At the Sign of the Four Dragons


Note:  This story assumes that the Cartwrights are the ages assigned by David Dortort:

Ben was born about 1809 or 1810, Adam in 1830, Hoss in 1836, and Joe in 1842.

It takes place a few months before Joe turns nineteen in 1861.  

For those who are interested, a few historical notes are included at the end.

Disclaimer: The Cartwrights are not mine.

Everyone else, except San Francisco’s Mayor Henry Frederick Teschemacher, is.

Copyright © OCTOBER 2004 as allowed 


Day One


Chapter One 

Backlit by the western sun, the haze over the milling cattle refracted golden columns of light. The lowing of the herd and the shuffle of their hooves as they crowded into the holding pen was lulling; for a moment, Adam Cartwright felt the weariness of the long drive over the mountains, across California to Oakland. He leaned hard on the saddle horn as he swung his leg over his cowpony and dropped to the ground. Several men from the Bradison Cattle Company helped Hoss push the last few stragglers through the gate, and the job was finished.  

A thickset man with gold-rimmed glasses sidled close, his eyes on a clipboard as he scribbled down numbers. “Adam, the price you get for this herd will make it well worth your trouble.” 

Adam looped his reins over the fence rail without looking up. They’d known Cal Graves for years; Bradison had been buying Ponderosa beef for as long as they had had any to sell. “You made a deal that was hard to refuse,” he said. His gaze remained on the herd as he ran a mental count. Just thirty, but all in good condition. Bloodstock for breeding, not slaughter. 

“Yes …” Graves twisted the cap on the board’s small receptacle of ink and dipped his pen. “You’ll recall what I told your father when he brought that bull from back East. I told ’im he’d be the only one this side o’ Kansas City to have this blood, and when he got ready to sell some of it, we’d be ready to buy.” 

Adam nodded.           

“Give you a fair price on the horses, too.” Graves scrawled across the bottom of a sheet and held it out. “Sign there, under my name. Maybe next year, you’ll be willin’ to part with more of ’em. You an’ your brother musta thought it was more play than work, bringin’ this few.”

Hoss dismounted beside them and patted his mare. “Work’s work, Mr. Graves. I ain’t yet got it confused with play.”

Graves grinned. “Well, it’s my guess that play’s comin’ up, boy. Heard about Joe last night, but where’s Ben? I thought he was comin’ with you.”

“He gets in tomorrow,” Adam replied, affixing his signature and handing back the clipboard.  The heat of the day was dying in a lazy breeze, and for the first time, he let himself appreciate the thought of a hot bath and a good dinner.

“He an’ Joe were with us most o’ the way,” Hoss said. “They were bringin’ a stallion to the Olson place down on the peninsula, but Pa had to stop in Sacramento fer some biz’ness. Joe came on with the stud—we’re meetin’ up with ’im tonight.”

Adam looked amused. “What’d you hear about Joe? Is San Francisco still standing?”

“Huh? Oh …” Graves ripped off the page and folded it, then chuckled. “Yeah, last I heard it was, but with your brother, I won’t bet the homestead on it. … Nah, one o’ the boys was over there last night, an’ saw him partyin’. Said he was paintin’ the town, that’s all. Down in the Barbary Coast.”

The silence that greeted his words caused him to peer up over his glasses, and his eyes traveled from one Cartwright brother to the other. “Don’t worry, I heard Frank Darby was with him. Can’t a-got in too much trouble with Frank around.”

The momentary tension faded and Hoss snickered. “Only way Pa’d send Joe on with the horse was if Darby came with ’im.”

Cal Graves turned toward the office. “Boy’s just young, that’s all. How old is he? Twenty yet?”

“Not till next year. He won’t even be nineteen for a lil’ while yet.” Hoss tied the mare to the rail and reached out to punch his brother’s shoulder. “We’d better get movin’, or he won’t a-left us any girls.”

“Molly went and got ferry passes for you this noon,” Cal Graves told them as they fell into step, following the fence line to the company office.  “Knew you’d be wanting to make the six-thirty. Sometimes it fills up.”

As if she had heard him, a slender young woman with an envelope in her hands emerged from the frame building. “Land sakes, you two look like you’ve been on a cattle drive!” she teased them. “If you don’t clean yourselves up, the ladies of San Francisco won’t be batting their lashes at either of you!”

Hoss smiled at her; she was very pretty, with lively blue eyes and red hair that shimmered in the light. “Well, Miss Molly, if you’d bat your eyes a little, maybe we wouldn’t need to get over to San Francisco.” 

“Go on with you, Hoss Cartwright!” she laughed, but she blushed with pleasure. She handed the envelope to Adam and gestured at two worn leather cases standing next to the door. “Davey brought your grips up when they put your pack horse away. Ferry leaves in half an hour, and there’s a fellow at the end of the block who’ll get you to the wharf if you’ll pay his price.”

Adam sighed. “Tonight—any price. Thank you, Molly.”

Cal Graves waved the folded paper. “We’ll have a draft on the Stockmen’s Bank ready for you by the day after tomorrow.”




“Now, Darby—just think seven-thirty. Exactly thirty minutes from now. Consider it. Now, would you rather spend the next hour-and-a-half, maybe two hours—maybe even more, sittin’ here waitin’ for Adam and Hoss? Or would you rather sample a little more San Francisco culture—”

Frank Darby’s eyes twinkled, but he kept a straight face. He was familiar with Joe Cartwright’s brand of reasoning and he knew what was coming. He said nothing, and wondered if anyone in the spacious lobby of the What Cheer House was listening in on their conversation. When Joe got rolling with one of his grand plans, it could be rare entertainment.

Joe paused to reflect on his choice of words. “Well, maybe ‘culture’ is a little too strong, and anyhow, it sounds too much like something Adam would like, which can be kinda scary at times, y’know? Anyhow, the first show at the Bella Union—don’t y’think it has our name on it?”

“Oh, I reckon it might. But maybe we oughta consider our chances o’ gettin’ back here to meet your brothers. You think we can make it by eight-thirty or nine? That’s about the latest they’ll be expectin’ to see you.”

“Why, no trouble at all! It’s not all that far, and if we run late, we can just hire us up a cab.” Joe caught the gleam in his friend’s eye and grew a little more serious, but he couldn’t stop a fleeting grin. “Okay, look … it won’t be one bit of trouble for you to be back here by nine. You’ll just have to see that I’m with you.”

Darby stroked his sideburns and let his fingers appreciate his grey beard, newly trimmed and neat. “Joe, I’m guessin’ that not all his work raisin’ Adam and Hoss was any preparation for yer pa when he commenced to raisin’ you.”

Joe was already leading the way to the door. “Y’know, you got a point there. But y’know what else? Now that he’s done such a good job with me, I’ll betcha my pa could raise anybody, slicker’n a whistle and just about perfect.”



Adam leaned on the ferry railing, watched the city of San Francisco approach across the bay, and savored the thrill. No matter how tired he was, something about the city by the Golden Gate always stirred him, fired his imagination as no other place did. It wasn’t just the end of a cattle drive or a few nights of fun.

Part of it, he reflected, was the ocean, just beyond those hills. He could smell it, see it in his mind’s eye. The sea and the West were very much alike: big and untamed, beautiful beyond measure. They made you believe that all things were possible, or would be soon. They made you think of the future. And San Francisco, in his mind, was where they met.

He sensed a promise in the city that for all its roughneck origins could not help being something special. With the people pouring in from all kinds of places, the rest of the world seemed right there, just over the horizon. Every day ships came into harbor from distant points of the globe, lands such as his father had described in stories of his seafaring days. The very air here was intoxicating.

That was not to say that he was dissatisfied with the Ponderosa or Virginia City; Virginia City was growing at a breakneck pace, and sometimes rivaled San Francisco for amusements. But there, everything revolved around silver. Here, all manner of commerce—of men’s ideas—drove the life, the growth, what was to come. On any street corner, Chinese or Spanish or German or French, or some language not as readily identifiable, might be heard. It reminded him that there was so much to be learned … so many places and possibilities to be explored.

“That’s one right pretty sight,” Hoss said, coming to stand beside his brother. He planted his hands solidly on the rail and leaned into the wind. “Sun goin’ down, and the lights comin’ on.”

Adam nodded … beautiful indeed, in the rose-glow of sunset.

“An’ I’m lookin’ forward to some mighty good times,” Hoss murmured. “We’ve earned ’em.”

Adam smiled, and put away his musings. “That we have.”




Darkness had fallen when Hoss and Adam reached the city. They hired a cab to the hotel on Sacramento Street, where they found the sidewalks jammed with men, all on their way to an evening of pleasure after a day of work. It was impossible to hear above the shouts, the laughter and the din of hooves on the plank roadway.

Hoss, gazing out from the cramped vehicle, read the words ‘What Cheer House’ above the second story of a tall brick building, and was happy to open the door against the rush of humanity.

“Evenin’ Bulletin!” cried a child’s voice from the corner. “Get-chur Bulletin! Judge sez Bloody Luke Parton’ll stan’ trial!”

He muscled a place on the sidewalk, and while his brother paid their fare, reached for their luggage from the roof of the cab. A damp mist was rolling in, clammy on the skin and sharp with salt; he shivered a little, his shirt and vest of little protection. The pale glimmer of the gaslights lent an other-worldly atmosphere to the buildings which rose around them like cliffs, and he needed no urging to shoulder his way to the bright lobby of the hotel.

“Cartwright,” Adam told the desk clerk. “Our brother’s already here—Joe Cartwright.”           

“Yes, sir. Mr. Cartwright just went out a little while ago. I believe he wanted to catch the earliest show at the Bella Union.”

A muscle throbbed briefly in Adam’s cheek. “He was going to meet us.”

“Oh, yes, sir, that’s what he said—I mean, when he turned in his key,” the young man reassured them. “I’m sure he’s just been delayed, sir.” While Adam signed the register, the clerk extracted two keys from the wall of cubbyholes behind him. “Your suite is on the third floor, and you’ll find bathing facilities in the basement. Our dining room is just over there behind the palm tree, and our free library is on the second floor.”

Hoss waited for his brother to speak as they passed through the lobby and went up to their accommodations, but the silence just lengthened, and finally he blurted, “Adam, you ain’t gettin’ worried about Lil’ Joe, are yuh?”

Adam crossed the parlor to the room he would share with his father. “Let’s just say that I wish I weren’t.” He opened his valise on one of the beds.

“Y’know, Joe was here last year, an’ besides, he’s got Darby with ’im. Can’t nothin’ happen.”

“You really believe that?”

“Yeah … sure. I mean, I know Mr. Graves said that fella’d seen Joe down on the Barb’ry Coast, an’ I know that’s where folks get shanghaied—we mixed it up down there the last time we was here. That’s how I know Joe’d be careful of it. He wouldn’t go down there’n get drunk ’r anything like that.”

Adam hung a suit in the wardrobe. “Hoss, remember when I came back from Boston? I stayed over here a couple of days with Judge Blain.”

“Yeah. But that’s been ten years ago.”

“It was back when the Barbary Coast was really rough. They called it Sydney Town then, and it was worth a man’s life to go there.”

“Yeah. Took a Vigilance Committee to clean it up.”

“The only way they got rid of some of the worst criminals this side of St. Louis.”

“Uh-huh.” Hoss nodded, his blue eyes studious.

“And have you been listening to what’s being said about it lately?”

“Can’t say as I have. We don’t get over here real often, so I guess I didn’ figure it was anythin’ I needed to know.”

“Well, they say it’s gotten as bad as it was—a lot worse than when you were here last year.”

Hoss sighed and reached for his own bag; his and Joe’s room was on the other side of the suite.  “Well, ain’t nothin’ we can do about it now. How ’bout we get cleaned up an’ get somethin’ to eat? By the time we get done, maybe Joe’ll be back.”

“I hope so.” 




“Darby, have a look at your watch. You think we have time for one more?” 

A pace behind Joe on the sidewalk, Darby shook his head wryly. “One more? We been havin’ one more for the past hour.”

“Yeah, but the Fancy Dog’s in the next block. That’s where we saw that pretty little redhead. Could be she’s there tonight.”

“She’ll still be there if you an’ Hoss wanta come back later,” Darby replied. “What the—?”

In the dim light, it all happened too fast. For a second, Joe didn’t connect the strangled surprise in Darby’s voice with his friend, or with the dark night or anything that could happen to them. And then he felt the rush of air as Darby whirled forcefully.

Joe spun around, only to spin again from a vicious uppercut to the jaw. He pitched backward into a clapboard wall and ricocheted into an alley, gasping frantically for breath.

It didn’t make sense. There had been no warning … and then he heard the hard thomp! of a fist to the gut. Just like the one he’d suffered. And a harsh, winded utterance—and then another sickening strike. But by then, he wasn’t listening; his abdomen was caving in, and his already doubtful vision darkened even more. He couldn’t get enough air. His knees buckled as he tried to stand.

Across the street, three onlookers gathered, mesmerized by the brutality. One gasped at the flash of steel in the dim light, then shoved fearfully at his companions, urging them down the sidewalk. It wasn’t safe to see too much.




Hoss peered into the looking glass and wrinkled his nose. “Dadburnit!”

The attendant in the What Cheer’s expansive room of tub stalls approached with concern, but Hoss waved him away.

“What’s the matter?” Adam knotted his black silk tie and kept his eyes on his own mirror. In the steam from their baths, his wavy black hair had turned curly; he flattened it with the heel of his hand.

“Can’t get my doggone hair to lay right—”

“Here, wait a minute.” Adam appropriated the comb and straightened out the dogleg in Hoss’ center part, then divided the sandy-brown hair into two little curls over his brother’s forehead.

Hoss examined the result. “Just what I was after.” He licked his forefinger and stuck one of the curls down more securely. “Thanks.”

Adam smiled and turned his attention to buttoning his vest. Nearby, two large tubs of water, cool now and blue with soap, bore testimony to their long soaks. Buckets of warm rinse water stood empty, and the attendant was gathering their damp towels. Adam nodded that he could take their work clothes for cleaning, and tossed the old man a coin.

“So what’re you figurin’ on doin’ tonight?” Hoss shrugged into his caramel-colored jacket.

“I think maybe a leisurely dinner, and then the Union Club, where the conversation will be excellent and the cognac second to none.”

“Conversation, huh?”

“As far as I can get from a cattle drive.”

Hoss surveyed Adam’s navy suit. “Yeah, I can see that, but what d’you fellers talk about that’s so all-fired interestin’?”

“Well, things like … ah … what’s likely to happen in this country, with the attack on the garrison at Fort Sumter. Or the likelihood that the price of silver will remain steady.” He warmed to his topic. “Or Whitman’s latest additions to Leaves of Grass—”

“That’s enough!” Hoss’ skeptical expression showed what he thought of his brother’s idea of a good time. “That’s all you’ll do? No wimen ’r nothin’? Just talk?”

Adam arched his brows. “We’ll see what works out.” Then he winked broadly. “But that’s just tonight. I’ll hit the cards and the dance halls tomorrow night. What are you and Joe gonna do?”

Hoss grinned. “Well, not havin’ any burnin’ desire to talk about poets, I reckon we’ll just get right on with the cards and the dance halls. Joe’ll probably have some ideas.”

“Assuming he turns up before dawn.”

“Aw, he’ll turn up. Bet he ’n’ Darby’re upstairs now waitin’ fer us. And I’ll bet they ain’t had any dinner either, so we can start by gettin’ somethin’ to eat.”

But Joe was not upstairs, and he did not return during dinner. They lingered in the hotel dining room through three courses, and neither wanted to admit that it was just to give their brother more time to come back, safe and sound and most likely cackling with the tales of his exploits.

Hoss finally flung his napkin on the table, his patience fading. “What time is it?” 

Adam opened his pocket watch. “Half past ten.”  

Around them, with most of its tables empty, the restaurant began to assume a forlorn air. A couple of waiters hovered discreetly. 

“He oughta be back by now.” Hoss grimaced. “Problem with our younger brother is yuh don’t know when he’s just out funnin’ ’r when he’s gone and got himself in trouble.”

“Well, we’ve got a choice. We can either figure it’s one of his pranks, and do what we want … or we can decide it might not be, and go make sure he gets back all right.”

Hoss regarded his fingernails judiciously. “Adam, the way I see it, we don’t have any choice at all. If it turns out he’s really in trouble, Pa’ll dang-near kill us fer not goin’ to help ’im out. And if it is one o’ his pranks, well, we might as well get in on the fun.”

“Yeah. Fun.”

“Y’re the one who was worried about ’im,” Hoss pointed out helpfully.

“Yeah.” Resignation won out. “Let’s go upstairs and get our guns.”


Chapter Two


Outside the hotel, the crowd had thinned, but the indistinct noise of music, laughter and loud voices confirmed a night’s worth of action nearby. The chill had settled in, with a mist that blurred the yellow glow of the street lamps.

Hoss squenched up his eyes. “Where d’ we start?”

“Why don’t we check every dive and saloon between here and the Bella Union? Joe wouldn’t have spent all night in a music hall.”

“Makes sense.”

“All right, then. Let’s split up. You take—”

“Huh-uh. No splittin’ up.” Hoss’ gruff voice invited no argument. “That’s how we got messed up the last time we was here, an’ Pa gave us hell fer it. Maybe it’ll take us longer, but you an’ me ain’t gettin’ no further apart than we are right now.”

A faint smile softened Adam’s features. “All right. This way.”

“We find Joe quick as we can an’ then we can have ourselves a lil’ fun.”

But an hour later, they were still without a younger brother. They had started a couple of blocks from the hotel at a dance hall called Smiling Maggie’s, located in the cellar of an import company. Smoke hung low against its ceiling, and it reeked so horribly of sweat and stale beer that a cursory glance from the door was all they needed; in a city with so many other options, Joe wouldn’t have chosen this one. They moved on to the Last Chance, a groggery filled with sailors, and then to the Sequoia, a wine and beer den that for a moment looked as if it might attract their brother. The pretty waiter girls were not bad looking, the air was relatively clean, and while a few souls slept off their liquor on a bench at the rear, the rest seemed comparatively sober, upright in chairs at the tables which dotted the room. At the long bar on one wall, they inquired about Joe. But if the bartender was to be believed, a slender young cowboy of their brother’s description hadn’t been seen that night. They moved on.

“So what’s s’ awful about this place?” Hoss asked. He brushed free of the sidewalk crowd and squinted around. “It don’t seem that much different from Virginia City.”

“You could find pieces of the Barbary Coast anywhere,” Adam agreed absently, his attention on the sidewalk ahead. “There’s just something worse here. The Call says someone’s killed every night.” No one on the crowded block so much as resembled their youngest brother.

“The police don’t put a stop to it?” 

“The city officials take their cut. The police just do the best they can.”

Hoss mulled it over. “Well, I just hope we find ’im soon. I’m not in the mood to stay out all night, and I’m sure not in the mood to have to tell Pa that Lil’ Joe’s gone and got himself inta trouble.”

Above them, a board sign that said “The Fancy Dog” creaked from the vibrations of boots descending a flight of stairs to the cellar saloon.

“C’mon,” Hoss said.

Inside, a piano player competed with the shouts of the patrons. The air wasn’t bad, and except for one weathered old woman who was obviously in charge, the pretty waiter girls looked young and comparatively fresh. One of them attached herself to Hoss as soon as he came in, and gazed up into his face with guileless eyes as she ran her hands over the front of his coat. Only when he clasped both of her hands in his—at a distance from any of his pockets—did she make an excuse and move away.

Adam chuckled. “Well done.”

“They think ’cause I’m big, I’m dumb,” Hoss grunted. “I ain’t that dumb.”

They stood at the bar, exchanged pleasantries with the bartender, and ordered two beers. When the man returned with the glasses, Adam asked about their brother.

“Don’t think so,” the barman said, shaking his head. He grinned at them, exhibiting one gold tooth among several rotten ones. “But I get a hundred guys a night in here, maybe more. That’ll be four bits.” He pushed the glasses toward them.

Adam’s eyes strayed to the counter behind the bar; half-concealed under a dingy towel stood a small, open vial. He tossed a few coins on the bar and slanted a warning glance at his brother. “Leave it.”

Hoss nodded and turned around slowly to scan the crowd. “Nice and easy, let’s just get outta here.”

At the far end of the room, two ominous-looking sailors seemed to be watching them. Adam tucked the skirt of his jacket behind the handle of his revolver. “Last row of tables, middle one.”

“I see ’em. Think they’ll do anything?”

“Probably not. We haven’t had a drink.” Even with danger ripe in the air, Adam couldn’t stop a quirky smile. “I don’t think they’ll want to take you on, full strength.”

Hoss offered a mirthless grin. “You might be right at that. An’ tonight, when I’m beginnin’ to get a lil’ bit peeved at my younger brother, they really don’t wanta take me on. C’mon.”

They made their way to the door, amazingly unnoticed as the activity of the saloon swirled around them. The two men in the back of the room did nothing, but on the steps outside, two others materialized—one massive, with the broken nose of a professional fighter, and the other small and lean, with a short, deadly knife.

“You gentlemen play nice and we won’t have to hurt you,” the smaller one said.

“I’m always nice,” Hoss gritted. Without sparing even a second to glance at Adam, he grasped the larger one’s arm and jerked him off balance, then slammed hard with his fist. The man collapsed with a winded groan. Hoss hurled him the last few steps to crash against the door of the Fancy Dog, which bounced noisily off the wall inside.

Caught by surprise, the tough with the knife lost a second of reaction time—just enough for Adam to grab his wrist and slam it hard against the wall. The knife clattered to the steps.

“Not tonight,” Adam said tightly.  Hoss caught the thug by the collar, and launched him after his partner.

Inside, the piano stopped abruptly and everyone came to a sudden halt, riveted by the whack of the door and the two prone figures in the entry. Adam and Hoss stared in at the crowd, and then, hearts suddenly hammering in an excess of delayed nerves, pulled shut the door and climbed the stairs to the street. Two men coming down backed away hastily.

Half a block down the sidewalk, they both realized that they were holding their breath, and exhaled explosively. Adam backed up against the brick front of a tobacconist, Hoss against a support pole of the canopy over the walk.

“Hellfire, Adam, we coulda been on our way to China if that’d gone wrong,” Hoss wheezed. “Why d’yuh figure those guys took us on, when we hadn’ had any o’ that knock-out stuff?”

Adam drew in a long gulp of air. “My guess is they had an order for a man your size. They figured it was worth taking a chance, and they moved fast.”

Hoss shook his head in amazement. “They danged near got away with it.” He pushed himself away from the pole and gestured at the far side of the street. “Let’s try over there.”




Joe swam dizzily to consciousness in a sea of pain. His arms were outstretched, his stomach hurt, and his legs were held together—he was over someone’s shoulder. He tried to still the swinging of his head, but he couldn’t. His whole body shifted with each step of the man who carried him, and the pain seemed to come at him from everywhere.

How? What? He tried to reconstruct a memory … any memory … was it tonight or last night that he’d been in that melodeon near the Bella Union? Darby … across the table … the girl …

Someone walked nearby, but he couldn’t get a glimpse. He wondered where Darby was, if someone was carrying him, too. He wondered how far they were going … wished he could breathe better … wished the searing line across his ribcage would quit stinging so much … wished it would dry up. His damp shirt scraped against it like a piece of sandpaper. He’d been knifed. That was his strength, seeping out against his soaked shirt.

Maybe he could yell … except that there weren’t many people on the street around them. None, actually. He’d seen none. He wanted to struggle, but even in his foggy state of mind, he knew it would do no good.




“There”—the next possibility on Adam and Hoss’ makeshift itinerary—was only half a block away, a gambling hell called the Londonderry. Tables of monte, faro and poker filled the front of the room, a clacking roulette wheel and a table of chuck-a-luck at the rear. Waiter girls threaded their way through the crowds of men, dispensing whiskey and beer, often unnoticed in the heat of play. On a bench at one side of the room, a man clasped a woman against him, freely groping the front of her dress.

“Real high class joint,” Hoss muttered disgustedly.

They found places at the bar, where a well-endowed girl with violently hennaed hair sauntered up to Adam and ran her fingers down his arm. One look into his appraising eyes and she swiveled around to stroke Hoss instead. “Buy me a drink, handsome?”

“What’re yuh havin’, ma’am?” he responded politely.

“A whiskey, Jerry,” the woman told the bartender, and slid one foot up the back of Hoss’ leg. “And a big gorgeous man, if I have my way.”

A dull red stained his cheeks. “Well, I don’t guess a lady oughta have to drink alone, but I’m afraid tonight ain’t my night fer company, ma’am. Gotta meet a fella, and we’re havin’ trouble findin’ him.”

“Oh, yeah?” The redhead pushed closer, allowing her fingertips to rest on his arm before she reached for the ribbons on the front of her violet dress. “Why don’t you tell me about him? Maybe I’ve seen him.” Her eyes were sultry, her mouth half open, her tongue flicking over her lower lip. In spite of himself, Hoss shifted uneasily and cast Adam a quick glance.

“Well, he’s not real old and not real tall, but he’s right nice lookin’, and he has a way with ladies such as yerself. He’s wearin’ a green jacket”—he drew back a little as she ran her hands over the front of his shirt and just managed to stop her as she gripped his belt buckle—“and he’d prob’ly’ve been with an older feller.”

“That sounds real familiar. … How about it, mister?” She slipped loose the ties of her dress, and leaned toward him to peel back her bodice just enough that he couldn’t miss the sight of one plump breast with its round nipple. “Fifty cents’ll get you a full look—a dollar and I’ll give you a lot more than a look.”

Hoss shook his head. “Now, don’t you go startin’ that. Tell yuh what I’ll give yuh fifty cents for, an’ that’s an answer to my question. You seen that kid or not?”

Her smile hardened and she stood up straighter, lacing the front of her dress. “That’s what I get for givin’ you a free peek,” she snapped, “or do you even like girls, big man? Maybe the sight of a woman don’t excite you.” Her eyes lit. “Is that why you’re asking about a real cute fellah?” She tossed off her drink. “Well, here’s your answer then—yeah, I seen him. But you’re just gonna have to wonder where!”

She pushed past him and was surrounded by men in an instant.

Adam grabbed his brother’s arm. “Let her go.”

“Yeah, but she said—”

“She’d have said anything. Let’s get out of here.”

“Ain’t right,” Hoss said when they’d reached the street. “Women feelin’ like they gotta—”

“No, it isn’t, but money speaks. We’ve seen as bad in Virginia City.” 

“Yeah, an’ I don’t like it any better there.” Hoss dusted his hand on his jacket. “I like lookin’ at nekkid women the same as any man,” he added defensively, “but not like that.”

“Not for nothing do they say that the dregs of humanity wash up on the Barbary Coast,” Adam observed cynically.

“Yeah, well, the trouble is, if this isn’t one o’ Joe’s pranks, it’s them dregs we’re gonna be dealin’ with.”

Adam didn’t have an answer. He just hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt and studied the bars up and down the far side of the street. Door after door opened to places as bad or worse than the one they had just left. From down the block came an off-key chorus that only approximated the tune of a tinny piano: “Gwine to run all night, gwine to run all day, I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag, somebody bet on the grey.” Behind the damp haze, the moon cast a cold glow, and up and down the street, the gaslights sputtered in their wrought-iron lanterns. He found his pocket watch and clicked it open: nearly midnight.

“First time on the Coast, gents?” a voice sounded from behind them. A man in a plaid suit and bowler hat lounged on a plank bench, his back to the wall of a wine and beer den next to the Londonderry.

“Can’t say that it is,” Adam replied, his gaze straying to the gloom of an alley a dozen feet away. But the figure on the bench appeared to be alone. “Just first time this trip.”

The man’s eyes followed Adam’s and he nodded at the alley. “You missed it, if you were lookin’ for excitement. Happened just before I got here, or so some fellas said. Shanghai, they reckon, but it got a little rough.”

“You a regular around here?”

“Me? Yeah, sometimes.” The man stretched his arms over his head. He wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t sober either. “Harry Decker, the Call. Whether I like it or not, news goes on here. Be here prob’ly every night till Bloody Luke’s hanged or set free, one ’r the other.”

“Here last night?”

“Yup. Last night, the night before. Night before that. Place is heatin’ up. What’s left o’ Bloody Luke’s boys are ’round here. From here to Broadway. Barbary Coast’s the breedin’ ground of men like Parton. You in town for the trial?”

“No, we’re here to meet someone.” Adam leaned against a streetlamp. “Maybe you’ve seen him—a kid, eighteen, about five-nine, brown hair, wearing a green jacket. He’d be with an older man, grey beard. They were here last night too.”

The reporter shook his head. “Ain’t seen ’em.” He hauled himself to his feet. “But you’d oughta think about stayin’ for the trial. It’s gonna be big. Bloody Luke’s killed people as far away as the Nevada Territory. They couldn’t get him over there—just got some o’ his people—but here, the mayor’s vowed to make him pay.”

Hoss snorted. “Mister, somebody’s havin’ yuh on. We ain’t never heard of Luke Parton in Nevada.”

“Not as Luke Parton, you haven’t. Over toward Virginia City, he went by the name o’ Willard Arrick. Story goes that he’d’ve owned all the timber on the east slope o’ the Sierras if some rancher hadn’t put the law on him. Hear tell o’ that?”

The silence as Adam and Hoss exchanged surprised glances was eloquent.

“Got yuh there, didn’t I?” Decker congratulated himself. “You have heard o’ Luke Parton, and it don’t look to me like you’re too pleased. Did you know any of the folks he and his boys killed?”

“A few,” Adam replied.

“Well, he killed plenty over here too. Killed ’em or made ’em wish they were dead. The miracle is that our mayor’s turned reform minded, and he says they’ll do what the prosecutin’ attorney over to Virginia City couldn’t. He’ll bring Bloody Luke to justice. Judge Blain’s presiding. You oughta stay for the trial. It’s gonna be a corker.”

Adam shook his head slowly and turned away. “Thanks for the story—”

“I know, you got business. But you’d better tell your friend to be careful, if he’s been hangin’ around the Coast. It ain’t safe on good days, and with Bloody Luke’s folks stirred up, it’s even worse now.”


Chapter Three 


Adam, I ain’t likin’ this one little bit,” Hoss muttered. “Joe’s right careless now and again, but he ain’t stupid. He wouldn’t go takin’ chances in a town like this.”

They had covered three more establishments and finally stopped at a place called the Forum, where an open fireplace in a back corner drove up the temperature after the chill outside. The air thickened with the smells of damp wool and sweat, but no one in the rowdy crowd seemed to notice.

Adam sipped cautiously at his beer. “Yeah.”

“You worried?”

“Yes, I am.”

“More than when we started?”

Adam nodded.

“Pa was the one stopped that Willard Arrick fella. Ain’t like Luke Parton—’r whatever he goes by—don’t know the name Cartwright. He’d figure he’s got reason to hate us.”

“Yeah.” Adam set down his mug and sighed deeply. “Look, let’s not borrow trouble. No one but Judge Blain even knows we’re in town. Chances are if Joe and Darby have run afoul of anything, it’s the crimps. Speaking of which”—he let his glance roam around the room—“other than meeting some firsthand, I haven’t seen any tonight.”

Hoss rumbled a chuckle. “Then you ain’t had your eyes open, big brother. Two fellas was bein’ dragged outta that grog place we looked at two stops back.” He took a long draw on his beer. “Just supposin’ … just supposin’ Joe went and got himself shanghaied. How long d’yuh figure we got to find him?”

“No more than a day.”

“Dadburnit, that’s worse’n—”

A sudden commotion at the end of the bar cut Hoss off. After the latest of a long night of whiskies, a pretty waiter girl collapsed in a heap of dirty silk and feathers and bare skin.

“Yo, Maisie’s drunk!” yelled a patron.

“Get ’er upstairs!” shouted several others.

Someone grabbed the woman by the arms and pulled her up, her head lolling as he managed to load her limp body over the shoulder of a fat man wearing the arm garters of a clerk.

“Oooeeee! Plantin’ time!” cried a skinny man in ancient overalls. His hands scrabbled at a breast pocket; triumphant, he tossed seventy-five cents on the counter and lurched to the front of the procession, which was headed for a staircase at the rear. “I’ll get the door!”

A hail of coinage hit the bar as man after man, drunk or sober, followed the patrons with the woman. The crowd roared appreciatively, feeding off of each other’s cravings.

“Like a pack o’ wild dogs,” Hoss said disgustedly.

By the time they had disappeared into the hall at the top of the stairs, Maisie’s skirt was over her head and her pantalettes had been ripped off. The delirious men nearly toppled her as they shoved closer, trying to touch the skin that shone in the uncertain light.

“With bloodlust.” Adam’s stomach turned at the sight. He’d seen it before—but not usually in cities like San Francisco. Easterners might not want to hear it as they purchased their dime novels, but most people in the city by the bay didn’t live much differently than the residents of New York. The ‘wild west’ was found out on the range and in upstart cow towns where life was cheap and ethics little known. The Barbary Coast, he reflected, was more like those wide-open versions of hell than the city which surrounded it.

