ any crazy notions.” To Eleanor’s surprise, he tightened his grip on her and delivered a lasting and emphatic kiss to her lips. She melted against him, sighing deeply as she opened her eyes slowly.

Adam, rigorously restricting the smile which threatened to envelope his face, enjoyed Hoss’ somewhat triumphant grin.

His brother blinked brightly. “Ya really oughta try this gettin’ married stuff, older brother. There’s a lot ta be said for it.”

“Hoss, I don’t doubt it—but you already got the best girl in the territory.”

It wasn’t long before voices beyond the door told them that the party was breaking up, and Adam rose from the porch railing. He dropped a chaste kiss on Eleanor’s cheek. “Thanks for a nice evening, Ellie. And don’t worry about Lily—I’m sure she didn’t take offense at your mother.”

The door opened and the porch filled with people as everyone prepared for the trip home. Adam and Joe exchanged a knowing glance as Hoss informed them that he’d be home directly and not to wait up for him.

It was nearing midnight when they arrived at the house and Julia turned to Ben. “All I can say is, I can’t wait to meet the aunt. If she’s even tougher  than Aurora, you’d better watch out for yourself!” She giggled. “And you know that I adore Eleanor! Hoss couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate bride if he’d created her himself!”

Ben chuckled. “Yes, we all adore Eleanor.”

“And now, I am exhausted. Michaela, my dear, we’re off to bed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Michaela looked up at Ben. “I had a lovely evening. And I didn’t think Mrs. Vance was so awful, except for when she wasn’t nice to Lily. Then I didn’t like her. But the rest of the time, I think she was just nervous.”

At Michaela’s pronouncement, the great room fell silent. Looking down at the child’s serious face, Ben suddenly wondered what it would have been like to have had a daughter. It wasn’t a question he hadn’t asked before; when he’d married Inger, and then again when he’d fallen in love with Marie, he’d hoped for a daughter. But with each bereavement, he’d been reminded of how fortunate it was that he’d had sons. He had no idea how he could have raised a girl alone, but sometimes, as now, he was reminded of what he had missed.

He smiled down at Michaela. “Mickey, you’re probably exactly right. But why do you say that?”

“She kept twisting her handkerchief.” Michaela frowned. “I can’t figure out why she wasn’t nice to Lily, though. Lily was nice to her.”

Lily wrapped an arm around the girl and kissed the top of her head. “Well, don’t worry about it, sweetheart. She didn’t hurt my feelings.”

“Out of the mouths of babes,” Julia murmured as they went up the stairs.

In a moment, Ben and Lily were left alone.

“I think I should apologize for Aurora’s behavior,” Ben said.

She shook her head. “No need. I think Michaela called it right.”

“She was nervous?”

“Think about it. Here you have a couple of female visitors from San Francisco—she probably just wanted to make sure we understood that she had a certain amount of background.”

He considered her words. “Yes … and I’m well acquainted with her rather strong opinions of right and wrong, but there was no excuse for her attacking you on the issue of slavery.”

“No, that was a little out of line, but I think I know why she did it. Obviously, she feels strongly about the Union cause, but there was also the fact that I wouldn’t support her idea about the wedding reception being more exclusive.” She frowned in confusion. “I think she was arguing that no spirits be served … and yet, she served wine and seemed to enjoy it. Is there something I don’t know?”

Ben propped a boot on the hearth. “Not that I’m aware of. She’s always been a bit stuffy about social conventions, but nothing like tonight.  It sounded as if she believes that the—ah, the ‘lower classes’—don’t hold their liquor very well.” He snorted disgustedly. “I know fully as many wealthy drunks as poor ones. At any rate, Hoss and Eleanor have invited a wide variety of people to their wedding. Apparently Aurora believes that those who aren’t her—her—”

“Social equals.”

“Thank you—that they may drink a little too much and be disruptive.”

“What a crime,” Lily observed with a straight face. “A little excitement at a wedding dinner.”

Ben betrayed a short laugh. “Well, it’s maybe not what we’d prefer, but I’d rather that than exclude some of our friends.” He sobered. “Perhaps I should warn you: Not everyone that’s coming to the wedding is like the people who were at your party.”

She regarded him in surprise. “Ben Cartwright, since when have you been a snob? And since when do you believe I am?”

“I’m not a—”

“Well, neither am I. At least, I hope I’m not. You didn’t, by the way, meet everyone who attended my party.”

“Lily, I didn’t mean to be critical—”

“No, I know you didn’t,” she returned, her voice reasonable. “But I’ve never yet considered a person’s financial standing or—or breeding—in deciding whether or not they’d make a good friend. One thing I like about you is that I don’t believe you do either.”

“You’d be right about that.”

“All right.” Her eyes were amused and a little smile flirted on her lips. “Then you’re not to worry what I’ll think of your wedding guests.”

His eyes held hers for a long minute and then he too smiled. “I can’t imagine how I could have thought otherwise.”

She said good night then and when she had gone up to bed, Ben collected his pipe and tobacco from the desk and retreated to the porch. There was only a half moon, but the stars were bright in the black sky and somewhere close by, an owl uttered a long screech that sounded like a greeting. One old friend to another, he mused. That owl had been around forever.

The cool night air was bracing—perhaps calming, he thought, as he tamped down the tobacco in his pipe. It was a beautiful evening, one which reminded him of why the Sierras were his home. The most important thing in his life was his family … and then there was his home … and there was also, he now acknowledged a little painfully, Lily. He still cared for her—tonight was proving to him that just being around her was a pleasure. Perhaps a bittersweet joy, but something he valued nevertheless.

He felt in his pocket for his box of safety matches, lit the pipe and puffed a couple of times to set its flame. Somehow, knowing she would be here for another three weeks, he was able to relax and enjoy her nearness. Would he rather she returned his feelings? Of course. Did he wish she wouldn’t be returning to San Francisco, essentially departing from his life, in less than a month? Absolutely. Would he be as miserable when she left as he’d been when he arrived home last fall? He hoped not. But tonight none of it seemed to matter. She was here now, in his home, seeming to enjoy his company.  He would settle for that and be grateful that it didn’t hurt.


Chapter Four

HOSS was alone in the barn when Lily went out the next morning. “Adam’ll be out’n a minute,” he said as he threw his saddle on Chub’s back. “He wasn’t movin’ too fast this mornin.’”

She stroked Skylark. “Did he and Joe stay up long after we all went to bed?”

“They was pretty far inta a checkers game when I got back. Joe’s tryin’ to get ’im brok’n in for after I’m gone.” He looked up over the gelding’s back as he fastened the girth. “Anyhow, I’m glad I got you alone, Miz Lily. I wanta apologize for Ellie’s mother last night.”

“There’s no need, Hoss.”

“Well, I feel like there is. There wasn’t no call fer her to go on at ya over where you  was born, an’ I’m sorry. Ellie’s sorry, too. She asked me ta tell ya that.”

Lily smiled. “That’s very kind of you, but you and Eleanor are not to worry. I wonder, how do you manage in this family? I know Adam endorses Mr. Lincoln, but I had a feeling last night that Joe sympathizes with the Confederacy.”

“I try not ta take sides, ma’am. You’re not wrong about Joe; he does see things from a southern point of view, his mother bein’ from New Orleans an’ all. And Adam, he’s about as sure that the North is right. I guess I think prob’ly the North is right, too, ’cause I figure what Mr. Lincoln’s president of is all o’ the United States, not just part of ’em. But I don’t like ta say much, ’cause I figure Joe has a right to his opinion.”

“Three brothers …” Lily mused. “Alike in some ways, but so different in others.”

“Yeah, I reckon that’s right.” Hoss chuckled. “Like all them books Adam reads … Joe ’n’ me couldn’ wait ta get outta school. … Or Joe an’ his luck at cards—he likes the risk in it. Adam ’n’ I’d just a-soon not leave too much ta chance all that often.”

“At least you all get along.”

“Mostly. When we do mix it up, it ain’t nothin’ serious.”

Lily was surprised. “I can hardly imagine you fighting.”

He patted Chub and came out of the stall. “We might tangle among ourselves, but you let an outsider come at any of us, and the others’ll make ’im think he’s met the devil’s own handyman.”  He noticed that Lily was wearing a split skirt. “Why don’ I saddle up Skylark for ya? I take it you’re gonna try ridin’ astride today.”

She grinned. “I thought so. Is that all right?”

“Sure it is. Ol’ Skylark didn’t know any diff’rent till we put a sidesaddle on ’er a coupla weeks ago.” He emerged from the harness room a moment later with a saddle which he swiftly cinched up on the dark bay mare. “How ’bout we put you up here and see how long your stirrups need ta be?”

He lifted Lily into the saddle as if she weighed nothing and then measured the changes they needed to make. As each stirrup leather was secured with a series of rawhide strips threaded in heavy X’s, all of which had to be unlaced and rebraided, they both set to work. By the time Adam arrived twenty minutes later, they had completed all but two of the fastenings.

“Whew,” Lily said as she pulled on the difficult leathers. “I had no idea it would be such a process. I’m sorry—I could have ridden sidesaddle.”

“Nah, it’s nuthin’,” Hoss responded. “An’ you need ta try ridin’ astride at least once.”

Lily grinned. “After all this work, I’ll be sure to do it more than once!”


Riding, either sidesaddle or astride, was not the way Julia chose to see the ranch. The only one up when Ben had risen early, she’d persuaded him to show her the countryside from the seat of a buggy. He started with a picturesque area about an hour from the house known as the Havana Divide; it was one of the few truly spectacular places accessible by road, and when he halted the horse for a breather, they were next to a field of knee-high grass that seemed to spill from a tree-lined slope. On the far side of the meadow, a bull elk trumpeted his warning that they come no closer.

“How wonderful!” Julia exclaimed. “Isn’t he exciting?”

Watching her wriggle in the seat next to him, Ben smiled. Julia was so full of life and spirit; it was no wonder that Aubrey was a very happy man. Today she was especially beautiful. Her black hair was parted and drawn back into a net, and the sapphire eyes she’d passed on to all of her children were sparkling. He never would have guessed she’d been up till nearly midnight the night before.

“My word,” she laughed, “Aubrey’d give his right arm to be able to bellow like that!”

Ben chuckled. “You get your husband riled up and he’ll do a pretty fair impression of it.”

She met his gaze merrily. “Yes, which is why we try not to get him riled up! Ben, thank you so much for bringing me out here. I do love seeing the ranch.”

“It’s entirely my pleasure.”

“What I am very glad about is having a few moments of your time, by yourself. Why, I feel like we’ve hardly talked since I’ve been here.”

“I was glad to find you up so early.” Ben clucked to the horse and they walked restfully along the mountain road. “Actually, I’ve wanted to ask you a question ever since you arrived—just to set my mind at ease.”

“You know I’ll answer anything you ask.”

“All right, then, I’ll make it simple: Are you sure that Adam’s friendship with Michaela isn’t causing trouble for you and Aubrey?”

“What? Oh, heavens, no! I mean, yes, I’m sure that no, it isn’t. You know Aubrey … he loves Mickey. And he knows he isn’t the best with little girls. I think he’s quite happy that she seems to have this rapport with Adam. In the beginning, I have to admit that we were both concerned that she would impose on him, though.”

“Impose? Not in the slightest.”

“I know that now.” She smiled. “I took the liberty of writing him a note, asking him, and he replied just like that. You’ve seen the amount of mail that goes back and forth! It was a natural question—Adam has a busy life here.”

“Yes … but really, I think Michaela’s been good for him.”

For a few minutes the ride passed in an amiable silence, and then Julia waved at the field on the right, which ran to a narrow stream. An ancient, imposing aspen marked a spot that Ben remembered the boys had used in years past for picnics with their young ladies.

“That’s beautiful and the grass doesn’t look too tall there,” she observed. “Do you think we might get out and walk for a bit?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Later, he would reflect that Julia—dear, sweet, feminine, adorable Julia—had ambushed him. Once out of the buggy, with her on his arm, he had nothing to distract him from her questions.

“Now, I know you’re going to throttle me,” she warned him, “but I had my own reasons for wanting to get you alone today.”

“Throttle you? Whatever for?”

“Oh, because I’m going to—well, to put it as indelicately as I’m sure my husband would if he were here to stop me—pry.”

Ben chuckled indulgently.

“But you must understand, I have only your best interests at heart. I would never intrude if I didn’t care very much for you, Ben.”

“Julia, you’re scaring me. What’s this all about?”

“Well, you, of course. Not that I don’t think you’re perfectly capable of living your life all by yourself, because I’m quite sure you can, but I just wanted to raise a few questions … see how you really are.”

His guard went up. “I’m fine, Julia. Surely you can see that.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I can.” She grinned impishly. “Surprised you, didn’t I?”

“You’re a constant surprise.”

“Yes, Aubrey says so too. All right—what concerns me is your future.”

“My future?”

“Yes, your future. Hoss is getting married. Joe and Adam are bound to at some point in time, Joe probably sooner than later. I …” She seemed to lose her nerve, and then regained it. “Well, I know that the Ponderosa is very important to you, Ben—and I know that even when the boys get married, they won’t be going away. They’ll be raising families here, and I know you’ll be a wonderful grandfather. But … is that enough for you?”

“What do you mean, ‘is that enough?’” he asked, half in actual curiosity and half playing for time.

“Even though Hoss is moving only down the road, he’s still twenty minutes away … and you know, the first line of responsibility for his family will be his, not yours. It’ll be the same for Adam and Joe.” She stared out over the stream to the mountains beyond. “You have an enormous heart, Ben Cartwright. I don’t know of anyone with the capacity for giving that you have, or anyone who merits more in return. Won’t you want—need, whatever you might call it—shouldn’t there be someone in your life whose main focus is you?”

Although he really didn’t want to hear what she had to say, Ben was very touched.

“These are, of course, things that only an old married lady can ask a dear friend,” she wavered nervously. “Please believe that I mean well.”

“Oh, Julia, I believe that,” he replied kindly.

“Aubrey’d shoot me.”

“Yes, I believe that, too,” he chuckled. He stopped walking and turned her to face him. “You’re a very dear friend—and you’re right. You’re probably the only person I can think of that I’d allow to say what you just said.”

“You’re not going to shoot me?”

“No, I’ll leave that to your husband.”

“Then …” Her eyes glimmered and she ventured hopefully, “what do you think?”

He met her gaze, looked away, sighed, contemplated what she had said, and finally replied, “I don’t know how to answer you.” He offered her his arm again and they resumed walking down the stream bank. “Julia, to a great extent, you have to just live life as it comes to you. I was never ‘looking’ when I met each of my wives, and yet each time, the good Lord gave me more than I’d ever dared hope for.”

Her fingers tightened on Ben’s arm. “Are you saying, perhaps, that you don’t feel you deserve to find such happiness a fourth time? Are you afraid to hope for it?”

Ben shot her an eloquent look. “You don’t mince words, do you?”

“Not in a good cause.”

“What makes you think I’m a good cause?”

“My husband loves you. I love you. You’re a good man. You deserve happiness … would you like me to go on?”

“No, that’s quite enough.”

“You’re dodging the question.”

“All right …” He glanced at her one more time in protest. “You should be spanked for your impertinence, young lady.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure. Now think about what I asked you.”

He sighed. “Then the answer is, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought a great deal about it. I have my work, I have the ranch, I have my family, even if as you say, they have their own lives.”

“Ben, don’t you see, maybe it’s time for you to have your own life? Think about what you want—not for everyone else, but just for you? Because it’s all well and good to have your politics and your ranch and all that, but you deserve something more.”

Looking down into her serious, caring face, Ben felt a rush of appreciation and love. Truly, he thought, she didn’t begin to know how blessed he was just to have a friend like her. “All right, Julia … for you—and for me—I’ll think about it.”



Lily was glad of the effort it took to shorten her stirrups from the moment she rode out of the barn. Although a little awkward at first, she welcomed the sense of balance and the unity she felt with her mount, and the day was like a dream. She could never see too much of the Sierras and when Adam suggested they head back after a couple of hours, she begged to go farther—at least to a vantage point he’d mentioned which overlooked another part of Lake Tahoe. It was mid-afternoon by the time they rode back toward the barn, and nearly three when they were intercepted by a young man who declared that there was some problem at the sawmill, and could Adam come resolve it?

“We’re so close, I know the way back,” Lily assured him. “Go on—I can get home alone.”

She had just stopped next to the corral when Ben, returning from the rescheduled meeting with his neighbor, rode in. “Did you have a good time?” he inquired genially.

“It was wonderful!” she smiled. “You have no idea how liberating it is to ride astride.”

“I’ve never thought balancing on a sidesaddle would be very easy,” he said as he swung off the buckskin.

He turned Buck toward the barn, and making a show of adjusting her equipment, she waited for him to lead his horse away. All of the sudden, it appeared rather a long way to the ground; it was quite possible that she’d be a little ungraceful about dismounting. But as he seemed to be waiting for her, she finally took her chances and threw her right leg over Skylark’s rump. Then with a grateful so far, so good, she kicked free of her left stirrup and slid to the hard earth—only to collapse inelegantly, with a very loud grunt, at Skylark’s feet. The mare shied in surprise.

She’d never felt her knees buckle, but like noodles, her legs had refused to function. She could feel her cheeks flaming even before Ben, dropping Buck’s reins, rounded Skylark, his face concerned.

“Lily!” He shooed the horse aside and crouched down next to her. “Are you all right? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, although she knew exactly what was wrong. She wanted nothing more than to leap to her feet and run like a racing hound, but at the moment, even walking seemed beyond her scope. “I must have stumbled.”

“Well, take it easy. Let’s make sure you’re not hurt.”

“I’m not hurt. I just slipped out of the stirrup, that’s all.”

“How long were you out riding?” he asked.

“Just let me catch my breath. I was probably clumsy—”

“How long, Lily?”

I am making the most god-awful fool of myself, she thought, and in her anger at herself, nearly barked at him. “Just since ten! Now, just give me a minute. I’ll be fine.”

“Five hours?”

“We were having a good time! I wasn’t watching the clock. I don’t even have one with me!”

“I see.” He adopted a tone she imagined he’d used on the boys when they’d flouted his instructions and it did nothing to improve her temper.

Dusting her hands, she positioned herself to rise. “I think I’ll try this again.” She managed to stand but lost her breath to a spasm of agony which shot through her thigh like a hot lance. He slipped an arm around her, holding her up. “Ben, I’ll be all right!”

“Nonsense, Lily, your legs are going to be weak for a little while yet—that’s what happens when you grip the saddle like that for hours if you’re not used to it. I’ll help you.”

“I don’t need your—”

But in her next stride, her other leg exhibited a matching pain and folded under her; she would have fallen had Ben not steadied her. Without a word, he swung her up into his arms and started toward the front door.


“Lily, you need to get into the house,” he said evenly. “I think you’ll find this far more reliable than trying to walk it yourself.”

“You don’t have to be so—”

“What? Helpful? You’ve made that clear.”

She subsided, partly because she realized that she was sounding hateful and partly because being in his arms was destroying her thought pattern. A deep sense of contentment was dawning in her and she longed to rest her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she finally said in a small voice. “I didn’t mean to be so quarrelsome. You know me—I just made a fool of myself and I hate that.”

He stopped and looked down at her. “Maybe I overreacted. I didn’t mean to sound so judgmental.”


“That bad?” His eyebrows arched. “All right. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you were right,” she mumbled, afraid to meet his gaze. “I should have known better. I did know better and I’m very embarrassed.”

“You’re not a fool, Lily. It’s like riding for the first time—plenty of people overdo it. I wanted to spare you that.”

“I wasn’t trying to disobey you, you know.” She looked up at him then, and felt the force of his warm brown eyes like a physical blow. He was so close. She looked away and he did too.

He started again toward the house. “Getting saddle sore is no crime, particularly if you were having a good time,” he muttered. “And I’m glad you were having a good time. I want you to enjoy your visit.”

“I am enjoying it, Ben. I love your Sierras.” She sighed. “Hence riding too long today—and you don’t need to tell Adam. He tried to get me to come back earlier.”

“I won’t have to tell him,” he returned dryly. “I think he’ll figure it out on his own.”

She felt herself blush all over again. At the front door, she reached out to twist the knob and he carried her across the great room and up the stairs. But when he paused at the door to her room, she didn’t offer to help. Suddenly, she couldn’t imagine him carrying her into her room—to put her where? On the bed?

“This is fine, Ben. I think I can walk from here.” His eyes flickered, but he set her down carefully and she braced herself against the doorframe just in case her legs betrayed her again. “What do I do now? How long will this last?”

“Not so long. I doubt you’ll have anymore trouble standing up—that’s just at first. Take a good hot bath, and then walk a little, and ride again tomorrow. It’ll hurt a bit for the next couple of days, but you’ll get over it.”

“That’s good to know. I don’t want to miss anything.”

He chuckled. “No, I don’t imagine you would. Now, I think you should get some rest.”

He left her at her door, doing her the favor of not waiting to see if she collapsed again. But he heard no crash behind him and he smiled faintly as he retraced his steps to the barn. He was almost glad of the labor it would take to cool Buck down and get him set for the night. If Brownie was busy, he could do Skylark, too. But Brownie was there ahead of him; the gelding was already in his stall and Rob, the hand who helped the old scout, was unsaddling the mare.

“I’ll do ’im fer ya,” Brownie said, shifting the chaw of tobacco in his mouth. “Whad’ya think ya pay me fer?”

In the aisle, feeling suddenly lost, Ben slipped his hands into his pockets. “Old habits are hard to break. You know I couldn’t always pay to have it done.”

“Yeah. I ree-member when ya did ever’thin’ yerself … ’cept what Miz Inger an’ Adam did.”

For a second, Ben forgot about trying to help Brownie as the years seemed to fall away. “That was a long time ago.”

“Yup. Time marches on, jus’ like the army. Jus’ like you did.” The old man dragged the heavy saddle off of Buck’s back and with an effort shoved it over the stall partition. It was a few minutes before he spoke again, and when he did, his tone was altered. “Didja haf ta do fer yerself when y’ married Little Joe’s ma?”

Uninvited memories tumbled over one another in Ben’s mind. Absently, he ran his fingers over the cheek strap of Buck’s halter. “Yes. … Not as much as when we were coming west, but … yes.”

“Now ya don’t hafta. Not really.”

“I suppose not. But I’m not of a mind to hire everything done.” He turned to go back to the house. Sometimes Brownie brought him too close to the past.

“Nope. Don’t s’pose you’ll ever be that. Good thing, too.”

“Money doesn’t have to change a man, Brownie.”

“Good ta know it. Don’t think I’d like workin’ fer a man what’d let it go ta ’is head. You ain’t much dif’ernt than ya was all those years ago, when y’ was with Miz Inger.” Brownie’s weathered face creased with humor, his eyes becoming slits and his grin revealing several gaps between his stained teeth.  He unhooked Buck to let the gelding drink. “Right pretty lady, Miz Mercer.”


“Not uppity.”


“Could do worse.”

Ben shot him an exasperated glance. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know igg-zac’ly what it means.”

He shook his head wordlessly and left Buck—and the memories—to the old man. The late afternoon sun was slanting through the trees as he returned to the house and he sighed restlessly, suddenly tired and nervy at the same time. It was a time of day that invited melancholy. Usually work helped him get through it without undue emotion, but today he had no obligations and he fought with himself for some sort of peace.

He asked Hop Sing to brew a pot of tea, searched for the book he’d been reading before their guests arrived, and settled into one of the red leather chairs. For a second, he was confused; the scrap of ribbon attached to the volume’s spine was marking a story he hadn’t started yet. Of course—Adam had been scanning through it a few nights ago.  ‘Etude de Femme’ … He massaged his temple absently; one could study a woman forever and come to no firm conclusions. He’d save that story for last.

And then his thoughts drifted back to Lily—as they probably would have, he reflected, even without Brownie’s not-so-gentle reminder. He could still feel her in his arms. He’d tried to ignore the sensations, block out her cool, sweet scent … and now he tried to forget the smooth brush of her hair against his cheek. He could swear that she’d felt the same discomfort at the situation, and also the same pleasant familiarity. He didn’t know what to make of it; she didn’t seem to dislike his company, and as he was finding out, he certainly didn’t dislike hers, despite the damning memories of last fall.

He flushed. Her corset had been lighter and more pliant than any he remembered; that was the first thing he’d noticed when he’d lifted her off her feet, and he couldn’t stop a little smile of appreciation. She’d been so soft and appealing in his arms. And she hadn’t been any more willing to meet his eyes than he had been to meet hers—surely she’d felt the same flame of excitement between them.

He sighed disgustedly. It all could have been nothing more than a simple human response: He was a man and she was a woman. Just because he wanted it to mean something didn’t ensure that it did. The only thing he knew for a fact was that when he’d set her down, he’d wanted to turn her toward him and kiss her soundly.