He glanced at Hoss and knew that his brother was thinking the same thing. It’s the women, he realized … what it does to them. Around them, Maisie’s associates—friends?—barely glanced up see what was happening; there was no horror, no protest, not even a hint of sadness that upstairs a woman would be stripped and raped again and again. Except they don’t call it rape, since theoretically she would enjoy half of the proceeds. He wondered how many girls, in the pain of the following morning, ever saw the money owed to them.

The bartender swept up the rain of silver. “You fellas want in? Maisie’s kinda old, but you know, spread their legs and they’re all alike.”

“No thanks,” Adam said shortly. He pushed his beer away and turned toward the door.

“Only six bits, mister,” the bartender persisted. “Two bits more an’ you can watch the fella ahead o’ you.”

Hoss’ face was thunderous by the time they reached the street.

“Joe’s not going to wind up in a deadfall like that,” Adam reassured him. “Let’s try something a little more respectable.”

“Yeah …” Hoss murmured derisively, “respectable.” The Bella Union was on Portsmouth Square, less than a block ahead; they were running out of alternatives. “Trouble is, everything’s for sale here. I’m beginnin’ to think maybe even Joe. Ain’t nobody gonna help ’im if he needs it—nothin’s done here just for the good of it.”

Adam closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’d better get going,” he finally said, ignoring Hoss’ dark observation. He breathed deeply of the wet air. “I think we’re in for a full-blown San Francisco fog.”

“Yeah. An’ from the looks of it, you could lose somethin’ a whole lot bigger’n a half-crazy kid in this fog.”

“Lose anything in a fog,” a voice said unexpectedly from behind Hoss. A rail-thin old miner leaned toward them from the lamp post which was his only claim to remaining upright. “Trouble is, in San F’erncisco, they ain’t lost. You don’ know whur they are, but sumbuddy does.”

“Y’er talkin’ riddles, mister,” Hoss said irritably.

“Well, lemmee give yuh a lil’ help …” The old man’s voice was losing coherency even as he struggled to speak. “Lose sumbuddy, did yuh? Somethin’ I’d do, if I lost sumbuddy … I’d look at the China Rose, I would.”

“The China Rose? Where’s that?”

“It ain’t a place, boy. It’s a ship. Bound out fer Hong Kong in the mornin’.”




Shanghai. Even though the possibility had hung like a pall over the evening, Hoss hadn’t really believed it. He turned away, stunned, and only half-heard Adam’s voice as his older brother thanked the miner. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“C’mon, we knew this could be it,” Adam said softly. “Nothing’s changed. We just have to find him, that’s all.”

The next stop was a melodeon named the Mother Lode. It was a little cleaner than the nightspots near it, and the crowd—more of the men in business suits than working gear—was a little better behaved. On a stage at the end of the room, a line of can-can dancers showed off their high kicks to the accompaniment of a small orchestra.

They made space at the bar and watched the bartender pour their beer.

“This isn’t bad,” Hoss said in a low voice. “An’ the Bella Union’s right close. I’d bet money Joe came in here.”

“I would too. But he’s not here now.” Adam turned casually to the bartender. “We were figuring on meeting somebody here tonight. Must’ve missed him.” He offered a careless half-smile. “Kid in a green jacket. Smooth with the ladies. Wonder if he might’ve said where he was going from here?”

The bartender hesitated for a moment, and then, staring fixedly at the shiny counter, shook his head. “Don’t recall him.”

Adam nodded and leaned against the old mahogany bar, but his eyes followed when the barman turned away.

“I’d a-swore …” Hoss breathed, and started to push his beer aside.

“Why don’t we just forget it?” Adam responded in a voice that carried down the bar. “We can find him in the morning.”

Covering his surprise, Hoss reached for his mug and searched his brother’s face for direction. He found none, and finally settled on just watching what went on around him.

Presently the lively tune the orchestra had been playing came to an end and a chorus of voices rose as men shouted to the dancers, who circulated among the tables soliciting drinks. In a moment, the bar around Hoss and Adam was filled with can-can girls.

“Three whiskeys, one for me, Al—”

“A beer, a whiskey, a brandy and one for me—”

But every time Al poured the drink “for me,” he used a different bottle than the one from which he’d poured the customers’ drinks.

“Tea,” Hoss said under his breath when the girls had returned to their patrons.

“That’s good,” Adam replied in an equally low voice. “Means they’re mostly sober—if they have any information to give.”

“Whatcha got on your mind?”

Adam glanced around; Al was at the other end of the bar. “I don’t think that bartender was telling the truth.”

“You think he remembered Joe?”

“Maybe. Keep an eye out for the shanghai boys.”

“You gonna talk to him again?”

“No … let’s try the girls.”

Hoss’ gaze traveled to the young women dotted around the room … a hot pink dress here, a gold one there. A dark blue one by the orchestra pit, a red one nearest to them. A pale pink one across the room, a green one near the door. “Sure are a lot of ’em. An’ that bartender’s gonna hear what we’re doin’. If he’s got somethin’ to hide, he’s gonna make sure they know to hide it too.”

“Yeah.” Adam straightened from his slouch; a group of men had pushed back from a table near the stage. He tossed out a coin for the drinks. “We’ll see what we can do from there.”

Hoss followed him. “Sounds good. But we better not order any more drinks. These beers may be all right, but …”

Before Adam could comment, a girl in a dark blue dress squeezed through the crowd in the aisle by his chair. He caught her hand just as space opened, and worked up a more cheerful expression. “Miss … we’d be glad to buy you a drink if you’d join us.”

“I’m sorry, I’m with—” A look at his face and a sudden realization of the courtesy in his voice stopped her. “I’m sorry,” she began again, this time focusing on him. “I’m with someone at the moment, but I’ll be glad to come over just as soon as we’ve finished our drinks.”

Adam didn’t release her hand. “My brother here was just telling me that he has quite a taste for champagne.”

She hesitated; a bottle of champagne sold for considerably more than a whiskey or two. “I’d be pleased, sir. I’ll send someone to the other table, and I’ll be back.”

“And Miss—I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Eliza,” the girl replied.

“Miss Eliza. Will you do my brother a favor and bring the bottle with the cork still in it? He likes to take it out himself.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be glad to.”

She had barely moved on when Hoss whistled under his breath and whispered, “Adam, you’re so full o’ nonsense, it’s times like this I don’t have no trouble believin’ you and Joe’re brothers.”

Adam sat back in his chair. “Would you rather have had the champagne doped?”

“No, ’course not.”

“Nothing else was gonna get her to give up that other table.”

Hoss nodded. “I know. Had to be somethin’ real expensive. I can just see Joe’s face when we make ’im pay for it.”

For a second, they just stared at each other, the humor of Hoss’ remark lost in the growing dread of what might have happened to their brother.

“Gentlemen …” Eliza set a moisture-beaded bottle and three glasses on the table. As Hoss carefully liberated the cork, she eyed him shrewdly. “Do you like this brand? It’s French.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am.” But when a flush stole inexorably up his cheeks, he added, “Well, truth is, ma’am, I don’t know anything about champagne. Adam here’s the expert.” He sipped. “But it tastes real good.”

Her smile was open, her eyes friendly as they stared into his.

Adam, watching, reflected that there was a hint of freshness about Eliza. But that, he figured, was probably due to his brother. Some women might try to take advantage of Hoss, but still more trusted him. And in trusting him, they were themselves. Eliza was like that.  

Surveying the other girls in the room, he decided that of all the entertainers there, she was probably their best chance for information. Despite her practiced veneer, she lacked the sort of cynicism which would prevent her noticing anything apart from her own profit or pleasure. She was pretty, too, the kind of woman Joe would notice. Her white blonde hair, pinned tightly in a roll in back, had loosed little wraith-like tendrils around her face, framing eyes that were almost as clear-blue as Hoss’. Her breasts were high and firm, her waist tiny, and she moved with the implicit seductiveness of a dancer.

“Where you from, Miss Eliza?” Hoss asked.

She blinked in surprise at a question about herself that wasn’t about what she was doing after the show. “I’m not really sure,” she replied tentatively. “I was born in Ohio, but my pa kept moving us … the last place was the Nebraska Territory.”

Adam tasted his champagne and noticed that she drank little of hers. “Is your family still there?”

“I don’t really know.” She flushed. “I mean … you know, sometimes you have to kind of make your own family.”

“When you don’t see eye to eye with the one you’ve got,” he assented. “Besides, I think my brother and I would say that it just plain shows good taste to come west.”

She flashed him a grateful glance. “Yes. Yes, I like it here. There’s nothing quite like … here.”

“San Francisco, you mean?” 

“Yes. … I mean, not all of it is the Barbary Coast. You can see across the bay. It looks lovely over there …” She blushed. “Now, you didn’t come in here to talk about me—” 

“We sure didn’t come in here to talk about ourselves,” he interrupted her drolly. “I think we’d both rather hear about a pretty lady. I apologize if we were intruding—”

“Oh, no, of course not. It’s just that … well, you know, I wouldn’t want to bore—”

“You’re not, I assure you.” Adam regarded her thoughtfully. The key, he thought, lay in making her trust them enough to tell them what she knew—if she knew anything. “If you’ll forgive me for saying it, you don’t seem like the other girls here.”

She chuckled. “Oh, don’t go thinking I’m somebody’s sweet, fallen sister, gotten trapped in this den of iniquity. It’s true, I don’t do a lot of what some of these girls do”—a faint pink colored her cheeks—“but I’m here by choice. I’ve got my ambitions and my plans.”

“And what are those plans?”

“I’m going to be an actress. I don’t just dance; I sing too, and if I can get on at the Bella Union, I’ll have someplace to go in this world. That’s why I’m here, so don’t you go feeling sorry for me.”

Adam sat back. “I wouldn’t insult you by feeling sorry for you. The Mother Lode is better than most places in the Barbary Coast—”

“It’s second only to the Bella Union.”

“You’re still not like the rest o’ these girls,” Hoss interjected stubbornly.

“And how am I different?” she queried, a mocking smile on her face, but her eyes serious.

“Do any of them have plans?” Adam questioned back soberly. “Or are they just going to knock down the list until they wind up someplace like the Londonderry or the Old Jersey?”

She didn’t speak for a moment; a dull pink stained her cheeks and then faded away. Hoss reached out to pat her hand, and she threw him a quick smile, her expression so sweet and warm that for a second they could see the girl she once had been.

“It’s not a pretty picture, is it?” she finally said. “But that’s just life—at least, around here. It’s all about money … a girl has to sell what she’s got. Some of these girls don’t have anymore than … Well, that’s how it is.”

“I’m sorry,” Adam said quietly.

She feigned nonchalance. “Don’t worry about it. It’s been this way since time began. And don’t think that just because I have plans, I’m pure as the driven snow.” Then she did change the subject. “Now, good heavens! No need to be so solemn! I’m beginning to think you boys are entirely too nice for the Mother Lode!”

“Well, don’t figure we’re—what d’yuh call ’em, Adam? Knights in them big ol’ tin suits?”

“Right.” Adam allowed a slow half-grin. “We’re not that.”

“Good,” she said, “because I wouldn’t know how to behave—you know, lady fair and all that.” Around the room, the can-can girls were standing up as the orchestra’s drummer tapped a summons to the stage. “Oh, bother! We’re on again. I have to go—”

Adam caught her hand. “Eliza, before you go, we need your help. We were supposed to meet our brother tonight. You might have seen him—a good-looking kid wearing a green jacket—” He felt her arm stiffen and saw the color drain from her face. “You’ve seen him?”

She recovered quickly. “No—no, I haven’t seen him.” Mustering a smile, she disengaged her hand. “For a moment, I thought I might have—it sounded like someone—but I was mixed up. It’s no one to do with you. Thank you very much for the champagne.” She turned and pushed her way through the crowd to the stage.

Hoss frowned. “What d’yuh think, Adam? I could-a sworn she knew somethin’ when you said ‘green jacket.’”

Adam stared after her. “I thought so too. And I think she was scared … but it’s hard to be sure.”

Hoss emptied his glass. “I’ve had about enough of this. How ’bout we get on to the Bella Union? It’s dang-near two o’clock in the mornin’. If we don’t find out something soon—”


Fifty cents each purchased their admission to the Bella Union, where it was clear that two o’clock in the morning meant no slow down of activities. Huge gas chandeliers lit the high-ceiling rooms, casting surreal shadows and glimmering in the clouds of blue smoke that had been building all evening. A bar, thronged with patrons, ran down one wall, and most of the tables that filled the rest of the space were full. A broad archway on the far side of the room led to a theatre, where the sound of an orchestra told them a show was in progress. They ordered beers and drifted closer.

On stage, two thickset girls and a skinny young man presented a comedy routine, augmented by a fanciful score from the band. Rows of seats were filled with laughing, catcalling customers, and on the far wall, burgundy velvet curtains covered the apertures to a series of private booths.

“What’re those?” Hoss asked.

A speculative grin lit Adam’s face. “Hoss, it’s just possible that our brother is fine—or at least, a lot better than he’ll be when we get a-hold of him. I’d forgotten about those. They’re private booths. The performers do the serving, like they do at the Mother Lode, and you’re encouraged to drink with them. If you want to do more …” He trailed off to let his brother’s imagination finish the sentence.

Hoss’ voice was dangerous. “You mean Joe mighta taken up with some dancer and be havin’ himself a real good time over there?”

“Well …” Adam backtracked, “I’m not saying exactly that. I’m just saying that it’s possible, and … well, wouldn’t you rather it be that than have him shanghaied?”

Hoss thought a bit and shrugged. “Yeah, o’course.”

“It’s a longshot.”

“Yeah.” A little grin dawned on Hoss’ face. “But I’m hopin’ it comes in. Just think, brother … Pa gets here tomorrow. How much you figure Joe’d pay us to keep our mouths shut?”

“Don’t get your hopes up. If he’s been here most of the evening, it’ll probably clean us out to pay his bill.”

A portly man in a tweed suit greeted them. “Can I help you gentlemen? Would you like seats for the show?”

“No, thank you,” Adam answered. “We’re looking for someone, and we’d like to know if he’s at one of your private tables.”

The man’s face clouded. “Well, you know, dear sir, there’s a reason that those booths are private. We can’t have just anyone barging in on our customers who—shall we say—desire a little discretion. Now, I’m the manager here. I can provide you with first class seats—I’m sure you gentlemen aren’t the type to cause trouble—perhaps if you’ll let me escort you—”

Hoss glared down at the man’s hand on his sleeve. “I ain’t movin’ an inch, mister,” he said. “I’ve done spent the past four hours in places I never wanted to go and hope I never see again, lookin’ fer my lil’ brother and hopin’ nobody’s shot ’im, shanghaied ’im, or dragged ’im off into some alley. Now, if I were you, I’d be thinkin’ about some way o’ lettin’ me know if he’s over there behind those curtains.”

Their host turned a helpless gaze upon Adam. “And—uh, why—why do you think he might be in one of our private booths?”

“Let’s just say he’s very easy with the ladies, and sometimes not very good about watching the time.”

The manager inhaled gustily, preparatory to puffing out his chest and standing on his authority, but he cut off suddenly in mid-breath and choked out, “Mabel!”

A middle-aged woman in the gaudy dress of a stage performer detoured closer, carrying a tray of drinks. She smiled at them automatically. “How can I help you?”

“We’re looking for someone, and we were told he was here tonight,” Adam said. “Our brother, actually—eighteen, brown hair, green jacket—”

“With an older man, grey beard, not much of a talker. They were in earlier.” She nodded. “They were here last night too. Sweet kid, your brother. Bought me a drink or two.”

“They were in tonight?”

“Real early—I think for our first show. They left—oh … you know, come to think of it, your brother said something about having to meet his brothers. They left about eight-thirty or nine o’clock.” She grinned suddenly. “If that’s your brother, he’s a character.”

“How’s that, ma’am?” Hoss inquired.

“Oh, heavens … the older man mentioned quite a few times that they needed to leave, but—well, I suppose you know your brother. He didn’t think they had to quite yet. He says, at one point, something like”—her voice shifted professionally to a convincing mimic of Joe—“‘Y’see, Darby’—that musta been the older gentleman’s name—‘if Adam’s too high on bein’ an older brother, Hoss and I’ll just come back here. Hoss’d like this place.’ And the other gentleman laughed a little, like he’d heard that sorta thing before, and your brother goes on, ‘Of course, more likely Adam’ll just want to go to that club o’ his. If he’s mad about anything, it’ll be that he’s had to wait for me. But you know, that’s where he’s just not using his head—he didn’t have to wait for me. He coulda gone on. We’re fine.’”

Hoss sketched a smile. “Ma’am, y’er right good at that. That’s Joe, all right.”

Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, you haven’t heard the best yet. The older gentleman—Darby—says, ‘yup,’ or something like that, and your brother sasses right back, ‘So if he’s missed anything at that stuffy club o’ his, it’s his own fault.’ And Darby says, ‘I partic’larly wanta hear you explain that to him, Joe.’”

“And what’d Joe say to that?”

Mabel chuckled. “About what you’d expect, I imagine. Something like ‘just stick around.’” Belatedly, she remembered her audience. “Oh, heavens, you wouldn’t happen to be that older brother, would you?”

Hoss grinned. “Oh, no, ma’am—well, I mean, I am his older brother, but he was talkin’ about Adam here.”

She blushed and met Adam’s eyes apprehensively.

“You do a beautiful imitation of Joe,” he assured her dryly, and slipped a coin into her hand. “If he should come back in here, would you tell that I’m most interested in finding out the details of how it’s all my fault?”

“Oh, yes, sir. Thank you very much, sir.”

They retraced their steps to the door and stood again on the sidewalk. Across the street was the open plaza of Portsmouth Square. A few couples walked its lamp-lit paths, but at this hour, there were more drunks propped against the wrought iron fence which enclosed it. None of them appeared to be Joe or Darby.

“So what the heck happened, Adam?” Hoss questioned, his voice rising in exasperation. “If Joe ’n’ Darby left here at nine ’r so, they had plenty o’ time to get back to the hotel. Where’d they go?” His brows knit together, creating a deep crease in his tanned forehead, and his lips turned into a thin, hard line.

“Could be anywhere, Hoss,” Adam replied, his voice mellow, meant to calm his brother. But the glittery darkness of his eyes told another story. “What about this … Mabel says they were talking about coming back to meet us. So let’s say they leave here—and they know that when we get in, we’re gonna get a bath and have dinner. So they might figure they don’t really need to be back till nine-thirty or ten o’clock.”


“Yeah … and they don’t want to stop just yet …”


“And they’re on their way back down Washington, because that’s the way to the hotel.”


“Where do you figure Joe would stop for just one more? You’ve seen everything between here and the hotel.”

Hoss’ nostrils flared and his voice turned grim. “The Mother Lode.”


Chapter Four


Even in the wee hours of the morning, there was a crowd at the double doors to the Mother Lode. From down the block, Adam and Hoss surveyed the assortment of men who pushed to gain entrance as several others emerged, their loud voices announcing that too much whiskey encouraged short tempers.

“Ain’t gonna be easy to get Miss Eliza off by herself,” Hoss cautioned.

But before his brother could reply, they heard an urgent “Hsst—Adam!” from the depths of an alley they had just passed. They stopped, Adam with his hand on Hoss’ sleeve and his eyes on the opening between two buildings.

“Watch yerself now,” Hoss advised.

The alley was long and board-straight, a cobblestone stretch that indicated it might once have been a street of its own. Only the street lamp at its entrance and a lantern several yards in provided any light, and what there was glistened on the damp stones.

In a shadow on the left wall, wrapped in a thin shawl, stood Eliza. “Please—come here! I want to talk to you!” No one else was in sight.

Adam threw a cautionary glance at Hoss. “Stay here.”

Hoss nodded curtly. “If this is a shanghai, that lil’ gal’s gonna wish she’d never been born.”

“Adam, please.”

Adam came closer.

“Please!” she whispered anxiously. “It has to look like we have an assignation, or I could get killed!”

“Why the secrecy?” he demanded.

“I want to tell you about your brother, but you have to help me.”

“Tell me about my brother,” he said coolly, “and I’ll be glad to help you.”

“Don’t you understand?” Tears formed in her eyes, coloring her voice. “If they see me out here with you and I’m not—providing a service—they’ll know what I’m—they could kill me.”

“Kill you or kill me?”

“All right, forget it! It was stupid to try—”

In one swift motion, Adam grasped her wrists and pushed her hard against the wall, pinning her hands at shoulder height in case she had a weapon. A flash of fear showed in her eyes and she uttered a high, short cry, but there was no movement from the back of the alley.

“You’ll pardon me if I’m a little careful,” he said levelly. His eyes never left hers, and his voice offered no reassurance. “Now, tell me—was my brother in the Mother Lode tonight?”

“Yes—yes, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Can’t you see, I couldn’t say anything in there?”

“Why not?”

“Because—please, look like you’re kissing me.”

One eyebrow arched suspiciously, but he leaned into her, pressing her against the cold bricks with his body, oblivious to the feel of her against him as he whispered into her hair, “Now, what happened to my brother?”

“Nothing happened—at least not in the Mother Lode,” she quavered.

She was cold, he realized; the shawl was worthless against the early morning chill, and the building was slimy with mist. But that could wait until he heard what she had to say.

She steadied her voice. “He was there with another man—an older man. When they left, I saw three guys stand up and follow them out. They’d been at the next table, listening to everything we’d said. I didn’t like the looks of them; you could tell they were up to no good. But that’s all. I swear it. It’s just that those men are in nearly every night, and they have friends. If I’d said anything to you, someone could have overheard.”

“All right.” Adam held her still for a moment more, his face impassive as he tried to determine if she was telling the truth. But there was just no way to know. He stepped back and released her hands, watching as she rubbed her wrists where he’d gripped them. “I want to know more about those men. Are they in there now?”

“No. They didn’t come back.” She cast a terrified glance at the alley’s opening, then turned back to him. “Please …”

His expression was guarded, but he slipped an arm around her and lowered his head to her neck, so that from the street, it looked as if he were kissing her. The sweet scent of her hair assailed him, but when he spoke again, in an undertone of warm breath against her ear, his words came matter-of-factly. “What can you tell us about them?”

“One of them is very tan,” she whispered, “and he has an enormous tattoo of a snake or a dragon or something on his right arm. You can’t see it unless he rolls back his sleeve, but it’s there. And he wears a gold ring in one ear. Another has a full red beard. The third one was huge—the size of your brother. Other than that, they look like all the other wharf rats in San Francisco.”

“Was it a shanghai?”

“I don’t know. We’ve never had a shanghai at the Mother Lode. Management is against it, but that doesn’t mean the crimps don’t come in. I’m sure they do.”

“What shape was my brother in?”

She shrugged slightly against him. “Not bad. He’d had a little to drink, but he wasn’t foxed or anything—just happy. And the other man was pretty sober.”

“Hey, feller, wanta lend her out some?” a slurry voice sounded from the sidewalk. “I’ll pay—”

“Move on, mister,” Hoss growled.

“Why would your bartender want to lie to us?” Adam persisted.

She choked, and stifled a sob. “The same reason I would. It’s dangerous—it’s best just to know nothing, say nothing … but … you treated me like a lady, not just a stage dancer … or worse.” Her breath came quickly and her voice trembled. “Your brother too … the only people to treat me like that in forever. I wanted to tell you the truth.” But the shudders wouldn’t stop, and with them came the tears. “I’m so scared. You don’t know what can happen to girls here.”

Adam shifted so that his back was to the street, hiding her from view. “What happened to that practical girl who worked her plan?” he inquired.

“She’s scared, like anyone else with any sense,” Eliza retorted and turned her head. She swiped at her cheeks. “Some folks you don’t cross around here, and I think I just crossed one—or two or three.”

He fished a handkerchief from his pocket, then wrapped his arm around her—kindly this time—and dabbed lightly at her face. “Settle down, now,” he said quietly, unaware that the change in his voice was so complete that her surprise helped to stem the flow of tears. “We’ll make sure that everyone in the Mother Lode thinks you were out here earning your money.”

She swallowed hard and nodded, then like a child, gave in to the shelter of his embrace and lay her cheek against the smooth lapel of his jacket. He held her gently, one hand stroking her back until she became mesmerized by his touch, and gradually, the trembling abated.

Hoss retreated a couple of steps into the alley and cast a quick glance over his shoulder. “You all right, ma’am?”

“Yes,” she breathed, and stepped away from Adam, only to succumb to a shivering of a different kind.

Hoss frowned, and suddenly jerked at his coat. “Adam, what’s got into you? She’s freezin’ to death!”

Adam, who’d simply been waiting until she regained her composure, started in surprise. “Sorry, Eliza,” he said, flushing, and removed his own jacket.

She gulped, a little confused at the concern for her comfort, and finally mumbled, “It’ll look better if it’s Adam’s.” She snuggled into the coat.

For a moment, they all just looked at each other. The fog, stealing in from the bay, whirled down Washington Street and seemed to soften everything in their vision. From a distance, the toll of the fog bell on Alcatraz Island sounded hauntingly in the night.

“You can’t be kind to very many people on the Coast,” Eliza said, sniffing. “It doesn’t pay. That’s not how it works here.”

“We’re not from here,” Hoss reminded her.

“I know,” she murmured. “That’s why I took a chance.”

“Joe was there tonight. She saw some men follow him out,” Adam explained briefly to his brother.

“Is that his name?” Eliza asked. “Joe?”


“You mean, he didn’t say his name in there, ma’am?” Hoss asked.

“Not that I ever heard,” she replied.

“So nobody coulda known who he was?” 

“No. He just joked a little and was very pleasant. He never said anything about himself really.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I only knew Adam’s name because you called him that at the table.” 

They stood in silence for a moment, the only sound the disconnected laughter and shouting from the street. Then Hoss moved back to the alley’s opening.

Adam shifted awkwardly. “I suppose we’d better get you back inside. How—ah, how undr—”

“Well, it should look like you got …” She shrugged, a little embarrassed. “Well, you know, like you paid for something.”

She began undoing the buttons that ran up her bodice, while Adam unfastened the top closures on the fly of his trousers.

“What’s goin’ on back there?” Hoss called.

“We’re just finishing up,” Adam called back, for the first time indifferent about who heard him.

When they emerged from the alley, Adam was buttoning his pants and Eliza was hooking her dress. Several men passing on the street took note of the pretty girl attending to her clothing, and the suit jacket that obviously belonged to the dark man standing next to her.

“Ma’am, you’re way too good fer stuff like this,” Hoss said softly.

She glanced up at him, suddenly shy. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.” She looked at that moment very much like a proper young lady, despite her flashy dress. “I don’t know your name.”

“You just call me Hoss, ma’am.” He tipped his hat. “Now you better let my brother take yuh back inside before somebody notices that I’m not payin’ fer anything here.”

She nodded, but before turning to Adam, she rose on her toes, balanced her hands on Hoss’ broad chest, and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Good night, Hoss. I hope you find your brother.”

Then she allowed Adam to slide an arm around her shoulders and escort her back to the Mother Lode, where the girls were assembling for another number. As she handed him his coat, he slipped a bill into her fingers.

“Why, I—Adam, please, I can’t—” she whispered.

“Don’t ruin it,” he shot back in an undertone. “Everyone is watching. That was business, wasn’t it? Now smile and thank me.”

She smiled prettily and ducked her head. “Thank you, sir,” she said loudly. “I hope you come back.”

“You’ll be all right?” he murmured.

“Yes, thank you, fine.”

He touched the brim of his hat. “Good night, ma’am, and thank you.”

Hoss was waiting at the corner when Adam emerged from the Mother Lode. “How bad is it?” 

“I don’t know. Not good,” Adam replied. “Eliza said the three men were regulars, and you saw it—she was pretty scared of them. She said they looked like wharf rats; one of them had a tattoo of a snake or a dragon on his right arm.” 

“Sounds like a shanghai to me.” 

“Me, too. But Joe wouldn’t go willingly. He and Darby are tough—they’d put up a fight.”

Hoss shoved his hands into his pockets. “So what d’we do now?”

Adam was a few seconds in answering. “Go back to the hotel, I guess. That’s where they’d go if they managed to get away. And it wouldn’t hurt to look for a policeman.”

“How’s that?”

“See what he knows about tonight’s shanghais. In fact—” Adam stopped, his face a study in concentration. “Didn’t Decker say there’d been one someplace close to where we met him?”

“Yeah. In that alley, I think.” Hoss set his jaw. “Let’s get down there.”

When they arrived at the alley, they were surprised to find two policemen already there.

“Know anything about what happened here tonight?” one asked before they even had a chance to make an inquiry. A burly individual in a woolen suit bursting at the seams, he wore a badge on one lapel and didn’t seem the type to take any nonsense.

“We were going to ask you,” Adam replied. “Our brother’s missing.”

“So you don’t know what happened here, earlier tonight?”

“No. We were told maybe a shanghai.”

“Now we’re wonderin’ if it was our brother, Joe, an’ one of our ranch hands,” Hoss added.

The policeman, who said his name was Tom Brady, relented. “Sorry I can’t help you. We got the tip somebody’d been hurt here, so we’re lookin’ it over, but there’s not much to go on.”

Behind him, a white clapboard wall with a fan-like spray of red droplets told its own story. The blood ran in rivulets to the ground, smeared in places, and in the dim lantern light, they could see dark puddles, thickening and glazed, in the dust of the alley floor.

“Lordy … looks like somebody got more than hurt,” Hoss murmured numbly.

“Somebody met the business end of a knife, that’s for sure,” the other policeman stated flatly. He waved away a couple of onlookers. “Hope it wasn’t your boy.” 

Adam turned away. “Thanks,” he said, his face set as his mind tried to depersonalize the sight of the blood.

Brady caught his arm. “Look, if you want, why don’t you meet me in the morning? We go off at seven o’clock; our last round is on the waterfront, down at the foot o’ the street here. Come down there ’bout six-thirty. I’ll let you know if we’ve seen or heard anything.”

“We’ll be there, mister,” Hoss grunted. He turned up the collar of his jacket against the cold and followed his brother. “Guess it doesn’ do much good to hope we still might find Joe back at the What Cheer House, all tucked up an’ snug in bed, but I’m gonna do it anyhow.”

“Doesn’t hurt,” Adam said, but Hoss heard the hollowness in his voice. It was better to focus on the muscle that flickered in his brother’s cheek. He knew from experience what that meant: in his head, Adam was already sorting through their meager options, trying to find some way to battle forces they couldn’t even identify.

The gas lights of the hotel lobby, even turned down at the late hour, were like beacons of hope in the darkness, and a new desk clerk, fresh and well-rested, beamed at them when they came in. But when they asked about Joe and Darby, his expression clouded. “No, I haven’t seen either of them. Kinda strange, you know. Last night they were back early—well, maybe not early, but way before now.”

It was then that they realized how much they still had hoped that the whole evening’s futile search was a simple mix-up. Adam asked to have a boy awaken them at six, and with barely a word, they collapsed into bed. The hands of the clock were crawling past three-thirty when the light disappeared beneath the suite’s door.


Day Two


Chapter Five 


It was dark, the particularly dense darkness of someplace never touched by light. There was not one gleam, not under a door nor around a window, not even of a candle guttering out. Just blackness. And it was silent. Not only was there no sound of voices or activity, but there was no hint of any breathing except his own. That was fine … cozy, even. The velvety darkness … the peace and quiet … 

Joe lay still, relishing the comfort of his bed—although the mattress was a little hard. He’d have to mention that to Hop Sing; maybe it was time for new filling. But it couldn’t dim the delicious languor of not having to get up and go to work. Had to be morning, early, before chores, before time to roll out … bliss … He turned over. A little more sleep, just a little … jeez, he ached. Well, sort of … didn’t he? Yeah … but the throbs and the twinges and the hurts couldn’t hinder his contentment. He’d been in a fight … but that was okay. He’d get over it … always had. Maybe they’d let him sleep all day …




Dawn was just streaking the sky when a tentative scratching noise told Adam that it was six o’clock. He went to the suite’s door to thank the page. Hoss already stood in his doorway, his nightshirt a vast expanse of red plaid, his wispy hair tangled on his forehead. The boy brought them both warm shaving water, and they were dressed in fifteen minutes.

Sacramento Street was peaceful when they emerged from the hotel, the only activity a solitary milk wagon, its tall grey cans rattling in the silence. As if by magic, the fog had cleared, and shafts of golden sunlight slanted in from the east. What had been oppressive and decadent by night had become, in the space of hours, new and promising. 

It was not far to the waterfront. The last of the mist was fading off Yerba Buena Cove and the air was alive with the shouts of sailors on board the steamboats and clippers and barges tied up at the city’s piers. Farther out, other ships rode at anchor.  They found Tom Brady near the Washington Street Wharf, savoring the steam off a cup of coffee from an early-opening café. He acknowledged them with a nod.

“Mornin’, boys. Sorry, but there’s nothing new on your brother. Wish I could say different.”

“Not as much as we do,” Adam replied, hiding his disappointment. “But I guess it’s not a surprise. We appreciate your keeping an eye out.” He gazed out to sea. “Don’t suppose you could tell us which one’s the China Rose, could you?”