  Chapter Five

SUNDAY may have been traditionally a day of rest, but the week before Hoss Cartwright’s wedding, it didn’t turn out that way. Everyone was up to attend an early church service in town, and then Hoss, Joe and Julia enjoyed midday dinner with Eleanor and her family. Michaela’s interest in horse care and management—nurtured in San Francisco by the Van Dines’ head coachman, Doyle—was flourishing in Nevada, and she convinced Adam to teach her the finer points of grooming after lunch at the Ponderosa. By the time she’d chattered all the way from Virginia City about it, Lily had become interested, too, and went to the barn with them.

Ben took advantage of the peace and quiet to attack the ever-growing pile of correspondence on his desk. He was there at mid-afternoon when Rob knocked timidly to deliver a letter.

“Adam told me I should bring this in, sir,” the boy said. “A courier just came from the governor with it.”

Ben blotted the page he was writing and accepted the envelope. “Thank you, Robbie.” He ripped open its flap and read the hastily-written single sheet of stationery.

May 29, 1864

Dear Ben:

Forgive the brief nature of this communication—I want to complete it in time for the boy to get it to you today.

I have received confirmation that our friend M is but a puppet in the crusade against statehood. My source, however, is unable to tell me who is directing the effort. He believes it is a Virginia City businessman or men, and that it is more about commerce than the Confederacy.

Oh, yes—the reason for the urgency of this message. M, or whoever is behind him, plans to intimidate you personally. Your role as chairman of the committee has made you the best known advocate for  statehood outside of myself. Ben, be very careful. If this issue has become so much about money, I fear that danger may enter in.

With kindest personal regards,


Ben frowned in surprise. How on earth would commerce be better without statehood? Usually, the increased protection and trade benefits accorded a state would encourage business. Who stood to gain if Nevada remained a territory? No one came to mind.

“I’m going to work on my writing,” Michaela’s voice sounded suddenly and he realized that the front door had opened. She trotted across the great room, halted abruptly to acknowledge him, and then continued more sedately up the stairs.

Lily rounded the corner looking amused. She, too, stopped when she saw Ben. “Adam said to tell you he had to ride out to Beargrass Creek; there’s some horse he wants to bring in from there,” she said. Her eyes rested on the paper in his hands. “I hope your letter from the governor is good news.”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. It occurred to him that with her hatred of slavery, she would care whether or not Nevada was admitted as a free state.

“Can you talk about it?” she asked. “I already know that you’ve drafted the state constitution and that a man named McWhirter is leading the opposition. Adam told me.”

“I see.” He came around the desk. “Actually, yes, I’d like to discuss it with you. With your experience in business, you might see something I don’t.” His fingertips slid along her arm as he turned her to the settee and waited until she sat down “The governor now believes our opposition is founded on commercial gain, not support for the South.”

Her eyes widened. “That doesn’t make sense, does it?”

Ben settled into a chair by the hearth. “It wouldn’t seem to, but apparently Governor Nye has reason to believe it’s true.”

“Who stands to gain? What business is McWhirter in?”

“He owns The Advocate, a small newspaper he started last year; he can’t possibly be making much money at it. He’s like everyone else I can think of—if anything, Nevada’s becoming a state would help him financially.”

Her face was a study in concentration. “Is anything going to happen with statehood that will change things around here? Like—like the railroad coming through?”

“We’ll eventually be linked with the transcontinental railroad when it’s completed, but that’s going to happen whether we’re a state or a territory.”

“Is there anything different or special about the constitution?” she pursued. “Not even something you’d necessarily link to business—just anything that may not be what people are used to?”

His lips quivered. “Well, we’re giving women the right to vote. Could that be bad for business?”

She chuckled. “I’m sure there’ll be some husbands upset over it, but I can’t imagine it would affect trade. What led you to make women equal citizens?”

“The President will need the numbers in November,” he said frankly. “If you count all of our population, we qualify for three electoral votes. I’d like to tell you it’s more than that, but it’s mainly for Mr. Lincoln.”

“At least you’re honest.”

“Are you offended?”

Her brows rose. “No, curiously, I’m not. …  I’m not a young woman, Ben. I’ve never voted, nor even considered the possibility of being able to vote.”

“But you certainly noticed the inequities of the business world. Aubrey told me that for all of your husband’s knowledge and talent, The Emporium would not have been the success it was without you.”

“That’s kind of him. And yes, I did notice the unfairness that existed there—not, thank God, that Howard discounted me, because he never did. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been very blessed; the men in my life—my father, my husband—were very kind and intelligent. Perhaps I just didn’t mind that I couldn’t vote.” She smiled wistfully. “I must say, I’m very glad that my father didn’t live to see the Rebellion. We would certainly have differed and it would have killed both of us.”

“You’re sure he would have supported the Confederacy?”

“Of course.” She held his gaze. “There are many things that you can just agree to disagree on, but the ownership of people? No. I couldn’t have supported that, even for him.”

Ben tried to keep his expression impersonal but wasn’t entirely successful. “That doesn’t surprise me, Lily.”

“I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to digress. I can hardly be of any help to you if I turn this into a conversation about myself.”

“I happen to like hearing about yourself.”

She regarded him ironically. “What, so you can see just how erratic my thoughts can be? That I’d be upset because I couldn’t negotiate a contract, but unfazed that I can’t vote? How silly can a woman be?”

He smiled. “I wouldn’t put it that way. But I would say that you can certainly be a mystery.”

“What a wonderful compliment!” She giggled. “Oh, I know—your very best compliments to me aren’t meant as such! But a ‘mystery!’ I’m euphoric! Please don’t tell me you didn’t mean it!”

Now he was chuckling too. “No, I meant it. You have no idea how much I meant it!” He nearly choked with surprise at his own words and for a second their eyes met. “Well, ah—I didn’t mean it badly.”

Lily wondered if—hoped—his slip of the tongue about her being a mystery could be taken to mean that he might still be interested in her, but before she could reply, Michaela came bounding down the stairs with a handful of foolscap and a pencil.

“I need your help! I’m going to write a story for Adam!” the child announced, in her excitement behaving more like her little brothers than herself. Her shoes thumping on the smooth wooden planks, she was a small blur of arms and legs and flying skirt, leaping over the last step and skipping toward them.

Lily intervened. “Wait a minute, slow down now—”

Michaela skidded to a halt, slipped and sat down hard on the coffee table, coloring violently. “Sorry.”

“Just be careful,” Lily told her. “You could have been hurt if you’d fallen on that pencil.”

Mickey regained her breath and began again more calmly, “I’m sorry, Lily. I didn’t think. But I had an idea—I want Adam to know how much I love it here, so I thought I’d write a story for him.”

“I’m sure he’d like that,” Ben said.

“I hope so. At least, I hope I can do a good enough job on it! But anyway—I need to go back where we went that first day, to see it again, because I’m going to begin my story there. And I …” Her voice faded. “I forgot it was so far away. I was wondering …”

A smile lit Ben’s face. “If we could go there? And I’ll bet you’d want to do it now, so that Adam won’t know what you’re up to.”

She nodded.

“Well, I think that’s a possibility.” His smile broadened. “Lily, would you like to come along? Why don’t I saddle the horses while you ladies change?”

And so the three of them rode back to the vantage point over Lake Tahoe, tethering their horses to trees at the top of the hill overlooking the lake. While Michaela found a spot from which to record the scene, Ben and Lily strolled out through the grass.

What a difference a few days have made, Lily reflected. When she’d been here before, her world had fallen apart; now, walking beside Ben, she felt utterly content—almost. Everything wasn’t yet perfect; he had no idea how much she cared for him and there was no way to tell how he felt, but just for these moments, she allowed herself to make believe.

“How’re your legs?” he asked conversationally.

“Much better than I’d expected—actually, just a twinge here and there. Not enough to give up riding astride!”

“No, I imagine not.”

She stole a glance at him. He was dressed as he had been that other day—the dark gloves, the long black tie, a white linen shirt and that honey-colored vest which rapidly was becoming an obsession for her. She scraped distractedly with her boot, earning a questioning glance from him. Avoiding his eyes, she stared at the grass and gradually realized that she was focusing on a single wildflower, a bloom of three white petals, each with a yellow base and a small red chevron. “How lovely!”

“It’s a mariposa lily,” he said, bending down to pick it. “Perhaps not a rose, but beautiful just the same. … Hold still.” He angled the blossom through the buttonhole in her open collar.

“Thank you, kind sir,” she said, striving to keep her voice light.

Swallowing quickly, she looked away, realizing that her cheeks were pink again. She was developing a healthy exasperation with herself; she’d never considered herself old, but any fool knew that she had no business acting like a lovesick girl. Especially, she thought guiltily, when my feelings are so far from childlike. She made herself look again at the lake, losing herself in its far-flung grandeur.

“I see so much of you here,” she mused, unaware that she’d spoken until the words were out.

He cleared his throat in surprise. “That means a lot to me, Lily.”

And then fortunately, because Lily couldn’t think of anything more to say, Michaela’s voice interrupted them from behind. “I got it!”

Ben turned, his palm sliding under Lily’s arm to guide her up the hill as they walked back to where Michaela awaited.

“What’s your story going to be about?” he asked the girl as he stored her paper and pencil in his saddlebag.

“About the Ponderosa,” she replied, “as seen through the eyes of Roland.”


“Our horse—you know Roland, our lead carriage horse.”

“So what were you writing today?” Lily asked.

“Just a description of the view. I couldn’t remember it precisely; you’d be surprised what details I hadn’t noticed. When I get home—I mean, back to the house—I’ll write about how Roland comes here.” She looked out over the lake one last time. “Uncle Ben, is this what heaven should look like?”

Ben chuckled. “Adam and I once had a similar conversation here. I said heaven would have to go some to beat this view and he rather smartly reminded me I’d yet to see heaven … but if you’re asking should, Michaela, then I’d have to say yes. This is exactly what heaven should look like.”

“That’s what I think, too. It sure makes you feel closer to God than a prosy old sermon in church.”

Ben couldn’t help another snort of laughter. “As I recall, you sleep through the sermons anyway, or at least that’s what you told Adam.”

For a moment she looked puzzled. “Oh—you mean last fall at the cathedral.” She made a face. “You know, he made me stay awake! It was awful.”

Lily tipped the child’s chin up with one finger. “Mickey, I do believe that if you go on this way, you’re going to owe the Lord an apology.”

“Oh, Lily, it’s not that I don’t like church! I love the music and the verses are beautiful. It’s just the sermons I don’t like. They put me to sleep—well, except when Adam’s there.” She sighed. “If I had this to come to every Sunday morning, I’m not sure I’d bother to go to church at all. No amount of words are this pretty.”

Over Michaela’s head, Ben’s eyes met Lily’s. What did one say to something so startlingly true? He wondered how his son handled the child’s devastating honesty, because at the moment, it certainly defeated him.

He tossed Michaela up into her saddle and carefully looked away while Lily climbed up on Skylark. She wasn’t smooth yet with mounting; he’d like to have told her that he wasn’t always graceful at getting on either, but he didn’t think she’d want any attention called to the process. And he was sure she wouldn’t accept his help. Instead, he suggested that they take in the view to the south before heading home and led the way through the stand of pines to another vantage point half a mile away. This one offered no vista of the lake; its prospect simply stretched forever through the mountains, a seemingly endless design of trees and sky and rocky crests.

“It’s so beautiful,” Michaela breathed. “Don’t you think so, Lily? Don’t you love it?”

“Yes, I do,” Lily replied. “You’ll think I’m crazy, but the mountains remind me of the sea.”

Michaela nodded. “They’re both big. Bigger than big.”

Ben smiled. He’d expected that Lily would have to explain what made the majestic peaks similar to a vast horizon of open sea. “They’re both limitless,” he agreed quietly. “Michaela, I used to tell the boys that looking at the sea was like looking at their life, because that’s how big your life really is.”

“That could be scary—look at all the space you have to fill,” she replied.

“But look at all the beauty there is to fill it with,” Lily countered. “Look at the mountains and the sea, Mickey, and think of how magnificent they can be.”

And how unpredictable and dangerous too, Ben added mentally, glad that there was no reason to say that to a child. She’d learn soon enough.

The wind rustled fitfully in the trees, but otherwise it was as silent as if they were at the top of the world, looking down. The three horses stood motionless in the late afternoon sun.

And then suddenly a crack and a high-pitched whine rang out. A piece of bark on the tree behind Lily splintered and sailed through the air. A second later, there was another bang and flakes of granite spiked near Conejo’s face as a bullet bounced off a boulder. The bay gelding screamed and reared in surprise, and Michaela, unprepared, slid out of the saddle, landing heavily on a cushion of pine needles as her mount bolted, his eyes white-rimmed with fear.

“Get down!” Ben shouted and flung himself off of Buck. He saw Michaela scrambling to a bush about a dozen feet away, but Lily was frozen with shock. He reached up to pull her out of the saddle and threw her to the ground, dragging her roughly into the undergrowth around a thick old pine. Then as Buck snorted and drew Skylark off, he reached for his revolver.

“Michaela!” he called in a low voice. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Uncle Ben! I’m over here!”

“Stay calm—and stay down!”

He raised himself on one elbow and peered through the tangle of greenery in front of him, but the clearing where they’d stopped was still and there was no sign of movement in the thicket beyond. He glanced again at the low rock where Conejo had been standing; a white gouge now decorated its flinty side. And a jagged gash revealed where a bullet had carved a path in the trunk of the tree which had been just beyond Lily.

Lily … He almost stood up, then started to turn over, and then felt her hand on his shoulder. And her warm presence all along his back. Without realizing it, he’d shielded her with his own body.

“I’m fine, Ben,” she whispered. “What’s happening?”

“I’m not sure,” he muttered, “except that someone just took a shot at us.”

“What do we do?”

“Wait for a few minutes and see what happens.” It sounded like a damned poor suggestion to him, but there was little else to do. To stand up would invite being shot.

He felt her fingers tighten on his shoulder and her cheek press against his back. Her breathing was fast but even—she was scared, but under control. The wind continued to filter through the trees and the stillness took on a life of its own. He heard Buck nicker, and then there was the splinter of branches as the horse pushed through a low web of vines. Nothing out of the ordinary was attracting the animal’s attention, and knowing Buck, that meant their adversary probably had gone.

Ben rose slowly on one knee, crouching, his senses alert to detect another presence in the forest. But there wasn’t one. At last he rose to his full height, his eyes scanning through the foliage, but the only sound continued to be the breeze and the horses remained undisturbed.

“Come on,” he said in a low voice. He slammed his gun into its holster and caught Lily’s arm to help her up. “Move carefully, both of you—we need to get out of here. Lily, can you take Mickey up with you?”

“Of course.” She didn’t argue when he bent to grasp her boot and lift her into the saddle. He set Michaela up in front of her.

Then he mounted Buck, pointed to a trail at the far side of the clearing and pushed the buckskin into a lope. For what seemed like a long time, they descended the slope at a gallop; after a while, however, the horses were blowing, and Ben allowed them to rein in.

“Don’t you think we’re probably safe now?” Lily asked in a hushed tone, reaching down to wipe the lather off Skylark’s neck. “We haven’t seen anyone.”

“We probably are, but let’s not take chances. We should stay in wooded terrain, where it would be hard to get a clear shot. Are you all right, Michaela?”

“I’m fine, Uncle Ben. I’m sorry Conejo ran off.”

Ben took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “I’d guess he ran back to the barn.” He betrayed a little smile. “Probably wouldn’t have done that if it weren’t feeding time, but it wasn’t your fault, Mickey.”

“I should have held on better.”

His eyes softened. “There’s not one of us who hasn’t had to learn the hard way that you can get thrown off at any time. Now, let’s keep moving. I’m sorry this ride is so forced, but it can’t be helped.”

Ben didn’t relax until the little party reached the yard at the ranch house, where they found Adam and Joe saddling up. Brownie was stripping the gear off of a hot and winded Conejo. A little stream of blood ran down the gelding’s face from where a chip of granite had sliced near his eye.

“We were coming to look for you,” Adam said. He reached up to pull Michaela off of Skylark.

“I fell off,” the child said sheepishly.

“That’s not exactly how it happened,” Ben interposed. “Lily, why don’t you take Michaela inside? I’ll help with the horses.”

Lily met his eyes briefly and nodded. She slid her arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Come on, sweetheart. We should clean up. I don’t imagine the men want to have dinner with a pair of cowgirls!”

Running a hand over Skylark’s soaked flank, Joe waited until Lily and Michaela were out of earshot before he spoke. “What happened, Pa?”

Ben nodded at the barn and picked up Buck’s reins. “Someone took a shot at us—two shots, as a matter of fact.”

“What?” Adam turned toward the house.

“Michaela’s all right,” Ben said hastily. “The second shot hit a rock near her and Conejo was startled. She came off, but she kept her head.”

“Where were you?”

“At that clearing up on the ridge that looks south toward Monument Peak.”

“Who did it?” Joe asked.

Ben’s eyebrows furrowed. “My guess is McWhirter or one of his people. The governor’s letter this morning warned me that they’d be trying new tactics.”

“Like trying to kill you?” Adam inquired bluntly.

“Not exactly that. ‘Intimidate’ was what Jim said.”

Joe glanced hotly at his brother. “What d’you say, Adam? We pay him a visit?”

Before Adam could reply, Ben caught Joe’s arm. “No—not yet. No one was hurt, Joseph. I can’t prove that’s what this was. There’s an outside chance it was a hunter who made a mistake.”

“A hunter who just happened to be trespassing on the Ponderosa?” Adam retorted. He turned to Skylark and threw one stirrup over the saddle to reach the cinch. “Why don’t you tell us how it went? What were you doing at that overlook?”

“Michaela wanted—ah, we just took a ride. It seemed like a good time for it and you’d already gone out to Beargrass Creek.”

“Let me get this straight.” Adam’s voice was even. “You’d just received a letter from Jim Nye saying that he had reason to believe you were in danger, and you went riding off to one of the remotest parts of the ranch? With a woman and a child?”

Ben grunted angrily as he pulled the saddle off Buck’s back. “Did I need your permission? This may surprise you, but I didn’t take Mickey and Lily to the lake to get them shot.”

“Pa, take it easy. Adam just wants to get a handle—”

“Joseph, I realize you two mean well, but this isn’t helping.”

“What do you suggest we do?”

Ben’s voice was sharp. “I don’t know! Let’s just think about it—we’ll think of something—”

Joe glanced at Adam and Adam, frowning thoughtfully, shook his head slightly.

“For starters,” Ben began again more calmly, “we’d just better be careful about where we take our guests. If I’m to be a target, then I won’t go along on the rides. And it goes without saying, I want you boys to be on your guard.”

“Sounds good to me—at least for starters,” Joe said. He dusted his hands on his pants. “I’ll put Sport and Cochise away.”

In his wake, the only sound was the muted shush of the brush Ben was using on Buck’s damp coat.

Adam cross-tied Skylark and began toweling off the worst of her sweat. “Where’d the first shot go?”

Ben stopped brushing. “It hit the tree behind Lily.”

“How’d she handle it?”

“Very well. She was startled, of course. But she didn’t panic.”

Adam nodded. “You got them out of the line of fire, of course.”

“Of course. We got down behind some trees.”

“M’m. Y’know, Pa, maybe we figured Lily wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

Adam shrugged. “We didn’t see how she could fit here.” He raised an eloquent eyebrow. “So far she’s weathered Aurora Vance and getting shot at. If this were a horse race, I’d have to say she’s won the first two heats.”


By unspoken agreement, no one mentioned the shooting incident to Julia until Ben had had a chance to tell her—without minimizing its seriousness, but carefully, so that she wasn’t terrified at how much danger Michaela had been in. Adam, listening from across the room, was surprised that she remained as calm as she did. She was shaken, but didn’t raise her voice and didn’t tell her daughter that the riding expeditions would have to end.

“Just be careful,” she said severely. “And I do agree; it’s probably wisest that you don’t ride with Ben until this is all over. You can spend your time with him here at the house.”

Sometime later, he looked up from his book to realize that Michaela was no longer in the great room. With the cut on Conejo’s face, he had a fair idea of where he’d find her, and he was just outside the barn door when he heard her voice.

“What was he like when he was little? I hope you don’t say like my little brother. He’s never quiet and hardly ever sits still.”

A raspy-short laugh let him know that she was talking to Brownie.

“Nah, he weren’t ’tal like yer lil’ brother. Quiet boy he was. Too quiet, mos’ folks said.” A shuffling sound told him that Brownie was working with one of the horses while he talked to Michaela. “He got on right well with Hoss’ mama, though. When I first knew ’im, ’twas b’fore Hoss ’uz born. Her name was Inger, right sweet lady she was. Loved Adam ta death and he was devoted to ’er.”

“What did you do for the wagon train, Brownie?”

“I wuz the scout. … Hand me that-there poultice—I’ll hold it on ’im for a few minutes here an’ he’ll be near-good as new. Be a good girl now an’ holt his head—thank ya. … I spent most o’ m’ days ridin’ ahead, makin’ sure we could get through. Findin’ water. Things like that. But I knew the way; came back ta camp every night. ’Member comin’ in once late uv an afternoon, early evenin’, sun was still up.  Wagons was circled already. Ben ’n’ some of the men wuz all riled—four ’r five o’ the boys had gone missin’, ’n’ Adam wuz one o’ ’em. Miz Inger kept a-tellin’ him ta calm down, Adam didn’t never go doin’ foolish things … but y’know, we was in rough country. Things happened. Ben was scare’t fer ’is boy. Adam an’ the others came back about twilight, turned out they’d been searchin’ fer me.”

Outside the door, Adam’s face relaxed into a smile. It was not a memory he would ever lose.

“I felt jus’ awful. Ever’ one of them boys got a whalin’ from his pappy. An’ Adam got it worse than the others ’cause it was his idea. When I didn’ come back the reg’lar time, he’d got worried. Rounded up a band o’ ’is friends an’ came lookin’ fer me.”

“Uncle Ben shouldn’t have tanned him.”

“Mebbe not. But mebbe so. He could-a been hurt, young lady—ya gotta remember that when yer gallivantin’ aroun’ the wild country. … But after it was all over that night, he crawled outta the wagon an’ come ta talk ta me. Wanted ta be sure I was in good order.”

“What did he say to you? Was he upset because of how mad Uncle Ben had been?”

“Nah … well, mebbe a little. Ya couldn’ tell with him in those days. Can’t tell much now. I’d wager the only one to read ’im real well back then was Miz Inger. Wasn’t that Ben didn’t care fer ’is son—don’ you go gettin’ the wrong idear ’bout that. But he had a lot on ’is shoulders then, an’ you lissen to me, Missee, yer Adam was a right tough one ta figger out. … Anyhow, he comes on ’is own ta see fer ’izself that I wuz fine. I tol’ ’im I was sorry he’d got a whippin’ on my account an’ he sez—I can hear ’im as if it was yesterday—‘Don’t worry, Brown. My pa taught me ta be a man. I can take it.’” The old man chuckled. “You can let go now. Good boy … easy, Soljer.”

“Brownie, what happened to Hoss’ mother?”

There was a long pause and then Brownie mumbled, “Injuns got ’er. Kilt ’er durin’ a raid. Losin’ ’er like near ta kilt Ben ’n’ Adam, too. I wasn’t with the train then—I’d had ta take a party down south, and I didn’ meet up with ’em till some months later. You could tell how broke up they was.”

“Couldn’t they save her, Brownie?”

“I reckon not ’r they woulda. I heared she died right b’fore the boy’s eyes whilst he was holdin’ the baby. It wasn’t nice. That was a bad year—wasn’t nuthin’ nice on the prairie that year. … Nah, lil’ Miss, he weren’t nuthin’ like yer brother. But that’s prob’ly a good thing. Better yer brother ain’t had ta grow up with what Adam had-ta.”


Outside, Adam realized he’d eavesdropped long enough. He didn’t mind Michaela learning about his childhood, but he didn’t want her saddened. He’d lived through it just fine and there was no call to draw attention to its darker aspects.

“So this is where you are,” he said as went through the door.

She looked up, unperturbed as usual. He wondered if she ever lost her composure, and reflected not for the first time that she was far too grown up for her years.

“Yes. I’m asking Brownie all about you when you were young.”

Adam smiled. “We go back a long way, Brownie and I.”

“I’m hoping he has great secrets about you.”

“Well, there yer wrong, Missee. An’ now thet the gran’ gentl’m’n hisself is here, I’ll be goin’ off ta bed. Adam, I left a mud-pack on Rio’s foot, oughta stay on ’nother few minutes. Wud ya care ta take it off fer me when ya leave?”

“I’ll be glad to, Brownie. Get a good night’s sleep.”

The old man shuffled out of the barn and Adam turned to Michaela, who had moved to Conejo’s stall to scratch the gelding’s face.

“Adam … did you have an awful childhood?”

“No. What gave you that idea?”