“I can do better than that. Harbor Master passed through here a little while back. Figured you might be wanting to know, so I asked him which ocean-going ships were leaving today. There’s the China Rose, at mid-morning, and the Belvedere in the early afternoon. The China Rose is over there on Central Wharf. The Belvedere’s on Howison’s, but I wouldn’t worry too much about her. Her master’s never yet been known to truck with shanghai.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hoss said.

“No trouble.” The policeman blew on his coffee. “You know, there’re other possibilities of what coulda happened to your brother.”


“Well, Chinatown’s full of prostitutes—parlor houses, bagnios, cribs of ’em. All over the Coast too. Or, and don’t take offense here, we’ve got more than our share of opium dens.”

Hoss shook his head at the suggestion of an hallucinogenic. “Joe doesn’t go fer any of that stuff.”

“Under normal circumstances,” Brady nodded. “But what about here? Maybe he meets some bright young fellows like hisself, and they say, ‘aw, come on, just this once’? If he’s gone off and tried poppy-smoke, he’ll turn up. You just make sure he doesn’t do it again, and he’ll be all right.”

“It’s that bad?” Hoss inquired.

“It’s that good,” Brady told him. “I tried it once—scared me to death. Laid there all doped up an’ I could see everything goin’ on, wasn’t knocked out or anything … an’ no matter what happened, it was wonderful. You can see how hopheads don’t want to do anything but lie there all day. Ruins ’em, inside and out.”

They nodded.

“And there’s one other thing …” His voice changed. “Cap’n says they found a body at the other end of that alley we were in last night. It’s at the county jail on Broadway; wasn’t anybody free to take it to the morgue. Doesn’t sound like your brother, but you’d best go see.”

“Rule it out, if nothin’ else,” Hoss said. Only his eyes revealed his pain.

Brady shuffled his feet. “Well, I wish you luck. I hope you find out it’s not him.” He glanced down the waterfront to the Central Wharf. “Look, I’d bet the captain of the China Rose won’t take on visitors till they’ve got their mornin’ chores done. There’s a cabbie has his coffee ’bout this time at that café over there. You might persuade him to run you up to Broadway.” 

“I reckon that’s good advice,” Hoss said hoarsely. He held out his hand. “Thank you fer yer time, Mr. Brady.”




“Adam, you figure Joe could be in one o’ them opium dens?” Hoss inquired curiously. The cabbie had indeed been glad of an early fare, and they progressed up the deserted Montgomery Street at a smart trot. 

Adam looked out at the passing waterfront, at the glow of gold that outlined the masts of the ships. It was so pretty that it was hard to imagine that they were in fear for their brother’s life. 

“I don’t know, Hoss. Normally, I wouldn’t figure he’d be interested. But we don’t know what happened last night.”

“You ever wanted to try any o’ that stuff?”

Still watching the passing scenery, Adam replied, “No, I knew a fellow at college who got into it. Brady was right; it’s not something you play with.”

The cab rocked as it turned on to Broadway, and lost in their own thoughts, neither spoke until it drew up in front of the county jail.

“Oh, yeah, there was a body come in last night,” a uniformed man at a desk near the door said. “Was found down an alley off”—he pawed through some paperwork—“Washington. Jackknife Alley. Had his throat cut. Guess that’s appropriate.” He chuckled at his feeble humor. “Right this way, gentlemen.”

They followed the officer through the front room, where several policemen were booking an assortment of ne’r-do-wells and undesirables, to a corridor that led to the back of the building.

“We put him in the storeroom,” their escort said, and stopped beside the door to light a lantern. He handed it to Hoss, and unlocked a large, heavy door. “The wagon from the morgue’ll be by in an hour or two.”

In the final seconds before they entered the room, Adam glanced at his brother; Hoss’ face was set, his jaw fixed and his eyes hard. It seemed beyond their comprehension that Joe could lie on the other side of the door, pale and cold …

It wasn’t Joe. They knew it wasn’t as soon as the door swung open and they could see the outline of the body under a rough sheet.

“Ain’t Joe,” Hoss murmured. “Too big.”

Adam let out a long, slow breath and then sucked it in again. For a moment, the fact that they had no idea where Joe was—that just because he wasn’t the body on the table didn’t mean that he wasn’t dead somewhere else—faded from his consciousness. It was enough right now to know that this wasn’t his brother. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and pressed his fingertips over his eyes, trying to even out the emotion that threatened to make him dizzy.

“Better take a look just the same,” the officer said, and drew back the covering.

“Oh, Lord,” Hoss breathed. The instant of relief disappeared abruptly.

A familiar face stared up at them—but without the animation of life. Without his slow, steady humor, without his quiet loyalty, without even the flinty anger that once in a while took over his features when he felt other men weren’t hauling their own weight. Frank Darby looked much as he had when they’d last seen him, except that his beard had been trimmed. And the biggest exception of all—below the carefully clipped hedge of grey ran a nasty, wine-colored line. His throat had been slashed. The front of his shirt and his jacket and vest, the ones he wore only on Sundays and for special occasions, had stiffened with blood. A fly buzzed near, noisy in the silence, trying to land on the soaked clothing.

Adam reached out to close the pale green eyes. “We’ll arrange for the body,” he said.

“This yer brother?” the officer asked in surprise. “I thought you said—”

“No, but we know ’im. He works for us,” Hoss interrupted.

The officer digested the news for a moment and then asked, “Know anybody who’d want to kill him?”

Hoss shook his head. “Not in this town. Not anywhere. But we might just have to find out.”

“Now, don’t go taking anything into your own hands! This town’s a powder keg right now. You boys need to be careful.”

Adam stretched the sheet over Darby’s face. “You want to be a little more specific about that? Are you saying this man could have gotten mixed up in some of your trouble?”

“Maybe. There’re a lot of perfectly safe places in this town, but where he was found ain’t one of ’em.”

“And just where did you say that was?”

“Jackknife Alley. It runs between Washington and Jackson … not all that far from the Bella Union, the Mother Lode, those places. Washington ain’t so bad, but the alley’s been known to host some mighty unsocial parties, if you know what I mean. If that’s where your brother was last night, then he coulda been playing with some pretty dangerous characters.”

“Yeah,” Adam sighed disgustedly. “We’ve heard about all of them—the thieves, the crimps, the—”

“Them’s just the free agents,” the officer said. “You also got Luke Parton’s crowd, all het up because he’s in jail. And you got the tong—”

“What’s the tong got to do with it?”

“The Suey Sing tong and Luke Parton been battlin’ back an’ forth for a while now over who’s gonna control business in that neck o’ the woods. It’s all one big struggle for power—you best watch you don’t get caught in the crossfire. And hope that’s not what happened to your brother.”



It was still dark. Joe Cartwright lay on his back, trying to stop the pounding in his head. He drifted awake slowly, looking for the pleasure he’d known before, but it was hard to find. He was sore all over. Not like a sore jaw or painful ribs, as if he’d been punched. Or a scraped-up hand, if he’d punched someone else. His head ached—and not just his jaw, although that was doing its fair share—but his whole head, from his temples all the way over the crown. And that wasn’t all. His ribs, his kidneys, his knee, even one foot. Both hands. Just the movement of his fingers made his knuckles burn like hell. Worst of all was a long stretch around his side that stung when he tried to sit up. A cut, sealed with his own dried blood. Already he could feel a dampness. Could he lie here and bleed to death?

And then it hit him—the blackness. The pain. Nothing was like it was before, not last night, not this morning when even breathing had seemed so delightful. Suddenly all of his muscles stiffened, unconsciously bracing against the blade of fear in the pit of his stomach. Where the hell was he? What had happened?

He lay trembling, trying to sort through the confusion that followed hard on the fear. Something had happened … something bad had happened, but just at the moment, nothing came to mind. A fight … there’d been a fight. Where? When? He tried to swallow, but his throat was so constricted that he had to try again. The blackness. It was horrific. Not knowing where he was … who was near. It was only then that he perceived that it wasn’t silent as it had been before. And there was a tiny sliver of light on the far side of the room, pretty faint, but a pale grey change from the darkness. There was also a distant drone of voices, but he couldn’t make out what they said.

For a moment, he lay his head back and succumbed to the panic-stricken nausea that gripped his insides and made his head swim. He was alone, in the dark, wounded, in pain, and he had no idea if his family even knew … if anyone knew. After a minute, panting and fighting back tears, he just went limp. He was beyond help … he could do nothing about this … he could only lie there …

He wasn’t sure if he’d simply rested or if he’d passed out and reawakened, but when he resurfaced, he had a better grip on himself. He had to figure this out … what had happened? He went back in his memory cautiously, careful not to push himself too hard; to give in to panic wouldn’t do him any good. … Last night, the Bella Union … the show had been good, he and Darby had enjoyed it, had had a drink with a red-headed actress Darby liked. Okay. That much he remembered clearly. Then they’d started back to the hotel; Adam and Hoss would be arriving. It had gotten dark … the streets were full of people, there was a lot of music, a lot of shouting. The Mother Lode—they’d stopped for the show at the Mother Lode; didn’t make sense to rush back to the What Cheer House and wait while his brothers washed off the grime of a trail drive. They’d sat through a couple of shows there, bought drinks for the cute little blonde can-can dancer. So far, so good …

They’d started for the hotel. The sidewalks were crowded … the sound of Darby grunting—as if he’d had the wind knocked out of him. After that, the details were hazy. Darby had had the wind knocked out of him; he’d been walking a pace or two behind, and some tough must have clipped him from the rear, then got him in the gut. By the time Joe had whirled, two of them had jumped him. A fight … a fight in the mouth of an alley … in the alley, actually. A fierce flurry of arms and fists, the peculiar thud of folded knuckles on flesh … Darby had roused and fought back too … but beyond that, his memory failed him. There was only blackness.

Slowly, he raised his head, and then, even more slowly, the rest of his body until he was propped on one elbow. So far, his knife wound had held, other than the trickle of blood that had seeped out when he’d first moved. It must be just a surface cut, he told himself, so relieved that he nearly swooned.

He ran a hand through his hair and over his face, groaning softly; his jaw was tender enough to tell him that he’d taken a blow or two. But his eyes felt fine—no one had hit him there. He was suddenly absurdly grateful for the tiny belt of light under what had to be a door. To have to wonder whether or not he was blind would have been more than he could bear.

“Darby!” he hissed, amazed to find that he had a voice. “You here?” But there was no answer.

With his hands, he felt around himself carefully. Straw … a thin pallet … the sudden tickle of tiny feet—an insect, scurrying away. He didn’t care, as long as it didn’t run up his sleeve. It was then that he noticed that he had no jacket. There was no blanket on the pallet, and he was in his shirt sleeves, which might account for the chill that seemed like a part of him. He slapped himself gently and rubbed his upper arms, glad to feel no bruises there. But he couldn’t help wishing for a good, warm fire.

No chance of that, wherever you are, he told himself. And just where are you? his self replied. In spite of himself, Joe chuckled. When I start carrying on conversations with myself, I’m going crazy—and I haven’t been here long enough for that. The light, he figured, had to be day … it had to be hours since that fight … but why would someone want to kidnap him?

And then his throat closed for sure. Shanghai. That’s why people were kidnapped in San Francisco. They were sold to unscrupulous sea captains and shipped off to God knows where. It took all of his concentration not to throw up right there, immediately, with no thought to himself or where he was. But he forced down the vomit and reordered his breathing and told himself again and again, Adam and Hoss know I’m gone by now. By now, they’re looking for me.


“Adam, y’know what makes me nervous?” Hoss said as they got out of another cab at the waterfront and his brother paid the driver.

“No, what?” Adam’s voice was distant, distracted. He hadn’t spoken a word since they had left the jail. He had just sat in the cab, miles and miles away, his gaze fixed on the passing street, and yet, Hoss was sure, seeing nothing. 

“When you get all quiet like this. Kinda like carryin’ a sign around that says you’re worried sick about Joe.”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. But I like to think you might know some reason it all shouldn’t look as bad as it does.”

Adam met Hoss’ worried gaze; there was no hint of humor there. He reached out to grip his brother’s shoulder briefly. “I don’t know anything you don’t,” he replied, “and I’m as worried as you are.” A little smile flirted on his lips. “But I’m damn glad you’re here.” 

Hoss allowed a sheepish shrug. “Me, too. I don’t like this one lil’ bit, but I’d like it a whole lot less if I had to do it alone.”

“Well, then …” Adam gazed down the wharf and nodded at a ship. “Let’s get on with it.”

The China Rose was a impressive craft, a 1,250-ton medium clipper, new within the past decade—but the splendor ended upon closer inspection. Adam had learned enough from his grandfather to tell when a ship wasn’t cared for, and the China Rose did not enjoy the repair she deserved. The finish of her hull was flat with the need for varnish and even the American flag which draped from her stern was ragged at the edges.

They walked up the gangway unchallenged, and for a few minutes were ignored by the sullen-looking sailors on deck. At last a young man in the dress of first officer appeared and conducted them to the bridge, to a fleshy man in a gold-encrusted blue uniform.

“Captain Josiah Weldon,” the ship’s master said, his throaty voice that of one who enjoyed his brandy and cigars.

“Adam Cartwright,” Adam replied. The blood began to pulse more quickly in his veins, and his senses sharpened as he realized that if Joe was on this ship, it was even more critical than they had thought to get him off. Captain Weldon’s eyes were already bleary. Or perhaps he’d been drunk all night. A seaman’s life was tough at best; life aboard the China Rose would be nearly unendurable.

“I’ll get right to the point,” he said, reasoning that bluntness and brute force were likely the only things Weldon understood. “We’re looking for a young man we believe was—shall we say—introduced to sailing against his will. If it turns out that he’s aboard the China Rose, we’re prepared to pay you a decent profit to get him back.”

“A decent profit?” A veneer of sweat rose on the captain’s puffy cheeks despite the cool breeze. “And what good does that do me? I need a body, an able seaman.”

“Well, then, make that enough to hire an able-bodied seaman, as well as a decent profit on the one you lost—who, I should add, is small enough that his use on a clipper would be limited.”

Weldon examined Adam suspiciously. “What makes you think I have him?”

“You’re just the first ship going out.” Adam hooked his thumbs over his gunbelt. “Captain, I don’t care who I pay this money to. You’ve got him or you don’t. You can make some cash on the side and buy yourself another sailor, or you can’t. I can go to the Harbor Master and demand a search of this ship … or we can come to terms.”

Captain Weldon chewed the end of a cigar and spat noisily over the bridge rail. “How much yuh talkin’?”

“What’re you paying for a seaman these days, two months’ pay and a bonus to the crimp? What, fifty dollars plus”—he squinted at Weldon—“a hundred bonus? So I’d say, three hundred. A hundred-fifty for a new man, a hundred-fifty for you.”

Weldon continued to stare at Adam, but he spoke to his first officer. “We got four men on last night. Get ’em up here.”

Four sorrier specimens of humanity Hoss and Adam had yet to see. Not one of the seaman brought before them had escaped a battering; their faces were purple with bruises, and none was capable yet of working. Two were still so drunk their companions had to hold them up. Joe was not among them.

“Thank you very much,” Adam said briskly. He turned to the steps down from the bridge.

“What’s that?” Weldon demanded. “You can have any one of ’em you want! Where’re you going?”

Adam shook his head. “The one we want isn’t here.” He tipped his hat. “Appreciate your trouble, gentlemen.”

For a moment, it seemed possible that Weldon might burst a blood vessel, as his face flushed burgundy-red at the thought of three hundred dollars slipping through his fingers.

“Here now! You needn’t go so quickly! It’s possible—it’s possible there’s another on board.” Weldon’s small eyes, lost in the folds of his cheeks, darted to his first officer, then returned to Adam. “Hold fast! Just wait here!”

At the periphery of his vision, Adam saw the first officer slide his hand into the front of his jacket. “Hoss!” His own hand went to his revolver in a second; he aimed it directly at Weldon, while behind him, he heard heavy footfalls on the deck below. If there were reinforcements, he and Hoss were definitely outnumbered.

Just that fast, Hoss jumped to the first officer, hauled him up by the collar and thrust his hand into the front of the blue uniform jacket, where his fingers closed on a small pistol. In one movement, he turned and tossed the man down the steps, just as two sailors started up. All three hurtled down to hit heavily on the deck, the crack of one’s head on wood sounding in the clear air. “That what yuh wanted, Adam?” he asked. He looked out at a couple of men who made as if to try the stairs. “I wouldn’ do that if I was you.”

“Hie!” the captain cried. “No need for that! What’re you doing?”

Adam moved close and as Hoss had done before him, yanked open the officer’s jacket. A short-bladed knife in a thin case was strapped to the rolls of flesh. “I don’t think you’ll need this,” he said briefly, and slid it into his gunbelt. He glanced up at his brother, a flickering amusement in his eyes. “I do believe they thought to add us to the crew,” he said with more aplomb than he felt.

“I do believe so, brother,” Hoss rejoined. His stare was icy as he watched the captain and then catalogued the rest of the crew, who had come to a halt in its duties to observe what was happening on the bridge. “An’ I believe it’s about time we got off this boat.”

“I agree.” Adam moved behind Captain Weldon. “You first.”

“Me? I’m not getting off the China Rose!”

“You’re going as far as we say you go.”

“You can’t say I go anywhere!” the captain blustered. Below them, the crew of the ship was transfixed. Weldon waved an arm at them. “Take them! Overpower them! I order you to take them!”

The men stirred in confusion.

“I order you! I’ll have you flogged, I’ll cut your rations, I’ll make you wish you’d never been born before you disobey another of my orders! I control the air you breathe—you will do as I bid you!”

A few men moved as if to come forward, but their limited intelligence showed clearly in their faces. They were scared of being shot, and they dreaded the captain’s retributions.

“Let me make this easy for you,” Adam shouted. He raised his revolver to the captain’s temple. “Any one of you comes close and I’ll pull the trigger.” He regarded the officer coldly. “Now, would you like to amend that order?”

“Stand at ease!” the seaman cried. “Stand at ease—let us pass!”

Slowly they descended the steps from the bridge and crossed the deck, Hoss close behind, his eyes hard on the members of the crew. But none of them offered to make a fight of it. 

At last they reached the wharf. Adam jerked the captain along beside him until they were far enough away that there was little the first officer—the only man on the China Rose likely to support Captain Weldon—could do.

“Your man—the man you seek to find—” Weldon sputtered when Adam finally released him, “perhaps you didn’t find him on my ship! But he’s on someone’s!” Hatred flashed in his tiny eyes. “You just remember that! He’s on someone’s, and I hope he’s ill-used! I hope that—and I shall laugh at you for having to know it!”

Adam shoved him away, and the man scurried down the dock. But he turned at his gangway and screamed again, “May you never find your friend! And may his master flog him within an inch of his worthless life!”

“Whew …” Hoss rested his hands on his hips and stared after the maniacal captain.  That fella’s the type that’d work a man to death ’cause he’s too dumb to let up. Or just too mean.” He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and mopped his face. 

“And I don’t like to think about it, but he’s right,” Adam said grimly. “Joe could be with one as bad as he is or worse.”

“Then let’s get goin’.” Hoss crammed the handkerchief back in his pocket and turned toward the quayside. “Even though Brady said that other ship didn’t trade in shanghais, let’s check it anyway.”


Chapter Six


The Belvedere was larger than the China Rose, a sleek, graceful ship of uncommon beauty. Every piece of her equipment was in excellent working order—her brass fixtures gleamed in the morning sun, her hull and masts were in perfect repair, and her railings were glossy with polish. Hoss and Adam had just started up the plank when they were approached by a young man in uniform. 

“Second Officer Hansen at your service, gentlemen. May I inquire your business?”

“Permission to come aboard,” Adam replied. “We want to discuss a member—possible member—of your crew.”

The young man looked perplexed, but he waved them on. When they asked to be conducted to the captain, he said, “That would be Captain Edward Wincannon, sir. If you will wait here, please.”

“Quite a bit differ’nt here,” Hoss observed under his breath. “Don’t know that I’d mind shippin’ out with this outfit, if I knew a dad-blamed thing about sailin’.”

“Pa’d say this is how it should be,” Adam agreed. His gaze traveled over the ship with pleasure, from the soaring masts and the mazes of rigging to the sweep of her bow rail, which raced back from her figurehead. She was a masterpiece—and, he couldn’t help feeling, a reassurance of civilized order in the malevolent chaos of Joe’s disappearance.

“Gentlemen.” An austere voice claimed their attention from behind, and they turned to find a tall man with hawk-like features and silver-grey hair. Integrity was written all over him just as surely as it had been absent from Captain Weldon. “My officer tells me you have an inquiry about my crew.”

“Yes, sir.” Adam suddenly felt his words lodge in his throat. Brady had said that Wincannon didn’t employ shanghaied labor; he could well believe it, and suddenly it seemed ridiculously insulting even to ask about it. But Joe’s life was at stake, and appearances could be deceiving. “I—ah, I don’t mean to question your practices, sir—or your honor—but we believe our brother may have been shanghaied—”

“And you think he may be aboard the Belvedere?” Wincannon interrupted him, his voice cold. “You do in fact impugn my honor, young man. I do not permit the use of the impress in any form—however difficult it is to avoid in San Francisco, with your quaint allowance of runners.” He snorted disparagingly. “When your crimps are allowed to board my ship and nearly take my men off, it is damned difficult to avoid purchasing shanghaied replacements—but I do avoid it, and that’s all there is to it. You’ll be well served to take your search somewhere else.”

“We didn’t mean no harm, sir,” Hoss said quickly. “We’d been told that about yuh, and if it weren’t that we’re real worried for our brother, we wouldn-a bothered yuh.”

Captain Wincannon thawed marginally. “I understand, son. Shanghai is a despicable practice. I hope you find your brother.” He transferred his gaze to Adam, whose eyes had strayed to a boy scaling hand-over-hand up the net rigging. A spark of warmth invaded the seaman’s expression. “Under the circumstances, perhaps we can be of help. I assume that you have already visited the other ships scheduled out today”—they nodded—“so your next recourse is the crimps themselves. Are you informed as to whom they are?”

Hoss glanced hesitantly at Adam. “Uh, no, sir, I don’t b’lieve we are. We hoped it wouldn’t come to that.”

“Any direction you could provide would be appreciated,” Adam added belatedly.

“Mr. Hansen, I think you have some information about them.”

The young officer stepped up. “Yes, sir. The most powerful and the worst of the lot, sir, is an individual known as Pastor Matthew. He operates out of a back room at a bar called the Argonaut on Pacific Avenue. If you go to his place of business, you’d best take reinforcements.” He looked Hoss up and down. “Even you won’t be enough on your own, sir, no offense intended.”

“None taken,” Hoss replied. “Anybody else?”

“The next worst are Limey Joe Dunnigan and Red Terrence. They work out of the cafes along the waterfront here. I’m sorry I don’t know which ones—they change. Those three see that any other supply is pretty limited.”

“Thank you. We appreciate the help.” He nudged his brother with his shoulder. “C’mon, Adam. We done taken up all o’ these folks’ time we need to.”

Adam reluctantly withdrew his attention from the ship.

For the first time, Captain Wincannon smiled—a small smile, but one which lit his cool blue eyes. “What is it, lad? You look as if you might have a little salt water in your veins.” 

“A man could have sand in his veins and still see how beautifully the Belvedere is designed,” Adam replied with a faint, crooked smile.

“Have you spent much time around the sea?”

“Just once, coming home from school in Boston. But my father and grandfather were seamen.”

“We sail from the port of Boston. Who was your father? Your grandfather?”

“My grandfather was Abel Stoddard, master of The Wanderer, and my father—”

Captain Wincannon’s face brightened. “Is Ben Cartwright.” His gaze fixed on Adam. “Your father and I came up through the ranks together. When he became first mate on The Wanderer, I went to The Peregrine.” He paused, his mind clearly in the past, before going on. “Lost track of him when he went west. How is he? Fit and well, I hope?”

“Yes, sir, very well. We expect him here this afternoon.”

The captain’s eyes swiftly turned sympathetic. “And you need to find your brother before then.”

“We’d like to.”

“Joe’s the youngest,” Hoss supplied. “Pa’d worry.”

Wincannon nodded. “And he’d have cause. He knows the life of a seaman, and how bad it can be in the command of an unscrupulous master. Hansen, find a bit of paper and make a list of the captains we know in port who would be likely to help these men. And write a note of my endorsement—I’ll sign it.” He turned to Adam and Hoss. “These are good men—they’ll help you. They may have to buy seamen here—as I said, it’s difficult when the city allows runners on your ship. You could go with them when they negotiate purchase, perhaps even find a way to see the men on offer. I believe each crimp keeps a boarding house.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hoss said.

Wincannon’s gaze returned to Adam. “You must be the eldest.”

“Yes,” Adam said, abruptly embarrassed at his manners. He held out his hand. “Adam Cartwright. This is my brother, Hoss.”

“Hoss …” Wincannon shook hands with both, and then turned back to Adam. “If your brother would excuse us, may I show you at least a small part of my ship?”

“I’d like that very much,” Adam said.

While Hoss followed the second officer below, they strolled slowly as far as the bow, the captain pointing out design innovations that lent the Belvedere its speed and maneuverability. Adam could hear his grandfather, and the deep affection for a good ship that was like a good friend, in the seaman’s words. When at last they were as far forward as they could walk, he turned around and let his eyes sweep back over the vessel, appreciating her sheer outright beauty. For a few precious seconds, the ever-present concern about Joe quieted in his mind.

“Ever want to command your own ship, lad?” Captain Wincannon asked. It was not, Adam could tell, an idle question, although the mariner’s eyes reflected only polite curiosity.

“Maybe when I was a kid,” he answered. “First five years of my life, most of the stories my father told me were about his days at sea.”

“There’s nothing like it.”

Adam sighed. “I just hope that if we don’t get to my brother in time—if he’s shipped out—it’s on a ship like this one.” But his face showed how likely he felt that might be.

Captain Wincannon slipped his hands into his jacket pockets and looked out over the harbor. “There are good commanders, Adam. Your grandfather was one—your father would have been one.”

“And I’d guess present company would be included.” Adam allowed a little smile.

But Wincannon remained serious. “I hope so. A man’s ship, his crew … it’s a great responsibility. It’s not one any decent master takes lightly.” He underlined his words with an eloquent glance. “We are obliged to care for our fellow men, Adam. Your mother helped me to see that.”

“My mother?” Adam echoed.

The captain’s eyes twinkled briefly. “Your father was not the only one to discuss Paradise Lost with her. … Your mother had done a lot of thinking for such a young woman. The older I get, as I look back, I am constantly amazed.” His voice trailed away for a second, and then he cleared his throat. “Be that as it may. Don’t get the idea that I’m an easy master, because I’m sure these men would agree that I’m not. But I’m a fair one, and when the need arises, a compassionate one. To my mind, that’s all that’s necessary.”

Adam considered the merit of Captain Wincannon’s statement … and the reference to his mother. He almost could hear what he imagined to be her voice; the maxim was so like what his father had told him about her. “Fairness and compassion … they’re often hard to find.”

“Yes … we need more men like you, your brothers and your father. Like me, like Mr. Hansen, like the good masters in harbor now. Good men, strong men,” Captain Wincannon said. “You know that.”

“Yes,” Adam sighed. Only the barest hint of irony flavored his voice. “The strength to enforce the fairness.”

The captain stared straight into his eyes, again refusing to take the subject lightly. “Men like Josiah Weldon won’t change of their own free will,” he said. “A man either understands the importance of good or he must be taught it. It’s the struggle of good versus evil we’re talking about here, Adam. You never escape it—it never goes away, not in the smallest nor the largest of your actions. I’m sure you know that. Ben would. He’d have taught you boys that.”

Adam nodded. If Joe hadn’t been caught up in the middle of it all, he’d have smiled with pleasure at the captain’s certainty of Ben Cartwright’s ethics. He wondered if it were something in Captain Stoddard’s early guidance, or perhaps their strong New England heritage, or maybe it was just that in Ben Cartwright and Edward Wincannon, kindred spirits had found each other. For several seconds, an easy silence fell between them.

When the captain finally spoke, his eyes were tranquil and warm. “Thank you for indulging an old man, my boy,” he said. “Today was most unexpected … but most welcome. I knew of you, you see. I was on a voyage when you were born, and when I returned, you and Ben had already started west. But I knew of you, knew your name … knew that you had black hair and dark eyes and that as much as you resembled your father, you reflected your mother as well.”

He drew in a deep breath. “There are many ways a man’s life can go, depending on who he is and how he grows up. It appears to me from the way you’re dressed that you boys are ranchers—prosperous ranchers, I’d venture to say. Those sidearms you carry aren’t inexpensive, and as you said, you attended university. But who’s to say …”

Adam stared at the captain, an eerie sense of destiny pervading him as he understood. “You were in love with my mother,” he said.

Captain Wincannon’s eyes twinkled again. “That I was, my boy. That spring of ’29, when we were home from our voyages, your father and I both wooed her. Of course, she couldn’t really see anyone but Ben Cartwright—I knew that, I suppose. However, I could see no one but her … never have been able to see anyone but her. My only consolation was that Ben was one of my dearest friends; I throttled my envy. He was—and still is, I am certain—a good man.”

Then a cabin boy appeared at Captain Wincannon’s side, and the seaman turned to Adam. “And now I believe Mr. Hansen has the letter for me to sign. You and Hoss have a brother to find.”



Joe tried to organize his thinking. Much more of this darkness and I’m going to lose my mind. It was no fun being held captive under any circumstances, but sitting alone in the dark was the worst of it. He had waited for his eyes to adjust, to make out shapes in the blackness, but it hadn’t happened; the only available light was the thin streamer under the door, too little to provide any contrast in the rest of the room.

His first achievement had been to acquaint himself with his prison. Very carefully, having no idea how high the ceilings were, he had risen to stand upright—and been heartened to find that he was able to do that. He would not have to stoop. His pallet, he discovered by examination with his fingertips, was about a foot from a brick wall. He’d followed that wall to a corner, and then edged around it, counting his footsteps. He figured that the room to be about ten feet by ten. He also realized that he was alone in it. Where the hell was Darby?

Then, on all fours, he systematically explored the square footage of his dirt floor. The only object in the room, other than his pallet, turned out to be a bucket in the corner for his physical relief. But the floor, he was surprised to discover, was remarkably clean, as if it had been swept recently. 

Finally, as if saving the best for last, he pressed himself against the rough plank wood of the cell’s door. If any escape was to be made, it would have to be through this door—and he had no idea what lay beyond. He could hear activity, but such common noises that he couldn’t identify them. And there were voices, but no distinguishable phrases. Then someone shouted, a loud combination of words that was probably a command, and he realized why he couldn’t comprehend what he heard. Outside the door, the language spoken was Chinese. 



The sun was directly overhead when Adam and Hoss regained the wharf, fortified by Captain Wincannon’s letter of endorsement and his good wishes.

“I’m feelin’ a little better about findin’ Joe in among all those shanghaied fellers,” Hoss commented. “If these cap’ns’ll take us with ’em, we might find ’im right quick. You want to go get started with these ships?”

“Why don’t we go back to the hotel first? Make sure Pa hasn’t gotten in … maybe get something to eat.”

Hoss stopped in his tracks. “We forgot to eat.” He looked at his brother in surprise. “An’ I’m not all that hungry.”

“Neither am I, but we should get something.”

They climbed the long set of stairs back to the waterfront, where business was in full swing: the cafes and ship’s chandlers and tattoo parlors were all busy with a steady supply of sailors. They’d walked another block when Hoss said unexpectedly, “Adam, how come you thought Joe’d get himself inta trouble here? I mean, right away when we got to the hotel?”

Lost in his own thoughts, Adam shot his brother a curious glance. “I didn’t say he’d get himself into trouble here; I said he’d get into trouble. There’s a difference.”

“Maybe you’d better explain that part.”

“He’s not even nineteen yet, Hoss. The Barbary Coast is full of entertainment—music, girls, gambling. You know many nineteen-year-olds who wouldn’t want a taste of it? And after the last time, he’d think he knew what to watch out for.” Adam exhaled sharply. “I just figured it was a bad combination, and it was. If anyone’s to blame for this, it’s me, for not saying something to Pa when he sent Joe off—”

“An’ wave a flag at ’im? You go an’ let our lil’ brother know somethin’s got some spice to it and you’ll be speakin’ to his dust.” Hoss shook his head. “Funny thing is, isn’t nothin’ here he can’t get in Virginia City. Maybe it’s worse here, and it’s a darn sight more dangerous, but we got melodeons an’ saloons an’ dance halls an’ all that malarkey.”

“Virginia City’s got something else too.”

“What’s that?”

“Pa and you and me.”

“Yeah, an’ big brother, sometimes you’re worse’n Pa.”

For a second, Adam’s eyes lit with humor. “I’ll tell you one thing. It’s no mystery to me how Pa’s hair turned grey.”

Hoss tried to chuckle, but it was hard breaking through the worry. “Pa had grey hair long b’fore Joe got old enough to give it to ’im.”

“And you asked how I knew our little brother would get into trouble.”

Hoss slanted a perceptive gaze. “Y’er all the time tryin’ to spare Joe anything bad.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“Adam, you gotta let ’im learn on his own … the same way I did, same as you did.” Hoss wrinkled his face. “’Cept fer somethin’ like this. This’s a darn-sight too dangerous to fool around with.”

Adam was silent, but Hoss could tell that his brother was thinking about what had been said.

“An’ Adam—yuh know, Pa’s gonna survive Joe’s shenanigans just the same as he did ours. You don’t have to protect him either.”

“I know, Hoss. That’s not it.”

“Then what is it? How come you watch Joe like such a hawk that sometimes yuh drive ’im crazy?”

“It’s not just Joe.” Adam’s voice sharpened in irritation. “It’s the family, Hoss. When you’re as young as Joe is, you just don’t see how fast something silly can turn into something serious—and this family’s had enough heartbreak to last it a lifetime.” After a moment, he asked in a more subdued tone, “Does that answer your question?”

Hoss kept walking, step for step, by Adam. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I reckon it does.”



When they pushed open the doors to the What Cheer House, Hoss caught Adam’s arm and nodded at the front desk; the tall man who spun the register back to the clerk presented a familiar silhouette. Their father saw them when he turned around, and his face lit with pleasure.

“Hoss, Adam! Good to see you—” He threw an arm around Hoss’ shoulder and pumped Adam’s hand, peppering them with questions about the cattle drive. He was in such high spirits, his tanned face wreathed in smiles, that they didn’t interrupt him. Finally, still firing questions and lobbing suggestions for what they would do in the city, he declared that they should have lunch. “Go on and get a table—I’ll just take my bag up. And where’s Joseph? Don’t tell me he’s slept in today. Even Joe can’t sleep till noon!”

It was then that he studied their faces for the first time.

“Pa, let’s go upstairs,” Adam said. “There’s a problem.”

“What kind of a problem? Where’s Joseph?”

Hoss gently turned his father toward the stairway. “We’ll tell yuh all about it, Pa, but we need to get outta the lobby here.”

In the suite, they told him what had happened, from their arrival to find Joe away from the hotel, through their search of the Barbary Coast and discovery that their brother had been followed from the Mother Lode, to their learning of Darby’s death that morning. They ended with an abbreviated account of their experiences on the two clippers. Their father sat through it in shocked silence.

“We’ve got to do something,” he finally said hoarsely, and when neither of them replied, he looked up to see their faces. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to say you haven’t done anything. I meant something more.” He got up to pace the room. “We’re going to need more force to take on the crimps. The police may have said they can’t help us, but they might sing a different tune if Guthrey Blain goes to the chief on our behalf.”

Adam suddenly flushed and covered his face with one hand. “Pa, there’s one thing I forgot to tell you. It’s pretty apparent that this is a shanghai, but there’s one other possibility …”

“Well, what is it? Speak up, Adam, I don’t have time for—”

“Willard Arrick,” Adam interrupted. “Do you remember him?”

“What in the world has he got to do with this?”

“His real name is Luke Parton—‘Bloody Luke’ Parton—and he’s coming up for trial on Monday in Judge Blain’s court.”

“And you think he might have something to do with this?”

“I don’t think anything. I’m just saying that there’s no love lost there.”

Ben sat down slowly, his face again blank, as his eyes reflected a succession of thoughts. “I suppose we can’t really count out any possibility.”

“Pa, that’s part o’ the reason the police ain’t been s’ helpful,” Hoss said. “They’re all watchin’ to see that this Parton fella’s men don’t go makin’ any more trouble than normal.”

“I see.” Ben nodded. For a moment longer, he sat still, his broad hands resting on his knees, fingers splayed over his trousers as if trying to grasp what was happening. Then he heaved in a great breath and stood up. “I’m going down to the court house and find Guthrey. I know we’re having dinner with him tonight”—he waved a hand—“but this can’t wait that long. You say the second captain gave you a list of other masters? You two get the times of their departures, and start talking to the ones leaving soonest.”

“Cap’n Wincannon already checked off the two earliest,” Hoss informed him.

Ben, who’d been about to run his hand through his hair, stopped with his arm in mid-air. “Wincannon? I used to know—” His gaze darted to Adam, who had recounted that part of their activities.

“It’s the same one. I didn’t mention his name because I thought you’d—well, it would be nice to think of him when your mind isn’t on other things.”

Ben smiled faintly, his eyes reminiscent. “Yes … it will be good to think of him. Edward Wincannon’s a fine man—I’m not surprised he’d help you.” Then he shook himself out of the brief return to the past. “The next time he’s in San Francisco, we’ll get over here to see him—and that means all of us, Joe included. Now, get going.”

They were almost to the door when Hoss turned back to say something to his father and caught the anxiety in Ben’s eyes. “Pa … you sure you’re okay? Maybe Adam ’r I should go with yuh down to the court house.”

“No, I’m fine.” Ben sighed again, reorienting himself. “This just takes a little getting used to. I’ll be all right.” When he spoke, he glanced away and his voice was low. “Don’t misinterpret this … I wouldn’t want either of you to be where Joe is now. But … if it were either of you, I’d know that you’d stay calm … that you’d reason out your best course. Your brother is young and sometimes he doesn’t know the meaning of fear. I hope … I just hope Joseph keeps his wits about him.”



Joe Cartwright stared at the blackness and was actually glad when he became aware that he was hungry. The first little rumble in his stomach took his mind off trying to figure out what time it was. He’d never, that he could remember, particularly cared about the time, unless he had an appointment to meet someone (and he cared most if it was a girl) or a deadline by which his father wanted some work finished. Now it seemed all-important—and utterly frustrating. There was no way to figure out the time.

And then he realized that he was trying to detect the time in order to estimate when someone might feed him, because it meant that there would be contact with another human being. More importantly, the door—his one means of escape—would open. He’d get an idea of where he was, of how possible escape might be. If he really got lucky, he might even make an opportunity for escape right then and there. It was hard waiting for that.

It was harder still to push the thoughts of his family from his mind. He’d discovered early on that he couldn’t handle thinking about them; the thought of never seeing them again filled him with desolation and drained him of energy so completely that he just didn’t dare allow that to happen. When he thought at all, he had to focus on getting back to them.

Even with all the anticipation, he just sat on his pallet when the door finally opened, and it was a full two or three seconds before he leapt to his feet and started for the door.

“Get back!” a man’s voice snarled.

Joe halted. That was not hard; the searing cut across his ribs took his breath away and stopped him cold. And the sudden brightness blinded him; all he could make out in the light was a man with a rifle and a smaller figure carrying a tray with a candle. He stepped back, trying to force his eyes to adjust more quickly—he needed information, he had to know what he was up against.

The smaller figure deposited the tray on the flat dirt across his little room and hurried back through the door. The taller one, the one with the gun, pulled the door shut—but not before Joe’s eyes had formed an image of the world beyond his cell.

“Makes no sense,” he mumbled to himself, and went to get the tray. The first order of business was breakfast, or more likely, midday dinner.

He examined what he’d been given: a bowl of clear broth with something floating in it, a plate of meat and noodles that he didn’t recognize, and a crockery bottle of liquid. He smelled it, tasted it tentatively. Some kind of wine. Not bad for captivity, assuming the food was edible. He tried a hesitant sip of soup … nothing Hop Sing would put on the table, but he could get it down if he had to. The main dish was better, even reminded him of something he’d had years ago, when he’d begged to try something that the Cantonese cook had eaten as a boy.

Chinese again. That smaller figure could easily have been a Chinese man or woman. Of course! He hadn’t been paying enough attention, but he recognized the loose, pajama-type clothing. The man with the gun, however, had been an Anglo. So where did the Chinese come in? Why would they want to kidnap him? Or was this exactly what it appeared to be—a shanghai operation? A shanghai operation which employed Chinese help …

And how about outside? Where the hell was he? His brief glimpse indicated that there was a porch-type roof over his door, and beyond the shadow it cast, a courtyard. But something was wrong … the light wasn’t quite right. Maddeningly, whatever he needed to understand about his accommodations danced beyond his comprehension. The courtyard hadn’t been wide; it had been a little broader than a typical alley. It had been dirt … and there had been a wall and a door, probably the entrance to cell like his own, on its other side. Still, he couldn’t put it together.

Then he remembered his meal. He had no idea when they would return, how long they would allow him to keep the candle, and he wanted to explore his little cell more thoroughly with the light. He gave no thought to table manners—no table, no manners, right?—nor really much to what he was eating. It was even possible that the food was drugged, but he reasoned that he’d have no way of knowing unless he watched his own reactions after he’d eaten it. At the moment, filling his stomach was worth the risk.

No one had returned when he scraped the last of the meat off the plate with his fingers and then licked them clean. He made himself drink the soup, and then finished with some of the wine. It was sweetish, compared to what he’d had at home, and he was glad that he really wasn’t much for wine anyhow. He’d need all his faculties to get out of this catastrophe.

With the aid of the candle, he examined the door to the room, but the flame revealed nothing to help him. The panel was rough planks, braced around its perimeter and in an X from top to bottom. The door so blocked the light that it must have been caulked on the outside, but he didn’t care about that. Its solid strength was the important thing.  He hadn’t much hope of battering it down.

A few moments later sounds outside let him know that his captors had returned. He was ready this time, sitting on his pallet, his eyes fixed on the door when it swung open. Once again, a man stood in the aperture; this time, Joe discerned the details in his silhouette—the broad face was a mask, and the rifle was a shotgun. The gunman wore a drover’s coat, even though the breeze which blew past him into the little room said that the temperature didn’t demand it. It was simply a disguise.

Again, a smaller figure—yes, a Chinese, and this time it became clear that it was a woman—shuffled across the cell to the far wall, where Joe had left the tray. Automatically, when she had picked it up, she offered two quick bows to Joe.

“Get a move on!” the gunman rasped, and the woman, the fear in her eyes evident even in the dim light, hastened out.

A Chinese man scurried a few paces closer, his arm out to escort the woman away. But apparently he came too close for the gunman’s pleasure because the guard whirled and sneered, “Get back, yella!” He didn’t need to do more than that; the little man was already drawing back. But he struck hard anyway and aimed the butt of his weapon to catch the Chinese man across the face. The thud of contact, which ended in a sickening crunch, turned Joe’s stomach.

The man fell with a whimper, and his jaw hung slackly as blood poured out, falling haphazardly to stain the cheap cotton of his blouse. A couple of teeth lay in the dust. He clasped his cheek, a red spittle seeping between his fingers as tears of pain surged over his deeply-lined face. Without standing, he crawled, crab-like, to the other side of the courtyard, and the woman followed, trying to stifle a sort of keening sound that would surely have annoyed the guard.

Then the gunman slammed shut the door, and Joe was returned to darkness. A few minutes later he heard a fierce outpouring of Chinese and a woman’s shrieking tears.




“Don’t need to be at the Lancaster fer another hour,” Hoss said when they had had lunch. “Got any ideas o’ what we could be doin’?”

“Let’s walk the route between here and the Bella Union one more time,” Adam replied. “Check it in the daylight … see if we see anything.”

Hoss nodded. Anything was better than sitting still. They walked up Sacramento to Washington, turned left and headed for Portsmouth Square. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Many of the saloons, wine and beer dens and grog shops were shuttered for the day, but otherwise, there was little different from the night before—and certainly no sign of Joe.

“He mighta gone Montgomery Street,” Hoss offered.

“Huh-uh. We know he went in the Mother Lode, and it’s on Washington.” 

“Oh, yeah, right …” Hoss peered at the open plaza of Portsmouth Square. In the daylight, more people strolled its walkways. “We didn’ really give this square much of look-over … ’spose Joe coulda got in there and somethin’ happened?” 

“I doubt it … Darby was killed a block away.” 

“Yeah, but what if Joe ran? He mighta come back this way.” 

Adam’s brows rose. “You’ve got a point there. All right … on the chance he ran back this way and for some reason didn’t stop in anywhere. … The square’s awful open, though. Couldn’t hide there.” 

“Guess not.” Hoss made a face. “So where would he a-hid? I mean, if he came back this way. It’s possible. It’s only a block ’n’ a half ’r so.”

“Beats me.”

They stared up and down the street, meticulously examining the block beyond the Bella Union. John Piper’s Fruits and Preserves … the Pharmacy and Chemical Laboratory … a gunsmith … and other offices and mercantiles. But no alleys, no places where Joe could have hidden if he were being chased through the streets.

“What’s that over there?” Adam gestured at a gap between buildings in the block that ran up the left side of Portsmouth Square.

Hoss squinted. “I can’t tell from here. But it’s about the only thing that’s not a building front, so let’s go see.” He waited for a delivery wagon and a couple of private carriages to pass before he led the way across Kearney Street and up the sidewalk to a low adobe wall about chest-high that ran a short space between two buildings. They peered over it; on the other side, the ground dropped off like a cliff. Two ramshackle ladders descended to what appeared to be an open courtyard below street level. Several doors ranged along either side, and at the other end, two dark archways indicated that more space stretched away underground.

“What the heck d’yuh s’pose this is?” Hoss asked.

“Good question. Probably some kind of storage for these two buildings. If Joe was being chased, he might’ve decided to try it.”

“Let’s take a look.”

Hoss pushed open one of the gates in the wall and stepped out on to the rough wooden stairway. He was only a few steps down, however, before an old Chinese woman bolted from a door beneath one of the buildings, shouted in her own language and shook her fist at him. He drew back and said over his shoulder to Adam, “I don’t think she wants us down there.”

“Go on anyway.”

But the woman’s screaming had alerted others; two Chinese youths emerged from the tunnel. One ran to put an arm around the old woman, and the other stared up at Hoss angrily.

“White man not welcome!” he cried. “Go ’way!”

“We just wanta ask yuh a question ’r two!” Hoss countered. “We ain’t tryin’ to cause trouble!”

“Go ’way! Only Chinese here!” the young man insisted.

“Adam, I don’ know,” Hoss said. “It’d be awful hard fer Joe to hide down here, the way they feel about white people. I don’ know as how we wanta stir up anything here anyhow.”

“Not without more to go on,” Adam agreed, and turned back to the gate. “It was a longshot at best.”


Joe, asleep on his pallet, groaned as he rolled over. In his dream, he’d heard Hoss’ voice. Lots of Chinese shouting, and Hoss …

His eyes opened abruptly. What if it wasn’t a dream? He scrambled up, lost his footing in his frantic haste, gained his feet again and threw himself against the door. “Hoss!” he yelled, his voice hoarse with disuse. “Hoss!”

Outside, the yard fell silent. Nothing happened. Then he heard a tentative murmuring of Chinese, and finally, again, quiet. He sank down on his knees, limp with spent emotion. “Hoss …” he whispered. It was too late. And maybe Hoss had never been there at all. 


Chapter Seven 


It was growing dark when the carriage Ben had hired slowed at a big house on Taylor Street, turned into its driveway and pulled up under an elegant portico. Even as Hoss pushed open the carriage door, Ben pushed harder. Judge Guthrey Blain had been in court all afternoon, unavailable for private conversation; other than the fruitless trip Hoss and Adam had made with the first officer of the Lancaster to meet a crimp, nothing had been accomplished in the search for Joe.

The judge’s houseman held open the door.

“Good evening, Walters,” Ben said hurriedly, handing over his hat as they came into the vestibule. “We’re a little early, for which I offer my apologies, but it’s urgent that we see Judge Blain.”

A pale man so thin that he looked as if a good breeze might blow him away, Walters set their hats on the hall table. “I’ll get the judge immediately, Mr. Cartwright. If you’d like to go on into the library, I’ll attend to your refreshments as soon as I return.”

“Good man,” Ben said gruffly.

Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance and followed their father into a large room of walnut paneling. French doors overlooking a garden provided light during the day; at this hour, gas-fueled wall sconces cast a warm yellow glow on the lofty bookcases and old oil paintings. It was the quintessential gentleman’s room in a gentleman’s house. There was no breath of a feminine touch.

They were not alone for long. In minutes, a portly man with a mane of blondish hair plunged through the study’s pair of doors. “Ben—how good to see you! Adam—Hoss—” He was not tall; he peered up at both of them as he shook their hands, and then turned to Ben. “Now what’s this about something so important that you came early? Of course you’re welcome here anytime—but what’s going on?”

“It’s Joseph, Guthrey. He’s been shanghaied,” Ben replied, his voice husky. “We’re doing everything we can to get him back, but help from the police would be very much appreciated. I thought perhaps you could arrange that.”

“Sit down, Ben, sit down. Of course I’ll speak to the commissioner; we’ll find some men to help you out. But you know this is difficult at best. Shanghai crimps are strong, unscrupulous and elusive as hell.” He grimaced. “Not to mention, with the trial coming up—”

“Yes, yes, Adam and Hoss told me. I wouldn’t ask, Guthrey, except—”

“Don’t give it a second thought. Why don’t you wait here? Walters will bring you drinks. I’ll write a note and have my kitchen boy take it to Commissioner Wilhoyt’s home right now.”

The judge had been gone only seconds when Walters appeared with a tray of glasses and decanters of whiskey and brandy. When he had poured and distributed the drinks, he withdrew discreetly.

Hoss took a long sip. “Feel like a caged animal,” he muttered. “Nothin’ we can do till tomorrow—waitin’s the worst part.”

“Well, perhaps if Guthrey gets the police involved, they’ll turn up something faster than we could have,” Ben said, his voice hopeful.

Adam turned away and stared out the french doors to the garden, even though little was visible in the waning light. He felt rather than saw Hoss come up beside him.

“What’s got your face so dark?” his brother mumbled, too low for their father to hear. “You look like you aren’t even glad the judge is gonna get us help.”

“I don’t know how I feel about it,” Adam admitted in an equally low tone. “Seems like that kind of news will travel through the criminal element here pretty quickly. What if the crimps decide Joe’s too hot to hold on to?”

“Y’mean they’d kill ’im?”

“They might.”

Before Hoss could reply, Ben’s voice sounded from across the room. “Anything you two would like to share?”

They left the window to return to the center of the room. “Nothing special,” Adam finally managed, “just going over it all again.”

“Pa, maybe you’d better sit down an’ try to relax,” Hoss offered. “Me an’ Adam, we’re gettin’ kind o’ used to holdin’ up under all this, but you—”

“Don’t you worry about me, young man,” Ben retorted. “I’ll hold up just fine.”

Presently Judge Blain came back, accompanied by a stout man with a dark beard and curly hair.

“Ben, boys, I want you to meet our mayor—Mayor Teschemacher,” the judge said. “I’d originally planned this dinner for you to get to know him. As it is, perhaps he can be of help as well. Henry, this is Ben Cartwright and his sons, Adam and Hoss.”

The mayor possessed a firm handshake and, it was immediately apparent, a forceful personality. His eyes were serious and his mouth set with purpose. “Guthrey tells me your son has been shanghaied,” he said to Ben. “I want you to know that we’ll do all we can to get him back—and to stamp out that evil practice as soon as we are able.”

Ben, preparing to proffer standard words of acknowledgement, unexpectedly choked with gratitude.

“We appreciate anything you can do,” Adam said swiftly. “We understand you’re mounting a reform movement.”

“Yes, I am, young man, and I intend to see it through,” the mayor replied. “We have the most wonderful city west of Paris, but the level of crime in the Barbary Coast is a disgrace!”

That was enough to give Ben a chance to recover, and when there had been a little more discussion of the goals of the movement, he was able to converse intelligently. Mayor Teschemacher adroitly turned the discussion to the upcoming trial of Luke Parton, a subject upon which everyone could agree. The dire nature of Parton’s crimes served to make a shanghai sound less ominous, and certainly less deadly.

“We lost at least six people the year he operated near Virginia City,” Ben recalled. “Once we knew what was going on, it was easy enough to see that he was intimidating the families of the dead into selling their land to him, but he was very smart. We were only able to convict two of his henchmen.”

“Parton’s worst atrocity, as far as I’m concerned, came down in Maryville,” Mayor Teschemacher said. “He was brought up on charges of land fraud and theft. Came right out and threatened the judge. Had his men take the judge’s son, a boy of about seven. Said they’d castrate him.”

“It was never really proven that Parton was behind that,” Judge Blain cautioned mildly.

“Never proven, no,” the mayor responded, “but it was well known.”

“Did they hurt the boy?” Ben asked.

Mayor Teschemacher nodded. “Yes, they cut him. But it didn’t matter in the end. When Judge Cater came out the morning of the trial, he found his son in the horse trough on the street in front of his house …” He cleared his throat. “The boy was dead. But his—wound—had bled, of course. Looked like he was floating in a sea of his own blood. Obviously, it was all calculated to strike fear in anyone who would oppose Parton.”

Ben turned worried eyes to Judge Blain. “Guthrey—”

His friend hastened to reassure him. “Not to worry, Ben. There’s no one in my life that Luke Parton can use to get to me.” He smiled weakly. “I suppose that’s the silver lining in the cloud of being alone.”

“You see, gentleman, as bad as a shanghai is,” the mayor said quickly, “at least we’re not dealing with Parton. We’ll get your boy back.”

By the time Walters announced that dinner was served, the evening had settled into one of social practice; regardless of the tension-filled circumstances, everyone had to eat, and they did so with the thin comfort that everything possible was being done to find Joe.

“I shall make you gentlemen a solemn promise,” Judge Blain said when the table had been cleared and only dessert remained. The dining room, a soaring affair capped with a frescoed ceiling, shimmered with candlelight. “When this problem is in the past, we shall gather here again—yes, Walters—what is it?”

They all were surprised to find Walters standing in the archway from the hall, instead of the passage from the kitchen. And the servant carried not plates of dessert, but an envelope.

“This just arrived for Mr. Cartwright, sir,” Walters said. “A China boy came to the side door. I thought it might be important.”

“Of course, of course,” the judge said, waving toward his guest.

Walters handed the envelope to Ben, and without being asked, dragged one of the heavy silver candlesticks closer. With a puzzled glance at Hoss and Adam, Ben ripped it open and unfolded a heavy sheet of rag paper.

“‘To Ben Cartwright,’” he read slowly, and then his voice picked up speed. “‘We have your son. He will be returned to you upon the release of Luke Parton. This must occur by Saturday latest, or your son will not be returned to you alive.’ It’s not signed—or I suppose it is, but I can’t read it. It’s a Chinese symbol.” He looked up, searching each of the other men’s faces. “What is this all about?”

For a moment, no one spoke, and then Adam said, his tone rigorously moderated, “Apparently Joe wasn’t shanghaied.”

The mayor found his voice. “No. … It may be … worse than that.” He removed his spectacles from his pocket and held out his hand. “May I?” When Ben handed over the note, he perused it closely. “If it’s what I’m afraid of, it means that the tong has united with Luke Parton’s men, and Joe has become their pawn.”

“I thought the tong and Parton’s crowd were adversaries,” Adam said.

“They are, normally,” the mayor replied. “They divide up vice on the Barbary Coast like you and I would divide up fishing spots. And actually, we’re talking more than one tong—I should just have said the Chinese—but it’s safe to say that the most powerful faction is the Suey Sings, and I’d bet they’re in on this. Frankly, if it wouldn’t hurt the city so much, I’d let the tongs and Parton just kill each other off. My only fear has been that they would lay aside their differences long enough to fight our reform.”

“Yeah, but even if they’ve joined up fer a while, what good would lettin’ Parton go do for ’em?” Hoss questioned. “You could always lock ’im back up again as soon as Joe’s free.”

“Not if he got away,” Mayor Teschemacher explained. “He could disappear into the countryside and run his organization from a distance.”

Even in the dim candlelight, Adam and Hoss could tell that their father had gone pale under his tan. “And we have only until Saturday,” he said thickly.

“Until the last business day before the trial begins,” Judge Blain supplied.

In the heavy silence which fell, Walters spoke hesitantly. “Sir, would you wish dessert now? Or would something—ah—stronger be more appropriate?”

The judge surveyed his guests. “I don’t know about you gentlemen, but the idea of a sweet right now is a bit beyond me. Walters will serve whatever you like … but I think I’d as soon have a good strong brandy.”

Everyone nodded dismally, and in moments, Walters reappeared with the brandy bottle and a round of fresh glasses.

Adam asked to see the note and it was passed to him, but it told him little. It was, to his mind, perplexing. The stylized drawing of a dragon at its top looked Chinese, as did the graceful assembly of vertical and horizontal strokes at the bottom, which resembled something from Hop Sing’s shopping list. But in between, the words were scrawled in English, neither a fine hand nor an illiterate one. When he refolded it, he slipped it into his pocket; it was nothing his father needed to see again.

At last Ben spoke, his voice heavy. “I won’t—I can’t, and I wouldn’t—ask you to consider the release of Luke Parton,” he said. “I didn’t raise my boys to even consider something like that, and I’m not going to change my ways now.” 

The mayor was visibly relieved. “You know, Ben, if there were any way—”

“I know,” Ben cut in, “but that’s not the way these things work.”

“Let’s not be hasty,” said Judge Blain unexpectedly. “Let’s not rule anything out.”

The mayor stared at him in surprise. “You’d counsel we release Luke Parton?”

“Of course not. I’m only saying let’s make no plans. Let’s see what we’re up against. I suppose if we could so control events that we might be assured of retaining Parton—well, we just don’t know yet.”

“I couldn’t ask that, Guthrey,” Ben reaffirmed. He tried to compose his emotions, and around his stricken eyes, his features began to gather strength. “What I will ask for, however, is more help from the police. This isn’t just our problem now. It’s San Francisco’s. You’re being held hostage just as much as Joseph is.”

“And I can assure you aid to the fullest measure we are able to supply it,” Mayor Teschemacher responded. He dabbed at his lips with his napkin and then folded it carefully. “Guthrey, if you’ll forgive me, I shall excuse myself and go over to Jim Wilhoyt’s house now. I apologize for my manners—”

“Not at all, Henry. We appreciate your help. I’ll walk you to the door.”

When the judge returned, he regarded the long, empty sweep of the dinner table and the guttering candles. No one spoke, and the depression in the room was palpable.

“I think it’s time for a change of scene at least,” he said kindly. “Boys, would you like to try some very good cigars I have in the smoking room? I’m thinking perhaps your father might enjoy a visit to my cupola.”

Adam and Hoss rose quickly. “Sounds real nice, Judge Blain,” Hoss said, trying to lighten the somber expression on his face. He achieved that until his father and the judge had left the room, and then, with just Adam, he allowed his eyes to go blank and his shoulders to slump. “You been here before. Yuh know where the smokin’ room is?”

“Down the hall.”

They found the small, round room, which was another triumph of paneling. A round table of inlaid mahogany was at its center and atop that a beautifully-polished humidor. The cigars were of the highest grade, and they settled back comfortably into big, deep chairs of silky-smooth leather.

“I couldn’t-a done it,” Hoss said at length.

“Done what?”

“Not asked the mayor to let Luke Parton go.”

“We can’t do that.”

“I know it, but that’s what I’m sayin’. I couldn’t-a done what Pa did—leastwise, I don’t think I coulda. I know it isn’ right, but with Little Joe’s life … I mighta asked anyhow, even though I knew it wasn’t right.” He clenched his fist and pounded the soft leather arm of the chair. “But I’d’ve guaranteed ’em that once Joe was free, didn’t matter where Luke Parton was, I’d’ve brought ’im in. I’d bring him in if it was the last thing I ever did.”

Adam sat quietly.

“Don’t you feel that way, Adam?”

Adam took a long drag on his cigar before answering. “Of course I do—and so does Pa. But it’s … not an option.”



In the ornate cupola that topped the judge’s Italianate mansion, Ben stared out at the lights of San Francisco. 

“You’ve done very well, Guthrey,” he said, aware that his host had brought him to the room to try to take his mind off of Joe. He didn’t tell his friend that he was so numb inside that where he was, what he was doing, made little difference, unless he could be out searching the streets for his son. Instead he said, “This cupola is beautiful … an inspired addition to the house.”

“I like it real well,” the judge returned. “It’s good to come up here on clear nights … just look at the city … settle my thoughts, you might say. Perhaps it will work its magic for you.”

Ben acknowledged the sympathy with a faint smile. “For a normal problem, I could ask for little more.”

“You’ve got to keep up your strength, old friend. Our police will be working all night. There’s just nothing you can do at the moment.”

Ben nodded and struggled to focus on his surroundings. “You’ve done a fine job here … what’s new since our last visit?”

“Nothing much … the conservatory, I suppose. The music room; you must hear the organ when all of this is over.”

Ben smiled in genuine pleasure for his friend. “You can be proud. You’ve done all this yourself—you can be proud.”

“I appreciate your saying that. I am proud,” Guthrey Blain replied quietly. “But … it’s not everything. It’s not like having sons, Ben. That’s my only regret. Yes, I have all this—but it’s all I have. I have no sons to carry on my name.”

“Sons …” Ben sighed. “Yes, I’ve been blessed.” He cocked an astute glance at his companion. “I’d give the Ponderosa—I’d give anything—without a thought if I knew it would make them safe.”

“You’d give it all away to get Joe back?”

“Of course I would. We could build back. We could start over.” He shrugged. “Not that I’d want to, of course; it would be hard, giving away everything that we’ve built … everything that I hope, in the end, will be my legacy to them. But there’s no question I’d do it—and unless I very much mistake my boys, no question that they’d back me in it.”

Judge Blain pursed his lips and stared out into the night at the spangled landscape. “It’s such a shame, Ben … when things can be so good … that something like this has to happen.”

Ben’s brows rose like raven’s wings. “It doesn’t have to happen, Guthrey. We have to stop it.”



Hoss lay still as the low voices from his father and Adam’s room faded and the light went out. He hoped the sound of snoring would declare that someone in the suite was asleep, but that hope was disappointed. The worries and fears of the day were deviling everyone, he figured. He shut his eyes resolutely … but the fragments of thoughts would not go away.

Mainly he wondered how Joe was doing. He wondered if the sort of fellows who would kidnap a person would make very good provision for him. If they thought they might have some use for him—might have to show him before they gave him back—they might be feeding him all right. If they planned to kill him, then Hoss could hardly imagine how they might be treating him. He wished Hop Sing were with them; the cook had on occasion talked about how cheaply life was held in his country, and Hoss needed to know if that attitude held true in San Francisco. Would the tong have any inclination to see Joe as a person and not just a pawn in a political struggle?

In the absence of sleep, he cast around for something useful he might do. There was no point in trying to think up a scheme to find Joe; all that planning would be Adam’s job. Outside of being the strong man in a fight, what he himself did best was look for the little details in what lay around him, like he did when he was tracking something. This wasn’t all that different from tracking rustlers or horse thieves, he supposed—and when he put his mind to it, there wasn’t much he missed. But in the dark, silent gloom of the night, as he reexamined every sight and sound of the past twenty-eight hours, he couldn’t remember one thing that they might have overlooked … not one little point that might provide a lead.

He wondered idly about the man behind all this. Luke Parton—Willard Arrick … was he so vindictive over how the Cartwrights had stopped him in Virginia City that he’d kill Joe? Of course, Hoss’ mind scoffed. Of course. A man like that got ahead by killing folks … figured the world owed him something … didn’t see other people as live things—just objects to be used, the same way some folks looked at animals. He always kind of wondered about men like that, how they got that way, what made them so mean, so careless of everything except their own skins. Some of them had had hateful parents and terrible childhoods; for those, he felt a little sorrow. But way too many of ’em had no excuse at all. They were just purely rotten, through and through.

The mist of sleep was beginning to calm his restless mind, and he succumbed to it gratefully. But he was sure of one thing: when they found the person responsible for taking Joe, he would be the one to see that that man found no place to run and no way to escape.



Adam stared into the black-on-black tonality that materialized after the light went out. He wanted to sleep, to escape the shock of the day—and so, he was not surprised to discover, sleep eluded him. To his annoyance, unanswerable thoughts—philosophical musings that solved nothing—racketed in his mind.

For the first time, he let himself face the terror he’d known when they’d thought Joe might be aboard a ship like the China Rose. It wasn’t so much that he feared for his brother physically. The work would have been hard and dangerous, but that was true even on the Ponderosa. Joe was young and strong, tougher than he sometimes appeared. If he kept his head, he’d survive what was thrown at him, and after a misstep or two, he’d learn to keep his head. It was the thought of his brother living for a year or more under the thumb of a man like Weldon that turned Adam’s stomach.

It also, he admitted to himself, wasn’t as if his brother hadn’t run across cruelty before—but ‘run across’ and live with were two different things. Having to shore up his spirit every single day, fight against descending into hell, fight for his own reason even as he watched other men break under the unnecessary treatment—Joe would be a different person when he returned from such an experience. Adam, lying in his bed in a San Francisco hotel room, unsure of how his brother was faring even now, knew only that he would do anything to spare Joe having to endure anything like that.

It’s just life, his mind told him ruthlessly. And now they had Luke Parton—worse than any shanghai agent imaginable. It’s just plain old life … you’ve been living it, fighting it, since you were a child—the good and evil, the kindness and cruelty, the right and wrong.

He sighed as sleep began to overtake him. Parton had his way of life and they had theirs. There wasn’t room for both. They had to win.

And then, just as he drifted off, a faint creak sounded from the sitting room. He groaned, ignored it, turned over … he must have dreamed it. But it came again, more pronounced this time—the definite squeak of a door, its hinges in need of oil. The door to the hall.