“Well, it didn’t sound very nice to me—at least, the part Brownie told me.”

“Michaela, it was better than some and worse than others. Brownie wasn’t around for some of the better parts.”

“Was it hard when Hoss’ mother died?”

He leaned against the stall post, looking deceptively relaxed as he hooked his thumb over his belt. “Yes, it was. … You’d have liked her. She was a wonderful person.”

“Brownie said you saw it happen.”

“Yes …” He was meditative for a moment and then finally said, “She and Pa were returning fire during an Indian raid. When she turned to reload, she was hit by an arrow. I was with Hoss, so I was watching.”

“What did you do?”

“There was nothing I could do. Pa held her for a few minutes before she died, and we said good-bye.” Even after all these years, tears tried to cloud his voice, but Adam willed them away for Michaela’s sake. He rubbed his forehead with one hand, his fingers carefully precise over his brow.

“Was it the worst thing that had happened to you?”

“Back then? Yes …” His voice was so quiet and serious that he knew she understood the gravity of his words. “And it’s still probably the worst.”  He folded his arms over his chest. “Have you ever lost anyone?”

“You mean, has anyone died? No … I mean, not a person. Just my puppy.” Her face lost its expression, which on her created a startling specter of emptiness.  “You’re probably thinking she wasn’t much, she was just a dog—”

“No, I’m not, Michaela. A life is a life, if you cared about her.”

“Doyle says she got run over by the coach, but I don’t believe him. I know he and Papa told me that because they didn’t want me to know what really happened.”

“What do you think really happened?”

“I think our neighbor shot her for the fun of it,” she said, her tone turning bitter. “One day I saw him shoot my friend’s cat and laugh about it. I hate him, Adam. I don’t understand why he’d take someone’s life and I don’t understand why it’s any less serious when it’s an animal and not a person. I loved my puppy. And aren’t we all created by the good Lord?”

Adam reached out to touch her shoulder, which had gone stiff with her anger and hurt. She wouldn’t look at him, but he could imagine the impotent rage in her eyes; he turned her away from him and massaged the tense muscles, his long fingers gentle but firm.

“There’re a lot of crazy people and there’s a lot of pain in this world, Michaela. I hoped maybe you had it a little easier where you live, but I guess heartache’s everywhere.”

She nodded and brushed away a sudden rush of tears. “I hated seeing those little calves get branded the other day when Uncle Ben took me out to the herd,” she said. “But I could understand when he told me that if you don’t put your mark on them, no one will know who tends to which cattle.”

“Sometimes pain comes before something good.” He almost added, And sometimes pain is just there. But smart as she was, she was still only ten years old.

“Yes … Were you angry when the Indians killed Hoss’ mama—Miz Inger? I mean, they didn’t have to. Like that man didn’t have to kill my dog. It didn’t have to happen. That’s what I don’t understand.”

Adam turned her around. “Yes. I was furious and hurt … and empty … and sad …” He couldn’t help staring straight into her eyes and her compassion ran through him like a healing balm. “If you want to know the truth, it still hurts. She was Hoss’ mother … but she was my mother, too.”

“Gosh, Adam, I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to—”

“No, I know you didn’t, sweetheart. I just mean to say that losing someone you care about is never easy. … Remember the other day when I said you should grow up a little at a time?”


“That’s because there’s so much ugliness in this world. It’s everywhere; it may be a little more apparent over here, but it goes on in San Francisco, too—people who’ll shoot for all the wrong reasons, people getting hurt, animals getting hurt or killed”—he touched her chin briefly with his fingertips—“and that’s before you start with the unfairness and the cruelty and hatred and all the other terrible things we do to each other. But Mickey … there’s a lot of good in the world, too. Growing up is all about learning to balance the two, and you can’t rush things.”

Michaela swallowed and looked up him, her eyes wide and deep as she considered what he said. “I see the beauty,” she finally said. “That’s one thing I like about being here. It’s so all around me—how can I not feel blessed? And the good—look at how good you are to me. That counts for something, doesn’t it? Among all the bad things?”


Chapter Six

DAWN was just breaking when Ben descended the stairway to the great room. He went to the kitchen and made his own coffee, careful not to disturb Hop Sing’s cookware, and then carried the pot to his desk. He needed to get a letter off to Jim Nye about yesterday’s gunshots.

But his hand hesitated over the paper. ‘Dear Jim, you were only too right in your warning. I’d no more than received your letter than the guns went off.’ Or maybe, ‘How right you were! Someone tried to kill not only me, but two of my guests as well, only hours after I got your note.’ He grunted impatiently and sat back in the chair. It wasn’t the shooting itself that was causing him to hesitate—in the thirty-some years since he’d left Boston, he’d seen plenty of violence, much of it more senseless than what had happened at the overlook.

But yesterday, with a woman and child involved, served to make him reexamine his position on the issue of statehood. Had he really thought it through? Was he sure he was doing the right thing? He chewed the end of his pen. Why was he so all-fired in favor of statehood that he was willing to risk his life over it?

Because, he realized finally with a conviction that ran deeper than he could control, in his opinion there was no honor in the world like being an American. Perhaps as yet the rest of the globe did not agree; he could remember the curious stares at some of the ports on the north coast of Africa (“Americans? Oh, the land of Commodore Decatur, yes?”) or the thinly-veiled contempt of some Europeans. But engage them in a conversation about rights, about the inalienable rights of the common American, and you could bring them all to their knees. There was no other country like this one.

However, he was an American by birth … what would change if Nevada became a state, rather than a territory? Perhaps not a great deal at first, he admitted to himself. But historically, areas which became states prospered. The way that their citizens lived improved, cities and towns were able to offer more services, more rule of law, more and better schools. He wanted that for Nevada—he wanted it for the children that Hoss, Adam and Joe would raise, and for their children’s children. He wanted a better future for his home and for his family.

His home. His family. His future? What did his future entail? Strange how that word kept coming up … Julia had said it should include a woman. And she’d said he should start thinking of himself.

Ben stood up and walked to the door, out into the cool, pine-scented yard. Last fall he and Lily had talked about learning to consider one’s self … Damn it, did everything always lead back to Lily? In the silent morning, his stomach churned and far deep down, just at the edge of his consciousness, he acknowledged how much he longed to talk to her … to share his thoughts with her, to hear her opinions.

And, he admitted to himself, it wasn’t just her calm counsel he desired. He had a man’s needs as well. Over the years since Marie’s death, the thought of having a woman on the Ponderosa permanently had rarely been a priority; now, with Lily here, it played havoc with his mind. His fists clenched involuntarily … just the mention of her engaged his mind, his body, his emotions, whether he wanted it to or not. And it does no good, he argued to himself. Lily would never be more than just a friend.

But his memory spun backwards, to the day before and the day before that. To carrying her across the yard … to the feel of her stretched beside him on the forest floor. In the heat of the shooting incident, he’d paid no attention to the fact that he was covering her with his own body; his only thought had been to keep her safe. But now, home and out of danger, he recalled her in graphic detail. He gripped the rough wooden post by the planter; he could feel her, every delightful, responsive curve of her.

He massaged his forehead, ran a hand though his hair, shoved that hand into his pocket. He wanted so badly to keep her at arm’s distance—and yet he didn’t, really. He didn’t know what he wanted.



Adam swore under his breath as the metal ring slipped out of place on the spout of the pump and cold water sprayed across his chest and face. I’m going to rip this thing right out of the drainboard, he vowed.

“Um … are you sure you’re doing that right?” a voice came from the doorway and he cleared his eyes to behold Lily, her lips twitching with amusement. Dressed in an olive skirt and white shirtwaist, she looked impossibly immaculate and bright.

“On the contrary, I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it right!” he growled, but smiled. He grabbed a towel to wipe his hands and face. “Hop Sing’s in the garden. I’ll get him to fix you something to eat.”

“Don’t you dare! I’m perfectly capable of making tea and toast—particularly when I can’t be bothered to get up with the rest of the family!” She set the kettle on the stove and waved at a dozen large glass jars of some sort of fruit preserve on the table in the corner. Another two dozen lined shelves next to the pantry. “What’s all of this?”

“That’s what we’d all like to know. It’s Joe’s and Hoss’ project. And since their projects have a reliable history of backfiring, I’d suggest you tread carefully near that one.” Adam studied the pump’s new spout and its fittings, and finally lay them on the counter and turned around to face her. “Lily …”


“How are you? I mean … how’s it going?”

She stopped. “Where do you keep the tea? Ah, thank you. It’s going fine, Adam, I guess.” She spooned the loose tea leaves into a porcelain pot. “I’m fine … I guess.”

“That’s a lot of guessing.”

“All that I’m not sure about is how he feels.” She offered a tentative smile and then her words tumbled out in a rush. “Sometimes we get on as if nothing’s changed since last fall. And then—I think he’s just being nice and because we get along doesn’t mean that he cares for me. We got on very well before we ever—” She threw up her hands and sighed dramatically.

Adam’s eyes glinted. He had seen Lily in many moods now, but he’d never seen her quite like this. He wondered if this were a sort of woman-to-woman thing, as if she’d momentarily forgotten that he wasn’t Julia or whomever she usually confided in. She wasn’t likely to speak indiscriminately of her feelings about his father; under the circumstances, he was probably the only one to whom she could turn.

“Lily, have you really given this the proper thought?” he felt constrained to ask. “You know things are pretty different here. Yesterday you got shot at.”

“I know. That was over the statehood issue, wasn’t it?”

He tried to hide his surprise. “What makes you think that?”

“Ben told me about the letter from the governor—that the opposition to statehood is more about money than philosophy.” She looked him in the eye. “You know people can get violent over things like money and what they believe in.”

“We don’t really know—”

“No, I’m sure you don’t. But to answer your question, what difference was yesterday supposed to make?”

“You could have been hurt.”

“I could be hurt on the street in San Francisco … or in the country when I go riding there. Or I could have fallen overboard when I sailed with my husband.  Or been hit or knifed or shot by an irate customer—”

“All right, I get your point. But Lily … our life here is a good deal different from what you’re used to. Don’t you owe it to yourself and to Pa to really think about that?”

The tea kettle whistled and Lily took the opportunity to organize her thoughts while she filled the pot. Adam got cups and saucers from the sideboard and waited for her answer.

“I have thought about it,” she finally said. “I’m not quite sure how you think I live in San Francisco. It’s rather elegant now, but it wasn’t always that way. And truthfully, it’s not something that’s necessary to my happiness.”


“No, Adam, let me finish. I’m not being blind about it—if you lived in a tent in the desert, then perhaps I’d say that’s not for me. I hate deserts. But all this”—she waved her arms to encompass the kitchen, the house, perhaps the ranch and the entire Sierra range—“is hardly an outpost on the frontier! And you see—I’m not sure you know this—five of the happiest years of my life were spent with Howard in a small cabin aboard the Gazelle—”

The Gazelle?”

Lily smiled. “I’d forgotten that you went to school in Boston. I see you recognize her—”

“Of course. She was one of the fastest ships ever—one of Donald McKay’s first designs.”

“Yes. He and Howard were wonderful friends.”

Adam’s mind was racing, pursuing a bit of information that seemed just beyond his reach. Donald McKay, of East Boston. America’s premier ship builder. How often had his grandfather muttered enviously that if only McKay had been designing clippers when he and Ben were on the seas …? “Your husband—”

“It was considered quite unusual that a captain of his standing would leave the sea as he did,” she said. “He did it because he wanted something better for us. He was an incredible man.”

The missing piece of the puzzle fell into place. “Captain Mercer was in Boston in 1849, wasn’t he?”

“Let’s see … we quit the sea in ’47 to open The Emporium—yes, two years later, Howard went back east on a buying trip. How did you know that?”

“My grandfather, Abel Stoddard, introduced us.”

“Captain Stoddard! Captain Stoddard was your grandfather? Your mother’s father?”


Lily’s breath came quickly. “I knew Captain Stoddard,” she said. “We were in Boston several times while we were still sailing. Howard thought so highly of him—they were old friends.”

Adam nodded, his heart beginning to pound as for a second the past seemed only a hair’s breadth from the present. He remembered clearly the tall, patrician man with the salt-and-pepper hair and the regal bearing. Captain Howard Mercer had been considerably older than Lily, practically a maritime legend. He wondered if his father had ever made the connection and then remembered that Ben had been gone from New England, crossing the country, during much of time the captain had made his name. He found himself suddenly looking at her with new regard.

She looked back at him with a gleam in her eye. “Adam, my husband was a very accomplished man. That doesn’t make me any different from whatever you’ve always  thought of me.”

His gaze didn’t waver. “No, it doesn’t. But it confirms the opinion I had—have.”

In the silence which followed, Lily’s eyes brimmed with tears. When she could speak, she said carefully, “Well, if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s not where you are that’s important—it’s who you’re with. I was so unbelievably fortunate to have Howard. Everyone thought he’d lost his mind when he married me; he was twenty-four years older than I and quite celebrated, and I was just a planter’s daughter from down south. … But we proved them wrong. He taught me a great deal about living, about everything important.” She brushed at the tears and Adam fished in his pocket for a handkerchief.

“I never—Adam, I never guessed that I would find love again.” She dabbed at her eyes. “No one could possibly be that lucky … perhaps that’s why I didn’t see it coming with Ben. And then … now … well, you know your father. He takes second to no man.”

Adam’s smile bloomed slowly, warming his face and invading his eyes. “Lily, that’s a very fine thing to say.”

Lily sniffed deeply, ordered her features and dried her cheeks. “Now—please—I have to get my composure. I look awful when I cry.” She gulped a sip of tea and adopted a brisk tone. “To answer your original question: The difference in how we live is simply not important.”



Ben tucked the bank receipt in his shirt pocket and stepped out on to the sidewalk. The buckboard, packed and covered with a tarp, pulled to a stop in front of him as Brownie spat extravagantly into the dust. He hid a smile and climbed up beside the old man—and then lost his sense of  humor. Half a block down, on the sidewalk, he could see Hec McWhirter standing in front of The Advocate office. Dressed in a dusty frock coat, the man lifted a cigar to his mouth and puffed absently, his eyes cold as he watched the wagon drive by. Ben reflected that he looked so much like a villain in one of those melodramas at the new opera house that his underhanded purposes ought to be apparent to everyone.

“That Mr. McWhirter wuz jawin’ ’bout ya,” Brownie said when they’d passed.

“Oh, yes? What was he saying?”

“Nothin’ good. He ’uz in the general store, goin’ on ’bout how ya had some agreement with the gover’ment, that if we become a state, ya’ll be gettin’ a lot o’ money.”

Ben snorted disgustedly. “And just why did Mr. McWhirter think the government would be giving me any money?”

“You an’ the gov’nor. He didn’ say.”

“Was anyone listening?”

“Couple o’ drovers as didn’ have any better sense. Alf Daily wasn’ goin’ along with it—he tol’ McWhirter ta take his filthy lies an’ leave, but those two fellers followed ’im out. They was talkin’ on the sidewalk.”

Ben gripped the old man’s shoulder briefly. “Thanks for telling me.”

“That wasn’t all he wuz sayin’. He wuz rantin’ on ’bout how somebody oughta take care o’ ya. That folks like you shouldn’t be gettin’ away with whatever he thought ya was doin’. You an’ anybody around ya. Sounded like a threat ta me.”


By the time Ben arrived home, it was time for lunch—a quiet affair, as Julia and Michaela were spending the day with Eleanor at the new house. Hop Sing served up a working man’s meal of fried chicken with potatoes and vegetables, followed by a custard so flavorful that Hoss accounted for three helpings. Ben, noticing that Lily was pushing the food around her plate rather than eating it, inquired if she were feeling well.

“Oh, perfectly fine, thank you,” she replied and added what only Adam recognized as a bare-faced lie, “I had a late breakfast.”

“As long as you’re not getting sick,” Ben said. “If you got overheated yesterday—”

“No, no, everything is fine.”

“Pa, what were you saying about the fence line down by Gallagher’s Creek?” Adam interjected.

“Brownie told me one of the boys thought it was down this morning—but the whole crew is out with Tom, so one of us is going to have to go down and check it. In fact”—he waved his spoon at Hoss and Joe—“why don’t you two go? If it’s down, you can get it fixed quickly enough.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

Just then there was a loud report, following by another pop and a torrent of irate Cantonese. Then it sounded as if the kitchen was blowing up, explosion following on explosion to the cymbal-like accompaniment of crashing glass. Hop Sing burst from the service hall like a cork out of a champagne bottle; from his cheek dripped a pale orange blob, which happened to match a new abstract design on his light blue outfit. He was shrieking.

“What in the world is going on?” Ben thundered, rising so fast his chair almost toppled over.

“Es-plo-shun like dyn’mite! Fi-ah wohks wee’out light! Wee’out beauty!”

Suddenly there was stillness.

“Who’s been in the kitchen this morning?” Ben demanded, his face a study in suspicion. “I’d be willing to bet that whatever’s happening is not the result of Hop Sing’s cooking.”

“I made tea,” Lily replied weakly. “I’m so sorry if—”

“That wouldn’t make any trouble—although I’d like to know why you had to make your own tea!”

“I wanted to—”

“I fixed the pump,” Adam interrupted. “But unless it’s come apart …”

“Well, then, let’s just go and see exactly what’s happening,” Ben snapped.

What had happened was apparent: Nearly three dozen glass jars of Hoss and Joe’s dessert had burst and the very messy remains were everywhere. Almost on cue, four more containers exploded wildly, scattering everyone in different directions. As if bullets had been fired, Ben bent double and pushed Hop Sing under the table; Hoss leaped behind the pantry door and Joe behind a cabinet. Adam jumped like a startled horse and slammed into Hoss. Then just when it appeared that the devastation was complete, there was a final, thudding pop as the last jar erupted, sending pieces of glass everywhere and splattering the kitchen with another broadside of fruit pulp.

Lily, in the doorway, burst into laughter. Her mirth was all Joe needed. In a moment, he was propped against the cabinet, emitting a high-pitched whoop and hugging his sides. Hoss chuckled and then rumbled a deep belly-laugh. Even Adam’s eyes glinted with humor and he tried hard to keep his lips from curving up in a grin, having determined that his safety was better served by discretion. Hop Sing continued to rant in his native language, and Ben, irrationally, turned an accusatory glare on Lily.

“You!” he bellowed. “You’re just as bad as they are!”

For some reason she found that funny, too, and even as she tried to freeze the smile off her face, she was wiping tears out of her eyes. “Oh, don’t make so much out of it!” she responded. “It’s only a little accident, after all!”

Perceiving an ally, Joe straightened and hiccupped in his effort to suppress his laughter. “Yeah, Pa. I mean, we’ll clean it up.”

“You’re entirely right about that, young man! You and your brother will clean it up! And Hop Sing, stop that yowling! You’re not to lift a hand. You didn’t create this chaos, and you will not help these two—these two—”

“Scientists,” Lily supplied.

“Scientists?” Ben rounded on her, astonished. He mastered his temper, although his voice descended several notes. “Exactly why—would you—call them—that?”

“Why, they’ve just created a perfect example of fermentation. Haven’t they, Adam?”

Adam glared at her furiously. The last thing he wanted was to be dragged into this catastrophe. “Ah—yes. Actually, Lily has a point.”

Ben’s voice was determinedly modulated. “Fermentation?”

Lily was so businesslike that the sizzling anger in the air faded momentarily. “Yes. It’s just too bad they weren’t using—what are the ingredients of bourbon whiskey, Adam? I’m not fully familiar with the process—I’m sure you can explain it—but that’s what happened here.”

A quick glance at Hoss and Joe let Adam know that his brothers were spellbound with the rapid turn of events; their father had been rendered nearly speechless in the middle of a tirade. “Ah … well  … when you’re making bourbon, you cook corn and rye and barley, which breaks the starches down into sugar. Then you let it cool and add yeast—”

“Adam …” Ben’s voice was menacing.

“Well, that’s where the fermentation comes in, y’see,” he continued, warming to his topic. “The sugars turn into alcohol. I think that’s the similarity Lily’s citing. In this case, of course, you were using fruit instead of grain, so you were starting out with a lot of natural sugar, and the yeast was formed under the compression of the jars, so that sort of helped things along—”


“Yeah, Pa, I’m almost finished. If you were making bourbon, you’d distill the whole mess, which, essentially, would make it safe. But since you weren’t making alcohol—at least, not intentionally—it wasn’t distilled, and the gases that are a by-product of fermentation just kept building up … and, uh … well … you know … they exploded.”

Hoss squinted industriously as he tried to follow his brother’s disjointed explanation.

“So you see,” Lily said brightly. “It was just a little accident.” She regarded Hoss and Joe, her eyes sparkling. “Perhaps you boys should read up on the process before you try it next time.”

“There’ll be no next time!” Ben roared, destroying the fragile cease-fire. “Now, because you two are going to be occupied this afternoon, Adam will ride down to Gallagher’s Creek with me to check out that fence line. When we return, this kitchen had better be so clean we could eat dinner off the floor!”

“You got it, Pa. This kitchen’ll be so clean you won’t recognize it,” Joe assured him. “Hoss, get a bucket of water and I’ll get some rags. We’ll be done in no time.”

“Oooooh, no,” Lily interjected gently. “Not unless you mean to heat that water.”

“Heat it? Why?”

Lily was bubbling with laughter again. “Because unless you use hot water—and soap and brushes, not rags—you won’t get this mess up. Why, Hop Sing’ll stick to the floor!”

Caught off-guard, Adam snickered and nearly strangled trying to stifle it.

Lily ignored him. “So, Hoss, get the water, but put it on the fire. And Joe—find a few stiff brushes, will you? And some soap?” She was rolling up the sleeves of her blouse. Clearly, she intended to help.

Just anticipating the wrath of his father at the prospect of a guest cleaning the kitchen, Joe paled and his jaw didn’t seem to function correctly. “Ma’am … Lily—you’re a guest, you can’t help us. I mean, thank you—”

“Joe,” she replied patiently, “I’m getting used to Hop Sing’s cooking, and I’d very much like to enjoy it tonight. I’m not some china doll that gets broken with use. Now, shut your mouth, dear, and help me.”

Avoiding his father’s eyes, Joe scurried around the kitchen table, as Hoss grabbed a bucket and headed for the door. Ben exhaled a long, angry breath in the silence that was left behind them.

“Lily, you may buffalo my sons, but the fact remains that you are a guest here.”

“Oh, Ben, for heaven’s sake! Just blink your eyes and pretend you’re not seeing me! If ever a situation called for a woman’s touch, this is it.”

“But Lily—”

“My dear, I may have servants at home, but if you think I’ve never cleaned up a mess—good heavens, if you think I’ve never made one!—you’re quite wrong.” She threw him a cocky smile. “Actually, I think this might be rather fun. Why, my cook won’t even let me in my kitchen!”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“Yes.” Her eyes twinkled. “Rather well, too, don’t you think?”

Against his will, Ben allowed the shadow of a grin and shook his head. “All right. All right—” His voice began to rise again.

“Now go on, get out of here. I thought you and Adam had a fence line to check!” She shooed at them.

He directed a quick glare at her, but withdrew. Adam remained for a moment, his eyes resting on Lily. She met his gaze, decidedly pleased with herself.

His jaw set to keep from laughing, Adam extended one finger, lifted Hop Sing’s white apron off a peg, and with an exaggerated nod of tribute offered it to Lily. She giggled as she received it and swatted at him as he passed her on the way to join his father.

Hoss, in the doorway with a bucket of water, whistled under his breath. “Don’t that beat all?”

Joe, who had paused at the entrance to the pantry, looked stunned. “Did I just see what I … nah, I couldn’t o’ seen what I …”

Lily turned to regard them both. “And exactly what is it that got your attention?”

“Oh, well, ma’am …” Joe’s voice died away.

“We was just admirin’ your work, ma’am,” Hoss said.

“I take it you don’t often cross your father.”

“No, ma’am,” they chorused.

“Well, that’s probably a good thing, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am.”

“On the other hand, blowing up—pardon the pun—over a simple kitchen accident wasn’t getting us anywhere.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re allowed to say more than ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am.’” Her lips quivered.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Joe finally recovered his equilibrium and grinned. “Well, we sure owe you.”

“Forget it. But tell me, what were you trying to do here?”

“It was a really good dessert,” he replied. “A girl I know over in Carson City showed us how to do it. I just got to thinkin’, y’see, it seemed like if anyone was gonna have somethin’ real special to eat at his wedding, it’d be Hoss Cartwright. Why, folks’d expect it, you know? So … it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Lily swiped up a blob of peach from the counter and licked her finger experimentally. “I’d say you were right. It’s delicious.”

Looking suspicious, Hoss filled a couple of fingers from a large deposit on the table. “Joe, it’s downright wonderful.”

Joe nodded disappointedly. “Not that that does us much good now.”

“How were you making it?” Lily asked.

“Cora—that’s her name—gave me what she called a ‘starting agent,’ some peaches—like this, you know, in some kind of sauce. She said just to add more fruit and sugar, so we ordered peaches and whatever else we could get from over in California, and—and put it all in jars and just let it set.”

Lily nodded understandingly. “I see. And it eventually turns into brandied fruit.”

Joe’s head bobbed. “Yeah. It was gonna be a real treat.”

“It would have been, if only you’d put it in the right jars,” Lily told him. She patted his shoulder. “You needed to either leave the lids loose or put it all in jars with specially-made tops that don’t blow off easily.”

“Now you tell us.” The color suddenly drained from his face. “Oh, no! There’s a bunch o’ real nice girls excited about tryin’ it. I was kinda … lookin’ forward to … well, you know … or … maybe you don’t.”

“I think I get the idea. You know, it’s not impossible to make sort of an imitation of it, if you really want to.”

Joe’s eyes sparked with interest. “Yeah?”

“Yes. It won’t taste quite the same, but it might be close enough to fool those who haven’t had the real thing.”

“But it’s only five days till the wedding and we don’t have any fruit.”

“It is kind of a longshot, but why don’t you check with—who is it that’s such a good cook, the Widow Hensley? The Widow Hensley, and ladies like her that you know. Those who might have fruit compote put up.” Her eyes twinkled. “You buy everything you can get your hands on and then douse it with a good, smooth brandy—no, make that cognac. Very smooth, because you haven’t time to let it set much.”

“Hot diggity! Hoss, we’re in business! Lily—Lily, you’re a genius!” Joe grasped Lily’s face in both hands and bestowed a fervent kiss on her lips. “Thank you!”

“Um … yes, thank you for the vote of confidence.” Lily struggled to keep a straight face. It was her first full dose of the Joe Cartwright charm, and although his style was a good deal different from Ben’s, she had to admit that the impact was very similar. “Now, what do you say we get this cleaned up before it hardens into plaster?”

“Right—yeah, Hoss, you get going on cleaning up. I gotta ride into town—”




At Gallagher’s Creek above the north meadow, Ben reined in Buck to examine the section of damaged fence. The big gelding snorted mightily, his sides heaving.

“I’m glad we found the fence down,” Adam said, stepping off Sport. “The horses need a breather.”

Belatedly, Ben realized that he’d maintained a punishing gallop almost the entire way. “Oh … right.”

He tossed the buckskin’s reins to Adam and grasped the tilted fence, tearing the barbed wire from its fastenings and flinging it aside.

“Ah …” His son’s voice came from over his shoulder. “If you’re needing to work off energy, I’d say you’ve come to the right place. Just try and leave a few pieces of fence for us to work with, will you?”

He stopped abruptly, then nodded briefly and returned to the work with a little more control. But he continued to burn inside. It was several minutes before he admitted to himself that he’d been a little angrier than necessary about the mess in the kitchen … and he knew why. It was one thing for McWhirter to threaten him over statehood, but the thought of Lily or Julia or Michaela suffering for his actions was unacceptable—and ever since Brownie had delivered his news, that thought had refused to go away.

“Pa …” Adam’s voice had grown annoyed. “Look, you’re gonna bust a gut or break a tooth if you don’t lighten up.”

He shot Adam a furious glance. And then he realized that his jaw was aching from his clamping it; with a sigh, he jerked off his necktie, pushed back his hat and mopped his brow. “Yeah.” He unbuttoned his shirt farther and rolled his sleeves back. The late spring sun was intense. “Yeah. … I’m worried about our guests.”

“You know we’ll all be careful—about everything.”

He went back to centering a fence post in its hole. “Yes, I know, son.”

The question he asked himself was how to make them safe. And his mind ran on, Can I make them safe?  He sighed. Last fall, he’d had doubts about who he was, what he was. He certainly had no doubts now, but he did have enough intelligence to know that he was no longer a young man, strong as an ox and fast-as-greased-lightning with a gun. Well, come to that, he’d never been especially fast with a gun.

“Hang on, let me get this wire tight,” Adam muttered.

Without replying, Ben secured the post and held it in place. He watched Adam grit his teeth to pull the barbed wire taut and loop it around the wood. His son’s thin cotton shirt was plastered to his chest with sweat, its sleeves rolled high over the hard-flexed muscles of his upper arms. Beneath the chaps which rode low on Adam’s hips, his legs braced powerfully, his boot heels digging into the soft earth as his nostrils flared and he grunted softly with the effort.

“Got it.” Adam let off pulling, picked up a hammer and secured the wire with a  well-placed nail.

Ben stood away, sighing thoughtfully. Today—well, it had been more than just today—as he’d watched Lily with Adam, he’d realized that she saw his son differently than he did. It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize that Adam was a grown man; he reminded himself of that time and again when his paternal inclination made him think of his sons as boys. It was just that she saw Adam independently—as a man, not a son … and a very capable, impressive man at that, Ben acknowledged.

So right now … he needed to be sure he was the right man to handle the combustible situation in which his work for statehood had landed them—or did it call for a younger man? Did younger mean stronger or smarter? Was that man Adam—or Hoss or Joe, or the three of them? God, he thought disgustedly, he’d never before imagined himself competing with his sons, not over how to manage something and certainly not for a woman.

He pulled up short. Was that what this was all about? Did he think Lily would look to Adam, rather than himself, to deal with a dangerous issue like this? In fact—was it possible that Adam might be interested in Lily, or she in him? Was that why he was doubting his own ability? Ben came to a complete halt, his hands resting on the second fence post. He glanced at his son, waiting for the telltale ripple of recognition that let one man know another was a rival. But it didn’t happen. No … no, and he ought to have known that.

“Ah—are we fixing a fence or appreciating nature?”

Ben came to with a start. Adam’s eyes were amused, but he held another strand of barbed wire, ready to string it into place.

“Working, of course. Sorry. Wool-gathering.”

“What d’ya figure we ought to do about it?”

Ben kicked the post deeper in its hole. “About protecting our guests?”  He looked at his son curiously. Adam’s face was open, frank, man-to-man … offering a wealth of vitality, and certainly intelligence, but deferring to his father. Ben knew well enough that if Adam had an opinion he thought was right, he’d fight to the wall for it, even defy his father. It had happened before and would again. But today it appeared that the eldest Cartwright son was waiting for him to call the shots; Adam’s respect for him was like a force in the spring afternoon, and right at that moment, Ben could have hugged him.

“I’m assuming you want to do something about it,” Adam said a little sharply. “I’ve never yet seen you just lie down and let someone run over you—or anyone you cared about.”

“No … you’re right about that.” He nodded at the barbed wire in Adam’s gloved hand and his son strung it tight. “I figure we start by finding out what we’re up against. How about you ride into town tomorrow and see what you can learn?”

“About McWhirter?”

Ben shook his head. “No. Roy says certain businessmen are starting to speak up in favor of McWhirter. Let’s see if any of them have anything to gain in all this.”

“Who’re we talking about?”

“Al Pennington, Marcus Strasser … Davis Ellington and Matt Harrison.”

Adam nodded. “I’ll get started in the morning.” He found the hammer and nailed the wire down. “Why don’t I take Joe with me? We can cover more ground.”

“That sounds good. I’ll see if I can come up with something to keep everyone busy close to home.”

They stood back from the fence and Adam pulled a handkerchief out of his hip pocket to wipe his face. “That should do it. Head for home?”

“Sounds good to me.” A slow smile curled on Ben’s lips. The solution, he realized, had been to use his assets—and his sons were his greatest assets.

He patted Buck’s neck and climbed into the saddle. Adam checked Sport to let him go by and then turned the chestnut to ride up beside him. For a while they just walked in silence and then Ben commented, “I meant to tell you—I had a good time with Michaela the other day.”

“I’m glad.”

“You won’t believe what she told me. She compared Sport to an opera tenor.”

Adam chuckled. “That’s just like her. And right, too, now that I think of it.”

“You should have heard her explanation. Some story about a tenor Aubrey and Julia had in who sang something with a lot of high C’s.”

Adam’s eyes widened. “‘Ah Mes Amis,’ from The Daughter of the Regiment.

Ben cocked one brow, half in annoyance and half in admiration. “I might have known you’d be familiar with it.”

“I heard it years ago in Boston. It’s kind of hard to forget; it has nine high C’s. … But I wouldn’t expect a ten-year-old to be aware of it.”

“Yes, well … your ten-year-old knows it quite well.”

A little smile played on Adam’s lips. He sent his father a quick, candid glance. “You know, I wouldn’t mind if she were mine.”

Ben sat straighter on Buck, squaring his shoulders, aware of the flood of energy that suddenly ran through him. He answered Adam’s look with a warm gaze. “Son, when the time comes, I know you’ll find that being a father is one of God’s greatest gifts.”


Chapter Seven

IT WASN’T UNTIL after dinner the next night that the issue of statehood and its opposition came up again. Adam and Joe had spent the day in town, each pursuing different lines of inquiry. Over coffee in the great room, after Hoss had gone to visit Eleanor and Michaela had retired to bed, they reported what they’d learned.

“I couldn’t find anything shady about Pennington or Strasser,” Adam said, leaning against the blue chair. His fingers wrapped around his coffee cup, its saucer forgotten on the table. “And apparently the only time they’ve been heard to oppose statehood was one night at the Sazerac when everyone was drunk.”

“So what’s their connection?” Julia asked. “Or is it just a mistake?”

Adam shook his head. “The only connection we could find was that the Blackbird Mine has its account at the Truckee Union and the Pericles at Stockmen’s.”

Ben ruminated. “So Pennington and Strasser are the bankers for Ellington and Harrison. They’re probably just parroting what their clients are telling them, which means we should be taking a long, hard look at Mr. Ellington and Mr. Harrison.”

“That’s what we thought,” Adam replied. “I had a talk with Martin Blake—”

“Why Blake, son?” Ben turned to Julia and Lily. “He’s a local attorney. I wouldn’t think he’d be mixed up this mess.”

“He’s not. I just figured he’d have a sense of whatever business has been going on in town, and he’s in favor of statehood, which is why he didn’t mind answering my questions when I gave him a little background. It turns out he’d represented someone Ellington approached about starting a shipping company, but the deal fell through because Ellington would never specify what kind of cargo they’d be carrying. Blake had the feeling it was all about a fleet of slavers.”

“A blackbirder,” Lily said.

“A what?” Joe blurted. “What’d you say, ma’am?”

“A blackbirder,” Lily repeated. “It’s a seamen’s term for a ship which carries slaves.”

Joe whistled. “Now it makes sense.”

“You mean, because his mine is named the Blackbird?” Ben inquired.

“That … and more,” Joe replied. “I had a talk with Abner Hayes at the registry office. He recalled that back when Ellington entered his claim on the Blackbird, he said he named it that because blackbirds had always been good to him. It stuck in Abner’s mind because it didn’t seem to make sense. So I guess we can figure he has a history of slave-trading.”

Ben whistled through his teeth and stood up to pace in front of the staircase. “I don’t like this a bit,” he said. “It’s one thing that folks are opposed to entering the Union, but that they actively want to spread the evil of slavery to Nevada is even worse.”

“Do you know anything about Ellington?” Lily asked. “Like where he came from? Whether he’s ever been wanted for any crime?”

“If he’s wanted for anything, it’s been so long ago that Roy isn’t aware of it,” Adam answered.

“And as for where he was from, Abner said Mississippi,” Joe added. “Ellington had to sign something when he first entered his claim, and there was something about it there.”

“Mississippi!” Ben said bitterly. “Right in the heart of the South!”

Joe’s face heated. “Pa—”

“Coming from the South isn’t a crime,” Lily said quietly.

Ben snorted impatiently at himself. “I’m sorry—both of you, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that.”

“Of course not,” Lily said, but Joe just looked away.

“Joseph—” Ben began.

“Forget it, Pa. Look, I know you feel how you do. I just don’t want to see anything bad happen to the South. I don’t support slavery, but I don’t support a bunch of Yankees tellin’ everybody down South how to live, either.”

“I can understand that, son,” Ben said. “And there’s something to what you say about some of the Union’s actions.”

“Pa, actually, there’s one more thing we need to tell you,” Adam said. “Joe?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Pa, I saw Hec McWhirter with a guy named Danhoff. He’s some kind of hired gun.”

Ben drew himself up and crossed his arms over his chest. “I see.” He let his eyes roam slowly from face to face in the room. “Well, I’m sure you all know what this means. We must all be very careful. And Julia—if you and Lily feel this is too dangerous, I’ll understand completely if you’d like to go home. In fact, Aubrey might insist upon it and perhaps I should.”

“Absolutely not!” Julia declared. “Are you crazy, Ben Cartwright? Let an unscrupulous slave-trader drive us away from Hoss’ wedding? Not on your life!”


Lily smiled, her eyes warm. “Certainly you don’t have to ask, Ben.”

He nodded his thanks. “All right then … but we will all be especially careful. No one takes unnecessary chances. Is that understood?”



The house was quiet when Adam, unable to sleep, came down the stairs. The ticking of the grandfather clock, like a metronome, was the only sound; by the moon coming in through the window, he could see that it was nearly two o’clock. He continued on to the kitchen.

“What’re you doin’ up?” Hoss’ voice came out of the darkness.

“What? Damn, you scared me.” Adam lit the kerosene wall lamp. “What’re you doing sitting in the dark?”

“I c’n see by the moon. Didn’t wanna wake up the house.” Hoss took in Adam’s nightshirt and dressing gown. “Gettin’ kinda fancy, aren’t ya?”

Adam, who usually slept in less, sent him a disgusted look. “We have guests.”

“Are you two up too?” Joe’s sleepy voice sounded from the doorway.

“I don’t guess nobody can sleep,” Hoss observed.

“Is that the roast beef?” Adam asked, and Hoss pushed the platter across the table. Joe found bread and butter while Adam got plates from the rack.

“Are there any pickles?” Hoss inquired. “Dadburnit, Adam, turn up the light.”

Adam twisted the stem on the lamp and asked dryly, “Which one of us wants to go first? It’s not exactly an accident that we’re all down here in the middle of the night.”

“Shoot,” Hoss snickered. “I thought this was jus’ for old times’ sake. I’m gonna miss it after Ellie and I get hitched.”

Joe kept a straight face. “Don’t worry, Hoss. I think you’ll have better things to do at this time of the night.”

“I don’t doubt it, lil’ brother.” Hoss assembled the largest roast beef sandwich known to man, complete with pickles, and stacked it carefully on a plate. “Got any buttermilk? I’m guessin’, Adam, that you’re worried about those opposition fellas.”

“You’d be guessing right,” Adam replied as he found a bottle of burgundy from dinner and poured a glass.

“Well, that ain’t what’s keepin’ me awake. I figure Pa’s got a handle on that. We’ll be extra careful and we’ll keep an eye on those varmints, and there won’t be no match worth rememberin’.”

“What’s on my mind is Pa,” Joe said.

“Mine, too,” Hoss agreed.

Adam’s glass halted halfway to his mouth. “Pa? What’s that all about?”

Joe deposited a sandwich on Adam’s plate and one on his own, and then inclined his head toward the great room. They carried their food and drinks to the coffee table and Hoss stirred up a fire to fight the chill. “Jus’ keep your voices down,” he said. “I don’t want Pa wakin’ up and comin’ down here ’n’ findin’ us.”

“Well, what’s on your mind?” Adam asked irritably.

“I wanna know why Pa’s been behavin’ so strange,” Hoss said around a mouthful of beef.

“What makes you think he has?”

Joe smirked. “The fact that you just asked us two questions, rather than say he hasn’t. Now, Adam”—he waved a hand at his brother’s testy expression—“you’d have to be deaf and blind not to wonder why he isn’t interested in Lily Mercer.”

Adam nearly spit his wine across the table, even as he realized that this had to come up sometime. He played for time. “Are you crazy?”

Joe shook his head. “Think about it, older brother. Our Pa doesn’t usually miss a pretty woman, and sure not a pretty woman who’s nice and smart and—well, you know.”

“Joe, I’d guess he just has a lot on his mind at the moment.”

“He ain’t got that much on his mind, Adam.” Hoss’ voice was quiet and definite. “Somethin’ happen last fall in San Francisco you ain’t told us about?”

“What’d you mean?”

“See, Joe? You always know when Adam won’t answer a question that he’s hidin’ somethin’.” He turned back to his older brother. “Did somethin’ happen between Pa and Lily Mercer?”

“Hoss, how would I know? Pa doesn’t consult me about women.”

Hoss shook his head mournfully. “More questions, Joe.”

Joe took a long drink of water. “Well, try answerin’ this, brother. Are you the reason Pa isn’t interested in Lily?”


“Keep your voice down!”

“Well, what have I got to do with it?”

“You spend a lot of time with her. You two are awful good friends. You got an interest there yourself, older brother?”

“For heaven’s sake, Joe, she’s ten years older than I am—not that that would matter if there were anything between us, but there isn’t.”

“You sure ’bout that?” Hoss persisted.

Adam set down his sandwich. “Look … Lily’s an extraordinary woman,” he said slowly. “I won’t argue with you there.” His hesitancy at discussing serious personal feelings told his brothers more than his words.


“And I’m honored to be a friend of hers.”

“But you ain’t in love with her?”

“No, I’m not in love with her.” Adam had regained his composure. His lips curled in a crooked smile. “And she’s not in love with me.”

“Does Pa know that?”

“I can’t see where it makes any difference,” he replied, hiding a sinking feeling.  Surely his father knew that he and Lily were just friends.

“Yeah, well …” Joe polished off the last of his sandwich. “That still brings us back to why doesn’t Pa like Lily?”

“Who says he doesn’t?” Adam returned. “He seems to like her just fine.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Joe, this may come as a surprise to you, but not every relationship between a man and a woman has to be a romance.”

Joe stared at his brother and an exaggerated grin spread over his face. “Nah, really?”

Adam was spared further argument by a sound from the stairway. Michaela stood on the landing, dressed in her nightclothes. “What’s the matter?” he asked gratefully. “Can’t sleep?”

“No,” she replied and came down the steps. “I’m sorry. I tried.” She looked hopefully at his plate.

“Go get yourself a glass of milk and you can have the other half of my sandwich,” he told her.

“You gotta grow some, Mickey,” Hoss said when she returned. “Hones’ ta Pete, you’re the tiniest critter I ever did know. You sure didn’ get that from your pa.”

When she’d accounted for half of Adam’s sandwich and looked capable of consuming more, Hoss rustled up a plate of cookies from the kitchen and helped her eat them.

Then Michaela’s eyes traveled from one to the other of the brothers and she said in a hesitant voice, “I wouldn’t have come down if I’d thought I would stop your conversation.”

“You didn’t,” Joe assured her hurriedly.

She shook her head and stood up, but before she could step away, Adam’s hand slipped around her waist. “Come here,” he said. At his touch, she relaxed and climbed into his lap, and when he leaned back, she curled up against his chest. “Whatever you hear goes no further, right?”

“Right,” she murmured.

“We’re trying to figure out whether Pa and Lily would be—ah—suited to each other.”

She smiled up at him. “They’d be the best.”

Hoss chuckled. “Well now, ya know, that’s what we think, Mickey. But what makes you think it? You know Miz Lily a good bit better than we do.”

Michaela frowned in concentration. “They just seem to go together. And Lily thinks he’s pretty special.”

Hoss’ eyes widened. “Are you sure about that?”

She met his gaze seriously. “I don’t know for sure. I mean, Lily’s never said anything. It’s just the way she looks at him sometimes when she thinks no one’s watching.”

“An’ how does he look at her?” Joe asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I haven’t been able to catch him. But I’ll let you know if I see anything.” Her matter-of-fact approach was disarming.

“Well … thanks, Michaela,” Joe said. “That’d be right helpful.” He sighed. “And God knows you’ll see more than we will. He’s not about to let anything slip around us.”

“He sure was upset,” Michaela said unexpectedly, “when we were shot at.”

“Of course he was,” Adam replied. “You were in danger.”

“I know. But he was more upset for Lily.” She sat up, propping herself on Adam’s chest. “I don’t mind—it’s not like he wasn’t worried for me, too. But I’d forgot. He almost got up, right there in the middle of the woods, after we’d hidden behind some bushes. I think it was because he wasn’t sure she was safe.” She settled back against his shoulder. “I’m not absolutely positive. I was a little scared. But I could see his face clearly and he was … well, you know …”

Joe and Hoss exchanged excited glances.

“Adam, this isn’t betraying Uncle Ben and Lily, is it?” Michaela asked. “I mean, it’s only what I think. I could be wrong. I don’t want to gossip—I just want them to be happy.”

Adam’s hand stroked her shoulder, his fingers curling gently around her small bones.  “No, sweetheart, it’s not betraying Lily and Pa, and we all care about them. It doesn’t hurt to want them to be happy.”

“Good …” She subsided against him, drowsily tracing a pattern on the lapel of his dark robe. In the tranquil warmth of the room, it wasn’t long before her eyes closed and her breathing became measured and even.

“What d’ya think? Mickey’s on to something?” Joe asked in a low voice.

“She’s a good little observer,” Adam conceded.

“Well, I hope she’s right,” Hoss said. “It’d be nice for Pa ta … y’know, do whatever he wants ta do.”

“One thing I do know.” Adam’s voice was wry. “I hope he’s not standing at the head of the stairs, because if he hears us going on about this, we’ll never live it down.”

“Well, brother, you know, sometimes a man needs a little help,” Joe said. “This may be one of those times.”

“Right … like that other time we thought we should have a say in Pa’s love life.”

“When was that, older brother?” Hoss asked innocently.

“Does the name Adah Mencken ring a bell?”

“Oh.” Joe swallowed nervously. “Well … it’s not like Pa doesn’t know how to handle himself with women.”

Hoss stood up. “Well, one thing’s fer sure, and that’s that we’re not gonna solve the problems o’ the world tonight.” He gathered up the dishes and glasses and lumbered off toward the kitchen.

As soon as he was out of the room, Joe addressed Adam. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of him with his wedding coming an’ all, but don’t you think we should be doin’ more about McWhirter and his hired gun? I don’t like just sitting around and waiting.”

Adam shrugged. “You and I might ride into town now and then and keep an eye on them ourselves.”

“That’s what I thought.” A muffled “Dagnabit!” let them know Hoss was returning. “Let’s figure it out in the morning.”

 Nibbling on one last cookie, their brother crossed the room to stop in front of Adam’s chair, his eyes twinkling as he regarded the sleeping girl. “I swear, older brother, you’re ’bout the luckiest son-of-a-gun I know. I can’t wait for that to happen to me, and here you are, you got it and you didn’t even have ta go out and get married.”

Adam rose with Michaela in his arms. “You know, I’d really like to tell you that it’s a talent.” His expression was as unguarded as his brothers had ever seen it. “But the truth is, I’m just … very fortunate. Good night, gentlemen.”



In the seclusion of the kitchen after breakfast, Adam and Joe drew straws to see who’d ride into town first—but it proved a complicated procedure as each knew the other’s tricks for selecting a long straw. After three abortive attempts, Adam gave up and agreed to spend the day in Virginia City. Joe was not above rubbing his freedom in and announced that he’d invite Lily to go riding with him.

“Just be careful and don’t go trying to matchmake,” Adam cautioned.

 Joe’s eyes shone mischievously. “You can rest easy, brother. I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do.”

For her part, Lily was delighted to spend the afternoon with the youngest Cartwright. They rode side by side in a direction Adam hadn’t yet taken her and had discussed all manner of topics when Joe inquired how she’d come to spend so much time in New York.

“My mother’s sister married a New Englander,” she replied. “So from the time I was twelve, I went to visit my cousins often. But don’t confuse me with a Yankee—with the exception of the slavery issue, I’m very true to my southern roots.”

He looked away. “I don’t hold with slavery, and I’ve never been to my mother’s home; she was from New Orleans. But I feel her roots as if they were born in me.”

“New Orleans is a lovely city, Joe. You must go sometime.”

“You’ve been there?”

“When I sailed with my husband, we called there occasionally.”

Joe wiped the sweat off his brow and set his hat back on his head. “Seems funny—a nice southern girl married to a Yankee sailor.”

Lily beheld him teasingly. “Now, Joe. I’d have figured you to be the first one to know the value of doing the unexpected.”

His eyes lit in response.

“I met Howard when I was visiting in New York,” she explained. “He’d been on the trans-Atlantic route for Grinnell, Minturn and had suffered an injury.” Her tone altered. “By the time he’d recovered, we were in love. I lived there the first year and then he began taking me with him. That was unheard of, but it was wonderful.”

“I hear Savannah’s real pretty. Didn’t you miss it?”

She shook her head. “No. Married to Howard, I didn’t miss anything. But Savannah is a pretty city. Do go and see it someday; it’s a bit like your New Orleans.”

Joe betrayed a little grin. “I’m afraid I’ll be a little prejudiced.”