He was on his feet before he knew that he’d moved. Silent as a cat, he retrieved his revolver from where it lay on the dresser, and eased open the door to the parlor. An oblong of light shone from the corridor, just enough for him to see the dim shape of a man beyond the settee.  He stood quietly and watched for a moment, but the intruder didn’t move, and it was impossible to tell whether which direction he faced or whether he had a gun in his hand.

Adam crept forward, focusing on the man—and suddenly was swung off his feet, spun sideways and hurled hard against the mantel. For a second, pain ricocheted through his head and darkness closed on his vision, broken only by random pinpoints of light. He slid down the wall, gasping for breath, frustrated as he heard the scuffle of retreating footsteps. Two men. He even caught a glimpse of their silhouettes—one small and thin, the other as big as Hoss—but he was powerless to stop them. His gun, once so near his hand, seemed miles away as he reached for it, but came up wide. And weak. His fingers curled ineffectually.

“What in tarnation—?” Ben appeared in the bedroom doorway, blinking at the darkness. He reached for the safety matches and had lit the glass lamp on the end table before he saw Adam, crumpled near the fireplace. “Adam—are you all right? What’s going on?” He shoved the fire screen aside and knelt beside his son.

Adam mumbled, but the words didn’t express what he meant. He shook his head, trying to clear the fog, and groaned—wild fireworks again. “I’m okay,” he managed to say, and leaned his head against the wall to still the dizziness.

Across the sitting room, Hoss’ door opened. “Somethin’ goin’ on out here?” he inquired groggily.

“We must have had a break-in,” Ben replied, anger cutting through a huskiness in his voice. “I heard some sort of fight, and the door’s open. Help me get Adam up.”

“I’m all right!” Adam insisted. He pushed himself up with one hand and, leaning on his father, rose. The room swam for a moment and then righted itself.

“What I’d like to know is what they wanted,” Ben muttered. “What could they have hoped to gain by coming in here in the middle of the night?”

Hoss walked over to the settee. “I don’t think they were wantin’ to steal anything,” he said in a tone so altered that both Ben and Adam stared at him. He leaned down to pick up an object on the striped cushions. “They wanted to leave us somethin’.” In his hand was Joe’s hat, a long-bladed knife stuck through it from side to side.



Joe stood up in the darkness and stretched. Arms sideways to elongate all the muscles; arms overhead—hit the ceiling, hold them only as far up as they will go. His ribs hurt when he did that, but he made himself finish—carefully, so as not to break open his cut. He rediscovered every ache and pain from his fight the night before, but on the whole, he felt better. One day in this hole—it had to have been a day, because the Chinese woman had brought him dinner—and he was already feeling the effects.

He’d had another glance into the “courtyard” when the door had opened, but he’d discovered little. The light of the sky had been fading, and nothing stood out except the gunman with the mask and shotgun. Something wasn’t right; was it the way the light came in? Or the way the shadows fell? He just couldn’t tell.

He dropped back on his pallet. Tomorrow he had to figure a way to neutralize that shotgun … or somehow make enough contact with the woman to get her to come back without her escort. That was a longshot, but he had to try. Just as now he had to try to sleep … all part of his plan to keep up his strength, because sometime, he vowed, he was going to need it. It still hurt, remembering how real Hoss had sounded in his dream.

He had just drifted into a doze when he heard the now-familiar scraping sound as the door to his cell opened. He came awake instantly, his heart pounding. Here was an opportunity … he had to stay alert—it might be his only chance of escape. It could also be, he pushed out of his mind, someone coming to kill him. He swallowed hard and nearly choked.

The masked gunman stood in the doorway, the little Chinese woman behind him, holding a lantern. Beyond the glow from the lantern’s flame, Joe could see nothing.

“Stand up,” the man commanded, “and come out slowly. You make a wrong move and I’ll kill you where you stand.”

Joe stared at him, trying to accustom his vision to the uncertain light, and calculated his chances of knocking the Chinese woman off her feet and killing the light … but then what would he do? He had no idea where to run.

He stepped slowly, deliberately, to the door. The man moved back, allowing him to come out under the little porch roof, into the narrow dirt courtyard. Like an alley, Joe found, the “courtyard” stretched away to his left, but that part was covered … the only sky was directly above him. That was why the light had looked funny. He strained his eyes to make out that along the little road, pinpoints of light indicated lanterns hanging next to doorways … an underground village. Around him, the distant chatter of another language told him that its inhabitants were Chinese.

But he had little time to think about it. “Up the steps,” the gunman said, and jerked the shotgun toward Joe’s right. The woman scampered to hang the lantern on a hook where a rough staircase rose to a blank wall, then divided; more stairs ascended in different directions to—where? Only one way to find out …

Unobtrusively, just before taking the first step, Joe shook himself, and mentally inventoried his condition. The ribs ached abominably; the knee was sore, but probably fine unless he had to do some fancy footwork. What was more important was that they hadn’t brought Darby from one of the other cells. The little sick feeling in the pit of his stomach let him know how much he’d been hoping that his friend was simply one room over … that when he came out of his own door, he’d find an ally. Jesus God, what if Darby had already been put on a ship? How would they ever trace him? And then he remembered that if he didn’t somehow find a way to escape, he’d be on a ship too.

He climbed the stairs and found himself on a street. A closed wagon, like one a peddler would drive, was pulled up next to the sidewalk, hitched to a tired-looking draft horse. It was impossible to tell what time it was; the air was chilly with the peculiar dampness of a late hour, but holy crow. Across the street was the big square by the Bella Union—just away, over to his right was the Bella Union itself. He could shout—there were people there—there were people in Portsmouth Square, not many, but some …

The gunman was right behind him. “Make a sound and you’re a dead man,” he said, and from his voice, Joe knew he meant it.

“Tie his hands,” the gunman directed, and Joe saw that the driver carried a length of rope. He glanced back desperately at the Bella Union. So close, so close—but he dared not make a sound.

As luck would have it, no one was on his side of the Square. But then, the gunman had planned it that way. The moon was low in the sky. It was very, very late.

Joe swallowed hard against his despair … and then, as if a bright little light had exploded within him, he realized that perhaps the solitude of the sidewalk offered a chance for escape. He could see his only two adversaries. When the driver jerked his arms together behind his back, he tried to brace his knuckles against each other and crook his arms as much as he dared, leaving an unobtrusive space between his wrists. He got away with it, but the bonds were still knotted securely. His only piece of luck came when the guard set aside his shotgun long enough to help him into the wagon. The driver had already jumped into the vacant cargo space, and leaned down to haul him up, but in the semi-darkness, they almost dropped him. The driver caught him at the last moment by grabbing his upper arm. Pain so blinding that it brought tears to his eyes shot clear from Joe’s shoulder to his hand, and then his arm went numb, but not before he felt the rope give under the strain. He was flung face down on the floor and then shoved the rest of the way in. He rolled over, gasping for breath, tasting blood in his mouth and feeling the sting and damp of a cut on his cheek. He struggled to flex his fingers—anything to tell him that his arm would be useful. The gunman climbed in and pushed him farther back into the darkness, as the driver jumped down and latched the wagon’s two rickety doors. In a moment, the vehicle jerked hard as they set out on their journey.

Leaning up against a wall, Joe breathed deeply, trying to get his bearings and erase the vestiges of paralysis in his arm. Little pinpricks of pain were returning it to life; straining against the ropes seemed to help, as his muscles flexed and then relaxed … flexed and relaxed. At the same time, his side flared red hot as his knife wound broke open, and in seconds, he felt his own blood trickling down his side. He breathed a little easier; his side was by no means numb, but the worst was over. His eyes began to adjust to the scanty light introduced from the cracks around the beaten-up doors. Already he could see the gunman, who sat on a box against the opposite wall of the wagon. Now, if ever, seemed his best chance for escape, if only he could work a hand loose from the rope handcuffs. I’d better make it good, he told himself, eyeing the shotgun. If I miss, he’ll blow me to pieces and be happy to do it.

He wondered if it would be better to break loose in a busy area or a quiet one, not that he’d have a say. The noises outside at first had let him know that they were somewhere in the Barbary Coast—the raucous laughter and succession of musical accompaniments were unmistakable. He strained furiously at the ropes, but before he could work his hands loose, the wagon had turned into a quieter neighborhood. He pushed harder, pulled harder, chewed his lip against the sting of the ropes on his skin, which rapidly turned into a burn, a full-on pain that felt like he was touching flame to his own wound. Better than dying, he told himself, and set his teeth, glad that the darkness obscured his movements and what had to be a childish determination on his face.

Damn it! The wagon had slowed and the gunman was standing up—they had to be nearing their destination. Something inside his mind screamed no, no, no-no-no! His legs lashed out, catching the gunman by surprise, and hooked around the guard’s ankles. The man went down with a scattered sort of thump. Joe heard the shotgun hit and slide across the wooden floor. He pushed back automatically, only faintly aware that his hands, while not free, were loose enough to help him gain traction on the floor and haul himself up the wall. Without a thought, he flung himself at the doors of the wagon and felt them give—then he was flying out into the night, only by instinct trying to twist so as not to land on his face. There was no time to think.

Years of coming off broncs saved him; his body’s inherent action landed him on his shoulder in a rolling somersault that by pure luck catapulted him to his feet. He ran blindly. Behind him, he could hear the guard scrambling in the back of the wagon, undoubtedly trying to find the shotgun before giving chase, and the fear which coursed through him nearly buckled his knees. He was on a road—or an alley or something—a straight, empty thoroughfare that was dark … except that there were lights coming up soon … he would be a sitting duck—he had to get off the road. He had to get out of sight. A narrow passage appeared on his left and he plunged into it. Now he could hear running footsteps behind him. His breath began to come in coarse gasps, and he realized that running with his arms tied behind him took twice the energy it would if he were free. He sobbed for breath.

A break in the wooden wall next to him—he had no choice; he bolted through it and flew across a small yard. Pray God there’s a door on the other side of this—there was, and now he just hoped it was not locked. It was not even latched. He blasted through it, shoulder first; his shoulder was numb now. Then he was in another alley, to another street, and still no one around. He wondered where he was and somewhere in the blur of passing shapes, he registered the Chinese symbols on shop windows. Chinatown. Another alley. He took it and slowed down. For the first time, he heard no footsteps behind him. God, thank God …his breath was coming in terrible rasps now, his throat too painful for one more gulp, but he made himself swallow and tried to still his fear. He needed his energy; he couldn’t waste it on pure damn fright. With his one decent arm, he jerked hard on the ropes, and this time, they gave. He was free. He sank to his knees in the dirty alley, tears of joy suddenly running down his cheeks. Free.

And then he heard the shouts. He’d know that guard’s voice anywhere now. He jumped up clumsily, forcing his legs to obey, and sprinted down the alley. Gotta not make noise. Gotta just find someplace to hide. Gotta get outta sight till they go away. But where? Any minute, one of those guys would turn a corner behind him and, by the light of a moon which now betrayed him, see him running. Then it would be all over.

Anyplace … even just the space between two buildings. He could crouch down, stay quiet. In the dark, if he was lucky, they could go by and not even see him. But the buildings on this stretch of alley were so small … one after another, just little huts … The shouts were coming closer. The hot breath was ripping his throat again, and his thighs felt as if iron spikes were being driven through them. He was not going to make it much farther.

And then the door to one of the huts opened. 


Day Three


 Chapter Eight


It was dead silent in the room when Hoss came awake. The faint scratching that sounded through his open door came from the suite’s hall entrance, where a boy waited with warm shaving water. He lit a kerosene lamp and, his finger to his lips, gave the child a coin. Regarding his haggard face in the mirror was not so easy; the strain of worrying about Joe showed in the image that stared back at him.

It was peaceful in the suite when he came out; low, even snores sounded from his father and Adam’s room, a confirmation that they were not awake and would not know what he was doing. That was how he wanted it. He wasn’t at all sure his brother would have gone along with his plans.

The sun was not up when he strode across the lobby and out onto Sacramento Street, but he could see the sky beginning to go pale around the edges. It wouldn’t be long before dawn broke, which was what he was counting on. Most of the saloons, hells and melodeons in the Barbary Coast were still open when he reached Washington Street, but the sounds emanating from their front doors were subdued, and the few people who staggered along the street were more concerned with standing up than with stealing his money.

At the double doors to the Mother Lode, he debated going in. He had no idea what lethal eyes might see him with Miss Eliza; on the other hand, when the melodeon closed at dawn, they’d be just as likely to see him on the street with her, wouldn’t they? For this one point, he wished Adam were along to give an opinion. The last thing he wanted to do was endanger the girl who’d tried to help them.

But before he’d made up his mind, he heard a soft “Hoss?”—which abruptly destroyed his mental fog. It was Miss Eliza, wrapped in a cloak, standing a few feet away on the sidewalk. Behind her, the Mother Lode’s last customers and the other can-can girls spilled out onto Washington.

He swept off his hat. “Yes, ma’am. I was comin’ to see you … ma’am.” He looked around. “Would yuh care to walk with me fer a bit? Maybe I could see yuh home.” Too late, he realized that she probably heard such lines a dozen times a day. “I don’t mean it rude, ma’am.”

She smiled up at him, understanding written on the even features of her face. “Maybe I’m just a fool, Hoss, and if so, shame on you for fooling me. But I wouldn’t believe you could mean something rude to a woman if the bishop himself told me.”

He blushed hotly and offered her his arm. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, her voice low. “I—I came across some information that I thought you should have, but I didn’t know how to reach you.”

The sky was a definite grey now, working its way ever more pale, and the street lamps sputtered uselessly. Hoss couldn’t help smiling when he looked down at her. “Well, I can’t lie and say I’m not glad to have any information you’ve got for us, but I hope you didn’t go puttin’ yourself in any danger.”

She gave a quick shake of her head. “It doesn’t matter. The men I told you about—they did take your brother. One of the girls said so. They’re Luke Parton’s people.”

Hoss came to a complete stop and turned to face her. “You sure about that, Miss Eliza?”

“Very sure. The man with the red beard is not only in Parton’s crowd, but very high in it. I’ve even heard it said that he’s Parton’s brother, but I don’t know if that’s true.” She studied his perplexed face. “Why? Have you heard something else?”

“No, ma’am … that is, not exactly. But we got a ransom note last night. We were at Judge Blain’s—”

“Judge Guthrey Blain? The one who’s going to try Luke Parton?”

“Yeah. He’s a friend of my pa’s—we’ve known ’im fer years. Anyhow, the note came there. Miss Eliza, it was from the Chinese tong … ’r at least, that’s how Judge Blain and Mayor Teschemacher saw it; there was a drawin’ of a dragon on the note, and it was signed with a Chinese symbol.”

Eliza was thoughtful. “That makes no sense, unless Parton’s reached some agreement with the tong. One or the other seems to control most of the awful things that go on here—perhaps they’ve decided to work together.”

“That’s what Judge Blain and the mayor’re afraid of. They didn’ ask fer money to get Joe back. They said Luke Parton had to be released.”

“My heavens, Hoss …” She looked up at him in distress. “You have to get your brother back. They’ll never let him go alive.”

“That’s about what we think,” he said, and tucking her hand in his arm again, resumed walking. “But we don’t have much time. The trial’s supposed to start Monday. We need to do somethin’, and we don’t know where to start. Miss Eliza, that’s why I was comin’ to talk to you. Ain’t too many people we can trust in this mess.”

She squeezed his arm and just briefly leaned her head against him to let him know her pleasure at his trust. “I wish I knew more to tell you. All I can think of is that when I asked Dolores about the man with the tattoo, she let slip that he spends a good deal of time at the Battleground—that’s a saloon on Pacific—and the Orchid Club. That’s in an alley off DuPont, in Chinatown. But Hoss …” She looked up anxiously at him. “You be careful if you go there. The Orchid Club is an opium den.”

Hoss tried to swallow in a dry throat. “I sure don’t like the idea of an opium den,” he admitted, “but if we find Joe there, I’ll like it just fine. As long as he’s alive …”

“I’ll keep my eyes and ears open. Maybe I can hear something—”

“Don’t you go putting yourself—”

“I’ll be careful,” she promised. She came to a halt before a two story frame building. “This is my boarding house. If I learn anything, I’ll leave a note with my landlady for you; she’s reliable, and she hates Luke Parton and his people. Perhaps you could check now and then?”

“You bet I will. An’ if you get scared, ’r need anything from us, you leave a note here too, ’r find some other way to get me a message. We’re at the What Cheer House.”

She nodded. “I will.” For a few seconds, they stood silently, facing each other as the first streaks of pink and gold warmed the sky. Somewhere not far away, they heard the thump of something falling, and then the screech of a cat. Eliza giggled nervously. “I hope that’s just a cat.”

“Would yuh like me to—well, you know—”

She looked up shyly. “Would you mind? I hate to ask you, but in case that’s someone …”

At that, Hoss chuckled, his first honest-to-God laugh since Joe had disappeared. “Miss Eliza … I’m standin’ out here, all alone with the prettiest girl I’ve seen in a long time, and y’er askin’ me if I’d mind lookin’ like we have somethin’ goin’ on?”

She smiled back, her eyes grateful. “Hoss, you have the most wonderful way of making me feel like I’m … respectable.”

“That’s ’cause you are respectable, ma’am. Bein’ an actress don’t change that.”

He slipped his arms around her, drawing her up close against him, and lowered his head to hers, bracing himself against the inevitable delight of holding a woman in his arms … and at the same time, he marveled that even after all night in a smoky melodeon, her hair still smelled like flowers. It was hard, it was so hard, not to kiss her—not to let her know in a hundred small ways how feminine and beautiful he found her. And then he felt her lips on his, just fleetingly, a little brush that sent a deep thrill through him even though he was guarding so closely against it. She stood up on her toes, slid her bare arms out from under her cloak, and up his shirt to fold around his shoulders.

“Hoss,” she whispered.

He drew back just a little, enough to see her face but not enough to lose the delicious feel of her body against his. I can’t overstep, he thought desperately, I can’t treat her like she’s just one more female a man wants to bed …I can’t ask ’er for something she might not wanta give …But what he saw in her eyes sent a bolt of elation through him that erased whatever dim thoughts were struggling in his mind. He bent to hold her closer, pressed his lips to hers, and felt her sigh in his arms. She leaned into him, so soft and appealing—so alluring that he felt drawn by an overwhelming force, and yet so fragile and precious that he was awed. 

They stood like that for a moment, not long enough to satisfy either, but enough that both felt vulnerable in the open street.

“I’m not takin’ too much fer granted, am I?” he finally asked softly, not releasing her from his arms.

“No, Hoss, you aren’t taking too much for granted.” She stepped back, her reluctance to leave his embrace clear on her face. “I wanted you to kiss me … I wanted …” She shrugged apologetically.

He couldn’t stop a little smile so sunny that it nearly made her cry. “Then I guess that makes two of us, and ma’am, I’m gonna carry this lil’ memory with me all day.” His eyes clouded. “An’ when it gets real hard, thinkin’ about Joe, y’er gonna be what keeps me goin’.”

“Hoss,” she replied quietly, “you make me feel so honored. I’ll pray for you.” She colored violently. “I guess that sounds a little strange—”

“No, it doesn’. Means a lot to me.” He sighed and stood up straighter. “Now, you get on in the house. You’ll be needin’ yer sleep. Oh, yeah, wait—” He fished in his pocket for currency. 

She looked stricken. “Hoss, no—”

“Miss Eliza, I’m not payin’ for what you think. This money’s for the risk y’re takin’, in case somebody’s out there watchin’. He can just think y’re gettin’ paid fer yer favors. You can’t get hurt fer helpin’ us. I won’t stand for it.”

She nodded resignedly and took the money. Then she smiled up at him wistfully. “Where are you from?”

“Virginia City, ma’am.”

“Well, I believe if I were a school teacher or a clerk in a mercantile or a banker’s daughter in Virginia City, I’d think your brothers were quite charming—but I’d be setting my cap for you.”

A shy half-smile lit Hoss’ face. “Yuh know, you keep sayin’ stuff like that an’ I might just … well, I don’t know what’d happen. I don’t hear that too often.”

“Then the ladies in Virginia City must be very, very silly.”



Ben and Adam were up when Hoss got back to the What Cheer House.

“You don’t just go walking off with no word!” his father thundered. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinkin’ I’d be back before yuh woke up,” Hoss replied honestly.

“Well, next time, don’t go off by yourself! In fact, next time, don’t think!”

Over Ben’s shoulder, Hoss could see Adam shaking his head. Apparently the tirade had been going on for some time. Maybe, he reflected hopefully, the anger had been a good distraction for his father. And then again, maybe not. Ben had obviously been trying to knot his tie, and the streamer of silk showed the ill effects.

“So where were you?”

His father’s impatient voice penetrated Hoss’ abstraction. “Oh … oh, yeah. I … uh, I had a feelin’ maybe Miss Eliza mighta been keepin’ her eyes open fer those men who followed Joe out. I just wanted to see if she’d seen anything … heard anything, you know.”

The edge of anger faded from Ben’s voice. “And had she?”

“Yeah … yeah, she had.” He wrinkled up his face. “She says the man with the tattoos and the feller with the red beard’re Parton’s men, and they took Joe.”

Ben’s face fell. “That’s hardly a surprise.”

“No, I guess not. But she says the one with the tattoo spends a lotta time at some places called the Battleground and the Orchid Club. The Orchid Club’s an opium den.”

Ben’s eyebrows rose. “That, at least, is a lead,” he said, his voice still a little husky. “You boys check that out. If Guthrey’ll let me, I’ll spend the day with him—or the police, if he can arrange it. Whatever they learn, I want to know right away.”

He went back to tying his tie, more calmly now, and then reached for his suit coat; a day in city offices demanded something more formal than the work clothes his sons wore. When he spoke again, his tone was determined. “We’ll get through this,” he said, and with a final tug to adjust his coat, he strode to the door. Then he turned back to regard them both, his eyes warming just a fraction as his voice turned reminiscent. “It’s funny … well, I suppose it’s just life … but—I find it strange, or perhaps reassuring … yes, reassuring …”

He saw their puzzled expressions. “Well, here we are in one of the worst times of our lives—certainly one of the worst times of my life … and who’s standing with us? Who’s helping? Two of my oldest friends in the world … men I counted on when I was boy. We sailed together, Guthrey, Edward and I. We learned how to be men together—what to stand for, how to be strong …” He shook his head. “Adam, when Guthrey decided to come west—that’s what first made your mother and me think about it too. … So many, many deep ties … and now, in this time of need, they’ve each been here to help.” He issued a small, light sigh. “We’ll get Joe back. Life itself is on our side.”

“Yessir,” Hoss murmured. “You hang onta them thoughts, Pa, ’cause we are gonna get Little Joe back.”

Ben drew himself up. “I’m off, then. If you find out anything, get to me through Judge Blain. And do not go risking your lives. Get to the police. Get to me.”



“Ain’t no use in tryin’ a saloon at this hour,” Hoss said after their father had left. “Don’t guess the opium dens ever really close, though, do they?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Adam replied. “We’ll find out. But let’s get breakfast first.”


Adam, following his brother downstairs, made a note to tell Joe that if his youngest brother ever wondered exactly how upset their brother had been over his disappearance, he had only to know that Hoss had not once considered food in the past two days.

It was still early when they strolled up Pacific Avenue, in the heart of the Barbary Coast. At that hour, no place could have been less threatening; the saloons, dance halls and gambling hells were closed and silent. Few people were on the street, and the only signs of life were a couple of cheap clothing stores that catered to sailors. Clerks moved lazily in preparation for their opening.

“Don’t look like there’s any point in tryin’ to get inta the Battleground,” Hoss observed, surveying a cellar saloon whose front door was not only shut but barred as well. “Let’s get on to the Orchid Club.”

They found Chinatown a marked contrast to the deserted Barbary Coast. Since the fire of ’51, much of that section of the city had been rebuilt haphazardly; nondescript structures of weathered wood abutted ramshackle shanties, which stood near brick, stone or adobe construction, little of it recalling the historic architecture of Canton. Overhead, second and third floor balconies offered more access to the street, and people were everywhere, the sound of their language rising stridently in the morning air. Merchants were open, and the smell of cooking grease, laundry starch and incense permeated the air.

They found DuPont Street—DuPont Gai—and after some searching, located the Orchid Club, hidden away on a cobblestone alley. Its heavy wooden door, marked only by a brass plaque, was unlocked. They pushed it open and stepped in.

It took a moment for their eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight of the street to the dim interior of the opium den. It was not, Adam estimated, the most aristocratic of its kind. The walls were covered with a patterned paper and there were settees, lounges and chairs scattered around the room. Through an open door on a far wall, he saw stacks of bunks, the head of a reclining man visible here and there. In the main room, where they were, three gentlemen and a woman dozed near a table where several long-stemmed, small-bowled pipes lay. A distinctively sweet odor hung in the air.

“I don’t know who’d consider this much fun,” Hoss muttered.

A thin, aged Chinese man appeared from a door in the back corner. “You go!” he called out. “Not open!” He came toward them, shooing at them with his hands.

“We’re not going,” Adam told him evenly, and then turned to Hoss. “Check that back room with the bunks.”

“You got it,” Hoss nodded. His departure for the far door precipitated an outburst of Chinese and frantic gesturing from the old man, who followed and clutched at his sleeve. Hoss brushed him away and continued on.

“No! No!” shouted the Chinese, returning to Adam. “Not welcome—go now!”

“Maybe you could get whoever’s in charge,” Adam suggested.

A voice sounded from behind him. “I’m the manager.”

Adam turned without haste to confront a man of about his own age, wearing a suit that was the height of fashion. But despite his dandyish appearance, the man’s expression was tough, almost arrogant, and it was apparent that it would be a mistake to underestimate him.

“It is hardly a time that we are open for business,” he said with the barest civility, “so what can you possibly want here?”

“We’re looking for someone,” Adam replied, watching the opium dealer closely.

The man was patronizing. “We sell potions for the enhancement of life, not information. And we most surely don’t discuss our patrons.”

A few feet away, the woman reclining on a settee stretched languorously, staring at them as she moaned and traced one hand from her waist over her hip. Then her head drifted to one side, and even as she writhed suggestively, her eyes glazed.

“I see.” Adam’s hand dropped to his revolver. “Well, you might want to give that some thought. We’re looking for a man with a tattoo on his right arm—either a snake or a dragon. There can’t be too many of them among your customers.”

“Is there something wrong with your hearing, mister? I don’t discuss those who visit the Orchid Club.”

“And what would you discuss? A citation from the Mayor’s office, closing you down?”

The manager laughed. “A citation from the Mayor’s office?” he sneered. “What a fanciful imagination you have! What we do here is legal.”

Adam moved closer, and when he spoke, his voice was resonant with contempt. “If you think we can’t find plenty of reasons to close your doors—none of them to do with your so-called potions—you’re not using your imagination. Let’s say too many beds in a room without a hostelry license … You think that ordinance isn’t on the books? Give me a day … you’ll see it.”

“You’re out of your mind! Get out of here! I’ve had about—”

“Adam? Look at this.” Hoss’ face was grim. In his hand was Joe’s green jacket, and the front of it was stained dark with blood.

Adam took one glance, and then so fast that the movement was a blur, he spun back and slammed the manager against the wall. “Now I want to hear about the client with the tattoo!” he snarled, his lips curled back over set teeth. His tanned fists were dark against the man’s white shirt as he smashed him hard into the wall again, and the room resounded with the crack of the manager’s head hitting plaster.

“Get him off me!” the man cried.

But Adam didn’t relent; instead, he drew one fist back to swing—a short, powerful arc that landed hard in his adversary’s diaphragm. The manager doubled over and his eyes bulged with terror, the sound of his escaping breath a sick unhhh. Adam grabbed his collar and forced him to stand up, then pushed him back at the wall even as the man huffed for wind, his mouth stretched open and his eyes watering.

“Now maybe you want to rethink telling us about the man with the tattoo,” he said softly, “and about the man who wore this jacket in here.”

The manager nodded, gasping. “Can’t tell you much. … The tattooed man brought the guy with the jacket in—uh … two nights ago. A kid … knocked out. … Got some tea down him … kept him on a bunk back there … till almost dawn. That’s all.”

“How did blood get on this jacket?”

“Don’t know … it was there when he came in … I gave ’em hell for bringing somebody like that … doesn’t look good …”

“Was the boy hurt?”

“Not that I could see … but I didn’t look close … just put him back there. … I think we were hiding him. Didn’t ask questions.”

“And the tea?”

Even wheezing for breath, the manager accomplished a look that proclaimed Adam’s stupidity. “Hopped … why d’ya think they brought ’im here? … Needed to keep him quiet … outta sight, I’d guess …”

“Where were they taking him next?”

“How would I know? They just carted him outta here. I was glad to see him go.”           “Who’s the man with the tattoo?”

“Regular customer. I don’t know his name.”

“Try again.” Something in Adam’s eyes was as threatening as another fist.

“‘Snake.’ That’s all I’ve ever heard him called.”

“And you do this Snake favors whenever he asks?”

“I do Luke Parton favors. It’s not safe not to.”

Adam stepped back abruptly, and the manager slid down the wall, collapsing as he hit the floor. “Get out now,” he moaned. “Get out before I send a boy for the police.”

Adam, flexing his right hand to determine what damage he’d done to himself, lifted an eyebrow. “That would be interesting. A man who was part of a kidnapping scheme calling the police on himself.”

And leaving the wide-eyed drug seller with that thought, he and Hoss traded the murky dive for the clear sun of the morning.



“Don’t often see you that worked up,” Hoss commented as they breathed deeply of the fresh air.

“Don’t usually have reason,” Adam replied so casually that it was hard to believe he’d entertained an unkind thought.

“Good thing.” Hoss held the green jacket up for closer examination in the light. “This don’t look good. I sure don’t want Pa to see it.”

“No, that wouldn’t do any good.”

“We gotta find this Snake feller.”

Adam glanced around them on the street. “See anything that might have been open real late? Someplace people might have been that they could’ve seen Joe?”

His brother squinted at the buildings, shacks and shanties which rose from the crowded street. “’S the trouble with laundries ’n’ tea shops ’n’ stuff like that—they’re not open in the middle o’ the night.”

“And the Lotus and the Good Fortune and the Heavenly Dream are all just like the Orchid. The hoppies’d never notice one more passed-out body.”

“Hey …” Hoss’ voice changed. “That an herb shop over there? Like the one Hop Sing uses at home?”

Adam peered across the street. “Looks like it. Why?”

“I’m thinkin’ that Pa must not a-slept too well last night. He looked like he’d been run over by a herd o’ cattle this mornin’, and I’ll betcha he’ll look worse tomorrow. Hop Sing says his people have powders to help with stuff like that. Wouldn’t hurt to check an’ see.”

Adam shrugged. “Worth a try. I’ll wait for you—and hey, get the clerk to package up that jacket and have it sent to the What Cheer House.”

They dodged the traffic on the overcrowded street, and while Hoss went in the little store marked ‘Herb Purveyor,’ Adam leaned against a lamp post and studied the shop names in both Chinese characters and English. The minutes dragged by and he was just deciding that the sun was very pleasant on his black leather vest when he heard a panicked cry, a torrent of angry Chinese, and a hard slap. Not a dozen yards away, two white men dragged a slender Chinese girl into an alley. An older Chinese lady lay on the sidewalk, shaking her head and holding her cheek. Her voice rose in a shrill wail.

He bolted for the alley, the element of surprise lending him an edge when he pulled one of the thugs off the girl, jerked him around and flung him back into the street. But that was his only piece of luck; the other kidnapper tossed the girl at the old woman and came for him, catching him from behind and pinning his arms. Instinctively, Adam rocked backward, and coiled his legs into his stomach just as the first man hauled himself up from the dirt and lunged forward. He kicked out as hard as he could, and sent the oncoming tough reeling. Around them, Adam heard the rising shouts of the Chinese onlookers who had gathered to watch the fight, and he wished mightily that they would see their way to help. But they did nothing, simply pointed and shouted.

In the few precious seconds that he had only one adversary, Adam wrestled hard in the man’s grip and managed to pull free on one side. But the attacker was ready for him; his punch, perfectly aimed at Adam’s midsection, was a masterpiece of momentum. Every bit of breath in Adam’s body left in one fast whoosh, and a peculiar blackness feathered the rim of his sight. The sound of the Chinese seemed to fade from his consciousness as he folded forward, one arm curled around his abdomen, the other outstretched to break his fall when he hit the ground.

And then suddenly the assailant who had punched him was himself flying through the air, crashing into the adobe side of the nearest building, a burst of red decorating the front of his filthy shirt. Adam couldn’t rise, but he heard the protest of the other man as Hoss picked him up by his collar and his belt and threw him against the wall beside his companion. The next thing he knew, his brother was pulling him to his feet. The two roughnecks pushed each other back into the alley, hobbling and supporting each other as they disappeared around a corner.

“You all right, brother?” Hoss inquired. “What kinda mess you gettin’ yourself into here?”

Adam wheezed and tried to speak. “Didn’t ask for it …” He glanced back to the sidewalk, where the young Chinese girl who had been the men’s target had crouched over the fallen woman. “Kidnap,” he breathed and tried to stand up straighter. His stomach hurt like hell. “See if they’re all right.”

As the crowd, the excitement over, began to disperse, Hoss bent down to speak to the Chinese girl. “Ma’am, I don’t know if you’ll understand what I’m sayin’, but—”

“I undehstand.” The girl, who could not have been more than sixteen, turned frightened dark eyes on Hoss. “I speak Eng-glish.”

“Well, ma’am, is your friend here all right? Is there anything we can do to help?”

“No help. Al-leady help.” The girl looked at Adam. “I mus’ thank you, seh. If you ha’ not come … ”

Adam inhaled and swallowed. The ache was settling in tolerably. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Oh, yes. An’ Ching Ha too.” She spoke softly to the older woman in Chinese, and the woman nodded. “Yan Ching Ha agree wit’ me. You mus’ come wit’ us. Meet my hono’d fatheh. He mus’ make you gift of glatitude.”

“Ma’am, that ain’t necessary,” Hoss replied. “We’ll be glad to take yuh to your father. With them two fellers hangin’ around, I reckon that’s somethin’ we oughta do. But we don’t need any gift.”

“He make you gift,” the girl insisted. “He ve’y powe’ful man. We go now.”

But when she tried to help her friend rise, it became obvious that Yan Ching Ha would not be able to walk; her left leg buckled when she took a step. She refused to cry, her parchment-like face a mask, but her lower lip trembled with pain when her foot touched the ground.

Hoss regarded the girl. “Tell ’er I’m not gonna hurt her none,” he said, and swung the old woman up into his arms. At first Yan Ching Ha appeared frightened, then scandalized, and finally, inordinately proud as she surveyed the world from her perch above the street. Hoss followed the girl, and Adam, bringing up the rear, reflected that he might get a chuckle at how their little procession must look, if only things weren’t so serious right now. And he wondered what the girl meant by “powerful.”

Their first clue came when they reached the girl’s home. A couple of blocks away from DuPont Street, when they turned into a nondescript alley, he wondered if the entire scenario had been some sort of trap—a worry which did not go away when the girl guided them to a hidden-away cul-de-sac off the alley.  The little cul-de-sac hosted only one residence, behind a massive pair of redwood gates built into eight-foot stone walls that rose from the street like battlements.

As they waited for someone to open the big portals, Hoss sent Adam an apprehensive glance. They weren’t encouraged when a short, thick Chinese man swung back the gates and glared pointedly at them. But then a quick word from the girl changed his expression, and he bowed them across a small garden to the front door, which opened before them.

“He think you huht Ching Ha,” their hostess told them. “I to’ him no.” They stopped in a sizeable foyer. “We wait he-ah.”

They hadn’t long to wait. Within minutes, they heard the quick shuffle of felt slippers and a distinguished looking man with clear yellow skin and blue-black hair, plaited in a queue, appeared. He bowed gracefully and said, “You ah most wel-come in my house.” His English was better than his daughter’s; he had difficulty with his r’s, often using the more convenient “l” instead, but a gentle precision with each word made him easy to understand. “I must ask wit’ shame what dis-glaceful daughteh hass done that you must b’ing heh home.”

“She did nothing,” Adam told him. “She was attacked on the street. We just tried to protect her and her friend.”

“She dis-obey me when she go out wit’ only Yan Ching Ha,” their host said, and turned to his daughter. “We shall discuss thiss lateh. Now you take Ching Ha and see that she iss comfo’t-able, and beg heh fo’giveness fo’ putting heh in such dangeh.”

The girl bowed. “Yes, fatheh. And will you—”

“I will thank these gentlemen, child.” When she and the houseman had assisted Yan Ching Ha from the room, he turned back to Adam and Hoss, continuing with careful attention to his speech, “Please to come this way, gentlemen, an’ be seated. I am much in debt to you … but I have one mo’e favo’ to assk—that you tell me about men who would huht my daughteh.”

He led them into an opulent salon, furnished with lacquered armoires and tables, delicate porcelain and deep, restful lounges of satin and silk. Dressed in their work clothes, fresh from a street fight, Adam and Hoss sat down gingerly and answered his questions about the men who had attempted to kidnap his daughter. He listened carefully, his expression darkening.

“I owe my daughteh’s life to you,” he said simply when they had finished. “I can-not pay such a debt … but you must a-llow my humble effo’t.”

Adam shook his head. “It’s not necessary. If I may, however, I would ask you for information.”

Their host’s eyes lit. “Please. Am only too happy.”

“We’re not from San Francisco,” Adam explained. “We’re here for only a few days, and—well, our brother has been kidnapped. Not shanghaied; we know that now. Kidnapped. We traced his movements to Washington Street night before last, where he was taken by a man with a tattoo of a snake on his arm. From there, we believe he was taken to the Orchid Club, but after that, we’ve lost the trail. Last night, we received a ransom note. Apparently he’s being held by the tong.”

The girl’s father looked as if he would speak, but Adam held up a hand. “I’m not asking you to go against the tong. I say that only to warn you that there is danger in our asking for anything at all. And if the note is to be believed, it’s even worse than that. Apparently, the tong is in league with the Luke Parton organization—the ransom for my brother is the release of Parton from jail.”

The Chinese man rose, his face grave, and paced slowly, deep in concentration. At last he turned to them. “I am velly happy to help you … and I will tell you wha’ iss hap-pening. But you must believe what I say. Yuh blother iss not cap-tiff of a Chinese bl—b’otherhood—and no Chinese associa-shun iss wo’king wit’ Luke Pahton. I tell you this fo’ sure. I … Suey Lai Chang, leadeh of most prevailing Suey Sing tong.”


Chapter Nine 

Adam heard Hoss’ gulp of surprise, saw the dumbfounded look on his brother’s face and was pretty sure it matched his own. Vaguely he heard himself saying their names, asking questions—but the facts lay before them with stunning clarity. The Suey Sing tong had no interest in working with Luke Parton’s crowd; Suey Lai Chang stated that the attempted kidnap of his daughter had no doubt been Parton’s effort to force him to comply with them. He would aid in their fight against Luke Parton in any way he could. 

The first step was to see what was known, if anything, about the kidnapping of Joe Cartwright. At the same time that he requested tea for their refreshment, he told his servant to summon his most trusted lieutenant. In moments, a man in a dark green traditional cotton outfit appeared. His face was unlined and his eyes so inscrutable that it was difficult to determine his age, but it was obvious that he enjoyed Suey Lai Chang’s confidence.  He was introduced as Tam Sing Po, and his English was nearly flawless, with a pronounced British accent that told them he probably had learned it as a child in a missionary school.

“I do not know of Joe Cartwright,” he said, “but we have heard that a white man was taken to the Devil’s Kitchen night before last, and was removed from there last night.”

“What’s the Devil’s Kitchen?” Adam asked.

“An underground village. Some white people call it the Palace Hotel—in jest, you understand. Many hundreds of Chinese live there.”

“Adam, that has to be where we were yesterday!” Hoss burst out.

Tam Sing Po regarded them alertly. “In the block of Washington north of Kearney?”

Adam nodded. “We started to go down, but an old woman seemed pretty convinced that we shouldn’t.”

The tong lieutenant studied Adam’s face. “I am not surprised. In any case, as a white man, you would have learned nothing. If you wish to go there, I will take you.”

“Thanks. Maybe we can pick up his trail.” Adam frowned thoughtfully. “But if the tong didn’t do this, where’s the Chinese connection?”

“Why do you be-lieve that Suey Sing iss in this?” interposed Suey Lai Chang.

“The ransom note. There was a dragon printed on it, and it was signed with a Chinese character.” Adam slipped a hand inside his vest. Without thinking, he’d brought it with them, and he handed it to Suey Lai Chang.

The tong chieftain immediately lifted his gaze. “This iss not Chinese dl—dragon,” he said, “an’ sig-na-tu’e means noth-ing. No Chinese wl—wrote this note.”

“The signature means nothing?”

“Yes. It hass been wlitten by someone not Chinese. It iss—” He glanced helplessly at Tam Sing Po.

“Illegible,” supplied the aide.

“Il-leg-i-ble. Wliter made few mahks, but they ah not lettehs. Have no meaning. Ass when man who does not know wohds tlies to wl—write.”

“I see. And what’s wrong with the dragon?”

Suey Lai Chang shrugged. “It iss not Chinese.”

“If I may,” said Tam Sing Po, “I saw a few Western dragons in books in my childhood. Imagine please your legend of St. George. What does your dragon look like?”

Adam waved at the paper. “About like that … like a—crocodile—you know what a crocodile is? Like that, but with wings.”

“Yes, but you see, a Chinese dragon has a head like a camel, with horns like a deer’s … eyes like those of a hare, ears like a bull …” Tam Sing Po saw Adam’s eyes lighting with comprehension. “A neck like a lizard … a belly like a frog, scales like a carp, paws like a tiger’s … claws like an eagle’s. And whiskers—long, curling whiskers.”

“I see,” Adam said quietly.

“In your culture, dragon is velly fierce, iss it not? Somet’ing to be killed?” Suey Lai Chang inquired.

“Yes. The list of saints who’ve slain dragons is too long to remember.”

“Fo’ us, the dragon iss beloved and hono’ed. He iss our plotecteh—pro-tec-tor; even when he plays mischief, he iss good. He iss blesst. Chinese ah des-cended f’om dragon.”

Adam nodded.

“So you see,” the tong leader continued, “I neveh use such symbol fo’ such low act. The Suey Sing hass no hate fo’ Ben Cartlight. No, iss deeply glateful to Ben Cartlight’s sons.”


Joe rolled over and came awake, fully awake, without a slow descent from the pleasure of dreams. There hadn’t been any dreams, which on the whole, he considered, might be a good thing. Dreams could be bad as well as good, and right now, it seemed like he was living through a nightmare.

He lay still, hoping he hadn’t groaned in those last few seconds of sleep, needing to check out his surroundings before making a move to get up … before alerting anyone to the fact that he was conscious.

Once again, he was someplace strange. He closed his eyes again, intent on assembling his memories as quickly as possible. The noise of his pursuers, the terror of the chase, the little hut in the dark alley. The door had opened. He hadn’t time even to be grateful; he’d just plunged through it into the tiny structure as if it were home.

There had been only a candle for light, just enough for him to see a very young Chinese girl, her almond-shaped eyes as frightened as his probably were. He couldn’t stop to think, couldn’t take time to apologize—he grabbed her, spun her around with his hand over her mouth, and pinched the candle’s wick with his other hand. They stood in the darkness and listened to the heavy sound of boots in the alley outside. Rough voices cursed; people ran back and forth up the passageway and then finally departed.  The sound of footsteps faded with them.  

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Joe whispered hoarsely, easing his hand off the girl’s mouth.

She didn’t move or speak. She just stood trembling, like an animal in the sights of a carbine. He couldn’t see her face.

“I won’t hurt you,” he said, and then realized that he had no idea where he was. She could just as likely turn around and knife him as believe what he was saying. He stepped back to the door, where a thin scrap of fabric covered a small window. He pushed back the makeshift curtain to allow in enough light to find the candle, only to discover that there were no matches. Just a flint … his hands shook as he tried to rasp out a spark. But she remained standing still, just a few feet away, and when a scrap of kindling on a tin plate caught, he lit the candle. A small flame sent shadows around the little abode.

“I’m sorry I scared you,” he tried again softly. “Those men would have killed me—I really do thank you for opening the door.” He realized then that no one else on the alley had come out; even after the men had left, no one had emerged into the alley to see what was going on. But then, perhaps in a Chinese neighborhood, they learned quickly not to wonder much about the white man’s business. “Do you speak English?” he asked the girl.

“Little,” she replied.

“Do you understand that I won’t hurt you?”

She nodded timidly.

“I’ll go tomorrow. I just need to stay the night.”

She nodded again.

He looked around. The hut consisted of one narrow room. Where they were was the public area; against the wall were a table, chair and shabby chest of drawers, and opposite them, a wash basin and another chair. A faded curtain obscured the rest of the room. He could only assume that was where she slept.

“You want sleep?” she asked.

“Yes,” he nodded. I’d really like to get out of here and head straight for the hotel, he thought, but that wasn’t wise. He hadn’t any idea of where he was, or who was after him, or where those men might be. Better all around to wait for daylight. And—although it seemed as if all of his nerves were on edge and that sleep would be impossible, he knew an overpowering weariness. “Yeah. Sleep.”

“You come heah.” She drew back the curtain and pointed to a low bed. “You take.”

“No, I won’t put you out of your own bed,” he said.

“I have bed,” she shrugged, and indeed there was another bed, just like the first, on the other wall. “You pay,” she suggested.

Pay? He’d forgotten about that. He slipped a hand into his pocket and amazingly, found a couple of bills. Most of his money had been in his jacket, but somewhere, way far back in someone else’s lifetime, he dimly remembered jamming a few dollars into his pants pocket. He smiled. “Yeah, I’ll pay.”

“Safe,” she had said.

Safe, he had thought. And if he was awakening here after a decent sleep, with no set of shackles on his arms or legs and no horrific darkness, then he had been safe. He pushed back the thin blanket that covered the mattress. Across the room, the other bed was unmade, its rumpled covering the only testimony that another person had been there in the night. He wondered where she had gone, and then he wondered what time it was. There was no way to tell.

He stood up, and a bloody towel fell back on the bed. Oh, yeah …his wound had opened, and his shirt had been wet. The girl hadn’t wanted her bed ruined. He glanced around; the shirt, its lower right half stiff with blood, hung on a peg near the door. Now he remembered … he’d gotten blood on the girl too. She’d asked him to pay extra for her to clean her dress.

He walked the few steps to the door and put on the shirt, for the first time noticing that the little window, behind the curtain, was covered with bars. Strange … he looked at the hut with new interest, very curious now about his benefactress. But there was nothing to see. A chunk of bread lay on a plate on the little table, and there was a glass jug of what looked like weak tea, but the room was woefully bare of any amenities. Two large insects, their backs an iridescent black, bored deeply into the bread, unafraid in his presence.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen poverty before, but he felt sorry for the girl. When he got back to the hotel, found out what was going on, was really safe, he’d come back and do something for her—what, he wasn’t sure. This kind of deprivation made it hard to do much of anything nice without unbalancing a person’s life, but he’d think of something.

And then he heard footsteps in the alley outside. Terror-stricken, he jumped back from the window, holding his breath, and realized suddenly that he’d removed his boots before getting into the girl’s bed. He was standing in his stockinged feet. Of course, if anyone were coming for him, there was no place for him to run … he flexed all the muscles over his stomach to keep from feeling so sick.

“China girl nice! You come inside, please?”

The voice was coy and high-pitched. He jumped, and peered out through the bars. Two seamen were ambling down the alley, which was flooded with sunlight. It had to be late morning—he’d really been tired.

“Sailor, China girl good! Your father—he just go out!”

Joe swallowed convulsively, suddenly aware of where he was. The prostitutes of San Francisco’s Chinatown were famous, from those in the parlor houses to those in the cribs, and this was a crib. He had stumbled into an alley of them: crib after crib, one right up next to another, usually more than one prostitute to each. The barred window was so that, one at a time, they could present their “charms” to the passing men. He wondered why only one girl had been home here the night before, and then realized he hadn’t time to speculate. Cribs were tightly managed; somewhere close by would be a madam or a boss of some kind. The girl might have been too frightened last night to cause any trouble, not knowing who he was or who was chasing him, but she would find out what she needed to know this morning. And if she had been sharp enough to demand payment for the bed, she would be smart enough to demand highest price for him.

His heart hammering, he leapt back into the bedroom, praying desperately that she hadn’t taken his boots. She’s hadn’t. He fairly rammed his feet into them, mentally inventorying every second he’d wasted sleeping, waking up and wondering where he was … and then he slid to a halt at the door to the crib. By sheer will, he ordered his breathing and focused his thinking, and then slowly, carefully, opened the door.

Three huts up, the two sailors were negotiating with the high-pitched voices. It appeared that another man was just going into a crib farther down the alley, but otherwise, the street was quiet. He hadn’t time to wait; he stepped out into the morning air. He could go right or left—“Jesus,” he moaned to himself. He was fresh out of the energy to make life-changing decisions, but he forced himself to think anyway. Last night, he’d come from the left, and that led back toward main roads. So he went left, walking quickly but calmly, summoning all of his control to keep from running like the cavalry was chasing him. When would his heart slow down, quit banging away as if the world would explode in the next minute?

When the world exploded—in the form of the girl, a scrawny old madam and a bearded, muscular man—he reacted in an instant. He saw them almost a block away, turning into the alley just when he was reaching a crossroads with another passage, and without a thought, he bolted down that passage. He could only hope that it led to another street and not a dead end.

He heard the shouts behind him as he skidded around a turn, ran headlong another block, turned again—he was lost by this time—and confronted a three-pointed intersection of alleys. He had no idea where to go, but he could hear the shouts behind him; it sounded to him like two men’s voices now, but he didn’t stop to listen. Halfway down one block, a carriage had drawn up at a back gate. The gate wasn’t open; when he grabbed its latch, jerked, pushed, and pulled, it refused to move. The sound of running footsteps was coming closer. He hauled himself up, hand over hand, to the roof of the carriage and leapt to the top of the wall. There wasn’t time to see what was beyond. He took a deep breath and jumped.


“Damn, we were this close to Joe just yesterday,” Hoss fumed, throttling the rage in his voice as they stood on the sidewalk above the Devil’s Kitchen. “I cain’t believe it. An’ if that ain’t bad enough, we were just over there at the Bella Union the night before last. It’s like we been runnin’ in circles …”

“I am certain that while you were in this area on the night he was taken, your brother was somewhere else, perhaps already at the Orchid Club,” Tam Sing Po assured him. “They must have been afraid that bringing a white man here would be noticed, so they took him away until it was safe for them.” He gestured toward the ladders. “Shall we go down?”

They descended the stairway to the dirt area below and stared at the brick walls with the open doors to small, square rooms. A few benches and a bucket or two stood randomly near the doorways, and here and there, a Chinese dodged back into a room, watching warily. One man, a scrawny figure bent over at the shoulders, crouched against a wall and regarded them with outright suspicion. His cheek, swollen hideously, was a purplish blue-black, and his jaw, they saw, didn’t function; the slightest movement brought tears to his eyes and a low, wailing moan. An equally old and desiccated woman hovered nearby—the one who had prevented their entry a day earlier. She unleashed a torrent of disapproval at Tam Sing Po, who turned back to Adam and Hoss with a frown.

“She is upset at the presence of white men. The other one did this to her brother.” He returned to the woman, his voice hard and short, and then explained, “I have told her that you are not friends with that man—the one with a gun, she says.” He pointed to an empty enclosure to their right. “Another white man, who did them no harm, was kept in here. It belongs to this man. He removed their possessions and has not put them back yet. He is afraid the man with the gun will come back.”

The door was standing open, so Adam and Hoss stepped over to investigate. They found only a bare room with a scruffy straw pallet.

“We keep our horses better,” Hoss commented sourly.

“This woman was forced to take him two meals,” their guide went on. “I am sure they were paid, but she says she had no choice; the white man had a gun and made her do it.”

“What did the man who was held here look like?” Adam asked.  The unease in his stance betrayed his discomfort when he gazed at the dark underground that stretched away before them.

Once more, Tam Sing Po translated. “Young … about my height, thinner than any of us. Brown hair. His clothes were the color of … of dirt? Dust … yes, dust. There was a lot of blood on the shirt, but he was able to walk when the wagon came last night.”

Adam nodded to the man and the woman. “Thank you,” he said, and turned to the tong member. “Can we trace that wagon?”

Tam Sing Po’s usually opaque eyes looked hopeful. “Perhaps. It was from an importing company that I know.”

“Let’s go—” Hoss grunted.

But Tam Sing Po shook his head. “No—not you. If you gentlemen will be so kind as to return to your hotel, let me attend to this. A white man would be told nothing, but one of my men, I think, might learn what we need.”

Adam nodded reluctantly, and reached into his pocket. “We appreciate that woman’s taking food to Joe, whatever the reason. Her brother needs to see a doctor—”

Tam Sing Po waved the money away, but his eyes, guardedly curious, never left Adam’s face. “I will see that he is taken care of. Now, you go to your hotel. When I have information for you, I will send a boy to get you.”


“Adam, I don’t know about you,” Hoss said when they’d gained the street, “but I’ve walked more in the past two days than I do at home in two years, an’ my legs’re tellin’ me it’s all been uphill. What d’yuh say we get that cab sittin’ over there on the corner?”

Adam smiled faintly. “I won’t argue. Besides, I’d like to drive around a little.”

“Drive around a little? You lost yer mind?” Hoss shifted his tone to a falsetto. The near-miss of finding Joe the day before had destroyed his normally equable temperament. “‘Oh, Joe, while we were out searchin’ for you, we got in a little sightseein’ too.’” He dropped back to his natural voice. “What I can’t figure out is why you’d wanta see more o’ the Barbary Coast. Far as I’m concerned, once we get Joe back, I don’t care to ever see any part of it again.”

His brother cocked an eyebrow. “Are you finished? For your information, I don’t propose to sightsee. I want a good, thorough drive through the Coast and Chinatown—we’ve been all over the place, and darned if I’ve got it all straight. I want to know where we are, wherever we are.”

Hoss looked abashed. “Well, I guess I can’t argue with that. I jus’ been follering you, and it’d be nice to think you knew where you were goin’.”

They gave the driver instructions and settled into the cab, which seated four comfortably. Hoss stretched out his legs and groaned. “Truth is, I’m willin’ to do anything that’ll take up time. I figure it’ll be a while before Tam Sing Po can come up with anything, and the worst thing I can think of is to go back to the hotel and wait.”

They rode for a little while in silence, Adam absorbing their surroundings and Hoss lost in his thoughts, before Hoss mused, “Y’know, it’s funny … this mornin’ Pa was sayin’ that the only real friends we have in this fight are his old ones from Boston. I don’ wanta scare ’im, but it appears to me that our best chance now is a bunch o’ Chinese folks we don’t even know.”

Adam shot him a shrewd glance. “And not the cream of Chinese society.”

“I don’t much care about that. What d’them tongs do, really?” When his brother didn’t reply right away, he prompted, “Adam?”

“Right now, that’s probably not something we want to think about,” his brother replied slowly. “But as I understand it, when they were formed, it was to protect the Chinese—you see how they’re treated. Hop Sing’s suffered from it.”

“Cain’t blame ’em fer that.”

“No … but here in San Francisco, at least, they’re also engaged in a lot of criminal activities.”

“Yeah, the mayor and Miss Eliza both said that.”

“Hoss, it’s not much different from what Luke Parton does. They may not be as crude or as violent as he is, but their kind of business hurts a lot of people. Opium addiction … prostitution … and I hear they’re getting more and more into gambling.” 

“Y’mean, if Lil’ Joe’s life weren’t at stake, we wouldn’t be hookin’ up with Suey Lai Chang?”

Adam shook his head. “Probably not.”  

“An’ yet … it all started out ’cause a lotta folks like us—”

“Not like us, Hoss.”

“Okay, maybe not like us, but white men, treated the Chinese folks like they was less than dirt.” He shook his head. “An’ back east right now, we’re goin’ to war to free the Negroes so they don’ have to be treated like that.”


“But ain’t nobody sayin’ anything about how the Chinese are treated. I can kinda understand how they feel like they gotta fight an’ dig an’ scratch to get what they need. An’ maybe why they don’t feel like they owe the white man any thought at all.”

Adam sighed. “It’s easy enough to understand. Doesn’t make it right, though.”

“Tell yuh one thing … up against Luke Parton ’n’ all, I’m just glad the tong’s on our side.”

“That makes two of us. Particularly …” Adam stared out at the passing street, his voice dying.

“Particularly what, brother?”

“Hoss, I’ve been thinking, and something doesn’t add up.”

“A lot don’t add up, but whatcha been thinkin’?” 

“Luke Parton grabbing Joe.” Adam continued to gaze out the window. “How’d he know Joe was going to be here? How’d he know any of us would be here, let alone one of us by himself, or with just a ranch hand for company?”

Hoss puckered up his mouth. “I dunno. That’s a good one.”

“Exactly. Who did know we’d be here? Just Cal Graves at the Bradison Cattle Company, and Judge Blain.”

“An’ the hotel, leastways after Pa wrote and spoke fer some rooms. But … I mean, couldn’t somebody just a-seen Joe on the street?”

“Who? The only Parton men who’d know him by sight are Parton himself—and he’s been in jail since Joe’s been here—and the henchmen he worked with in Virginia City. They’re locked up too.”

“You got a point.” 

“So someone had to know that he was coming and when he’d be here and where. And they had to plan this in advance.”

“What’re you sayin’, Adam?”

“That there’s someone else involved. I can’t see it being Cal Graves or Judge Blain—but possibly, just by chance, Luke Parton has a man working for either one of them, and this man knew he had a grudge against Pa and passed it on when he heard we were coming to town. Or there’s a man at the What Cheer House.”

Hoss whistled through his teeth.

“And I’d say it’s more likely in Judge Blain’s office or at the hotel. Bradison Cattle Company’s clear over in Oakland, and what good would that do Luke Parton normally? Whereas … a man in one of the most popular hotels in town? Or better yet, in a judge’s office?”

“Come to think of it, that desk clerk when we got here sure knew a lot about Joe’s business. I guess we’d better keep our eyes open.”

“And our mouths shut … Pa’s not gonna want to hear it, but we’d better not say anything about the tong to Judge Blain or around the hotel. It’s not safe till we know what’s going on.”

Hoss took off his hat and ran a weary hand over his face. “An’ tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“And tomorrow’s Saturday,” Adam agreed grimly. He moved off the seat, crouched, and stuck his head and shoulders out the door of the cab. They had come to a halt while a wagon ahead of them backed into a Chinatown alley. “Take us back to the hotel,” he called to the driver. “We’ve seen enough.”

Then he slumped into his seat. As luck would have it, traffic in that section of the city remained congested, slowing their progress and filling the air with dust. It was growing oppressive in the cab, and Adam was not sorry when he felt the carriage jerk as the driver pointed the horses into a smaller side street. But even there it was slow going. At one point, again brought to a halt, he stared idly out the window, his eyes falling on a high stone wall not unlike the one at the home of Suey Lai Chang. It too had heavy wooden gates; on the left pillar was a bronze plaque with a dragon. Four dragons, he amended mentally, a beautiful image of swirling heads, tails, claws and graceful whiskers.

Dragons … protective beings, the tong leader has said. Powerful and wise, symbols of good fortune. He just hoped that the benevolence of the Chinese dragons extended to four Americans from the Nevada Territory.


Chapter Ten 


Joe was aware only of a blur of green as he sailed through space. And then the stinging slaps of branches, some pliant and broad-leaved, others resistant and prickly. He hit the ground hard, tangled in bushes that pinched and scratched at him mercilessly. Angry voices carried from the alley, and he tried to lie still, but it took holding his breath. When finally his pursuers gave up the search, he lay winded and annoyed, grateful to be alive and free, and yet furious that he hadn’t an ax at hand.

And so when he heard the woman’s voice, he was so startled that he jumped violently and nearly left a kidney impaled on a broken branch.

“Having done your best to destroy my garden,” she said, calmly and impersonally, “would you like to come out now?”

“Yes”—he struggled to rise, and harder still not to curse—“ma’am.”

Without warning, he was grasped by the shoulders, lifted upright, and planted on a stone walkway. His benefactor, he discovered, was a small, thin Chinese man who appeared about one hundred years old and apparently had the strength of Samson. A little way down the path stood a beautiful Oriental woman holding a shotgun.

Joe stared at the gun and the flinty expression in the woman’s eyes, and felt a little queasy. “Under the circumstances, ma’am, I really am sorry for damaging your garden,” he mumbled. “It was kinda … well, staying in the alley coulda gotten me killed.”

“I surmised,” she said coolly, and handed the gun to the Chinese man. “You may come this way—and I advise you not to underestimate Chin Fong. You could be killed on this side of the wall, too.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He followed her meekly, wondering if he’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire, but convinced already that whatever the fire was, it was better than the frying pan. The garden in which he found himself was something out of a dream, an unlikely piece of almost-wilderness in the heart of the city, walled off and private. Within paces, the stone walk widened to surround a fountain, a lovely sculpture of a rearing dragon that spouted water from its mouth. In the eerie silence—he could hardly believe that the business of San Francisco went on not far away—the happy patter of the splashing water was the only noise. A little farther on, he could see the back of a three-story house, an enormous structure of smooth granite.

I’m getting too used to wondering where I am, he reflected with a chuckle, and then thought that while the where was one thing, the with whom was quite another. Not without pleasure did he watch the woman walking ahead of him. She was nearly as tall as he was, and her dress, cut in a western style but made of an unmistakably Oriental dark green silk, confirmed a lithe and graceful figure. But it was her face, when she turned to motion him into the house ahead of her, that arrested his attention. Her skin was a clear, pale yellow; her eyes were dark and deep as the ages, with a sort of presence that mesmerized him. She was beautiful, there was no doubt about it, with her black hair pulled back from a flawless brow—but that wasn’t her attraction. It was her sense of command … or simple control … or was it just competence? He had no idea.

Adding to his confusion was that while her English was correct and had very little accent, there was nevertheless the flavor of another language—and it was not Chinese. He couldn’t quite place the influence.

She gestured toward a comfortable, overstuffed chair near the window. “Please sit down.”

He looked down at himself, the manners his father had drummed into him suddenly surfacing. “Ma’am, I’m not sure I should sit down on a chair like that.”

She smiled faintly. “I shall be the judge of that. Sit down, and we shall decide whether you stay here long enough to become more presentable.” When he had arranged himself as harmlessly as he could, she sat down and turned to her servant. “Fong, have Lu bring tea, please—and perhaps a few cakes to tide this young man over.”

Joe flashed a roguish smile. “You do know the fine points of hospitality, ma’am.” The smile died on his face, piece by piece, under her stare.

“Now,” she said more gently, “perhaps you tell me who you are and why you were about to be killed in my alley.”

Even bemused by the sudden turn of his situation, Joe was able to summon a bit of consideration. He had no idea who this woman was, or with whom she was affiliated. For all he knew, she was planning to shop him just as the crib prostitute had done. “I’m Joe Cartwright, and I was shanghaied,” he finally admitted cautiously.

She nodded. “Where are you from, Joe Cartwright?”

“Virginia City, ma’am. My father and my brothers and I own a ranch there. It’s called the Ponderosa.”

She nodded again. “I’ve heard of it. You’re a long way from home.”

“Yes, ma’am. We came over to bring some cattle and horses. One of the hands and I took a stallion to a ranch down on the peninsula. Then we were gonna meet Pa and my brothers here. But I got shanghaied.”

“I see. When was this?” She was so remarkably calm, as if shanghaied strangers dropped into her garden on a daily basis, that Joe found himself relaxing, settling back into the chair.

“As close as I can tell, probably night before last. Darby—that’s the hand—and I were on our way back to the What Cheer House … and after that, I’m not too clear.”

“You were drugged or attacked.”

“Seems like it, and I can kinda remember it. I don’t know what’s happened to Darby, but I woke up in the strangest place. It was kind of like—it was like a whole little town, except that it was underground. And everyone spoke Chinese. Well, except for the guy who kept a gun on me.”

At that, her eyes widened. An older Chinese woman arrived just then with a large tray, and they did not resume until Joe had been provided with a plate of little cakes and sandwiches, a small cup, and a pot of tea all his own. He was thinking that a little whiskey wouldn’t go badly when he was astonished to hear her ask the woman for some. “I believe a stimulant would be of use to Mr. Cartwright,” she said.

The old Chinese added a measure to Joe’s tea, and then left the open bottle.

“Be careful with it,” she said kindly. “In the hot tea, it will affect you more quickly.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thanks.”

“The underground, you say … little cells, a level below the street?”

“You know where it is?”

“Yes. Go on.”

“They took me out of there last night. I managed to get away from the guard—we were in a wagon, and I got out and ran. And kept running.”

“All night long?”

He reddened. “No. Well, I mean … this girl in this little hut opened her door …”

She could not stop a little smile. “Yes, I understand. Not many blocks from here.”

“That’s right. I was—well, I guess I was lucky. She was by herself and she let me sleep there. She wasn’t there when I woke up, so I was just going to leave her some money—for the bed, you know, I mean, I—well, I was going to leave some money and just go—” He felt the tops of his ears burning.

“Did you leave the money?”

“No. I forgot.” He glanced away. “You know, even though it turns out she’d have sold me like a piece of beef, I’d have paid her. She did me a good turn.”

“See if you still have the money.”

He dug in his pocket and then met her eyes ruefully. “Okay, I guess I did pay her. With a nice tip.”

She smiled sympathetically. “And so you found out she was trying to sell you?”

“I was coming down the alley and saw her with a fellow. That’s when I started running, and how I ended up here.” He sipped at his tea, glad for the extra warming jolt of the whiskey. “But y’know, it’s funny. I still sort of feel sorry for her.”

“As well you should,” his hostess said soberly. “She is a slave. Her life will be short and cruel.”

“Well, I guess it’s hard for someone like her to get a job—”

“No, Joseph. A slave. She signed a contract before she came from China, a contract which, essentially, will oblige her to live as she does for the rest of her life. She is treated as any man wishes to treat her; she will see little of what she earns, and when she is too old or too diseased or too unattractive to solicit any trade, she will be cast out on her own. It was wrong of her to betray you, but you can understand why she did it.”