“You have a right. … What was your mother like?”

He gazed off. “I guess you’d have to ask Pa or Adam if you want a real description. She died right before I turned five. But to me, she was the kindest, most beautiful … sweetest …” He threw her a sheepish glance. “I know, all kids say that. But it’s true.”

She smiled back, straight into his eyes. “I believe your father says the same thing. Plus, she was ‘tempestuous’—I believe that was his word. She sounded very entertaining.”

Her words resonated with laughter and Joe found himself smiling in response. “Yeah, even I remember that. They had some humdinger fights. Not really fights, you know. Just—”

“I know. … And she probably always won.”

His voice was affectionate. “Most of the time.” He pointed out a beautiful view through the trees and when they had resumed the trail, turned the topic back to her. “How’d you happen to quit the sea? Adam also said you owned The Emporium in San Francisco.”

“Howard said sailing was no way to conduct a marriage.” Her voice was resolutely bright. “We’d gone with the White Diamond Line, out of Boston; he headed their California fleet, so we were chasing back and forth around Cape Horn. Once again, he was thinking in terms of my future.”

“Boston? Pa sailed from Boston … but I guess by that time, he an’ Adam had started west.”

“Yes. Howard and I married in 1841; your father was pretty far west by then.” Her eyes gleamed. “I’m sure you’ll find this surprising, but I actually knew Adam’s grandfather. Captain Stoddard was an old friend of Howard’s and he became very dear to me.”

“Yeah? Did he ever mention Adam and Pa?”

“Oh, yes, but I suppose I didn’t register the last name of ‘Cartwright.’ He was very proud of his grandson and so hopeful that Adam would come east for school.”

“And he did. I always envied Adam that. Not the school, you understand”—his eyes glinted impishly—“but the chance to know his grandfather. I’d like to have known mine.”

They rode for several minutes before Joe spoke again. “Y’know, I never saw Pa as a seaman—not even in my imagination—until one day when I was a kid. I must have been twelve or thirteen, I don’t know … he came home with a newspaper. All the way from St. Louis it was—I don’t know where he got it. But it had a story in it about some ship that had set a record from someplace in Australia to England, or something like that. He read it to me … and his face was all lit up, he was so excited.” His voice had gone so low that Lily almost couldn’t hear him. “For a second, I felt like I was lookin’ at someone I hardly knew and then I realized it was my Pa. I could see then how he’d loved the sea.”

“He’s the only man I ever knew besides Howard who could love the sea—really love it, as a seaman—and yet do something else and love it as much. That’s very unusual, you know.”

“Well, Pa’s one of a kind.” He couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. “Sounds like Howard was, too.”

“That he was,” Lily answered and sent him a smile. “That ship Ben read to you about was Lightning. She was built by Donald McKay, and she holds the record for a day’s travel—436 nautical miles. She also sailed from Melbourne to Liverpool in sixty-four days, another honor that’s hers alone. The last ship Howard commanded was the Gazelle … Donald’s prototype for Lightning.”

“You’re kiddin’.” Joe looked away, but Lily could see his face. He was so beautifully handsome, she thought, and his emotions showed clearly on his tanned features. Right now, he looked very young indeed. “Y’know sometimes, talking to you, it’s like … like it was that day with Pa. Like lookin’ at another world.”

“It’s all one world … but one of these days, Joe Cartwright, you might see some other parts of it. When you’re ready.”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged and his voice turned husky. “I don’t know a lot other than ranching …out here, out west … I’m not like Adam. I don’t just take off and go.”

“Would you like to?” she asked frankly.

“I don’t know.” He shifted in his saddle. “I might have said maybe not, but lately, what with Hoss gettin’ married … I don’t know.”

“You’re going to miss Hoss, aren’t you?”

“It’s not like he’s really moving away or anything—he’ll be right down the road—but it’ll be different. Yeah, I’ll miss him.” His glance was candid. “He’s my best friend.”

“I like Hoss.”

“What’s not to like about him? He’s the best … Don’t get me wrong—Adam’s the best, too. But he’s always been different. He’s a lot like Pa in some ways.”

Lily laughed. “I think one father is quite enough!”

“You can say that again. Adam’s all right, though, or he would be if he’d ever get it through his thick head that I’m not a kid anymore. He still forgets sometimes.” He smiled at her. “I might fight with him—somebody’s got to—but nobody else’d better.”

“Maybe when it’s just you and Adam at home, you’ll understand each other better.”

He checked Cochise at the top of a rise. “Truth is, I’d be more like him in some ways if I could. But I’m just not made like that—I don’t think the way he does.” He arched an eyebrow at her, for an instant so like his father that her breath caught in her throat. “And you know what? If you tell him I said that, I’ll lie and say I didn’t.”

Lily shook her head. “And exactly how would you be like him? I rather like the differences in your personalities.”

“Well, that’s nice of you! And may I say, it shows real good taste.” He grinned. “But whenever I get in a fix, first thing I think about is what Pa would do—but there’re a heck of a lot of fixes that Pa just wouldn’t get into. Brother Adam, now—Adam doesn’t get in many fixes, but he gets his share. And he can think his way out of nearly anything, so I try to figure out what he’d do.”

“And what would Hoss do?”

Joe snickered. “He’d sit there like I would and try to figure out what Adam or Pa would do.” He sobered. “Hoss might call me ‘little brother,’ but he doesn’t treat me like one. He treats me equal.”

“Joe, you’re wonderful,” Lily said impulsively. “I think Hoss and Adam are the two luckiest brothers in the whole world.”

“Even if I haven’t been everywhere and done everything?” he teased.

“Oh, heavens! You only do that if you want to! And if you decide you do want to do that someday, you make use of that brother who has been everywhere!” She laughed. “Or look me up, wherever I am, and I’ll be glad to send you in a thousand different directions—all of them including New Orleans!”

Joe smiled so charmingly that Lily missed the appraising gleam in his eye. They rode without speaking to the next meadow, where he suddenly tightened Cochise’s reins. The pinto half-reared in protest, but Joe sat him easily. “Come on,” he said to Lily. “I’d like to show you something.”

She followed him across the field to another trail through the woods, and they angled up a hill for nearly fifteen minutes before he stopped.

“I hope you won’t take it wrong that I’m bringing you here,” he said hesitantly. “It’s a real pretty view … and it means something special to me.”

Lily’s voice was hushed. “Joe, if it’s special to you, I’m very honored.”

He blinked shyly—it seemed to Lily that his heart was in his sensitive eyes—and led on. When they emerged from a forest, she found herself on the shore of Lake Tahoe, gazing through a framework of trees at a vision of deep blue water. To one side, plain and subtle and elegant in its own way, was a granite stone with a cross on top. Across its face, carefully polished letters read “Marie Cartwright. In Loving Memory.”


Chapter Eight

ADAM rode back from town in the late afternoon, disgruntled from a fruitless surveillance of Hector McWhirter and a cadre of ruthless-looking men who’d never left the Sazerac. There’d been plenty of anti-statehood talk floating around, but most of the patrons, mindful of who he was, had been careful not to mention the name Cartwright.

He was looking for something to lighten his mood and he found it in the barn, where Michaela was grooming Conejo. The horse’s coat was flawless and he stood lazily with one leg cocked, his lip curling in bliss.

“Better be careful,” he told her solemnly, “I think you’ll be rubbing his hair off soon.”

“Will not …” But she ran a quick hand over Conejo’s rump just to make sure. “All right if I groom Sport?”

Adam tried to hide a grin. “I think I can restrain myself if you really want to work.” He unsaddled the gelding, replaced his bridle with a halter, and dragged a chair from the harness room to settle back and watch her.

She transferred the wooden box Ben had found for her from Conejo’s stall to Sport’s and scrambled up on it. In moments, Sport’s eyes had closed and his only movement was the occasional twitching of his skin to let her know when something tickled.

“Adam …”


“Y’know last night we were talking about Uncle Ben and Lily?”


“Well, suppose they fall in love. Would that make Lily your mother?”

“My mother? Oh, not exactly, Mickey. If they got married, she’d be my stepmother—but actually, I think, just more of a friend. I don’t really need a mother.”

She glanced at him in disgust. “Everyone needs a mother.”

“I had three good mothers. That’s what counts. Like you have a good mother.”

“I know. My mama’s wonderful.” She brushed vigorously. “And I think I’m lucky to have Lily. I love her.”

Adam tilted his chair back against the post of the stall. “Lily’s a good woman.”

“I tell her some stuff that I wouldn’t tell Mama. She helps me figure things out.”

Adam fiddled a piece of hay from the pile by his chair and slipped it into his mouth. It tasted faintly sweet—but it didn’t still the unease he had begun to feel at Michaela’s words. “Mickey, do you think that’s quite right? Telling Lily something, but not your mother?”

She considered it. “I think so. I just mean things that Mama couldn’t help with because she’d worry too much about me. Lily seems to be able to see around that … like you do. When I have a problem, or something’s bothering me, you don’t get all flustered in the fact that it’s me. We just talk about whatever it is and you help me.”

“I care a great deal that it’s you.”

“Oh, I know, but you don’t go completely off with worry.”

“Exactly what sort of things would cause your mother to worry?”

“Um …” She thought for a minute. “Uh—like when George Combs tried to kiss me at school.”

“What happened? What’d this kid do?”

She blushed. “Oh, he just kind of pushed me up against the wall when we were in the yard and—you know …” She didn’t look at him.

“And why couldn’t you tell your mother?”

“Well … I guess because George is thirteen. Or fourteen, I’m not sure. He’s quite a bit bigger than I am.”

“Mickey!” Adam tried to keep the alarm and annoyance out of his voice, but he knew that if George Combs had been standing in the barn aisle, he would have taught the boy a lesson not soon forgotten.

“Adam, I knew Mama would get all upset! She probably would have gone to the headmaster and the headmaster would have reprimanded George—and that wouldn’t have helped me. It would have been embarrassing and it wouldn’t have stopped George. He’d just have made sure no one saw him the next time he tried it. And worse than all of that, I knew Mama might tell Papa, and then—gosh, I can’t think of what could have happened!”

Adam mastered his temper with an effort. “So did you talk to Lily?”

“Yes. She helped me figure out what to do. She also made me tell Mama—but I waited till after I’d done what we planned, so that when I told her, I could say that it was all taken care of.”

Adam settled back into his chair. “And what did you and Lily decide was the solution?”

Michaela’s eyes danced. “I got three of my friends and a couple of days later during our lunchtime, we all stared at him and giggled and whispered.”

A grudging smile tugged at Adam’s lips.

“So when school let out, he stopped me on the way to the landau and asked me what India and Anna-Grace and Kate and I had been talking about at lunch. I told him that we were comparing how boys we knew kissed. And you know what, Adam? He didn’t even have the courage to ask me how I’d rated him. And he hasn’t tried anything since!”

Adam shook his head reluctantly. “I have to hand it to you.”

“And I did tell Mama. She wasn’t very pleased, but she didn’t get half as upset as she might have. I—uh, I didn’t tell her I’d talked to Lily first.”

Adam flung down the mangled piece of hay.  “All right, Michaela, Lily gave you good advice. But on the whole, honey, you need to be more open with your parents. It’s not quite fair, the position you’re putting Lily in—and it certainly wouldn’t be right if I came between you and your father.”

“You don’t.”

Adam stood up and stepped into Sport’s stall. “Mickey …”

She heard the serious overtone in his voice and quit stroking the muscular chestnut, but she refused to meet his eyes. “Yes, Adam?”

He slid a hand along Sport’s back to take the brush from her and set it aside, carefully turning her to look at him. “Sweetheart, your parents need to know what’s going on in your life—even if it’s difficult to tell them. I don’t think you or I am in a position to decide what they need to know and what they don’t.”

She ducked her head, her shoulders rigid beneath his palms. “If you say so.”

He sighed. “Mickey—”

“Adam, Papa doesn’t understand me.”

“I’m sure it seems that way sometimes, but you’d be surprised. Fathers have a way of understanding better than you know.”

“He doesn’t understand me—not like you do—”

“Wait a minute.” His voice was tender. He tipped up her chin with his fingers and under his steady gaze, she relaxed and stared up into his eyes. “Look, we have something pretty special between us, don’t you think? I want to understand you, Mickey … and I like it when you understand me.”

A pleased little smile flirted on her uncertain features.

“But we have to be very careful about how this all fits with your family. Your father loves you very much and he deserves to know everything important about you.”

“That’s just it,” she said almost inaudibly. “Nothing’s important.”

Adam lost his breath.

She gulped nervously. “Did I say something wrong?”

“What in the world gives you the idea that there’s nothing important about you?” For a second, his only desire was to wrap his arms around her and hold her until she knew that she was the most important person on earth. It showed in his eyes.

“I didn’t quite mean it that way,” she amended. “I just meant that …” She shrugged and tried to be nonchalant. “Well, Papa has other things on his mind. I think he doesn’t really have time for a lot of the stuff that happens to me, and it’s a good thing, don’t you think, that I can spare him?”

Still almost speechless, Adam shook his head. “No, Michaela, I don’t think that. I think that your father would say that everything about you is important to him.”

“Oh, Adam, that’s just not so,” she said with heartbreaking indifference. “And it’s not like I’m complaining. It’s not like I’m Ted—he’s after Ted all the time about how to be a man and how he has to measure up. I’d hate that. At least for me, as long as I don’t get in any trouble or make a spectacle of myself, and as long as I’m always ladylike and get good marks for deportment in school, he leaves me alone. Well, except for when he spanks me. That happens when I don’t do what I’m supposed to.” She turned away from him and leaned back against Sport, scuffing her boot on the wooden box.

“You know that when your father corrects you—even when he spanks you—he’s doing it because he loves you, don’t you?”

“Oh, yes. I know he loves me.” She looked up at him then, her eyes wide and serious and beginning to fill with tears. “I do know he loves me, Adam. I don’t put you in his place, really I don’t. But you—I mean, you’re—I mean, please don’t stop being my friend because of this. I don’t think I could bear that.”

The tears spilled over her lashes and down her cheeks, and Adam wasn’t proof against them. He felt as if a knife were turning inside of him and he pulled her to him. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere.”

She hiccupped and scrubbed furiously at her cheeks. “I’m sorry—”

“You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

He held her away from him for a moment and made her look at him. “Michaela … I love you, just the way you are. You can’t upset me, you can’t hurt me. I want to make sure I don’t hurt you … and if I were to come between you and your father, that would be hurting you.”

She sniffed. “You don’t, Adam, I promise. I love Papa. He just doesn’t make me feel good about myself the way you do.” She squared her shoulders and met his gaze with, he suspected, all the strength she could muster. “It’s not his fault. I know he doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings … and someday I’ll make him proud of me. It’s just …”

“What, Michaela?”

“I feel like you’re already proud of me.”

“Oh, Mickey—” Adam crushed her against him while he blinked at a sudden haziness in his own vision. “You bet I’m very proud of you.”

“Really? You’re sure?” Michaela’s arms slipped around Adam’s waist and she buried her cheek against the rough grey weave of his shirt.

“Sure I’m sure.”

For a long moment, they just stood and held each other and Adam stroked her hair. Michaela brought about the most amazing emotions in him, he reflected. In the months they had been close, she had become such an integral part of his life; she was the only person outside of his family that he had ever loved thoroughly, completely, unselfishly and uncontrollably. The entire phenomenon of his relationship with her humbled him. He leaned down to kiss the top of her head.

At last he set her back on her box, handed her the brush and returned to his chair. “I want you to do something for me.”


“Try to find some way to talk to your father.”

She sighed and then said resignedly, “You know if you ask me, I’ll try. But I can’t figure how to go about it.”

“Just be open to him. See what happens.” He allowed a lazy smile. “And if you want a word of advice—don’t make a joke around him.”

She made a face. Her first real discussion with Adam had come when she’d related to him her father’s feelings on the subject of women who were funny. “I like it when you tease me,” she said finally.

“I’m waiting for you to tease me.”

“One day.” Sport’s neck and back were glowing like satin; she found a comb in the grooming box and began carefully working out the tangles in the horse’s mane. “Was Uncle Ben very strict?”

“What do you think?”

“I think he probably was.” She stood on her toes to reach Sport’s forelock. “He seems a little lonely now. That’s why I’d like to see him and Lily be better friends … or whatever they like.”

Adam leaned his chair back against the post again, hooking his boots over its lower rung. “What makes you say he’s lonely?”

“I don’t know. He’s not real lonely, not like Lily was when Mr. Mercer died. Just a little … well, doesn’t it seem to you like he is? I mean, Hoss is getting married. Don’t you think you and Joe will, too? Sometime soon?”

Outside, they heard the sound of horses and Joe’s voice carried through the open door.

Adam fought a grin. “Joe might. I’ll probably be a while.” He shot her a playful glance. “I might have to wait for you.”

She giggled. “No, you won’t! You’ll be too old for me!”

“I’ll be what?” Adam burst out laughing.

Lily came in then, leading Skylark, and Joe was not far behind. He nodded at Michaela as he led Cochise into his stall, and Adam stood up to help Lily, profoundly glad that Joe had arrived too late to catch Michaela’s last comment.

His luck did not hold, however. She grinned at him. “But I might help you find the right girl, if you like. I don’t want you to make any mistakes.”

Adam choked. “I’ll try hard not to make any mistakes.”

“Good, because you know, Adam, you’re really smart, but you’re not perfect.”

Joe’s ear-splitting hoot so startled Cochise that the flashy pinto backed right out of his stall and into the aisle. “Mickey! My love! My destiny!” He leapt around the horse, over Adam’s chair and into Sport’s stall—causing Sport to whistle in surprise, pitch his head and throw himself flamboyantly into the wall. Ignoring them all, Joe swept Michaela off the box and whirled her around the barn aisle. “Mickey, darlin’, that was brilliant! Name your price and Hoss and I will reward you with whatever you want!”

Michaela’s face was a bright red and Adam could see that she wasn’t sure if she’d scored a bull’s-eye with her humor or achieved the sort of unwanted notoriety her father had dreaded—or worse yet, had hurt his feelings. He waited until Joe had quit spinning around and went to take her from his brother’s arms.

“Come here,” he said to her, with a dry glance at Joe. “I’m glad you made Joe’s day, but you have to know that he has a new love and a new destiny about once an hour on the hour.”

“Ah, but older brother, you gotta admit, I don’t see you get so perfectly described everyday—accurate, Michaela, right on the money, so inspired!” He chucked Michaela under the chin. “Say you’ll marry me! I’ll even wait for you to grow up!”

Michaela smiled tentatively but her eyes found Adam’s. “Well done,” he said quietly and winked at her. Then with a swat on her rear, he set her back on her box. “Now, how about you finish up with Sport? It’ll be dinner time before long.”

She nodded and returned to grooming, and for several minutes conversation ebbed as Joe cleaned up Cochise and Adam and Lily worked on Skylark. Finally, the gear had been put away, the horses were immaculate and all that was left was feeding. Brownie was measuring out the hay and grain.

Adam delivered a final pat to Skylark’s rump and rounded the corner to his own horse’s stall. A slow smile spread over his face. Michaela stood with her back at Sport’s shoulder and the gelding had curled his neck around her body, holding her against him with his lowered head. The child’s hands were rubbing his face, even playing with his ears, and he was uttering contented little nickers. You old heathen, Adam thought, more than a little impressed. She’s got you wrapped around her little finger just as surely as she’s got me.



Hop Sing outdid himself at dinner that evening. Declaring that for the next few nights meals would be light as he concentrated on getting ready for the wedding, the cook laid out a full-sized feast.

“All Mis-tah Hoss’ fave-lits,” Hop Sing had informed Ben, adding that perhaps a nice wine would be appropriate.

The dinner finished with preserved figs in cream with almonds, after which everyone staggered to the great room for coffee. Following a full day of activity, the occupation of choice seemed to be reading, but it wasn’t long before that pastime was put aside as more than one scholar began nodding off. Michaela had no objection to retiring when it became apparent that nearly everyone else was ready to turn in too, and followed Hoss and her mother upstairs without protest. Lily went for a walk when Adam said he’d give the barn and corrals one last check, and Joe began making noises about going up. Ben, sorting through the mail, paid no attention until he realized that Joe was standing at his desk. And then he recalled that his youngest had been rather quiet all evening.

“Something on your mind, son?” He stood up and moved over to one of the red chairs, fingering the book he’d left there and waiting to see if Joe would follow.

“Yeah, Pa, matter of fact there is.” Joe perched on the end of the settee. “I thought you oughta know—well, I guess it’s not really a big thing … but I took Lily to see my mother’s grave today.”

Ben tamed the surprise out of his expression. Many people had seen Marie Cartwright’s grave, but precious few of them had been taken there by her son. “I’d say that’s rather a big thing, Joseph. You and Lily must be—”

“She’s a real fine lady, Pa. Don’t you think so?”

“Well, yes … yes, I do.  I hope she understands what it means that you took her there.”

“Yeah. I think she does.” He could see Joe start to relax. “We got to talkin’ … well, we talked about a lotta things, and it just seemed like something I wanted to do.”

Ben nodded. “I’m sure Lily was very touched.”

Joe’s voice was reflective, remembering the afternoon. “It’s funny, Pa. I was telling her about the time you had the newspaper from St. Louis, and how excited you got when that ship, Lightning, set that record from Melbourne to Liverpool.”

Ben’s eyebrows arched. “How in the world do you remember the details of that? You were just—what, twelve or so?”

Joe sketched a smile. “I didn’t, exactly. Lily had to tell me. But I remembered how you were, how important you thought it was.”

“I see. You and Lily were discussing clipper ships?”

“Yeah, well, you know her husband was a captain … and it turns out that he sailed a boat called the Gazelle, which she said had something to do with Lightning.”

Ben’s stomach tightened. Damn it. It took so little for something about Lily to just come out of the blue and hit him like a punch.

“Pa, it was like …” Joe shrugged. “I don’t know, it was like I’d known her all my life … You know how that can happen with some people?”

Watching his son’s face, Ben felt a curious sort of wonder. On subjects which were important to him, Joe was nearly as easy to read as Hoss—and the emotions struggling in his expression now were eloquent.

“Yes, I do. I think that’s one of Lily’s many charms. She’s genuinely interested in the people that she’s around.”

“Aw, it wasn’t that, Pa. It wasn’t so important that she was interested in me—” Joe shrugged. “Sorry. I can’t seem to find the words for it.”

Ben chuckled. “If it makes you feel any better, that apparently is a common reaction to Lily. Or at least so Aubrey told me last fall when I encountered the same problem.”

“Yeah, really?”


“Pa, what is it about some women that makes ’em different?”

“In what way, son?”

“Oh, like, well, there’s no question Lily’s a woman”—he flushed at Ben’s comically raised eyebrows—“but sometimes, you get to talkin’ to her and you forget. I mean, in a good way. You can just say what’s on your mind. But it’s not like she’s a man, either …”

“No, it’s not like she’s a man.”

Joe made a face. “Oh, well, I don’t know why I thought it was important,” he said and stood up. “I just thought you might want to know.”

“And you’re right, son. It says a great deal for Lily that you felt strongly enough to do that.”

Joe hesitated at the stairway as if there were still something on his mind. “She’s—well, y’know Pa, if you ever wanted to … I guess it’s none of my business, but you know, Lily’s …”

“Lily’s what, Joseph?”

“Nothing, Pa. … I just like her, that’s all. Good night.” He went upstairs.

Ben sighed thoughtfully. He’d realized that since the kitchen incident, Joe had been feeling more and more comfortable with Lily, but he’d had no idea that it had progressed to the stage that his son would share something as personal as his mother’s gravesite. First Adam … now Joe. And undoubtedly Hoss got on with her too, although at the moment his middle son’s priority was his own love life, not his father’s. He felt as if he were being swept along in something he couldn’t control.

His reverie was cut short when Adam came through the front door. “You still up?” his oldest son asked rhetorically.

Ben shifted and crossed his legs. “Joe wanted to talk.”

Adam grinned at his father’s pensive tone and dropped into the blue chair by the hearth. “I hope you’re not going to tell me that another wedding’s in the offing. As far as I know, he hasn’t proposed to anyone lately—unless you count Michaela, in the barn today.”

“It seems he’s quite taken with Lily.”

Adam smirked. “That’s not a surprise. Nor is it anything unusual. But isn’t she a little old for him?”

Ben offered a half-smile. “I don’t think that’s quite what he had in mind.”

“Oh,” Adam said pointedly as his father’s words sank in.

There was a long pause and then Ben went on, “Joseph told me about a ship named the Gazelle. Are you aware of that connection?”

Adam’s tanned cheeks darkened with a flush. “Ah … yes. It came up the other day in conversation.”

“I seem to remember your telling me that you’d met the man who sailed the Gazelle. At least, the one who set her records. Would that have been Howard Mercer?”