He sat mutely, his mind a jumble of thoughts—of his danger, of the girl’s sad life, of the chases in the dark, of the fights and the brutal greed. Finally he roused himself and said hoarsely, “So I guess now … well, ma’am, it’d be helpful if you’d tell me whether or not …”

“I’m going to sell you? No, of course not.” She sat for a moment, staring away, her thoughts elsewhere until it appeared that she had come to a decision. “No … no, but I believe there are some things that you need to know. … First, I would venture to guess that you weren’t shanghaied—you were kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped? Why would anybody want to do that?”

She offered an elegant little shrug. “Your family owns the Ponderosa Ranch. Surely they would pay for your return.”

“Oh …” He set down the cake he’d been about to eat, his mouth suddenly dry. “Do you really think so? How would anyone know who I am?”

“Did you make a secret of who you are? I would think not. But in addition, no crimp would go to the trouble they have with you—and none of them would use the Devil’s Kitchen, which is where your underground room probably was. Also, they keep their victims overnight; it would be very rare for them to keep one longer than that before sending him on to a ship—and forgive me, but you aren’t large enough to demand that kind of interest.”

“Well … then … I’ve gotta get to the What Cheer House as soon as possible. I mean, I should anyhow, but I don’t want my pa worryin’, and I sure don’t want him paying off some kidnapper!”

She rose. “I agree with all of that, except that you must not go to the hotel until nightfall. The kidnappers know that they’ve lost you; that’s exactly what they’ll think you would do. They’ve probably had the What Cheer House under observation since last night. You wouldn’t get near it before they’d have you again. From what you’ve said, they are not to be underestimated.”

“You think it’ll be safe tonight?”

“Perhaps. I shall send you in my carriage, and I’ll arrange for a trustworthy guard. No one will see you, and you need not be alone before you join your family.”

Joe suddenly felt his throat close. “That’s very kind of you, ma’am,” he said hoarsely. “I’m indebted to you.”

“I think possibly not,” she told him. “If my guess is correct, I have—as all people who want a peaceful and safe San Francisco have—an interest in your safe return. It so happens that the worst blackguard in the city goes on trial on Monday … a man named Luke Parton.”

“I’ve heard something about it,” he said.

“When I consider who in this city might conceive of a plot to kidnap the son of a Nevada rancher, I can conclude only one person, and that’s Parton. I think perhaps there is more to this than a simple ransom. It very well may be involved somehow with the trial, and that makes the stakes very, very high.”

“I don’t want to endanger you, ma’am—that’s the last thing I’d want. I can’t stay here—”

“Yes, you can,” she returned. “No one knows you’re here. It’s the only place you’re safe.”

He swallowed hard. “Well, I’m grateful, that’s for sure.” He offered a little half-smile. “And in one way, I’m grateful to be kidnapped. This way I don’t have to worry about Darby being shipped off to China. He hates water—can’t even swim. At least, not very much. He’d hate being on a ship.” 

“So you think he’s all right?” 

“Has to be. He wasn’t with me in that dark little room underground. The kidnappers wouldn’t need him. They probably knocked him out—he’s probably got a real sore head—but I’d guess he’s been back at the What Cheer House for a while now.”

She smiled, for the first time betraying a lighter mood. “Then you needn’t worry. And now, if you please, you will do me the favor of having a bath. That way I won’t have to worry about my furniture.”

“Yes, ma’am. Whatever you say.”

As if he had been summoned—and perhaps he had, but Joe didn’t catch it—the old Chinese man appeared in the doorway.

“The rose bedroom for Mr. Cartwright, Fong,” the woman said, “and a good hot bath. And I believe you can find some clothes that will fit him; his have been ruined.”

The whiskey was beginning to take effect, and Joe began to wonder if, in actuality, he was dreaming. Her calm, tranquil instructions were too far at odds with the emotions and events of his past two days. He shook his head slightly. “Ma’am … I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I don’t even know your name.”

She smiled serenely. “No, that’s right, you don’t. You may call me Li Ming.”


Nothing, as Hoss had said, was harder than waiting. He and Adam cleaned up and went through the motions of eating something, but the minutes ticked by slowly.

“Adam, there’s gotta be somethin’ we can do,” he finally said grumpily. At a table in the What Cheer dining room, he threw his napkin down next to his plate.

“Well, there’s not,” Adam replied shortly. Then he sighed and curled his arms around himself, ducking his head and rubbing his temple gently. “There’s not,” he repeated more reasonably. “Look, why don’t you go over to Judge Blain’s? See if Pa’s there … if not, he’s probably at the police office or the court house. Maybe they’ve learned something.”

“I doubt it,” Hoss said bluntly. “But I think I’ll do that jus’ the same. Strike you that maybe Pa shouldn’t have to come back here alone? I don’t mean he cain’t handle what’s goin’ on. I mean if Parton’s folks are feelin’ real strong, they might go after Pa, too.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose. “You’re right. That might be exactly what they’d do.”

“Okay. I’m gonna find ’im and stay with ’im.”

“And I’ll wait here to hear from Tam Sing Po.”

“You be careful if yuh go out. I guess the Parton folks could be after you ’r me too, but I’ll tell yuh what, they tangle with me an’ they’re gonna regret it.” Hoss stood up. “What d’yuh wanta bet Pa’s ’bout driven Judge Blain crazy by now?”


“Crazy” might have been too strong a word for it, but even Ben could tell that he was wearing on his friend’s nerves. Judge Blain had discouraged going to the police office, counseling that they remain at his home, saying that if the police found Joe, they’d come to the house. Now Ben realized that that had been Guthrey’s way of leaving the officials free to do their jobs; the father of the kidnapped man would surely have been in the way. He said as much.

Blain, at his desk, looked up over his spectacles. “Well, I don’t deny that you’d have been no help to Jim Wilhoyt and his boys. But I’d planned to stay home today anyway, rest and study up before the trial. Seemed to work out best if you stayed here with me.” 

Ben, pacing beside a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, just balled up his fist, slamming it into his palm with frustration.

“Ben … we’ll find Joe. You need to calm down. We’ll find Joe.”

“I hope so,” Ben breathed huskily. He squared his shoulders. “I have to believe so, Guthrey. There’s nothing else I can do. If only I could do something.”

“What, like run from house to house, all over town? I’ll warrant Hoss and Adam haven’t been able to turn up much—if they had, they’d have let us know. I know it’s hard, but be patient. Just have faith.”

Ben glanced at his old friend, his eyes warming. “I can’t thank you enough, Guthrey. However this turns out, you have to know that you have my gratitude.”

Blain rose and came around the desk, his fingertips trailing across its polished surface. “I just wish I could do more. Luke Parton is a very rough customer … and for my money, the tong is even worse. I just wish …” He shrugged helplessly and then steadied himself. “We’ll get Joe back. We must all believe that.”

“You know what worries me the most? Not that Joe can’t survive—he’s a tough boy, he can survive all right. It’s that he has such a strong sense of right and wrong … he doesn’t stand for much.”

“None of you do.”

“No, but Guthrey, Joe doesn’t always stop to think things through. I pray to God that he doesn’t try to take on his kidnappers all by himself.” Ben sighed deeply and dropped into one of the two big chairs that stood in front of the fireplace. He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. “I’ve been very blessed,” he said softly. “A lot of folks have had to endure much more than I have. I don’t deserve special treatment, and I’m not complaining or assuming that I do—but he’s only eighteen, Guthrey. He turns nineteen next month. If something had to happen in this family, it should happen to me.”

“Ben, this isn’t over yet. You haven’t lost Joe.”

“I know that, but how can a father even contemplate losing a son? Especially in something so senseless as this.” He frowned thoughtfully. “It’s funny … there are hundreds of things about the way we live that could hurt them or kill them. Joe, in particular, breaks horses—some seasons of the year, he’s thrown off every day. Do you know how easy it would be for him to break his neck? Or when we’re driving cattle, like we just did. If something went wrong—if his horse fell—he could be trampled. So could Adam or Hoss. That’s just the way it is. I can’t complain—I chose this life, and by God, none of us would have it any other way. But this … to be kidnapped over something he had nothing to do with!”

Ben set his jaw. “And the worst part of it is, it’s my fault. I was the one who opposed Willard Arrick—or Luke Parton, or whatever his name is. I was the one who went to Roy Coffee and had him look into what Arrick was doing.”

“Surely you don’t blame yourself!”

Ben studied his hands. “I do and I don’t. If I hadn’t done that, would Luke Parton ever have chosen Joe to be kidnapped? Probably not. But would I have done things any differently? Allowed Arrick to swindle or intimidate or kill my neighbors and ultimately us? No … I wouldn’t go back and redo that, even if I could.” He met Blain’s eyes and shook his head slowly. “There aren’t any right answers here, except that if Parton had to kidnap someone, it should have been me, not Joe.”

“Well, no one should have been kidnapped,” Guthrey Blain said spiritedly. “The only answer, Ben, is that we get your boy back alive and well. After that, we’ll figure out what to do about Luke Parton.”


Left alone in the dining room, Adam paid their check—and then, too restless to settle down, he went to the hotel’s free library to borrow copies of the most recent Bulletin, Call and Alta California. Appropriating a chair in the lobby, he tried to distract himself with San Francisco news.

But distraction, he found, was not an option. For a moment, he was reminded of that long night a couple of years back, when Joe had been lured to Virginia City by Lotta Crabtree. They’d searched through the dark hours for him, fearing that Alpheus Troy’s men would find him first and kill him. This seemed like the same thing—only the night never ended.

Thoughts and fears that he’d held at bay while he was with his father and brother suddenly would not be denied. The best he could do was study them, try to compartmentalize them in his mind. It was a technique he’d used since he was a boy: if he could break down something scary into smaller parts and understand it, he could handle it better. Like, there was a difference between the fear he felt for himself when he was engaged in some sort of physical combat and the fear he felt now for Joe.  Fear for himself was a stomach-knotting alert to danger and its consequences, something which ultimately turned into energy that propelled him through whatever it was that he needed to do. But this—this fear for his brother … it was enervating, a slow malaise of misery that seeped through him, numbing all other feelings and stealing his breath. And now he was back where he’d started, grappling with emotions he didn’t dare express to his father or brother.

He’d lived through three deaths in his family, and he remembered two of them. He could not envision another. His father’s raw, staggering grief back then was all the more frightening now. As a kid, he’d held his feelings in, trying so hard to be strong for his father … not realizing at the time how final death was. Back there on the prairie at Ash Hollow, he’d known that Ma was gone; he’d known, looking at her pale, lifeless face, that it was permanent, but his young mind could not absorb it … could not see down the long, empty years that she would not be back … that if he was to know her at all, she had to live on within him. That would be all he had of her.

And Marie. By the time she died, he’d been learning a little about how impenetrable the barrier between heaven and earth was. Learning it—not knowing it. It was good to believe that the soul lived on through time, that eventually they all would be reunited … but it didn’t suffice when you just wanted to see someone’s eyes, hear her voice, partake of her wisdom. Death took away all the opportunities.

Inside of him, a war raged. He knew only too well that Joe could be dead. Cold, lifeless, as gone as Marie, Inger, Elizabeth. That he might never see his brother’s laughing green eyes again. That when they got home, Cochise might be turned out to pasture, unridden. That there would be no one asking him why some things were as they were … that the breakfast table, the Christmas tree, the buggy to church would host only three instead of four Cartwrights. But he would not accept it. Not for his father, not for Hoss, not for himself. That the danger was real, that Joe’s death was possible—he knew it all only too well. It tried to paralyze him, tried to close up his throat, suffocate him … and he fought it. It seemed that the best he could do was hide his fears from his father and brother. He wished he could hide them from himself.


The fragrant, steaming water rose up around Joe, and he almost disappeared into it. After a few seconds of protest, his long knife cut even quit stinging, and for just these few hours, he could let the cares of the past two days fade away. He was safe … he thought he’d never be so grateful for anything again.

He lay back lazily, closing his eyes. He wondered who Li Ming was, whether there was a Mr. Ming—and then he remembered that the Chinese names read backward. It would be Mr. Li. At any rate, she had worn no wedding ring. Her only jewelry had been a heavy gold and jade bracelet that had drawn his eyes to her slender bare arm. Of course, he had no idea if Chinese women wore rings to signify their married status—why hadn’t he asked Hop Sing about that? Because he’d never met anyone quite like Li Ming before …

At any rate, he needed to get cleaned up. He’d gotten a good look at himself in a looking glass when he’d come in; a tracing of red on his cheek recalled his painful landing in the wagon, and a purplish discoloration along his jaw line made it very clear that he’d been in a fight recently. He was just lucky that the swelling had mostly gone down now. He scrubbed his face carefully and rubbed soap into his hair, working it into his scalp with his fingers and standing the foamy peaks up like little mountains, chuckling to himself. Amazing what a bit of luck could do—he felt like a new man. He stretched out an arm, sudsing it well with the sea sponge Chin Fong had left him, and then he scrubbed it again. The squalor of where he’d been seemed particularly clinging, and he attacked the different parts of his body with businesslike precision … up and down his other arm, into his armpits, down his back with a brush, up one leg, down the other, liberally soaping each foot. Over the smooth expanse of his chest, down across his abdomen.

He ducked into the frothy water again, all the way until it ticked the tip of his nose, and sat up sneezing. The sneezing blossomed into a full-blown laugh. He was free. In a few hours, he’d be back with his father and brothers. And in the meantime, he would spend the afternoon with a very beautiful and entrancing woman. She was older than he was, but that didn’t matter. She was every inch a lady, and right now, he could think of nothing more pleasant.


Adam came out of his abstraction to notice a small Chinese boy regarding him thoughtfully.

“Did Tam Sing Po send you?” he asked. The child nodded. “Then you have information for me.”

The boy nodded again. “Please . . .” he said and trotted to the door.

Adam took the newspapers to the desk and asked that they be returned to the library, then followed the boy out into the busy Sacramento Street traffic.

A brief cab ride took them to the alley where Tam Sing Po awaited them. When the tong member dismissed the child, Adam tossed his small escort a coin and was rewarded with such an incredulous gaze that he wondered if this were the first time the boy had ever known kindness from a white man. It was not a pleasant thought.

“My men spoke to many people,” Tam Sing Po said. “In Chinatown, more people see at night than are seen, and fortunately, a few saw your brother. It appears that he escaped from his captors a few blocks from here and ran through the alleys. He stayed the night in one of these cribs and left sometime near midday, but it was a very near call. The woman with whom he sheltered tried to sell him, and was just returning with one of Luke Parton’s men when he left.”

“Could he have been recaptured?”

“It does not appear so. We have covered the alleys and streets nearby, and checked with all of our enterprises in the area. No one saw a white man being overpowered or under guard. It is probable that he found a place to hide, but we could not discover it.” He paused. “Parton’s men are looking too. We have seen them.”

“Well, if you’re seeing them, that must mean they haven’t found Joe either … that’s good.”

Tam Sing Po’s dark, fathomless eyes watched Adam narrowly. “You are close to this Joe, your brother? Is he older or younger?”

“Younger. And yeah, we’re close … in our way.” A quirky smile lit Adam’s face.

“Younger brother always wants to equal older brother.”

Adam’s eyes gleamed. “Equal or better,” he said dryly, and then sobered. “We have our disagreements, but they don’t mean much in the long run. If I were the one in trouble, he’d be out here looking for me. … How about you? Do you have brothers?”

“Four. They remain in China.” Tam Sing Po’s face turned reflective. “I want to bring the two youngest here. It is very dangerous in China now. But sometimes it is very dangerous here, too, and English can be helpful in avoiding some of that. My brothers are not proficient at it.”

“Yours is excellent.”

“We had missionaries in our village when I was a boy.” The Chinese man’s features darkened. “They were killed. Not because of their religion … just by a gang of wicked men. The missionaries did no harm, but sometimes, I think you will agree, that does not seem to matter. They were killed anyway, before my brothers were old enough to benefit from their teaching.”

Adam’s eyes softened with understanding. “Good men are often killed for nothing … here too. It’s too bad your brothers weren’t able to learn English as well as you did.”

Almost imperceptibly, Tam Sing Po squared his shoulders. “We shall have to find another way for them to learn, because as difficult as it can be here, there is more opportunity in America than in my homeland. … Now, you have no time for my insignificant problems. You must find your brother. He is most fortunate to have you and the other Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam extended his hand. “There’s not a way that I can express our gratitude.”

“It is not necessary.” The tong lieutenant clasped Adam’s hand and for the first time smiled. “May good fortune be yours, Adam Cartwright. If I can help you again, you have only to send for me.” He turned abruptly, and motioning to two other men who had been waiting a few yards away, strode off down the narrow roadway. In a moment, they turned the corner to the street and disappeared.

Alone, Adam started out down the alley before him, cataloging every door, every fence, every possible avenue Joe might have taken. He had just come to the little cross-alley where Joe had fled when Hoss caught up with him.

“Dang, you were hard to follow,” his brother said. “I was comin’ down Sacramento when you left with that lil’ Chinese kid. Got a cab and came on, but I lost yuh out on DuPont. Just now ran into that kid on the sidewalk and he tol’ me where to go.”

“What about Pa?”

“Didn’t need me around. Made ’im even worse to see me sittin’ there.”

Adam heaved a self-conscious sigh. “Well, I don’t mind saying I’m glad to see you. Tracking Joe through here is like looking in a rabbit warren.”

It was painstaking work. The first block was the easiest; there were no gates which led to anything but enclosed places where Joe would not have gone. Then they reached a T-intersection. Adam tried the right direction, Hoss the left.

The road to the right ran only to a dead end; still, Adam examined every possible escape along it. Back doors to businesses, loading docks, enclosed courtyards, one warehouse with a door but no windows—none proved fruitful, although he spoke to everyone who came to the doors and to the hostlers on the loading dock. A driver there remembered seeing someone of Joe’s description a few hours earlier when he’d been pulling into the alley, but he couldn’t be sure where the man went.

“It was my third run o’ the day,” he shrugged, “an’ I done three since. I don’t get all that done by watchin’ the world go by, y’know?” Adam thanked him and was turning away when he added, “Oh, yeah, and if it’s the fella yer lookin’ for, you might wanta know his shirt was awful bloody. Looked like somebody’d hacked him good.”

His face black as thunder, Adam went back to the T, set off after Hoss, and found his brother knocking on a series of doors. On this branch of the alley, there were no gates, windows or fences—just an unbroken façade of stone buildings with rear doors. They knocked and asked at every door, but no one had seen Joe.

To complicate matters, the roadway terminated in a three-point intersection. They selected two and split up again. Still nothing.

“I pounded on doors like a peddler,” Hoss grumbled when they met back at the intersection. “Nuthin’. Nobody saw nuthin’. Alley came to a dead-end at a locked-up company, and I forced a door there, but it’d been abandoned. Wasn’t nobody there, but I yelled, so if Joe’d been hiding, he’d-a come out.”

Adam wiped his forehead with his palm. It wasn’t all that warm, but the late afternoon sun was strong; he realized that he’d been running, and a light sheen of sweat accompanied his irregular breathing. “Nothing my way either. Mostly the back entrances to little shops. Nobody’d seen anything—and I think a man bursting through their back door would have registered.”

“Yeah, even if they lied to yuh, I’d guess you’d be able to tell it.”

“I hope so. C’mon, let’s try this way.”

The third alley was a cobblestone road large enough to host horse-drawn vehicles. It seemed more promising than its predecessors; instead of serving commercial buildings, it provided rear access to residences and professional offices. Although there were a few structures standing flush to the passageway, with entrances to their interiors, most of the alley was bounded by the high walls of courtyards or gardens. All of the doors in the buildings were locked, they found, and when they applied for information, the myriad of servants and clerks who answered them disclaimed any knowledge of a man answering Joe’s description.

“I got a feelin’ about this one, Adam,” Hoss said. “He can’t a-gone down the other two. Has to be this one.”

They walked the sun-dappled alley again, to where it ended at a main thoroughfare.

“You don’t figure he’d-a walked right out into Chinatown, all by himself, in broad daylight?” Hoss wondered.

“I hope not. He’d have more sense than that.” Adam turned and looked back up the alley. “So he’d have to be in one of these buildings. Probably one of the private homes—it would be more dangerous to walk into one of the offices.”

“Yeah, unless he’s just crouchin’ in one of these gardens, he’s had to’ve convinced somebody that he’s not dangerous an’ runnin’ from the law. That is, assumin’ he had a choice about it.”

It took two more trips up and down the alley before they discovered a lead—and even then, it was a faint clue at best. In a long smear of earth, Hoss noticed a deep wheel track.

“It’s a longshot,” he said, “but looks to me like a big wagon ’r carriage ’r somethin’ stood here not too long ago. Ain’t no way Joe could-a got over one these walls without some help. If it was a carriage, it’d a-been easy for him.” He eyed the garden gate. “Wanta give it a try?”

Adam shook his head. “Not yet. First let’s see what kind of a place this is.”

They went to the end of the alley and up the road to the cross street on which the house with the garden must surely front.

The street they found looked familiar; Adam had passed two houses when he realized that they had been on it during their cab tour of Chinatown. He counted the houses as he went along—three, four, five. The one with the garden had a large wall in front too… a wall with pillars and a wooden gate. On one pillar was a bronze plaque with an elegant engraving of four dragons. Adam stood back and sucked in his breath. When they’d been parked in front, had Joe been inside that house?

Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm and jerked his brother into a walk. “C’mon. We don’t need to make a spectacle of ourselves.”

They went on a few more houses, crossed the street and stopped to look back. Even from that vantage point, however, there was little to be seen of the house with the dragon plaque. Behind the wall, the home was three stories tall and, from the looks of it, probably very handsome. But other than the roof and a line of windows, they could make out very little.

“You’re lookin’ mighty strange,” Hoss said. “You know anything about that place?”

Adam shook his head slowly. “No, I just saw it out the cab window.” He stopped a Chinese man who was shuffling toward him, and when the man nodded that he understood English, inquired who lived in the house with the dragons on its gate.

The man’s eyes widened nervously. “No go the’e. P’ivate.”

“A private home.”

“No—yes, home. Women.”

“Women live there?”

“Women fo’ white man only. Lossa money.”

Adam’s brow furrowed. And then he understood. “A parlor house for wealthy white men.”

“Yes, yes—p’ivate. No go the’e.”


Chapter Eleven 

"How d’yuh like that?” Hoss marveled. He couldn’t keep an undertone of humor from his voice. “Joe finds a hideout—in a fancy house.”

Adam sucked in his cheek to stifle a chuckle. “It’ll make a nice story,” he allowed, “but first let’s make sure he’s in there and he’s all right.”

“If he’s in there, he’s all right,” Hoss said.

“Hoss …”

Hoss heard the irritation in his brother’s voice. “Yeah, what’re yuh thinkin’?”

“I’m thinking that in this town, prostitution isn’t usually private enterprise. So the chances are this place is either run by the tong or by Parton’s crowd. Tam Sing Po said that they’d checked their businesses in this area, and gotten no information on Joe.”

The amusement drained from Hoss’ face. “So there’s a chance Luke Parton’s people have this place.”

“A very good chance, yes.”

Hoss swallowed, and when he spoke, his voice was subdued. “How d’yuh figure we handle this?”

Adam ran a hand over his chin. “Well, how about for starters … you wait here and I’ll go in.”

“An’ if yuh don’t come out?”

“Do what Pa said. Get the police. Send a runner to Judge Blain’s office.” Adam wiped his face with his sleeve and took his hat off to comb his fingers through his hair.

“What’re you doin’?”

“You think they’re going to let me in, looking like this?”

Hoss shrugged. “Guess not, if this place is as high class as that feller seems to think it is. But even if yuh go someplace and wash up, you ain’t gonna look like one o’ them bankers down on Montgom’ry Street. Not in those clothes.”

“I know.” Adam dusted his pants with his hands. “But there isn’t time to go back to the hotel and change.”

Hoss shook his head. “An’ it’s too bad you can grow enough beard for Joe and me both in half a day’s time. How long you figure it’ll take yuh to find out if Joe’s in there?”

Adam hesitated and stared briefly at the house. “Half an hour? No telling who’s there … Won’t be just women. They’re sure to have a bouncer.” He dug out his pocket watch and handed it to his brother.

Hoss regarded the timepiece gingerly. “Just hurry up. … An’ Adam, be careful. If this is Luke Parton’s outfit, we got more trouble’n we’d thought.”

Adam stepped into the street and crossed to the pillared gates. A heavy bronze ring below the dragon plaque appeared to be a knocker of some kind; he grasped it and pulled. For a minute nothing happened, and he was getting ready to jerk the ring again when the gates were opened by a Chinese man.

“Your business?” the man inquired. His eyes traveled discreetly over Adam’s clothes.

"I’d like to come in,” Adam replied, and stepped forward casually, as if there were no reason that he would not be admitted. Who could tell? Perhaps it would be as simple as walking in.

But it wasn’t. “You have appointment? Without appointment—” Even though Adam was halfway in, he was already starting to close the door.

“Just a minute—” Adam held the door with one hand, while the other plunged into his pocket and came back with a neat fold of bills. “It may be a little unusual for you to take unknown clients. If it’s a question of payment—”

“No. No quest’on of payment. No appointment!” The man pushed the door again, this time with a strength that was not to be denied.

Adam’s hand swept easily, smoothly, to his revolver, and in a second, its blue steel barrel gleamed nastily in the afternoon sunlight. He held it close to his body, unobtrusively, but his thumb rested on its cocking mechanism.

“My apologies,” he said evenly, “but you leave me little choice.”

The Chinese man stopped short, stared down at weapon, and then up into Adam’s eyes. Adam said nothing, just gestured with the gun, and followed it through the gates as the man stepped back.

The walls protected a small front garden, an oasis of green only a dozen paces wide. Despite the Oriental reference of the dragon sign, the house was of western architecture. Three steps led up to the front door, which was closed, but not locked. At another gesture, the servant pushed it open, admitting them to an elegant entrance hall. Adam’s gaze traveled over it quickly, noting the polished wood floor and the French sideboard, but focusing more importantly on the space’s exits: an archway to the right led to a small, exquisite front parlor; a doorway to the left opened to a library; and directly ahead was a pair of closed doors in darkest mahogany. A graceful stairway soared away at either side, joining on the second floor.

Both the library and front parlor were empty. With his gun still trained on his Chinese guide, Adam nodded at the pair of doors. But before they had crossed more than half the entry hall, the doors opened and one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen confronted them. He halted, fighting to remain impassive. Stay calm, some part of his brain said. Stay in control; keep your gun aimed on your friend here. This is a parlor house for rich men—did you expect the women to be ugly?

Of course not. He examined the woman who stared so pointedly into his eyes. She was tall, taller than most Chinese, and slender, with perfect posture. Everything about her, from the shape of her body to the way that she stood, seemed harmonious. Her skin hovered between a pale tan and a translucent yellow, and her eyes—not quite almond-shaped—were large and luminous. Her blue-black hair was piled at the back of her head. It must reach halfway to her waist, he thought irrelevantly.

“You will please remove your gun from my servant,” she said, in a voice which managed to be soothing even as it was authoritative. Or perhaps its resonance ensured his attention. “Whatever your mission here, he has done nothing to earn your enmity.”

“As far as I’m concerned, there needs to be no enmity,” Adam replied. “Perhaps we could speak in private.”

She arched one eyebrow and bowed slightly in acquiescence. “Leave us, Fong,” she said quietly.

The Chinese man protested in his own language, a flow of excited words that even without their meaning conveyed that the man strongly objected to leaving his mistress with an armed stranger. And then, like a drop of poison into a pristine river, Adam heard the word “Parton.” His glance flew to the woman, but she exhibited no surprise at the name; she merely calmed her servant, her voice gentle, as if speaking to an old family retainer. Adam frowned. Was it safe to let the man go away? Had she realized why he was here, and was even now directing her man to spirit Joe out of the house? Hoss covered the front, but what about the back?

Swiftly, he loosened the knot on his necktie and jerked free the long black streamer of cotton. “Tie his hands,” he told the woman. Her eyes darkened with anger, but, with no choice, she obeyed him. He examined her work when she had finished and found that it would hold. “Now, his mouth.” His handkerchief, folded in his pocket, served as a gag.

He took his eyes off of her only long enough to investigate the area under the staircases; in many homes, storage could be found there. To his relief, this one was no different. A door opened under the right one. He pushed the Chinese man into the narrow opening.

“You might tell him that any noise he makes will endanger his mistress,” he directed, and waited while she commanded the servant not to try to get loose. It sounded like she meant it, and from the look in her eyes, she cared about the old man.

“Now,” he said, keeping his voice cool with some effort. He did not put away his gun, and when he had followed her into the next room, he locked the double doors behind him. That, he had the satisfaction of noting, surprised her. There was a door on the left wall of the chamber; he locked it as well. The only other entry was from french doors across the back, where he could see any approach. Only when he had assessed the layout of the room did he replace the revolver, slowly and deliberately, in its holster. The woman watched him, her hands clasped in front of her.

A sixth sense warned Adam that this was not just one more step in their search. This was more important than anywhere he and Hoss had been—she was more important than anyone they’d questioned. Joe could be in this very house, or if he weren’t actually here, she could well know where he was.

“I’m looking for a friend,” he said carefully, “and I have reason to believe he’s here.”

“Who is your friend?”

“A young man … brown hair, green eyes. I think you know who I mean.”

“What is your reason?”

“That’s not important. What is important is—is he here?” Adam’s voice hardened. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word. I’ll need to see for myself.”

“And why”—her voice quavered just slightly before she regained command of it—“why should I allow myself to be ordered around by a ruffian who breaks into my house?”

His lips curled upward with amusement. He waited as her gaze rose slowly from the floor up his body, noting the black boots, pants, gunbelt … the heavy white cotton shirt, its cuffs rolled back over his forearms … the black leather vest. It lingered on his face; as Hoss had said, his cheeks were black with stubble. Perhaps he did look like a ruffian. A trace of anger spiraled again in him. If she didn’t cooperate, he might just act like one. Something in her eyes—the fact that there was no hint of denial there—strengthened his impression that she was involved in this.

“A lot of reasons,” he replied when she had finished. Then he pushed the advantage he’d seen in her momentary quaver. She was altogether too poised; if he couldn’t jolt her confidence, he’d get nowhere. “Not the least of which is that the friend I’m looking for is little more than a boy. He doesn’t deserve to be hurt—or killed.”

A second of confusion glimmered on her face, but she regained command of herself. “And why do you believe he is here?”

“It’s about the only place he could be.”

She looked away, as if she were trying to reach a decision.

“So if you have any clients in the house, you might want to ask them to leave. Otherwise, I don’t mind who I walk in on.”

Her attention flew back to him. “How dare you be so arrogant—”

“How dare I? I’ll dare what I please—this isn’t some schoolgirl’s game!” He stepped toward her, his eyes riveted on hers. “A man’s life is at stake! I don’t care what kind of an operation you have going on here, but I don’t have time for the finer points of civilized behavior.”

She flushed. “I tell you, you have no right to search my house!”

“How much is Luke Parton paying you to hold on to the boy?”

Her arm whipped out, palm flat, so fast and hard that it created a rush of wind. Only a lightning instinct saved Adam; his eyes never left hers, but his hand caught her wrist just inches from his face, his jaw clenching with the effort of breaking her momentum and holding her off. She uttered a high little grunt of frustration, her eyes snapping hatred, as he wrestled her arm down.

“Now,” he breathed, his nostrils flaring, “you think about what I’m asking. Is it worth it, whatever Luke Parton’s people are paying you? It can’t have been too hard to entice a boy to stay here—is that a specialty of yours? Undoubtedly easier than a man with experience—”

“I didn’t—” She resisted him, her face contorting as she tried to pull away from him. He just stared down at her, and then without bothering to be gentle, he folded her arm behind her back. When she balled up her fist and struck at him with her free arm, he caught that one too and folded it back. She was caught, furious and panting with indignation, against him.

“Now tell me if he’s here, if he’s ever been here—”

“Let me go!” She wriggled back, pushed against him, wrestled—did everything in her power but scream. Her body twisted hard, trying to gain the advantage without touching him, but the strength of his hold was unbreakable. Another time, perhaps, the eroticism of their struggle would have overwhelmed him; now, he could only hear Joe, Joe, Joe, pounding in his ears as if his youngest brother were all that mattered on earth.


“Not …” he replied, his gaze locked on hers, his face only inches away and his voice simmering, “until you tell me what I need to know.”

Her eyes, dark and wide, were transfixed on his. So close … and somehow, perhaps, just a shadow confused. It ran through his mind that perhaps he was wrong—perhaps she wasn’t with Parton—but he couldn’t take a chance on it. At least, not yet.

“I can’t imagine you want a boy’s death on your conscience,” he went on provocatively.

“No!” Tears were forming in her eyes—even more anger? Frustration? She squirmed so hard to avoid him that he couldn’t deny the heat permeating through him at the feel of her against him. He pushed the thoughts, the reactions, away—he had to get the truth from her. She was breathless now, her lips apart, so close … Damn.