Adam met his gaze and held it. “Yes … it seems I did meet Howard Mercer. Look, Pa, I didn’t even connect it until Lily mentioned the Gazelle—”

“Adam, you’re not required to tell me everything,” Ben returned gently. “And you’re certainly not required to tell me everything about Lily Mercer.”

“I know that. But the Gazelle being what she was, I should have remembered you’d be interested,” his son replied, realizing the words sounded inadequate. “Actually, it’s kind of a nice story, and it’s been a while since we …”

Ben sighed thoughtfully. Their late-night discussions were pleasant memories—the sort of thing a father cherished all his life long. They had begun with bedtime stories, progressed through the critical discourses of Adam’s adolescence and finally become their man-to-man exchanges as adults.

“I’ve missed our talks,” he said candidly, wondering if the dialogues had fallen victim to his own introspection over the winter. It was strange; he’d never had any trouble talking with Hoss or Joe, but there had always been something unique about his conversations with Adam. He wasn’t sure if that was due to their shared experiences when Adam was young, or just the way his oldest son looked at the world, but somehow the other boys had sensed it. He could feel the touch of envy in the good-natured teasing they’d carried on over the years about the nocturnal chats.

“If you have time, I’ll tell you about the night Howard Mercer visited Grandpa Stoddard.”

“Of course I have time.”

“Well, it was during the second year I was back east …” Adam settled back in his chair. It had been fifteen years ago and his grandfather was gone now, but in his memory it lived like yesterday … a blustery winter evening, and old Captain Stoddard brimming with anticipation.

“He’s a real seaman, Adam,” his grandfather had said. “You just sit quiet and use the ears God gave you and you’ll learn something tonight. Tonight you’ll see the world, lad, as your father and I saw it.”

He’d wondered what that meant. See the world? He would someday, but not from the parlor of a New England row house.

And then Captain Mercer had arrived, a tall gentleman with weathered skin and grey hair, and the most arresting eyes that seemed to see right through him. The two seamen had sat up late, spinning tales of exotic foreign ports and wild storms and weather so fair a boy from Boston could only dream of it. There were triumphs (“we made Capetown in twenty-one days, twenty-one days, mind you!”) and catastrophes (“when the mains’l crashed, it was like a visiting of clouds”) and swift, responsive ships that were like old friends.  They spoke of long-revered comrades and the wide diversity of passengers, of beloved first mates and cabin boys and ship’s cats.

He recalled with amusement how he’d had a student’s love of debate and declaration in those days—but that night, he’d sat silent as a mouse for hours, entranced by their stories, feeling the romance of the sea as it filled the room … until it was clear that Captain Mercer would be leaving soon and if he didn’t ask questions, only the good Lord knew when he’d have another opportunity. He’d fired off a fusillade of inquiries that had had the mariner beaming at his enthusiasm.

“I think then and there I learned more about your love for the sea than at any other time in my life,” he said.

“My love of the sea?”

“Yeah. It was like listening to you; it’s that sort of brotherhood all of you have. When you start telling stories of the sea, of ships, of voyages—there’s a flavor to it. To tell you the truth, it made me more homesick for you than anything else that happened while I was back east.”

Ben allowed a small, appreciative chuckle. “He must have been quite a seaman, if he commanded the Gazelle.”

Adam nodded. “Yeah, that was easy to see, but he was quite a man, too. I asked him what he thought had made the difference when he set his record, why was it the Gazelle, and not one of the other great McKay ships from that time. Now, Grandpa had told me that Captain Mercer had the best sense of the sea of any man he’d ever known—he’d sail a route once and seem to know every nuance of it. But Mercer never said anything about that, or, for that matter, the radical design of the Gazelle’s bow; he just said he had the finest crew afloat and they’d given him their lives.” Resting his elbows on his knees, Adam stared at his folded hands. His brows arched over thoughtful eyes. “‘They gave me their lives.’ I can hear him say it as if it were yesterday. You could see why men would fight to serve with him.”

“Sounds like someone Lily would have married,” Ben said with a fair approximation of dryness.

Adam allowed a short laugh. “Yeah. That’s not something a nineteen-year-old kid would think about, but if I’d had the presence of mind, I’d have wondered what kind of a woman Captain Mercer married. I don’t think I’d have guessed a planter’s daughter twenty-four years his junior, if I hadn’t known Lily.”

Ben’s eyebrows rose.

“Well, you have to remember, Mercer was an established captain before Donald McKay even designed the Gazelle. Her race around Cape Horn was in ’44; he wasn’t a young man when he quit the sea to open The Emporium. One of the last letters I got from Grandpa mentioned that McKay was working on a new ship and he’d said that he’d wished Mercer could be there to take her out. It was the right time—he had to have meant Lightning. She was based on the Gazelle.”

Ben’s smile was reminiscent. “Yes, that’s what brought all this up. Joe remembered when I had the newspaper with news of Lightning’s record. Apparently, he’d been telling Lily about it.”

A sudden gust of wind down the chimney blew a little cloud of ash across the hearth, and Ben grasped the broom to brush it back under the andirons. In the silence that followed, Adam finally said softly, “Pa, about Lily …”     

“Yes, son?”

“I think …” He watched Adam fight his normal distaste for discussing personal matters. “Well, it’s … the thing is … I don’t think Joe and Hoss would mind if you … you know, if you were interested in Lily. … Fact is, I wouldn’t either.”

Ben steepled his fingers and looked at Adam over them. “I see.”

“Well, not that it’s any of our business, but just in case—you know …”

“Just in case I had any plans and wondered what you’d think?”

“Like I said, it’s none of our business.”

“Maybe in some ways it’s not. But son, if I were to become involved with a woman, it would make a difference to me that you boys were happy about it.”

Adam met his gaze, his eyes hesitant.  “I thought—well, I never said anything to Hoss and Joe, but last fall I thought maybe …”

Ben looked at him for a long minute. He considered his words and then considered his son. “Yes, I realized that you said nothing to Hoss and Joe, and I appreciated it.” He smiled wistfully. “I was pretty sure you’d guessed. I was in love with her.”


Ben offered a faint shrug. “Still am, I suppose. You don’t fall out of love that easily … I don’t, anyway.” But his eyes were calm and warm as he regarded Adam. “Lily had—reservations. And a lady’s wishes must be respected.”

“I agree, if she really felt that way. But have you talked to her, Pa? Are you sure she doesn’t—well, hasn’t—or—?”

“No, Adam, I haven’t talked to her.”

“What if she’s changed her mind? What if she feels the same way about you?”

“And what if she doesn’t? You know Lily. She’d feel terrible about it. She’d probably insist on moving into town or something, so as not to hurt me.” His eyes widened with surprise at Adam’s expression. “Is something funny? Because if it is, it would be nice of you to tell me.”

“No, Pa, I’m sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. You’re right—Lily would feel very badly if she thought she was hurting you.”

For several evocative seconds, the only sound in the room was the low murmur of the wind, and then Ben said, almost musingly, “She’s an incredible woman, isn’t she? I thought when she came for a visit that I’d see all the reasons why she wouldn’t fit here. Instead, I’m seeing all the reasons why she would.”

“Pa, this is crazy. Why don’t you talk to her?”

“No. She told me once that she was afraid to ever love again. … Thank you for telling me about Howard Mercer, son. From what you say, I can understand her feelings. They must have had a unique and wonderful marriage.” His face glowed briefly with a light that Adam had never seen before. “As I did. But I knew it three times. Three times, Adam, can you even comprehend it?”

“Well, what the hell’s wrong with a fourth?”

Another time, Ben might have reprimanded Adam for the swearing. It wasn’t that he thought his sons never cursed; he simply worried that they’d forget and repeat an offensive word in front of the women. Tonight, however, he let it pass. His own thoughts and feelings were in turmoil and he was immensely grateful that Adam was handling a delicate situation as respectfully as he was.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’m not going to force anything. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Adam nodded. “It’s your life, Pa, and you know best how to live it.” He rose. “But if you do decide that … you know … oh, sometimes in the past Hoss and Joe and I have sort of had our say … and you should know that wouldn’t happen this time.”

Ben’s eyes twinkled. “Thank you.”

He sat lost in thought as Adam disappeared upstairs. And then he decided that a breath of night air might help clear his head.

Outside, the sky was dark as clouds moved over the stars. He could feel a storm coming, still far off, and it was curiously silent. The owl must be out hunting, he thought. He leaned back against the big wooden post by the planter and breathed deeply of the cool air.

He never really heard Lily’s approaching footsteps, but he sensed her presence when she emerged from the trees. Without speaking, he watched her walk toward him, enjoying the sway of her long skirt, his eyes warm and welcoming.

She stopped before him, smiling up, sharing the serenity that he sometimes suspected was born into her. “It’s beautiful out tonight, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes, it is, but there’s a storm coming. I hope it gets here before the weekend; we’re planning to use the whole yard for Hoss and Eleanor’s reception.”

She smiled. “Well, certainly if Ben Cartwright orders up fine weather, doesn’t the good Lord listen?”

He chuckled. “Perhaps if you’d put in a good word for me.”

She scrunched up her face in a way like Michaela often did. “I don’t think you want to depend on my record!”

As they laughed together, he realized how much he enjoyed the easy camaraderie that was developing between them. They were not back to the instinctive closeness they’d shared in San Francisco, but this was acceptable—and ever so much better than the strain that had existed before she’d come to Nevada.

“You know, I’m glad to have a moment with you,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to apologize for the rough treatment the other day. Believe me, I wouldn’t have thrown you down if it hadn’t been absolutely necessary.”

“I understand that.”

“I didn’t want you to think I make a habit of falling on lady guests—”

“What I think is you don’t make a habit of is having your lady guests shot at—”

“Actually, I don’t have lady guests—well, we have very few women here …”

“Ben.” She grasped both of his hands in hers. “You protected me with your life. Don’t apologize.”

Looking down at her fresh, open face, he couldn’t help but recall the night he’d walked her home from Aubrey and Julia’s, when he’d first realized how important it was that he get to know her.

“Remember when we had that discussion of fear?” she asked him, without letting go of his hands.

“Of course I do.”

“Well, if you’ll recall, I told you how strong I was about physical fear.” Her lips curled in a self-deprecating smile. “I believe I rather grandly said that after one had sailed a ship through a wild storm in the south Atlantic, one was impervious to terror.”

“I also remember that we agreed on other fears that were well worth our notice,” he reminded her.

“Oh, yes—children’s illnesses … and—and other things. You’re right. … Now I have to tell you that I’ve learned another kind of fear altogether. You’ll probably think I’ve been incredibly sheltered, but Ben, I’d never been in any kind of danger caused willfully by another human being.”

“I see.” His eyes were gentle on her. “You didn’t even seem frightened.”

“Oh, my goodness, I was, of course!”

“You didn’t show it.”

“Well, that would have served a great purpose, wouldn’t it? There you’d have been, out in the woods with a caterwauling woman!”

“Oh, Lily,” he chuckled. “Somehow I have a hard time picturing you caterwauling!”

“Good, because I don’t imagine it’s too attractive. But what I wanted to tell you was that you taught me something. I have no idea if you were scared or not—”

“I was.”

“That’s reassuring. But you see, you went on and acted anyway. You did something about it. You had a choice and you did the right thing.”

“The entire situation was hardly what you’d choose.”

“No,” she agreed. “Being terrified isn’t fun. But you know, at least when it’s people’s actions that you’re afraid of, you can deal with those people and end the actions.  With something like a violent storm, you’re at the mercy of nature and you just have to wait until it plays itself out.”

“I once told you that you were very wise.”

“If you remember that, you’ll remember how I answered you!” she retorted, and squeezed his hands. She seemed to notice then that she was still holding on to him and a becoming pink colored her cheeks.

He returned the subtle pressure on her fingers before he let her go. “Sleep well, my dear.”


Chapter Nine

CERTAINLY it must be safe to go into town, Ben,” Julia said over breakfast the next morning. She appealed to Hoss, Joe and Adam. “You tell him. If Lily and Michaela and I go too, no one’s going to make any trouble. It’s too public.”

“She’s got a point, Pa,” Joe said.

“I’m not convinced,” Ben replied, shaking his head. “I don’t think we should take any chances with McWhirter and his hired gun on the loose.”

“Well, Pa, I’ll go with you,” Joe said. “I was gonna help Hoss take the young bull over to the Flying J, but he doesn’t need me for that.”

Ben looked at each of them and then said, “All right. But only if Adam comes, too, and I want you boys to ride. I don’t think we’re vulnerable anyplace but on the road, and if anyone should take a—do anything—I want you after him.”

Their precautions turned out to be unnecessary, however, as the drive was uneventful. The sun was out and a light breeze was ruffling the long grass to either side of the road, but other than a few deer and small animals, they saw no one until they passed Dr. Paul Martin’s house at the edge of town.

When they’d pulled up at the livery stable, Julia declared that she should send her husband a wire and Lily mentioned that she needed a stationery shop. With almost comic complicity that fooled no one except Ben and Lily, Joe, Adam and Michaela all chose to go with Julia.

“They’ll be right here on C Street,” Adam assured Julia. “They should be perfectly safe.”

But when Lily asked the stationer in the International Hotel for rice paper, she was told he didn’t stock it. “Mr. Wu Lin in Chinatown might,” he offered. “Those folks have more call for it.”

“It’s for Michaela,” she told Ben as they came out on to the sidewalk. “She doesn’t want Adam to know what she’s doing.”

“I see.” He glanced around. No one seemed to be paying any attention to them. “Well, if you’re up for a little walk, there’s no reason we can’t try Wu Lin’s.”

She slipped her hand around his arm. “I’d love a walk.”

For the first time that day, Ben felt himself relax. There was nothing unusual going on in the streets of Virginia City and no reason to think McWhirter would try anything here. He covered Lily’s hand with his own and enjoyed every step of the five-block walk to Wu Lin’s tiny establishment in the heart of Chinatown. The rice paper was readily available, and Lily purchased not only white but cream and a delicate shade of pink as well.

“The pink is obviously not for Adam,” she assured Ben with a smile. “But doesn’t it look like something Michaela would want?”

“Very appropriate for a little girl,” he agreed and picked up the parcel Mr. Wu had tied with brown paper and string.

“Oh, no,” Lily said, slipping it out of his fingers.

“You won’t let me carry it for you?”

“No, of course not.” She laid her hand on his arm. “Ben, I don’t really believe we’re in any danger here, but I’d be very upset if anything happened to you. And how could you respond quickly, if you’re carrying my package for me?” Her blue eyes were vibrant and for a second he was lost in the realization that she was concerned for him.

“All right, under the circumstances,” he replied and escorted her to the street.

And so when they were in fact accosted, he was more than happy that she had insisted that his right hand—his gun hand—remain free. They had just passed by the alley which marked the boundary of the Chinese sector when a very large man in a disreputable jacket stepped out of an office and blocked the plank sidewalk. His coat was tucked back from a gun on his hip, and his eyes, sunken into a dirty face with a few days’ growth of beard, were slightly unfocused, as if he’d been drinking. Behind him, a thinner man with an equally evil demeanor seemed to materialize out of thin air.

There was only a heartbeat before the larger one reached for a revolver—but in that instant, Ben pushed Lily away from him, yanking his gun from its holster. The roar of its firing gave him a split-second edge as the thug hesitated; the bullet missed the man’s body, but miraculously clipped his forearm and his gun fell to the sidewalk. The other tough jumped into a doorway, but he drew his weapon and immediately there was the whine of a shot. The dust in the street next to them spurted and rose in the air.

Ben shoved Lily into the alley and fired again. Then he ran after her, down the narrow thoroughfare toward a bank of packing crates stacked against one of the buildings. They could hear the scuffle of footsteps behind them and more gunshots rang out, one after another, random and terrifying. Dust jumped sporadically as bullets struck, and to their right, chunks of brick arched into the air like red pellets against the sun. Ben thought he would choke on his own desire to get them out of danger.

“Lily!” He grabbed her arm, jerking her behind the boxes, pressing her up against a wall of a building and leaning into her to hold her there. If their adversaries reached them, they’d have to shoot him to get to her. He fired again, emptying his gun.

For a few seconds, everything was calm. All he could hear was the clamor of his own thoughts and the pounding of his pulse in his ears, but he felt the light tickle of her breath against his throat and looked down. Her eyes were wide—frightened but not terrified—and searching his for reassurance.

“Sorry I couldn’t run faster,” she whispered.

“You were fine.”

Quickly, he reloaded his revolver and waited with every nerve on alert. But nothing happened. The worst part, he considered, was the sudden unnatural silence; were the gunmen gone? Or were they regrouping to rush the alley? Had they gone through one of the buildings, planning a surprise from the other direction? He glanced anxiously at the far end of the alley, but it, too, was empty.

He couldn’t help a long, tense sigh, even as his stomach knotted and his shoulders ached from the strain. Lily was silent, trapped between him and the wall; her breathing was returning to normal, but he could feel her heart beating rapidly against his chest. For a second, she rested her forehead on his shoulder, and then she leaned back and stared up at the sky. Minutes dragged by.

Finally, they heard a commotion and voices in the street. If pedestrians were approaching, it had to mean that the gunmen had gone.

“If we’re lucky, Roy Coffee will be along in a few minutes,” Ben said, his voice rough with the aftermath of fear. He stepped back, replacing the gun in his holster. “He’ll want to know what all the shooting was about.”

She adjusted the fitted jacket of her suit. “What do we do now?”

He took her hand. “We go and wait for him.”

In fact, the sheriff and three other men were already there, talking to a young Chinese man. There was no sign of either the heavyset gunman or the thinner one.

“Ben!” Roy exclaimed in surprise. “What are you doin’ down here? You see any shootin’?”

“Not only saw it, Roy, but we were the target.” He realized that he was still holding Lily’s hand and released it. “Lily, this is our sheriff, Roy Coffee. Roy, our guest from San Francisco, Mrs. Mercer.”

Roy tipped his hat. “Pleased t’ meet ya, ma’am.” He turned back to Ben. “Are you sayin’ they shot at ya with Mrs. Mercer here, too?”

“I am. They jumped us on the sidewalk. I can’t prove who it was, but I’ll be very surprised if the description of the heavy one doesn’t fit the hired gun who’s been hanging around McWhirter.”

“That’s exactly what this here gentl’m’n’s tellin’ us,” Roy concurred. “He says it was a fellah been seen with the guy who publishes a paper—gotta be McWhirter.”

Ben turned to the young man. “Thank you for telling us what you know, but maybe you’d better get off the street now. I wouldn’t want to see reprisals taken against you.”

“Not happen. Chinese not in fight ovah state, but we heah much. Hop Sing my cousin. I do not stan’ by fo’ attack on his employa’.”

Ben smiled. “I’ll tell Hop Sing he has a very brave cousin.”

“Well, I guess that tells us what happened,” Roy said. “I’m danged glad you’re still alive, Ben—and you too, Mrs. Mercer. Why don’t we walk back uptown with ya?”

They hadn’t gone far when Lily suddenly stopped. “Oh, Ben! I lost the rice paper!” She looked annoyed with herself. “I must have dropped it!”

“Lily, if rice paper is all we lost in that little spectacle, I think we can count ourselves lucky.”

She sighed. “I suppose. But I do hate to disappoint Michaela.”

One of the young men who had accompanied Roy approached hesitantly. “Beggin’ yer pardon, ma’am, but would this be what you’re lookin’ for?” He held out the brown paper package. “I found it over by that buildin’.”

“Why, yes.” Lily smiled at him. “Thank you so much!” She turned to regard Ben dryly. “Well, Mr. Cartwright, so much for the morning’s entertainment. If you don’t mind, do you think we might have a quieter afternoon?”

Roy laughed and Ben smiled, holding her gaze for a moment. “I’ll do my best, Mrs. Mercer.”

The sheriff accompanied them back to the International Hotel, where they found the others just coming out of the tobacconist’s. As Lily went to tell them what had happened, Roy drew Ben aside.

“Ben, that lil’ lady must have nerves o’ iron, but I want you t’ be more careful.”

“I will, Roy. You can count on that.” Ben was thoughtful. “But doesn’t it strike you—either they’ve only meant to frighten me, or else they’re getting desperate now?”

“Wha’d’ya figure?”

“Well, so far they’ve missed twice. And to go after me here in town, in broad daylight with a witness, is awfully risky. Or perhaps they’d have shot Lily, too—but I imagine plenty of people saw them on the street with us. They were taking a big chance.”

Roy sighed. “You’re right, Ben. All the more reason for you to mind yer back.”

Over Roy’s shoulder, Ben saw Hector McWhirter emerge from The Advocate office in the next block. His face darkened. “I’ll be right back,” he muttered to the sheriff, and before Joe or Adam could notice what he was doing, he stepped down the sidewalk to confront the publisher.

McWhirter looked up with false smile. “Cartwright. Havin’ a good time in town today?”

“Certainly an exciting one,” Ben replied evenly, his eyes and his voice cold. “I have a message for you, McWhirter. You take your shots at me if you like, but you harm anyone around me and hell won’t be big enough to hold you.”

“Tough words, Cartwright. Maybe I oughta ask you the real question while I got you here: How much is all of this worth to you? Your life, the pretty lady’s life? Is statehood that important?”

Ben could hear Adam and Joe coming down the sidewalk behind him, but he never took his eyes from Hec McWhirter and his voice ranged dangerously low, turning venomous. “Oh, it’s ceased being just about statehood, McWhirter. Whether Nevada’s a state or a territory, it’ll never be home to vermin like you.”


Little was said on the ride home, but when Ben had left the surrey with Brownie, he escorted Lily and Julia toward the house with such a purposeful stride that Adam and Joe exchanged a glance and left their horses at the hitching rail to follow them in.

“It pains me to say this,” Ben began when they reached the great room, “but I think you ladies should return to San Francisco. Under ordinary circumstances, I would never ask you to leave, but I can’t in good conscience allow you to remain and be exposed to the kind of danger you may be in.”

“Nonsense,” Julia replied. “I’m not afraid of bullies like Hec McWhirter. I will, however, agree that we need to be careful about where we go and what we do.”

“Julia, dear, I’m afraid I can’t allow it,” Ben said firmly. “I know very well what Aubrey would say and so do you—he would not have his family put in peril. Now I won’t hear another word about it.”


“No, Julia.” He turned expectantly to Lily. “I hope you’ll agree with me on this.”

In the silence that followed his words everyone looked at her, and she let the anticipation build before saying calmly and politely, “Then I’m very sorry, because I cannot support such a piece of cowardice.”

Julia gasped and even Adam and Joe looked stunned.

“Oh, don’t be stupid, any of you!” her voice was low and resonant with emotion. “I’m not calling Ben a coward—nothing he’s done could be called that! And he’s not trying to run from anything here! He’s just allowing his personal concerns to cloud his thinking. But the sum total is cowardice.


“No, Ben, listen to me. Please. You’re fighting to make Nevada a state so that President Lincoln can achieve what is probably the greatest moral victory of all time—the abolition of slavery. It’s taken courage and foresight and commitment to do what you’ve done. And now you’re even considering giving in to a despicable wretch like Hec McWhirter?” She was scathing. “This issue is way too important to give anything away over such a small thing as our safety.”

If silence had reigned before, it was absolute now. Adam studied Lily’s face—she was, he could tell, almost as shocked at her words as everyone else. But she believed what she said and her determination could not have been more apparent. It was only when he noted her hands, clasped into fists and hidden in the folds of her long skirt, that he realized how frightened she was. For all she knew, she had just thrown away any chance she ever had with Ben Cartwright.

When Ben spoke, he was painstakingly courteous. “Lily, it’s kind of you to recognize my good intentions, but I think you have to consider the larger issue here—”

“I am. This is not negotiable. You never let a man like McWhirter win—not about anything. Everything I’ve known in you, ever heard about you—every piece of you I see in your sons—tells me that you would never run from something like this. You’d never give in to a Hec McWhirter. And I won’t—” Her voice suddenly broke. She cleared her throat and continued, “I won’t be something that makes you give way to him! I will not be the agent of something you would regret!”

Joe looked at Adam and Adam stared back, his eyes dark and worried. In this curious turn of events, Lily was defending Ben against himself, standing up for his fundamental principles when he would have dispensed with them in his concern for women and children.

“Lily, I—” Ben shook his head. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Ben, you have such amazing courage yourself,” she said, her voice still unsteady. “You have to allow us to be courageous as well.”

Ben sighed testily, his eyes flashing with annoyance. He jammed his hands into his pockets, turned his back on them and paced to his desk, where he stared with frustration at the dark, aged wood. And then he turned around and paced back.

“I can’t argue with you,” he said gruffly. “At least, not in principle. But I deplore the idea of your being here, in this danger.”

“We’ll be very careful,” Lily said quietly and swallowed nervously. And then, as if she couldn’t give him time to change his mind, she headed for the front door. “I think—I think I need a walk. I’m sorry if I was rude.”

Looking at her strained face, Adam would like to have gone with her, but given the situation between his father and Lily, he wasn’t sure he should interfere. He was relieved when Ben’s hand came down on his shoulder.

“Go with her, Adam. If we’re going to take McWhirter seriously, that means now. Take care of her.”



Dinner was subdued that night. With assistance from Hoss, Joe and Julia tried their best to entertain the table, Ben was as warmly responsive as he could be, and Adam even joined in—but Lily was very shy and no one knew quite how to bring her out of her reticence. It was with relief that they all left the table to enjoy coffee in the great room, where they didn’t have to stare across the placesettings at each other.

Darkness had fallen and the big grandfather clock had just chimed eight when they heard the sound of horses in the yard. There was a general melee of whinnies and riders’ shouts, and then a couple of gunshots, and finally, the pounding of retreating hooves—but by that time, Joe and Adam had grabbed their guns and jerked open the front door. Hoss and Ben were close behind.

The clearing was empty. The night had gone abruptly silent, and there was only a dirty, broken bundle lying on the porch near the big planter. While Joe, Hoss and Adam made sure the riders had gone and weren’t doubling back, Ben and Lily bent to see what the crumpled form was.

“It’s Brownie!” Ben cried.

Carefully, they rolled him over. The old man had been beaten almost to death. His eyes were swollen nearly shut and his cheeks were a mottled purple, overlaid with smears of dried blood. A red trickle oozed from his mouth, running toward his ear and on to his neck. His fine leather suspenders were gone and the old plaid shirt had been nearly shredded; beneath its flimsy strips, his thin chest was an ugly tableau of bruising and whip welts, angry snake-like marks that looked raw to the touch. He was barely breathing, the only evidence that he was alive an alarming wheezy sound that seemed to line his lips with pink spittle.

Ben’s face went dark and his eyes black with anger. “We have to get him to Doc Martin.”

“You gonna go after the guys that did this?” Hoss, returning, asked grimly.

Ben stroked Brownie’s matted hair.  “You bet we are, son.”

“They’re gone, Pa,” Adam panted, kneeling next to Brownie. Joe crouched above him. “There were three of them at least.”

Lily laid a hand on Joe’s arm. “Could you get a pan of water, please? Your father wants to take him to the doctor, and we should at least clean him up a little.”

He nodded and sprinted around to the kitchen, returning a couple of minutes later with a bucket and a handful of towels.

“Is no one going to get the buckboard?” Ben suddenly bellowed.

“Sorry, Pa, I wasn’ thinkin’,” Hoss answered, and started for the barn.

“I’m going with you,” Joe said. “I’ll saddle up. Adam?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there. I’ll get our stuff.”

Lily knelt next to Brownie, soaked a towel and gently wiped the old man’s cheek, dislodging some of the dried blood. “Adam, get blankets, too!” she called after him. “And a pillow!”

“It’s very good of you,” Ben said awkwardly.

“It’s so cruel and senseless,” she said, running a hand along Brownie’s scalp to feel for wounds. The old man moaned, the sound cracking and ending in a wet hacking cough that eventually subsided into painful gasping. “Nothing you do to these people will be bad enough!”

“I have to agree with you there. What do you think? He looks awfully weak to me.”

“He could die,” she whispered. “We have no idea what’s happened inside of him. He really must see a doctor.”

A few minutes later, they heard the rattle of the buckboard and Hoss drew up in front of the house. Adam came through the door with blankets, Julia right behind him with pillows. Michaela stood in the doorway, her eyes stricken. Lily caught her attention and motioned for her to bring a shawl. By the time the child returned with one of Lily’s light woolen wraps, Adam and Hoss were lifting Brownie on to the blankets.

“Adam, you drive,” Ben was saying. “I’ll get my horse.”

“Why don’t you have Robbie drive?” Lily suggested. “Then you all could go on ahead. Robbie and I can take Brownie to the doctor.”

“You? I won’t have you involved in this!” Ben replied. “And Hoss—you’ll stay here. Julia and Lily and Michaela can’t be here alone here if McWhirter’s men should come back.”

“Good idea,” Lily agreed. “Stay with Julia and Michaela—but I’m going in the buckboard with Brownie. You can’t have him just rolling around back there like a log. He could be hurt even more.”

“It’s out of the question.”

“Ben …” She went to him, grasping his arm with her hand. “Ben, please, don’t let’s fight. Think about what’s best. You need your men in the saddle with guns.”

Rather than arguing with him, her blue eyes were supportive. They helped him to focus and consider the situation, and most of all, to overcome his explosive anger. For a long moment he just stared at her, and then he turned to Adam. “Get Robbie. He’ll drive. Hoss will stay here. You and Joe come with me.”

“Right, Pa.”

“Lily—” Ben’s voice was commanding, but shaded with gratitude. “You be careful.”

“I will, Ben. Now, go on. I’ll take care of Brownie the best I can.”

In moments, the little party started out. Ben insisted that the riders remain with the buckboard, and as Robbie pushed his team, it became clear that it was critical that Brownie was not alone in back. The wagon rattled and shook as the road descended the slopes around the ranch house, and then picked up speed across the flat. Lily tried to wash Brownie’s face and clean his chest, but the vibration of the flatbed proved too much. At last, she just sat silently, holding the old man’s hand and steadying him, sometimes with her own body, when the wheels hit rocks in the road and the whole conveyance jolted roughly. Once he opened his eyes and looked up at her pitifully, squeezing her hand before he lapsed again into unconsciousness.

It was a wild ride that would live forever in Lily’s memory. The moon was three-quarters full and the magnificent pine trees stood in black silhouette against the silvered meadows. It was turning cooler, but in the heat of the moment she barely needed her shawl; the chill of the breeze from their headlong dash was welcome on her face.

Ahead she could see Ben, his back straight in the saddle, his shoulders set. To her right, Joe’s pinto was like a harlequin in the shadowy light, and Joe himself sat so casually in the saddle that she could only picture a young soldier going off to war—hardly knowing what he was getting into, and yet so certain that he was where he needed to be. Joe, to be sure, knew the danger which approached … and that made his determination all the more impressive.

To her left was Adam, his face brooding in the moonlight. Adam felt it all … understood the situation in depths that no one else in his family did—appreciated the use of words and concepts better than anyone. And yet here he was, just as fully committed as his father and brother to setting right this wrong by brute force, guns and courage. They could all be killed, but they could not live with what had happened.

McWhirter and his anti-statehood boys had made a big mistake in attacking an innocent old man, she reflected. She’d never seen Ben Cartwright this angry—so deeply enraged that he appeared utterly calm on the surface. Undoubtedly, he’d seen worse; the Indian Wars alone had reflected more tragic bloodshed than this. But that was Nevada’s past—this was its future. It ran through her mind: Tonight, we will see an end to this statehood controversy. The threat that they had fought over this afternoon would not exist by tomorrow.

And yet she trembled inside for Ben and his sons. Their adversaries were not honorable men. What they were doing was dangerous beyond belief—that sort of danger she had never tasted before coming to Nevada. It was terrifying … and still, examine her soul however she might, she could not argue with their mission and she felt privileged to be a part of it.

At last they saw the lights of Dr. Paul Martin’s house, and within minutes, Robbie had halted the horses at the stone pathway to the front door. He wound the reins over the buckboard’s brake and climbed down to help Adam and Joe unload Brownie as gently as they could. The old man groaned when they lifted him, his head falling back and his breath labored, but he didn’t wake up.

Lily was preparing to jump down when Ben appeared before her. Without asking, he reached up, his hands closing around her waist. She set her palms on his shoulders as he lowered her to the ground and for a second they stood staring at each other. It seemed to give them both a little bit of strength, she thought. And then they followed the others into Doc Martin’s home.

“Good heavens, Ben! What in the world happened here?” Paul Martin indicated his examining table, and when Brownie had been set down, grabbed his stethoscope.  “Did someone use this old man for boxing practice?”

“It appears so,” Ben replied. “How bad is it, Paul?”

“Give me a minute. And maybe you’d all better step back. Ma’am, I wonder if I might get you to help me?”

Lily nodded and in the next few minutes obeyed all of Dr. Martin’s instructions—removing the tattered remains of Brownie’s shirt, bathing his hammered chest and abdomen, holding his hand while the doctor probed the most painful spots. She was grateful to have something to do; to stand idly by, waiting for information as the others were forced to do, would have been intolerable.

At last Dr. Martin turned to Ben. “We’re extremely lucky his nose wasn’t broken—I don’t know how that happened. But he’s lost several teeth and there may be broken bones I just didn’t locate on a first examination. I need to stitch him up in a few places, but it’ll be morning before we really learn what kind of damage has been done, especially to his lungs. I don’t like that breathing. This was a terrific beating for a man of his age, but it appears that he’s a tough old bird.”

Ben’s lips compressed and his eyes glittered vengefully. “He is a tough old bird. And a good one.”

“Who did this?”

“Someone in Hec McWhirter’s group. It was meant as a warning to me.”

Dr. Martin’s eyes widened. “Over statehood? That’s what this is about? Good God—pardon me, ma’am.”

“We’ll be paying Mr. McWhirter a little visit,” Ben said icily.

Paul Martin frowned. “You shouldn’t have any trouble finding him. I heard they were having a big meeting tonight down by the International.”

“Thanks, Paul.” Ben exhaled thoughtfully, temporarily setting his anger aside. “I wonder if Lily might remain here with you?”

Dr. Martin glanced at her. “I’d appreciate her staying, actually. I could use her help stitching him up.” He smiled politely. “We haven’t met. I’m Paul Martin.”

“Lily Mercer.” She extended her hand, reflecting that their civility seemed almost bizarre under the circumstances.

Ben didn’t bother to apologize for the social oversight. He gripped Paul’s shoulder briefly. “We’ll be back. Rob, you stay here with Lily. Adam, Joe, come with me.”

In seconds, the examining room was silent. Robbie, looking incredibly young, took a seat in the entry hall and Lily regarded Paul Martin expectantly. “I used to help the surgeon on my late husband’s ship, but that’s been so long ago, I doubt I remember much.”

“Just take orders,” he said mildly and handed her a set of utensils. “I’ll tell you what I need. We’ll hope this fellow remains unconscious for a few more minutes.”

Brownie did remain insentient until the doctor had finished his needlework, and longer, while Paul Martin applied a salve to the whip welts. Finally they stood back, having done everything they could until the old man woke up and was able to say how he felt.

“I appreciate your help,” Dr. Martin said as he escorted Lily from the examining room. “May I get you some tea?”

“No, thank you. It’s kind of you. And thank you—I appreciate being of use. … But Robbie and I will be going now.”

“Going? Not at all, Mrs. Mercer. I got the impression Ben figured on coming back for you.”

“I’m sure he did. But we’ll be going just the same.”

“I don’t know that I can allow that.”

For the barest second, Lily’s eyes twinkled. “I rather think if you could discuss it with Ben, he’d tell you that there’s very little future in arguing with me—at least tonight. Please don’t worry; I won’t do anything unsafe. Robbie—” The boy looked uncertain. “The buckboard, Robbie. Now.” She picked up her shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. “With any luck, I’ll be back later to check on Brownie, Dr. Martin.”

“You’re not going back to the Ponderosa?”

“Not yet.”

Paul Martin made it clear that he was not pleased with Lily’s high-handed behavior, but there was little he could do about it. And Robbie, after one futile protest, wasn’t about to differ with her. He helped her up on the buckboard and inquired nervously where she meant to go.

“Into town, of course. The International Hotel.”

“You mean, down where the meetin’ is? Mrs. Mercer—”

“Robbie, I didn’t say drive into the middle of it. Let’s just go see what’s happening.”

Shaking his head, Robbie urged the horses forward at a snail’s pace. Lily, hearing the roar of a crowd in the distance, chafed with impatience. There was a particularly ugly sound to a violent gathering and the noise she could hear was not promising.

They were nearing the center of the city when they passed a house surrounded by wagons and carriages. A group of women was emerging, chatting as they ambled toward the street, and recognizing Aurora Vance, Lily gripped Robbie’s arm to stop the buckboard.

“Mrs. Vance!” she called out.

The matron stared out into the darkness, then identified Lily and came forward hesitantly. “Mrs. Mercer? What are you doing in town?” She glanced back at the ladies behind her. “We were just having a last party for Eleanor. Whatever are you doing here alone?”

Lily ignored the question. “Mrs. Vance, I wonder if you might help me? One of the Ponderosa ranch hands was beaten very badly by the anti-statehood people this evening. Ben and Adam and Joe are here in town to see Mr. McWhirter, and I understand there’s a big meeting going on.”

“Is that what we’re hearing? Is that all the noise?”

“I think so. I’m just going there to see,” Lily said, her voice urgent. “But—well, I’m quite worried, with all those people there who likely sympathize with Mr. McWhirter. Are the pro-statehood people organized? Is there anyone who could go there and support Ben?”

Aurora Vance stared at her. “There’s no real organization that I know of,” she said. “But goodness—where’s Hoss?”

“At home with Julia and Michaela.” Lily allowed a brief smile. “It wouldn’t do for him to turn up at his own ceremony with a black eye—or—or worse.”

“Yes, I quite agree.” Mrs. Vance returned to business. “We must do something. Let me think for a moment.”

As the seconds ticked by, Lily wondered if she’d made the right decision in stopping. But there was little else she could do. She knew no one in town to assemble help for Ben in case he needed it.

“The minister,” Aurora cried suddenly. “We’ll get Reverend Culbertson to go to the rally. He’s tremendously respected—at least that way, both sides of the issue can be heard.” Her eyes lit. “And we’ll go—ladies! We must all go downtown to a meeting! It’s vital! It’s for statehood!”

Lily blanched. She had had no thought of an invasion of women turning up in a dangerous situation, perhaps being hurt. “Mrs. Vance—Aurora—I don’t think—”

“Nonsense!” the matron rejoined. “We’re as concerned as anyone on this issue! We’re being granted the right to vote! I’ll not sit idly by and let Hector McWhirter and his traveling circus take that away from me! Ladies—ladies, jump up on the back of the buckboard! Those of you who can’t fit—take Cordelia McKay’s surrey! Or bring your own buggies! Now! Be quick! We must go and get Reverend Culbertson!”

Feeling overwhelmed, Lily sat back on the seat. Good Lord, if Ben doesn’t kill me over this, he has more forbearance than I’ve given him credit for, she thought, remembering a homey little verse about good intentions.

In a moment, the buckboard lurched forward. Aurora stood behind Lily and Robbie, whose face was frozen in a mask of disbelief, and directed the way to a small house a block away. As her mother leapt down and ran up the path to the front door, Eleanor introduced Lily to the rest of the women in the back of the wagon. With a nervous flutter, Lily could not help but realize that while Ben had kept the groom at home out of respect for the upcoming nuptials, she had just facilitated the bride’s presence at the meeting. But there was nothing she could do about it now.

Watching Mrs. Vance race up the steps to the minister’s home, Lily was struck with a sudden appreciation for the woman. There was nothing snobbish or condescending about Eleanor’s mother now; it was as if she’d totally forgotten appearances in the service of her cause and Lily couldn’t help admiring her. Perhaps this is the real Aurora, she thought, and suspected that if nothing else came of this trip, she just might have made a new friend.

Moments later, Mrs. Vance returned with a rather flustered-looking man who was buttoning his black frock coat. “We must wait for Mrs. Culbertson,” he was saying. “Our oldest girl can stay with the young’uns. How dare McWhirter! How dare he beat up on innocent people in the pursuit of a slave state!”

Lily slid over to make room for Aurora on the wagon seat. “Don’t worry,” the older woman said, examining Lily’s apprehensive face. “I don’t mean to go crashing into that meeting like a bunch of females out of The Lysistrata. I can’t think Ben would like that at all. But with Mr. Culbertson here—and all of us—perhaps we can lend a calming spirit, so that some discussion could be had. Why, anyone listening to that noise can tell that it’s an unruly mob, not a political rally!”

An unruly mob was a kind description, Lily thought a few minutes later when their little cavalcade of wagons and buggies turned into C Street and approached the International Hotel. All kinds of men were milling in the wide intersection, many of them carrying torches, which cast the entire gathering in an eerie glow. The sound of their murmuring was belligerent and frightening; many came and went from the open doors of the saloons, which provided a background of rackety piano music. A sense of explosiveness was in the air.


Chapter Ten

THE ONLY THING Ben was happy about when he and Adam and Joe rode away from Paul Martin’s was that at least Lily was protected. He hated having her involved in this business, and at the same time he was proud of her quiet bravery. But he felt better with her safe.

The sound of a mob—it sounded like a rabble, not an organized rally—was growing louder. He slowed Buck and motioned to Adam and Joe to rein in as well. When the International Hotel came into view, his expression darkened; it was worse than he’d feared.

“What d’you think?” Joe asked, voicing everyone’s apprehensions.

“I think we’re going to finish this statehood issue tonight,” Ben said grimly. “I don’t like this situation one bit. We’re going to have to make it work out to our favor; no sense in going on with McWhirter any longer.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Adam observed. “What do you want us to do?”

Ben never moved his eyes from the crowd down the street. “I’d say we go over a block and leave the horses on the other side of the hotel. We can get in that way, through the building, and come out right on the porch—there, where Hec McWhirter is.”

“Surprise would be nice,” Joe agreed.

They turned, rode up to B Street and tied their horses at the rail by the hotel. Adam and Joe nodded to each other as they removed the rifles from their saddles.

Ben glanced at them pointedly. “I hope we won’t need those.”

“We do, too, Pa,” Joe replied.

They came in the back entrance of the hotel and crossed through to the front lobby, where the desk clerk greeted them with fearful eyes. Beyond the glass-paneled front door, through its sheer curtain, they could see Hec McWhirter haranguing the crowd. And then Roy Coffee moved into view, exhorting the journalist to calm down and take it easy.

“We can stop statehood now, in its tracks!” McWhirter shouted. “We’ve seen how the United States of America treats anyone who doesn’t agree with the merchants of New England! They’re legislated and taxed almost out of existence! Their institutions and practices are attacked—and when they exercise their God-given right to leave a union they cannot support, the good old U-S-of-A makes war on them!”

“I think he’s rather conveniently forgetting Fort Sumter, isn’t he?” Adam murmured disgustedly and then caught sight of his brother’s face. “Sorry, Joe. Some of what he says may be true, but not the point he’s trying to make.”

For a few seconds they just stared at each other and then Joe offered a half-smile. “A man like McWhirter gives the South a bad name.”

“And what can we say about what we see here in Nevada?” McWhirter went on, his voice rising with righteous anger. “We have ol’ Abe Lincoln’s hand-picked man forced on as governor, and his little posse of hand-picked sycophants are tryin’ to ram through statehood. Now why do you suppose that is? Could it be any other reason than that they stand to make money on what happens here? Has anyone asked Ben Cartwright what his reward is to be for all the trouble he’s made?”

Ben glanced significantly at Adam and Joe. “I think that was our cue.”

They stepped out on the porch behind McWhirter.

“Perhaps you’d like to ask Ben Cartwright that question right now,” Ben said, his resonant tone carrying out over the crowd. A roar of recognition went up in the torch-lit darkness.

“Now that’s only fair!” Roy Coffee shouted, waving his hand at the throng. “You’ve heard what McWhirter’s had to say about statehood. Now hear Ben Cartwright’s side of it!”

“We already know what Ben Cartwright has to say!” a voice came back from the street. “What we wanna know is what he’s gettin’ fer sayin’ it!”

“I’ve gotten nothing for working on behalf of statehood!” Ben yelled back. “Nor will I receive anything!”

The crowd whistled and catcalled derisively. Two or three rough-looking men started to scale the porch and fell back only when Adam and Joe leveled their rifles.

Ben stared out at the sea of faces. The crowd was growing larger by the minute, seething in a rising mood of discontent. They weren’t going to listen to him deny Hec McWhirter’s allegations. And what was he thinking, anyhow, dancing to McWhirter’s tune?

“Perhaps we should ask Mr. McWhirter what’s so all-fired holy about opposing statehood,” he shouted, “when that opposition comes in the form of threatening women and beating up blameless old men?”

The mob subsided momentarily in curiosity, their angry voices reduced to a simmering hum.

“What’s this?” Roy Coffee pushed forward. “Who’s been beaten up?”

“One of our ranch hands,” Ben answered, still speaking loudly enough that his voice reached the crowd. “An old man who wouldn’t harm anyone … beaten within an inch of his life.”

“And what’s that got to do with me?” McWhirter demanded, his expression confident. “You can’t pin that on me. I haven’t any interest in your ranch hands.”

Ben stared him down. “Perhaps your fists weren’t the ones which did the damage, McWhirter—but I met two of your hired guns today on the street, and I can pretty well guess they were in the party that attacked my hand.” He turned back to the crowd. “Mr. McWhirter’s two henchmen came after me right here on the streets of Virginia City this morning—in broad daylight, with women and children around—again, innocent people! Does that sound like a man who’s sure of his cause? And sure that that cause is just?”

“Maybe yer ranch hand deserved it,” a surly voice called out.

Ben turned slowly, his contempt apparent in the set of his shoulders and the deliberate way his hands gripped the porch railing as he leaned over it to scan the crowd. “And maybe he didn’t. Exactly how does a man deserve a beating over an issue in which he’s not even involved?”

“Come on, Cartwright, quit yer whinin’!” someone called. “Ya take yer lumps out here! Man wanted to work fer you, he takes what’s comin’ to him!”

“That’s the point!” Ben responded. He focused into the crowd, trying to identify the heckler. “Why would anything be coming to him? Who do you work for?”

“I work fer the Blackbird!” a voice came back.

“Well, then, just how much would you like to be beaten up because of something Davis Ellington did?”

“I’d like to see somebody try it!” a burly man in grimy clothes stepped out of the throng. “I’d like to see you try it!”

“I just might!” Ben answered grimly. “But it’ll be because you’re a loudmouth tough who doesn’t think things through—not because you work for Ellington.”

There was a general outcry of response, mostly from drunken men inciting a fight. Ben ignored it.

Roy appeared at his shoulder. “Ben, I don’ know about this. I don’t think you’re gonna get ’em to settle down and lis’en,” the sheriff said in a low tone. “And I want t’know more about what happened to your hand. Can you prove McWhirter’s men did it?”

“I can’t prove anything, Roy,” Ben muttered. “But I’ve got to try to stop all this once and for all.”

McWhirter shouldered his way to the front. “What about it, men? Are we going to listen to Cartwright’s lies all night?”

Several men shouted “No!” and a general roar went up. Two men even bolted up the steps on either side of Ben. To his right, Adam swung his rifle butt with lethal accuracy, striking the man’s chin and sending him reeling back to the crowd in a spray of blood. To his left Joe braced his feet and his rifle, and the oncoming thug ran straight into the gun barrel, collapsing with a windless grunt.

“Now, just a minute! Just a minute here!” cried Roy Coffee, holding up his hands. “Just simmer down a minute. There ain’t no call for violence! What in the world are you people thinkin’?”

The crowd subsided once more with a rebellious protest. Ben, gazing at the man lying on the ground, blood running down his battered chin to his shirt, was sickened.

“Do you want to hear the issues, or do you make up your minds because Hec McWhirter tells you what to think?” he shouted and shook his head in disgust. “Before God, I wonder if Nevada deserves to be a state! Do you think you’re civilized enough? Or should we just remain a frontier, with everyone at the mercy of whatever bully throws his weight around?”

“No!” called a voice from the back. “No—we want to hear what you’ve got to say!”

“I thought there was a few good folks out there,” Roy said. “Tell ’em, Ben. Not everyone out tonight is one of McWhirter’s toughs.”

But Hec McWhirter was not about to give up his advantage so easily. “Civilized? Listen to the high and mighty Mr. Cartwright! As if only he knows what’s right for Nevada!”

The doors were banging on the Silver Dollar Saloon as more half-drunk men joined the throng and the bellicose sentiment flared once again. Ben glanced quickly at Joe; his younger son gazed out at the crowd stoically, his rifle down but his eyes alert, concentrating on nothing but protecting his father. To his other side, Adam’s eyes were unreadable, but his jaw was set, his lip slightly curled with an anger that Ben knew ran deep. He turned back to the crowd.

“I think instead it’s you, McWhirter, who discounts the intelligence and civility of the people of Virginia City!” he declared. “I fully trust the decisions made by this crowd—provided they hear all the facts!”

Suddenly in the back of the milling throng there was a loud commotion. A separate hum of protest rose and then waned, and Ben strained his eyes to see that the Reverend Thomas Culbertson was pushing his way forward. Space appeared to be opening behind the minister, but it was some time before he realized that it was filled by women quite a bit shorter than the rowdy bunch of men around them. In the lead was—Aurora Vance? And more than a dozen other ladies. He schooled the surprise off of his face. Had the situation not been so serious, he would have burst out laughing at Adam’s and Joe’s expressions.

But the situation was very serious, and as much as he appreciated the sudden orderliness that greeted the reverend and a militant flock of well-dressed women, he knew that they would only restore balance. From here on out, it would be up to him to persuade the citizens of Virginia City that Nevada should be a state … and that men like Hector McWhirter must be cast aside.


Just moments before, Aurora had gripped Lily’s hand in alarm. “Oh, my! Lily—may I call you that?—this isn’t good.”

“No, but Aurora—listen … don’t some of them seem to be asking to hear Ben? Don’t some seem reasonable?”

Aurora gazed from face to face in the throng. “Some do, yes,” she agreed, her composure returning. “And I recognize some of them. They’re not bad people. The rest of them, I think, are miners—not that that makes them bad, but at this time of night, it very likely means they’re drunk.”

“Oh, my. Do you think Reverend Culbertson can do any good?” Lily asked.

“I think it’s possible,” Aurora returned bracingly. “I think all that’s needed here is something that will quiet the crowd a bit. And what better than a reverend and a group of determined women?”

“Well, ladies,” Mr. Culbertson’s voice sounded beside them. “I think our work is cut out for us.”

Lily gulped. Mr. Culbertson obviously believed that God would protect His crusaders; he had a great deal more courage than she did. She was scared witless at the idea of pushing her way through the rough crowd, but she chewed her lip to prevent her chin trembling and gathered up her skirt to get down from the wagon.

“Lily—no,” Aurora cried, and then reddening, carried on in a whisper, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so bold. But don’t you see, you need to stay here. Please don’t misunderstand me—you’ve done the very best thing, bringing us here. But it’s not your fight.”

“I feel like it is.”

Aurora’s eyes were warm. “I know. I can feel that you do—and it’s lovely of you. But Ben Cartwright would be furious if we got you involved. Don’t you think you could stay here? You don’t want to distract him, worrying about you, do you?”

Lily sat back. “I don’t know—” she began, and then reflected that what Eleanor’s mother said was true: Ben would worry about her if he saw her in the mob. It had nothing to do with what she might or might not mean to him; he’d worry about Julia or Michaela the same way. “You’re right,” she conceded. “We can’t take a chance. I’ll stay here with Robbie. But Aurora, if you need us for anything—anything at all—you’ll signal, won’t you?”

“Of course, dear. Now, just stay safe. With any luck, we’ll accomplish a great deal tonight, and set Hector McWhirter and his band of jackals running.”

Lily’s fingers gripped the buckboard seat as she watched the minister and the little band of ladies create a way through the defiant mob; at first it was difficult going, but as word began to spread that women were present, a path opened to the International Hotel.

“Gentlemen! Gentlemen! The sheriff is quite right!” The reverend’s voice sounded above the crowd. “Why, what have we to lose by listening to both sides of the issue of statehood? Certainly as the finest upstanding community between St. Louis and San Francisco, we can grant a few moments to hear the truth! The truth, ladies and gentlemen! Isn’t that what’s important?”

Although there was some complaining, the raucous crowd wasn’t quite willing to defy the authoritative minister and his feminine escort. The ladies lined the area around the front of the hotel as Culbertson gained the porch. The rumble of protest died as the minister raised both arms and intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen—and patrons of the saloons—let us take advantage of this opportunity to hear the arguments for and against statehood! Mr. McWhirter has warned us that the United States of America is intolerant of her states’ individual concerns, and Mr. Cartwright has gone on record as predicting that commerce will thrive with Nevada as a state! My friends, I believe we’ve all heard these arguments and a lot of others. What I suggest is that we give each man five minutes to speak—to summarize what’s most important in his cause.”

The crowd stirred and hummed, but no one responded specifically until a man in back shouted that the idea sounded good to him. Two or three others supported him, and in the tradition of a mob one followed another, nodding in agreement.

“All right, then,” Reverend Culbertson pronounced. “Mr. McWhirter, would you like to begin?”

Lily smiled to herself. Culbertson was no one’s fool … Ben would have the opportunity to refute each of McWhirter’s points. But she still had difficulty listening to five minutes of the journalist’s incendiary opinions and outright lies as he maintained Ben’s dishonesty, was offensive concerning Mr. Lincoln, and finished with a statement in strong support of slavery.

“There will always be jobs no decent man would accept—not even a Chinaman,” McWhirter proclaimed. “There may be a day we’d welcome slaves who’d be available to do those jobs because they had no choice!”

A smattering of applause followed his words.

Mr. Culbertson raised his hand. “Time! … Mr. Cartwright, if you please.”

Ben stood up and leaned over the railing, his face earnest. “I’ll not waste my time talking about taxes and commerce. Any of you who take the trouble to read the law and study the history of economics will know that what I say is true. But I will respond to Mr. McWhirter’s arguments on the advisability of slavery.

“I think we should ask ourselves: Who decides which jobs are so menial that no man will do them? How many of you have done work you’ve hated just because you wanted to feed your family? And when circumstance obliged you to take those jobs, you were glad to have them. So, gentlemen, let’s ask ourselves something else. Why would we want to allow slavery? Who stands to gain from it?”

In the flickering shadows at the back of the crowd, Lily became aware of the calm settling over the gathering as the men listened to what Ben was saying. And she could see why; not only was he making sense—to her mind, anyway—but his voice was deep and mellow, authoritative and believable. That the crowd would respond and follow his thoughts was understandable.

“Well, it seems pretty obvious who stands to gain,” Ben continued. “The employer comes out ahead. If he can buy an employee and then never pay another cent except in upkeep—which could be in deplorable conditions, depending on his consideration—why would he want to pay top dollar to hire you or me?”

There was a general murmur of agreement.

“Now, I doubt that would be attractive to those of us who ranch. We need cowhands who can ride and rope and know cattle and horses. That’s not something a man learns overnight. But what about the other jobs around Virginia City? Just for the sake of argument, what about mining?”

A sudden buzz of interest simmered in the crowd.

“What about the mine owners? I understand two of them—Mr. Ellington and Mr. Harrison—are big backers of the anti-statehood cause. Maybe, gentlemen, just maybe, we’ve discovered why. Imagine—they could bring in a few hundred slaves, able-bodied men from Africa with the strength of Hercules, men who could be taught to swing pick axes, who could work from sunup to sundown and even into the night. Exactly how do you think the economics would work out on a deal like that?”

“How much does it cost to buy one of them-there slaves?” came a voice from the street.

“The last I heard, a fine, strong male slave could be bought for about one thousand dollars,” Ben replied. “More likely, an employer with means might send a ship to Africa and bring in a whole load of them. For the expense of the expedition and the cost of transportation from San Francisco, a mine’s entire employment could be filled for the foreseeable future.” He looked out around the crowd. “Men, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve gone to a great deal of trouble over the past couple of years to establish the Miners’ Union, to ensure fair wages and fair treatment for you all. Do you want to throw it all away?

“Don’t fool yourselves that this argument is over statehood. As a state, Nevada would have more commerce going on than ever before, and that eventually will mean more money for everyone. But if slavery is allowed, only a few will profit.”

For a few seconds after Ben stopped speaking, the street was silent. And then a beefy man pushed his way to the front of the gathering. “That’s right in’er’stin’, Cartwright!” He swung around to McWhirter. “You know me, McWhirter—Hodges, Miners’ Union. I’m here t’ tell ya, you worthless piece o’ scrap ore … you and yer mine owner buddies, that’s you, Ellington, and you, Harrison”—two figures stirred, almost unnoticed, on the sidewalk in front of the Silver Dollar—“an’ anybody else that thinks like you, you ain’t gonna get away with it!”

He turned to the crowd. “All you miners! Are we backin’ those cheap crooks who’d do us out of a day’s pay—out of a livin’? Or are we backin’ statehood? Abe Lincoln? The United States of America?”

Ben stood back on the porch as a cheer went up among the boisterous throng of people. From down the street, Lily couldn’t discern his face, but she could see from the way he held himself that he had relaxed. Undoubtedly there was more to go, but in the space of seconds, the tide had been turned. She wondered how he had discovered the mine owners’ reasons for opposing statehood.

Hodges climbed the stairs to the International’s porch and surveyed the crowd. The miners among them were congregating together and their numbers were noteworthy.

“Are we for statehood?” he bellowed, and when the crowd answered “Yes!” he let them chant and yell their support for several encouraging seconds. Then he turned to McWhirter and Ben, and finally looked back at the crowd. “We need to say right now, we know who’s worked against us! An’ we know who hasn’t done anything to hurt us! And I’m here t’tell ya, McWhirter, if one thing happens to Ben Cartwright or his family—or even any more of his hands—you and yer friends will pay. And you’ll pay big!”

The crowd sent up another yell.

“An’ you’d better make sure yer hired guns know it, too!” Hodges added.

McWhirter didn’t argue, but he spun angrily as if he might walk away. The assemblage at his feet was not welcoming, however, and he finally withdrew through the door to the hotel. It was over.

Lily watched as Ben shook hands with Culbertson, Hodges and several other men who scaled the steps to speak with him. Joe disappeared into the hotel and it was not long before he rode around the building, leading Ben’s and Adam’s horses.

A few minutes later Aurora Vance and the other ladies returned, crowding around the buckboard, chattering and very proud of themselves—rightly, Lily considered. She climbed down to embrace Eleanor and her mother, reflecting that although she had yet to even hold a conversation with some of the women, they all felt like friends.

They were standing near Cordelia McKay’s surrey, reliving the excitement, when Lily felt a warm tickle on the back of her neck and spun around to find herself face-to-face with a tall chestnut horse. Sport regarded her calmly, and when she allowed her eyes to travel up his neck and over his shoulder, she found Adam sitting silently in the saddle, observing her with interest. He stepped down in one fluid movement and turned her away from the ladies.

“Adam, I—” she started when he said nothing, but just continued to stare at her. “Say something, please! You’re making me nervous.”

“Which is probably comfortable, next to how Pa’s liable to make you feel.”

She sighed. “Is he angry?”

“He doesn’t know yet.” Adam’s eyes began to twinkle. “I thought Tom Culbertson sort of came out of nowhere—not mention Aurora Vance. How in the world did you do it, Lily?”

She giggled weakly. “I didn’t plan it. I don’t know how it happened. I just knew that the crowd sounded awfully loud and frightening, and then I ran into Aurora and thought perhaps she might know someone—he won’t be mad, will he?”

“I have no idea.”

“Well …” Lily sighed again and tried to collect her thoughts. “He can be mad if he likes. Frankly, it’s been such a day that I’m too tired to think about it.” She gazed solemnly at Adam. “We won tonight, didn’t we? How can people support Hector McWhirter and his hired thugs in the face of this?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I think we won. McWhirter, Ellington … all of them … they’ll have a hard time making a case in opposition to statehood. I doubt we’ll be able to prove anything against the men who hurt Brownie, but we’ll win on the bigger issue.”

“Then … then I guess all is as it should be.” Lily swallowed. “I’d do it again, Adam. I don’t care if he’s mad. I couldn’t not do my best to help.”

“I know.” Adam’s voice was kind. He smiled at her from beneath his lashes, his eyes warm. “You’re a rare woman, Lily Mercer.”

In her exhaustion, Lily blinked at tears. “Adam … however all this turns out, I’ll never be able to thank you enough. I love your father. But I want you to know—I’ve come to care very much for you, too. No matter what, you’ll always be very dear to me.”

“And you to me,” he replied, and for a moment their gazes held.



Lily was talking to Reverend Culbertson when Ben finally appeared, leading Buck. She could read nothing from his eyes when he looked at her.

He held out his hand to the minister. “Great job, Tom. I was never so glad to see anyone in my life.”

“You probably didn’t need us, Ben, but it’s too important an issue to take chances,” Tom Culbertson replied. “I knew we had an opportunity to accomplish something when I looked around and saw several perfectly decent folks in the crowd. They just needed a little encouragement to speak up.”

“What I can’t figure is how you knew what was happening.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Mrs. Mercer, here, and Mrs. Vance came to get me.”

“I see.”

Lily felt her throat constrict as he studied her impassively.

“I thought you were going to wait at Dr. Martin’s,” he said.

A stain of pink enveloped her cheeks. “I … well …”

She was rescued when Aurora Vance appeared at Ben’s elbow. “Ben, what a magnificent job!”

“I think I should be saying that to you, Aurora,” he responded. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your part in this evening—although it goes without saying that you ladies shouldn’t have taken the risk.”

“Oh, my word! It was well worth it!” She put an arm around Lily. “And Ben, I can’t say enough about Lily; she was wonderful. I jumped to a very erroneous conclusion when I assumed that she’d sympathize with the Confederates. Why, she’d have been marching with us, given the choice!”

“Oh, she would have, would she?” he returned, and as Aurora moved on to organize the ladies’ return to their carriages, he looked down at Lily.

“I’d have marched because I thought it was the thing to do,” she confessed, “but I was never so glad as when Aurora said I shouldn’t. I was terrified.”

“Thank God for that.”

“And I did realize that you’d worry—I mean, you’d have worried if any of us had been there—Julia, me, Michaela … I couldn’t have that.”

“M’m. That’s good of you.”

“And … I was sure that if the crowd didn’t kill me, you would have.”

“You’re right about that.” And then he turned in response to someone’s greeting, and she sank back against the buckboard.

Lily closed her eyes wearily. In the wake of the debate, the mood of the miners was turning festive. The sound of the honky-tonk saloon pianos competed with the shouts of those who were drinking, gambling and brawling, and the entire atmosphere was beginning to remind her of the tail-end of Carnival, when anyone with sense went home to sleep.

Adam’s voice came quietly from behind her. “Let me put you up on the buckboard.”

She nodded, and when he’d helped her into the wagon, she sat silently, battling to keep her eyes open.

Then Ben swung up into the seat beside her and she realized that Robbie was mounted on Buck. For one disquieting moment, she feared she might be sick—a singularly pointless thing to do, she observed as she quelled the impulse and the nerves which had caused it. She went through the motions of saying good-bye to the ladies and manufactured a polite and composed demeanor for the stop at Dr. Martin’s, where they found Brownie unchanged and the doctor apologetic about letting Lily leave. By that time, she was past caring about much except how soon she would be able to curl up in her bed.

On the drive home, however, once they were in the country, her energy returned—naturally, it seemed, as once out of town, she became aware of the lovely evening. Overhead, pinpoint stars filled the dark sky and the intense glow of the moon cast a pale frothy haze over everything. Around her, the pungent scent of the pine trees gave the air a personality of its own. The boys and Robbie rode to either side of the buckboard, and Lily was reminded of how different this trip was from the frantic one earlier in the evening. She arranged the shawl around her; it had to be nearing midnight and the wind was cool on her skin. As unsettled as her emotions were, she was growing content … It was nighttime in the Sierras, and she was out on the road with a group of brave men, returning from doing something important—living, she felt, on the far end of her senses, at home in the world.

She was so lost in her own thoughts that she barely noticed when the road began the steeper part of its ascent into the mountains and the wagon slowed. What caught her attention was Adam, Joe and Robbie waving as they rode on ahead; they’d be home, unsaddled and relaxed, before the buckboard arrived.

Ben’s voice caught her unprepared. “I don’t believe I thanked you for everything you did tonight.”

“Th—? Oh, Ben, heavens, you don’t have to thank me. I’d be quite happy if you’re just not mad at me.”

He went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “I believe the phrase is ‘above and beyond the call of duty.’”

“That’s very kind of you.” She stole a glance at his profile. “But let’s be honest. First I practically insulted you this afternoon, and then I forced myself on you this evening, and I didn’t stay at Dr. Martin’s as I knew you wanted me to. Truly, I didn’t mean to defy you or cause any trouble, and truly it’s not that I think I always know best. Tonight just seemed to dictate itself. But it must seem as if I’ve opposed you at every turn.”

He smiled reluctantly. “You haven’t exactly been agreeable.”

“I’m very sorry—”

He shifted the reins to his right fist to grasp one of her hands in his left. “Lily, how could I not be grateful?”

“You’re not furious with me?”

“I could strangle you,” he admitted, “but I’m not mad at you. You were pretty incredible.”

“Oh, my,” she breathed, for a second overlooking the reassuring grip of his hand on hers. “Thank you, Ben. Perhaps I was carried away, but you’re so committed to what’s right and what’s good that I just couldn’t see standing in your way or not doing what I could to help.”

He didn’t take his eyes off the road. “Lily, everything you’ve done today has been right. I’m sorry if I haven’t been able to make that clear. I’ve agreed with you; what I couldn’t—can’t—reconcile is putting you in danger.”

She sighed and began to enjoy the warm, strong presence of his hand. “I’m so very glad it’s over.”

“I am, too.”

“You were brilliant, Ben. I knew when you’d barely begun to speak that the crowd would follow you—that Hector McWhirter had seen his last success.”

“I thought it was considerably more uncertain than that, which is one reason I was glad to see Tom and the ladies.”

“What made you think of the mine owners actually planning to use slaves?”

He shrugged. “I should have thought of it before. When McWhirter went into the slavery theme, I just kept wondering why he should care—we’ve never had any demand for slaves here, which meant it was likely that whoever stood to profit by keeping Nevada a territory figured on making money through the use of them. From there, it was an easy jump to the miners, not just because the jobs might suit, but also because we knew Ellington and Harrison were involved. You’ll note that I only mentioned them; I don’t think you’d see anything of the kind at the Yellow Jacket or the Ophir or any of the larger operations. It was a desperate scheme by small, desperate people.”

He directed a quick glance at her. “And I have a question for you: How did you decide to recruit Aurora Vance and Tom Culbertson?”

“Oh, well, that’s just it. I didn’t. It all sort of—happened. I knew when I heard the crowd that it sounded dangerous … and then I saw Aurora coming out of a party and actually, I only stopped to ask her if the pro-statehood people had an organization. I thought perhaps they might come out and support you at the rally.” She couldn’t help a little chuckle. “So you see, I did have a rational thought—but Ben, you know Aurora Vance. It just got out of control.”

He betrayed a small laugh. “I can imagine.”

“It’s not like I wouldn’t do it again, because I would. But I can’t say it’s what I planned.”

He squeezed her hand and although she could not see his face in the uncertain light, she could feel his approval. “You’re an amazing woman, Lily.”

“Oh, I don’t know. But at least it’ll be ‘all’s well that ends well,’ as long as Brownie recovers.”

“Yes, as long as Brownie recovers.” He sent her a little smile and noticed that she was gathering her shawl more closely around her. “Are you cold?”

“Not bad, no. Actually, I’m feeling very good right now. It’s such a lovely night out.”

“Yes, it is.”

For a while, the beauty of the evening was enough for them and they rode in silence until finally they rounded the corner by the barn and Ben brought the horses to a halt in front of the corral. Even then, they just sat side by side for a moment in the peace of the deserted clearing. Then he took a deep breath, climbed off the buckboard and came around to help her down, just as Robbie appeared from the barn. The young man nodded and wished them well as he led the team away.

There was nothing to do except go inside, and suddenly Lily felt awkward. They had been through so much together and yet she still had no idea of where she stood with him. She swiped absently at her skirt and started across the yard, aware that Ben seemed lost in his own abstraction. Perhaps, she dared to hope, his thoughts were confused too.

They had just reached the circle of light that extended from the porch when she looked down and for the first time noticed her clothes.

“Good heavens!” she gasped, running a hand over the front of her white shirtwaist. It was streaked with blood and dirt from the wild ride to Virginia City with Brownie. “Why didn’t you tell me I looked like this? Why, if I’d been called a street urchin, it would have been a compliment!”

Ben caught her hand. “I’d consider that a badge of honor,” he said gently, and turned her toward him. “I told you you did a wonderful job, and I meant it. If a blouse is the only casualty, don’t you think it’s worth it?”

She flushed and tried not to think of what her face and hair must look like.

He read her mind. “You look beautiful.”

“That’s very kind of you to say and you have no idea how much I appreciate it.” She brushed at a loose strand of hair and sighed deeply.

“Here, now.” He pulled her against him, wrapping her in a bear hug. He wasn’t being romantic and Lily knew it—they were both way too exhausted for that sort of thing, and right now, the physical comfort of his arms was enough. She felt her tension and weariness fading away as she leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against the cool leather of his vest. He dropped a kiss into her hair and held her, still and safe, for several minutes.

“I think I can’t say thank you enough,” he finally murmured.

“Oh, Ben …” She arched her back, not releasing him—as he did not let her go—but just smiling up into his eyes. “You don’t owe me any thanks.”

Slowly it penetrated her mind that Ben was still holding her … that he hadn’t broken their friendly embrace, that he must be as comfortable with it as she was. Almost instinctively, her heart began to race and she found that she couldn’t take her eyes from his … his warm, fathomless dark eyes. She was lost in them. Unbidden, her hand slipped up his chest over the smooth vest, into his open collar to the warm skin of his throat, where his pulse was beginning to pound erratically. Then her fingers, with a will of their own, shifted to his face, as lightly as a cat’s whisker tracing the edge of his jawline, the upward sweep of his eyebrow … and combing through his hair to the back of his neck. She had long since said good-bye to coherent thought when she pulled his head down to her and stood on her toes to meet his lips with hers.

For a moment, Ben stood dumbfounded—every dream, every desire he’d resolutely crushed and pushed away over the past eight months rose within him. Lily … soft and yielding and so deliciously alive in his arms … kissing him. Through a fog, he held on to her as if she could vanish at any minute, and then after a few delirious seconds, he redoubled his grip on her, his hands moving up her back, his lips parting hers urgently. And she opened to him, her mouth so sweet and hot and so, so welcoming. He heard his breath come sharply, rasping in the onslaught of his hunger for her, and hers answering … short, overloud, her desires commanding her as strongly as his were ruling him. A small whimper of longing escaped her as her body created a rhythm of its own against his.

Finally he lifted his head, half-frightened at the sudden intensity of his emotions. He didn’t want to let her go, but she pushed back and gazed up at him. Her face was flushed and as surprised as he was sure his was … but a little light flickered in her eyes and a smile started on her lips.


“Tomorrow, Ben,” she whispered. “Tomorrow.” And gathering up her skirt, she ran across the porch to the door. He was left alone in the quiet yard.



The big grandfather clock struck three in the morning, its long mournful notes reverberating through the house so that Ben wondered why everyone didn’t wake up. But no one did. Only he lay in his bed, eyes open, mind racing, restless and unable to sleep. Time and again he had drifted into a drowsy trance only to come jarringly awake. He pounded his pillows into submission, re-stacked them, straightened his tangled sheets. Then he sank back against the headboard, his eyes traveling to the brilliant slash of moonlight that coursed through the window.

He was dog-tired, his whole body weary … and yet, beneath the surface ran a current of energy that all but took his breath away. There was no use denying it. He couldn’t sleep because he couldn’t stop thinking about Lily Mercer. About the way she’d kissed him tonight—because that was how it had happened. Not that he hadn’t wanted to kiss her; he’d wanted to kiss her countless times since she’d arrived. And not that he hadn’t enjoyed it, hadn’t kissed her back. He had. But he hadn’t initiated the kiss. She had.

He ran his palm over the smooth front of his cotton nightshirt. It smelled of fresh air and perhaps faintly of soap; Hop Sing’s cousin had done the laundry and ironing today. But the feel of it, and the perfectly-pressed sheets, and even the rhythmic ticking of the clock on the mantel couldn’t distract him from what had taken over his mind, and that was Lily.

She had kissed him. Tonight, as she stood in his arms, she had told him with her lips and her body that she cared for him. He could feel her hands on his shoulders, her fingers in his hair. His chest heated with the memory of her breasts, soft and lush against his shirt. And lower … he felt the simmering excitement. Damn, she had an effect on him.

He loved her. My God, he thought. I love her as much as I did last fall—more, really. I know her better now. He lay still for a long time, letting his imagination run. She was so beautiful, so alluring … she was meant to be his. He was certain of it. And he was hers as thoroughly and completely as he knew how to be.

After a while, he felt himself relax and knew that sleep would not be far off. Still, he couldn’t put her out of his mind. He smiled faintly; the way he was feeling was hardly appropriate for a middle-aged man with grown sons. But then, there were no rules about such things. And suddenly he realized that he was no longer focusing on making love with Lily. He was reveling in loving her, all the wonderful, fulfilling aspects of sharing his life with her.

Like now … he longed to feel her next to him, not panting with desire, but just curled against him. In the quiet of the night—any night, every night—both of them awake, lying together, her head on his shoulder, her arm thrown across his chest. He would hold her, absorbing the comfort of her nearness even as his body appreciated her soft curves nestled along him. Of all the things he missed about being married, that one he yearned for most: lying together in the darkness, two souls as one.

In the long years since Marie’s death, he’d thought he’d been in love once or twice, but he had never felt the inherent certainty he knew now. I have to tell her I love her, he  realized. I don’t care what she said last fall; things may have changed—perhaps it wasn’t true then, perhaps it isn’t now …


To be continued


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