He stepped back, letting her go, fighting the racing of his blood and the fast, uneven pace of his breath. She stared at him, distractedly rubbing her wrists.

He got control first. “Tell me the truth,” he said. “Now. Is my brother here?”

Her face went blank. “Your brother? Who is it you seek? Your brother or a friend?” She tried to sound scornful. “You can’t even remember who you’re looking for.”

“It doesn’t make any difference. You know who I mean. Where is he?”

She just gazed at him, her eyes searching his. And then she seemed to fold, turning to lean on a little table with a marquetry box and a porcelain ashtray. He felt some of the emotion drain out of him … gave her a few seconds to gather her thoughts.

It was a mistake—but he realized it too late. She whirled up from the little table, the marquetry box open and a small, short-barreled Smith & Wesson in her hand. Her eyes were deadly.

“Get out,” she spat.

He just stood there, measuring with his eyes and mentally weighing his alternatives.

“I don’t care who you are or what you want,” she said, her voice icy. “I will not suffer your insults. You who speak of Luke Parton, you go back to him. You have no right to be here!” Her voice began to rise. Her hand began to tremble, and she grasped the little revolver with both hands.

Adam stared at her. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but—”

“Get out! Get out of my house.”

There was nothing else to do. His eyes dark with fury, he picked up his hat, unlocked the door, and strode out through the graceful entrance hall.


The terror struck out of the dark, unannounced and unexplained. Joe sat up fast, his eyes not even open as his fist struck out automatically—only to be caught in an iron grip. “No!” The cry rang out in a surfeit of energy, as he pulled away in wild panic. A hand stifled his mouth. The room was a blur, a swirl of color and movement that filled his senses. 

And then, blessedly, his eyes finally focused and his mind caught up with what was happening. Chin Fong was awakening him, even now releasing him. When he could think clearly, Joe marveled at the old man’s strength. He wasn’t sure he could have wrenched his wrist free if he had tried for a year.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, sinking back on the pillows. “Must have fallen asleep.” He’d grown drowsy in his bath; a short nap had sounded so nice, and besides, there was the rest of the afternoon to get to know Li Ming.

“Silence,” Fong hissed. “White man come, look fo’ you.”

Joe sat up again quickly. “For me?”


“Sorry,” Joe whispered. “Who? Where is he?”

“Mist’ess sent away. He fie’ce.”

Joe started to push himself off the bed, only to realize that he was stark naked when the light blanket he’d used for cover fell away. He grabbed it back hastily.

Chin Fong averted his gaze, quaintly polite. “I come back.” A second later, the door closed behind him.

Joe leapt to his feet. The delicious sense of freedom and safety he’d known for the past few hours evaporated as surely as if it had never existed. His stomach knotted with tension, and his first thought was that he had compromised Li Ming’s safety. He was scared for himself, he was scared for his family—and now he was scared for the lovely woman who had helped him. This ordeal was exhausting, and, it seemed, interminable. He could hardly remember what it felt like to be normal.

His mind whirled dizzily. I’ll fix this. I promise, Pa …I can do it … I’ll get back to you, and I’ll see that Li Ming stays safe. I will not let her be hurt. Somehow, the resolution gave him strength.

A pair of pants lay folded over a chair; a clean shirt and his own underwear, washed and ironed dry, lay nearby. He scrambled into the clothes, and although he knew Chin Fong intended that he wait to be summoned, he opened his door.

There was only one thing to do, and that was to leave. And given a moment to think, he realized that he did know one place he could go to be safe.


Adam seethed with anger. He stalked away from the house, his jaw set and his fist clenching involuntarily.

Something caught his arm and jerked him around.

“Adam!” It was Hoss. “What the heck happened in there? Was there any sign o’ Joe?”

Adam took a deep breath. “I handled it wrong,” he said, and told Hoss what had transpired.

Hoss glared at the house. “I don’t know that doin’ things any different woulda been any better,” he said, his brow wrinkling. “What d’yuh wanta do now? Pa said we oughta come get him an’ the police, but d’you wanta do that?”

Adam stared back at the house as well. Unbidden, the image of the woman’s face, and her momentary confusion at his accusations, rose in his mind. “I don’t know …” he said, and then turned back to Hoss. “No. Once we involve the police, we lose whatever options we have. Let’s try Suey Lai Chang instead.”

“Suey Lai Chang? The tong? I hope you know what y’re doin’, older brother. 

The tong chieftain was sipping rice wine with Tam Sing Po when they arrived. The grandeur of the room, and his slow, cultured voice told them that they needed to respect his ceremonial manner at that time of the day; cooling their impatience, they sat down and accepted thin porcelain cups of tea. 

“Ah, the Dragon House.” Suey Lai Chang was thoughtful. “My fliends, do not be-lieve ahl that you hea’ about it. Tluth iss that no one knows what happenss in House of Fo’ Dragons.”

Adam’s eyebrows rose. “Not even its business?”

“Nothing fo’ ce’tain. All we know iss that Chinese do not botheh it, and white po-lice do not eitheh. I sup-pose if they wuh summoned, they would obey, but that hass not happened.”

“What gives it that kind of—power?”

“I can-not say. It is said that it iss the plivate place of the lail—rail men.” He looked to Tam Sing Po for help.

“Governor Stanford, Mr. Hopkins, Mr. Crocker and Mr. Huntington,” Tam Sing Po amplified. “But you must know of how those gentlemen treat the Chinese who work for them, and of Governor Stanford’s speeches in opposition to us. It seems unlikely.”

“What about the woman who runs it?”

“Who runs it, who owns it, or who simply lives there and allows a few guests to live with her sometimes?” Tam Sing Po questioned.

Suey Lai Chang smiled enigmatically. “Mr. Cahtlight, little iss ass it seems. But to answeh you—velly lit-tle iss known of Li Ming either. I am pleased to know heh, and I can say that ‘Li Ming’ does not include her family name. She iss not Cantonese; she iss from the north.” He broke off to speak rapidly to Tam Sing Po in his own language.

“In her way of speaking, Li Ming means ‘beautiful and bright,’” the aide translated.

Adam massaged his temple. “Someone read the stars when they named her.”

Suey Lai Chang smiled. “Yess, this iss so.”

“Forgive me, but she does not appear to be fully Chinese—or is that the difference of where she was born?”

“No, she iss half-Chinese. It iss said that her motheh was French school mis-tress—teacheh to offspring of genel—gen-er-al.”

Adam whistled softly. “I can believe that. A lot of the furniture was French.”

Hoss shifted uncomfortably. “Mr. Suey, we think it’s possible that Joe’s in that house.”

The tong chieftain hid whatever surprise he might have felt, and replied in a calm tone, “Have you gone in to see?”

“I tried,” Adam said, “but I didn’t get the information I wanted.” He sighed grudgingly. “The woman can be rather a formidable adversary. I must ask: is there any possibility that the house is connected with Luke Parton?”

Suey Lai Chang shook his head. “No. That I also can say fo’ ce’tain. The House of Fo’ Dragons iss with no one—not wit’ Pahton, not wit’ tong.”

Adam clamped his jaw against the little frisson of anger that ran through him. If Li Ming had no connection with Luke Parton, then he’d blundered—badly.

Suey Lai Chang frowned, as though deciding whether or not to go on. “I … hess-i-tate to say, because I do not know fo’ ce’tain if iss true … but I have been told by fliends in homeland that Li Ming iss he-ah at wish of father. He iss, as you may sup-pose, the gen-er-al I speak of. What he would have her to do, if that story iss true, I can-not say. But it would not involve Luke Pahton. I can-not think that she would hahm youngest Cahtlight.”

“We have to get into the house,” Adam said, “and unfortunately, I may have given her the impression that I am—ah, not acting for my brother’s best interests. If I may ask one more favor, could Tam Sing Po accompany us back there, and inform her that I’m not a threat?”

“I do not see why not.” The tong leader turned to his aide. “You will go now with Mr. Cahtlight.”

Tam Sing Po rose and bowed from the waist. “I would be honored.”

Trying not to appear too anxious, Adam and Hoss set aside their cups and followed Tam Sing Po from the room. Little was said until they reached DuPont Street, and then Hoss slowed. “Adam, what about Pa? He oughta be back at the hotel by now. Could be I oughta go get him and meet you at that house.”

Adam squinted at the sky; the sun was dropping toward the horizon. “You’re right,” he replied. “Tam Sing Po and I can go on to the House of the Four Dragons. There shouldn’t be any trouble now—if Joe’s there.”


Adam stared at the bronze dragon plaque on the Four Dragons’ gate as Tam Sing Po rang the bell.

“Do you know her?” he asked.

“No,” Tam Sing Po replied. “But she knows who I am, as I recognize her, so there should be no difficulty in her believing what I say.”

The big gate swung inward and the old Cantonese man peered out. When he saw Adam, he glared, his lip curling in contempt, and he spat a stream of angry Chinese at Tam Sing Po. The tong lieutenant raised a hand and at first spoke calmly, but it was to no avail, and he finally said harshly, “Enough! It is the word of Suey Lai Chang that this man means you no harm, and that your mistress should grant him her time! Do you insult the Suey Sing association?”

The servant ceased his argument. He still glowered at Adam and mumbled under his breath, but he stood back to admit them and then latched the gate behind them. Tam Sing Po halted respectfully at the steps and allowed the man to usher them into the house. They waited in the entrance hall, in silence, while he went to fetch his mistress.

Li Ming appeared again at the double doors. Her expression was cold, and it was clear that she had no desire to see Adam again, but out of deference to Suey Lai Chang, she approached Tam Sing Po politely.

The tong representative bowed. “Good evening,” he said. “I am very sorry to disturb you, but my master asks a moment of your time on behalf of his friend, Mr. Adam Cartwright.”

Her eyes widened. “My time is your master’s whenever he wishes it,” she replied, but didn’t look at Adam. “About this matter, however, I must ask if he is entirely sure of what he is asking.”

“I think I can make this easier,” Adam cut in. “I was—a little hasty—in my approach to you when I was here earlier. I thought it was possible that you were affiliated with Luke Parton.”

She had to notice him then, and her stare was frosty. “I would never be affiliated with Parton or any of his people.”

Tam Sing Po intervened. “This confusion is unfortunate, but not important,” he said. “Suey Lai Chang would like for you to know that the tong has joined in the fight against Luke Parton. We are lending all the assistance we can to Mr. Cartwright and his family. It is hoped that if you know anything about the missing Joe Cartwright, you will enlighten us as quickly as you can.”

Li Ming stood for a moment, considering what had been said—and Adam felt a spike of annoyance. The question was easy enough. What was the hold up?

“I do know something,” she finally replied, but again she spoke only to Tam Sing Po. “Joe Cartwright was here. He had escaped from his captors.”

Adam picked up on the crucial word. “Was here? He isn’t still here?”

She flushed. “No. After you left, I went to check. He had gone.” She finally met his gaze. “He slipped away. I am sorry.”

“You’re sorry? This whole thing would be over now if you’d just answered my question!” Adam could see that Tam Sing Po was surprised at his loss of control, but he had been unable to stop the words. He clenched his jaw and looked away.

“I thought you were with Luke Parton,” Li Ming said quietly. “At first. After that I was not sure, but—”

“I was with—?” Adam inhaled a long breath and calmed his voice. “No … I’m not with Luke Parton. Joe’s my brother.”

“I see.”

“How did he get away?”

“My servant, Chin Fong, went to warn him that a man was here asking about him. He left your brother to dress, and when he went back, Joe had gone. It would not have been hard for him to slip out one of the doors. He probably left by the alley.”

Adam sighed, quelling his irritation and fighting the inevitable frustration. To have been so close …

“You will be happy to know,” she said in a tone which clearly expressed what she thought of him for not asking, “that your brother was in good health. He had been in a fight, but he was not seriously injured.”

Adam felt the flush that started at his neck and rose to his hairline. “Thank you.” He turned to Tam Sing Po. “And thank you for your help.” Suddenly, he felt very, very tired. “I guess we start all over again.”

Tam Sing Po was sympathetic. “We stand ready to help you at any time you require us, Mr. Cartwright.” 

“Please call me Adam. We couldn’t have gotten anywhere today without your help. I’m deeply grateful.”  

Tam Sing Po bowed. “I would be very honored if you would address me as Sing Po. It has been my privilege to aid most kind friend to my master.” 

Adam nodded to express his understanding of what had just passed. “It’s my privilege to count you as a friend.” Then he returned to the matter at hand. “I just hope Joe didn’t try to go to the hotel—Parton’s men are sure to have it surrounded.” 

“He wouldn’t do that,” Li Ming said. “I pointed that out to him. He was going to wait here for nightfall, and then he was going to travel in my carriage.”

For once, they were able to regard each other without hostility. “Perhaps you should tell us what he said,” Adam suggested.

Li Ming nodded. “All right. But let us sit down.”  She led the way back through the double doors to the room where she and Adam had met before. When they’d perched on the edge of chairs, she continued, “Much of what he told me you probably already know, if you were able to trace his path here. He thought he’d been shanghaied, and he’d escaped from his captors.”

“He doesn’t know about Luke Parton?” Adam asked.

“He does now. I told him that it was unlikely he’d been shanghaied, and that he’d probably been kidnapped. I told him that in my opinion, only Luke Parton would have done such a thing.”

Adam stared at her. “What made you think that?”

She stared back. “A young man from a ranch the size of the Ponderosa? Luke Parton coming up for trial and trying anything to get out of it? It made more sense.”

Just then, the resonant toll of the door bell sounded through the house. Chin Fong shuffled through the entrance hall to answer it, and a moment later, Hoss and Ben were admitted. Hoss greeted Tam Sing Po, but Ben’s eyes swept the room for Adam.

“What is it, son? Have you found Joe? Is there news?”

Adam rose. “Not yet, Pa. We were close, though. Joe was here.”

“Well, where is he? Why isn’t he here now?”

“Pa, just calm down …” Adam introduced his father to Tam Sing Po and Li Ming, and related what had happened. 

Ben worried the story like a dog with a bone. “I just wish you’d gotten here in time.”

“I was here in time, Pa. It was a misunderstanding.”

“And it sounds to me like that could have been avoided. Am I to understand that you bullied this young woman so that she was afraid to tell you Joe was here? What were you thinking, Adam?”

Adam’s temper flared. “What if she had been one of Parton’s people? What then?”

“Hey, you two!” Hoss interrupted them. “You ain’t doin’ none of us any good, least of all Joe.”

Ben shook his head tiredly and reached out to grip Adam’s shoulder. “No … I’m sorry, son. You’re right. That was a consideration.”

Li Ming spoke quietly, almost sweetly, although her eyes hurled daggers at Adam. “And I’m very sorry that I didn’t realize that Adam was really Joe’s brother. They’re quite unlike each other, you know … Joe is very charming.”

“If you’d told the simple truth, that would have been enough!” Adam snapped.

“Adam!” Ben’s tone brooked no argument.

Adam turned away, his disgust evident in his posture. Hoss just shook his head.

Ben began again more calmly. “Hoss is right. This is doing no good.” He nodded to Li Ming and Tam Sing Po. “I must ask you to forgive us. I’m afraid our tempers are a little frayed, what with the worry for Joe.”

“I think what’s important now,” Adam said, regaining his composure, “is that we figure out where Joe would go. Li Ming warned him that it would be dangerous to go back to the hotel.”

“Where else would he go?” Hoss wondered aloud. “He doesn’ know anybody in San Francisco.”

For a moment, the room was silent. The door bell rang again and Chin Fong went to answer it, but no one paid any attention.

And then Adam spoke. “He knows Judge Blain.”

Ben’s relief was palpable. “Thank God! Adam, you’re right—thank God!” His face was transformed, his dark brown eyes radiating joy. “That’s where Joe would go! He’d go to Guthrey. He’d be safe.”

“If he gets there,” Hoss said dubiously.

“He’s eluded those cutthroats so far! Of course, he’ll make it! Come on, boys, we need to get over there—”

But Adam was looking at Li Ming. She had turned so pale that she looked as if she might swoon. He did not have time to think about it, however, because suddenly the front door burst open, and the entrance hall was filled with men. There were three of them, but no one was counting; the only one they saw was Joe, who was thrown into the room like a stone being skipped on water. 


Chapter Twelve 


All hell broke loose, as two armed gunmen erupted into the room behind Joe. Tam Sing Po tried to bar their way, and was struck viciously across the face by a swarthy man with a gold ring in his ear. The Chinese spun sideways, hit the wall, and slid down it until he lay very still, a thin stream of crimson winding a path from his mouth.  

Hoss lunged forward, but a man with a red beard jabbed his carbine with such intent that the big man halted in his tracks. Ben, seizing his arm, pulled him back, while the dark intruder knocked down Chin Fong, who had followed them in distress from the hall. Joe just lay in a heap where he’d fallen, halfway into the room on an Oriental rug. 

“Stand back!” the man with the beard roared, and thrust the carbine at them again. The register of guns being cocked froze everyone in place and silenced the room.

The bearded leader nodded toward a window, where a braided rope and tassel drew back a mass of curtains, and motioned to the man with the earring. “Tie up the old China boy.” It was when the shorter man stretched his arms to loop the cord around Chin Fong that his sleeve fell back to reveal an elaborate, wrist-to-elbow tattoo of a snake.

“Over by the windows, all o’ you,” the gunman went on. “Now. Or I’ll shoot you down where you stand.”

“You won’t get away with this,” Ben said as the group sidled nervously toward the french doors. In the deepening twilight, they could see through the panes of glass into the garden that was walled and private. There would be no one coming from that direction to help them.

The bearded man just laughed. “That’s what they all say.” He nodded at Snake. “Get their guns—and search ’em. We don’t wanta fool with knives ’r nothin’.”

“The woman too?”

“The woman hasn’t got a weapon,” Adam said curtly.

The bearded man looked him over and grinned. “Woman too. Can’t tell about these coolie females—she might have a knife up ’er dress.”

Snake leered. “Gotta feel and see.”

Mocking Li Ming with his eyes, he crouched and ran his hand up both of her legs, pausing insultingly at her hip. She simply threw back her shoulders and stared condescendingly at him, as if he were an improperly-bred interloper at a cultured event.

An unpleasant burgundy colored in his face. “Bitch!” he spat, and turned to take Hoss’ gun.

Adam forced himself to calm down, handed over his gun and suffered the other gunman’s hands sliding over his body. He was studying Li Ming, who stared purposefully out the window, when she looked back to catch his glance. For an instant, he saw the anger that must have been in her when the swarthy criminal touched her, and then she reverted to a sort of watchful detachment.

In the space of minutes, the room was subdued.

“Now, you all jus’ make yourselves comfortable,” the bearded gunman said. “Nothing’s gonna happen here for a while, so you might as well sit back an’ wait.”


Time wore slowly by, and the rush of energy everyone had felt at the gunmen’s arrival faded. But the oppressive tension remained, as the quiet was broken only by the scrape of a chair on the floor or an occasional exchange between the intruders.

Hoss tried to relax against the cold glass of the french doors, but his back began to ache from his awkward position on the floor. He wondered how the heck they were going to overpower these fellows if he couldn’t get up on his feet quickly.  

He allowed himself to look at Joe, and once again felt a blast of anger. They didn’t have to beat his brother unconscious. Joe’s cheek was bruised purple and one eye was black and swollen. Just the fact that he hadn’t come to yet was worrisome. Maybe something was wrong inside.

He stared at the gunmen, trying to get some idea of what they intended. What were they waiting for? Certainly the longer they held seven people at gunpoint, the more likely it would be that someone would be missed. But then, no one would care that the Cartwrights were not at the hotel except perhaps Guthrey Blain, and he’d just think they were out trying to find Joe. Since Li Ming was at home, probably no one would guess that she was in any trouble except her servants, and Snake had already tied up the cook and a houseboy in the kitchen. Tam Sing Po, however … he wondered how soon Suey Lai Chang would realize that something had gone wrong. Probably not soon enough to help them.

He eyed Snake. The man’s eyes were blank; it was as if no one lived within him. No one who breathed the warm breath of life, no one who knew right from wrong. Or maybe he knew, and he just didn’t care. Hoss thought back a couple of days, to when Eliza had been so frightened. He hadn’t really understood that; he’d believed her, but it was hard for him to comprehend the bone-chilling terror she’d known. Now he could see clearly why she’d been so scared, and he was profoundly glad that she’d not run into Snake since then.

The bearded man, now, was another story. He was just your common, ordinary, garden-variety crook—make that crook and killer. Not anyone you’d want to meet in a dark alley at night, but not near so downright evil as Snake. Snake would kill you just for the fun of seeing you die. This man might, somewhere, have a limit. Hoss tried to remember what Luke Parton was like. Pretty much like Snake, his dim recollections of Willard Arrick told him … rotten clean through and dangerous as they came.

Suddenly the deep toll of the doorbell rang through the stillness, so unexpected that everyone jumped in surprise.

The bearded man gestured to Snake. “That’ll be Billy. Let him in.” He peered down the barrel of the carbine. “And don’t any of you get any ideas. I might not be able to kill you all, but I’d get some of you, and I’d get you real good.”

They sat in impotent silence while Snake disappeared out through the entrance hall, and then returned, congratulating the unknown Billy on whatever had happened. And then a woman was pushed into the room ahead of the men—a girl whose face was streaked with tears.

“Eliza!” Hoss cried, and was on his feet before he knew it. Snake shoved the girl hard, and she reeled forward. Hoss caught her, a fierce rage burning in him. She was dressed only in her can-can dress, with no shawl or coat to fight the chill of night. But he knew that her violent shaking had nothing to do with the cold.

“Got ’er, Boss,” Billy was saying unnecessarily. “She wasn’t no trouble. Nothin’ a knife couldn’t handle.” He smirked, and stroked the long hunting blade stuffed into his gunbelt. “Knife’s always best to scare a woman.”

“You all right, ma’am?” Hoss asked in an undertone. “He didn’ do nothin’ to hurt you, did he?”

“No,” she whispered. “He didn’t hurt me. He just scared me to death.” Her trembling was abating. She cast him a quick, grateful glance and made a visible effort to steady herself.

“Find the lady a seat,” the bearded man said with false hospitality. “She’s part of the family now … for what time there’s a family.”

Hoss helped Eliza to sit down, then settled in beside her. “Why’s she here?” he growled, his eyes dark. Anyone who knew him would have heard the anger in his voice; slow to rile even in the most desperate circumstances, he was now infuriated.

“Why, because she knows too much, of course,” the gunman replied, ignoring his wrath. “She was the one who told you about us … and the only one who knows we’re the ones who took your brother—well, the only one who might talk.”

“Let ’er go. She’s got nothin’ to do with this.”

“It’s a little too late fer that.”

After that no one spoke, and an ominous silence settled again over the room.


The clear, bell-like ping of a clock chimed once—the quarter hour. Adam’s eyes traveled to the spidery gold arms of the ormolu timepiece on the mantel.  Six quarters had passed since this ordeal had begun, five since Eliza’s arrival. Nine-thirty …   

He glanced at his father. Ben was under control, but it was only on the surface. His eyes, fiery-bright with worry, kept straying to Joe, who hadn’t moved since he’d landed face down on the rug in the center of the room. Good thing there was a carpet there, Adam reflected. The floor was marble and very cold. They were all sitting on it now, their backs against the windows. He stretched; the chill was seeping into his muscles. Just the stretch aroused the interest of the third guard, who glared at him and gestured with a carbine. 

“How long is this going to go on?” Ben finally demanded. “You can’t keep us here forever.”

“Don’t need forever,” the bearded man answered from a chair near the door.

“If you think somehow this is going to help Luke Parton, you’re wrong. Judge Guthrey Blain knows what this is all about. If anything happens to us, not only Parton but you men too will be in jail for a good long time—if you’re not hung.”

The gunman laughed again, genuine amusement in his eyes. “We’ll see who lives the longest,” he said, “you … ’r my lil’ brother.”

“Your brother?” For a moment, Ben’s surprise got the better of him.

“Will Parton, at your service, Mr. Cartwright. Now, don’t you worry about our plan. It’s workin’ out just fine.”

“Pa, I think this time he’s got you,” Adam said with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “The only way their plan can work now is if we die. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Parton?”

The bearded man regarded Adam thoughtfully and nodded. “Yeah … that’s how it goes, ’though I’ll admit it’s not what we first had in mind. You folks’ll be found dead, here in Chinatown … after Luke’s been let go, o’ course, what with the ransom note.”

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong!” Ben rejoined. “There’ll be no release. Guthrey won’t allow it.”

Will Parton just smiled. “No reason he shouldn’t, when he gets a note from you beggin’ ’im to. And don’t bother to say you won’t write the note. We don’t need you for that.”

“Our deaths will be blamed on the tong,” Li Ming supplied coolly. She stood up and even as the gunmen trained their carbines suspiciously, moved a few feet to a chair, gathered up a pillow and returned to where she had been sitting.

Very good, Adam approved. Her casual stroll had attracted the eyes of all three of their captors, if only for a few seconds. He wondered if that had been her intention—a sort of trial—or if she’d simply needed the cushion of a pillow on the hard floor. And then he caught the brief force of her gaze; she was checking to see if he had noticed. He dropped the most imperceptible wink of acknowledgement. Now, how to make use of that weakness …

“Not bad,” Parton was saying. “The lil’ lady has more than looks to call her own. That’s how it’ll play out. Can’t trust them filthy Chinese, y’know? They make a bargain—let my brother go, and they’ll let your boy go. Judge Blain’ll get the mayor to bow to yer wishes and do his part with Luke … but they kill yer boy anyway. Too bad you’d figured that out already and you was tryin’ to rescue him yourself. They had to kill you too. An’ the floozy that must’ve been servicin’ your boy here at the wrong time.”

The swarthy man with the tattoo chuckled. “Yeah, an’ all the time Luke Parton’ll be free. That’s all that counts. We’ll be back to reg’lar business.”

“Not just regular business, Snake,” Will Parton amended. “Better than regular business. Y’see, the city’ll be so up in arms against these murderous Chinamen, they’ll squash out the Suey Sing tong, an’ maybe some o’ the others too. We won’t have any more trouble from them. Our business’ll grow like we ain’t never seen it before.”

Parton propped his carbine on his knee. “Now you folks just settle down. It won’t be long now.”


Voices … far away … kind of soft, like conversation in the next room. On the floor, Joe strained to listen. But before he could put it all together, the monotonous throbbing in his head scattered his thoughts. Oh, God. Pain again … so much pain lately … It was like a signal, a little message telling him that once again his world had been turned upside down—that he had no idea where he would be when he woke up. Just before he moved his legs, stretched his arms, lifted his head, groaned, he froze. Even as consciousness flowed back into his mind and into his aching limbs, he forced himself to remain still.

He could hear voices and they were familiar. Pa and Adam …If he could have moved faster, he would have hauled himself up to greet them—but he couldn’t move faster, and through that last mist in his brain, he heard a voice he had come to recognize: the guard from his dark little cell. The thug who had so cruelly hurt the old Chinese man.

He did not so much as open his eyes.


The clock chimed again at nine-forty-five and ten. There was little sound except an occasional sniff from Eliza, which she swiftly choked back. Watching her from the corner of his eye, Adam saw her set her jaw and blink away tears. She was trying hard not to give in to her fear. The chill of sitting next to the window in the bare-shouldered dress had been more easily cured; Hoss had wrapped his vest around her, and it was so big over her slender frame that it served as a coat.

The little flurry with the vest had been some time back. Since then, the room had been quiet. In spite of the highly-charged situation, everyone was growing bored and almost drowsy with the enforced inaction. The strain is wearing on them too, Adam thought, staring at the gunmen. They’re not quite as sharp as they were when they came in here. He wondered if he dared believe it. They’re letting down their guard—just a little bit. A little bit … how much was enough?  With three carbines ready to end lives, it was hard to figure how they could take advantage of anything.

And then he remembered the marquetry box. The little table was just beyond arm’s length away. He wondered if Li Ming had put her revolver back. Was it even loaded? He’d never looked; he’d just believed that she was serious enough to shoot him and hadn’t taken any chances after that.

He glanced up and tried to catch her eye without attracting attention. But she seemed ready for him—although she appeared to be staring at the floor, she was actually looking at him from the corner of her eye. He held her gaze for a second and then glanced quickly to the box, hoping she would understand. She conveyed the barest nod. The next question, then, was how many shots it held. That was another thing he hadn’t noticed. How the hell could he get her to understand what he needed to know? But again, she was ahead of him. As if weary, she gave a great sigh and ran a hand over her forehead, all four fingers extended. A second later, she pressed her forehead just above her eyebrow, this time with three fingers held out. Seven shots. A Smith & Wesson—had to be a Model One .22 rimfire. With a short barrel—that much he remembered; otherwise it wouldn’t have fit into the fancy little box. A blast of elation shot through him. If he could get to that gun, they had a chance. Fleetingly, her eyes warmed.

But that was only the first step. He took a chance and straightened from his slump, stretching his arms out.

“Watch it, mister,” Will Parton said edgily.

“I’m stiff. Sit on this marble very long and you would be too.” He leaned forward, moved his legs, finally stood up.

“Si’ down!”

“All right … fine. Nerves getting to you boys?”

It went as Adam hoped. Parton snarled back that he should watch his own nerves, and no one noticed that when he sat down, he was right next to the little table with the marquetry box.


Hoss swallowed hard and wondered what Adam was up to. He knew the little skirmish was not without intent, but these fellows were so trigger-happy that he just hoped his brother knew what he was doing. He sighed and glanced at Joe … and nearly choked when he saw that Joe was staring back at him. His eyes widened and his lips had started to turn up in a grin before he remembered to wipe all expression off his face. And lest anyone suspect anything, he somehow forced his eyes away and gazed all around the room except at his brother. But in a few seconds he had to look back. 

Once again, he saw Joe’s lashes flutter, stare at him, flutter again, then close. Joe was awake. He was just being cagey. The joy that ran through Hoss nearly overcame him; he had to set his jaw and make himself look away again to avoid telling everyone simply by the look on his face that his brother was all right. If he let that secret out of the bag, they’d be more in trouble than they already were. 

He peeped back yet again. Sure enough, Joe’s eyelids were only half-closed—just enough so that he’d look unconscious. He could see what was happening around him. 

Hoss dropped his chin to his chest, trying to give the impression that he already saw himself as defeated. Then he stared hard out of the corner of his eye at his other brother … Adam, c’mon, Adam … look over my way. It was nearly a minute before he attracted his older brother’s attention, but once he did, it took only the briefest glance at Joe to send Adam’s eyes in that direction too. Hoss could barely contain a smile when he saw the jubilation that bloomed in Adam’s eyes and was as quickly hidden.


Chapter Thirteen 


THE CLOCK TICKED ON. Periodically, Adam stretched or otherwise conveyed his boredom and discomfort, and one or another of the gunmen glared and waved a weapon. And Hoss kept an eye on Joe. But nothing changed. 

After one particularly impudent yawn and elaborate stretch, Will Parton rose to pace in front of them, his carbine cocked and his boots falling perilously close to Joe. “You’d best all stay down and quit making trouble.” 

“You’ll have trouble enough before this is all over,” Ben muttered. “I’ve already told you Judge Blain and Mayor Teschemacher know about what’s going on. They’ll stop you.” 

Once again, Parton seemed to find the words funny. Adam, watching the gunman’s face, said quietly, “I think not, Pa. I don’t know about the mayor, but I think it’s very likely that Judge Blain has been in on this from the beginning.” 

“Don’t be absurd, Adam. Guthrey Blain would never be a party to this.”

“Think about it. For them to plan this, someone had to know we were coming to San Francisco. That information could have come from only three places—Cal Graves at Bradison, or someone at the What Cheer House … or Judge Blain.”

“It must have been the hotel.”

“And for the plan to work well, Parton’s people had to get one of us alone, or at least without the other three of us to back him up. When you wired Judge Blain from Sacramento that we’d been delayed, and you and Joe would be a couple of days late, he was the one who wired back and said the Olsons wanted the stallion right away. That’s what made Joe go on alone with Darby.”

Adam shifted his gaze to Will Parton. “Perhaps you’ll inform us. The trouble with the timber contracts … was that legitimate, or did you have something to do with it?”

Parton smiled, enjoying the recognition of their triumph. “What d’you think? There’s always a way to get to somebody. Yeah, nobody at Delta Lumber had any problems with Ponderosa timber till old man Beesom started worryin’ about his daughter. Pretty girl, she is … woulda looked right ugly if somebody’d set fire to her hair … somethin’ like that.”

Adam’s stomach turned at the image, but he continued casually, “All right, so Parton’s people delayed you in Sacramento, Pa. And then Guthrey made it clear that Joe had to come on—by himself. Darby must have been a surprise.”

“Didn’t fret us none,” Parton interjected.

“No.” Adam turned to Ben, his face calm but his eyes clouded. “It had to be Guthrey, Pa. No one else fits.”

“But why? Why would he do such a thing?” Ben turned to Will Parton. “Or did you intimidate him too?”

Parton inclined his head. “Maybe you ought to ask the good judge himself.”

In the light from the hall, a shadow had crossed the doorway. A second later Judge Guthrey Blain appeared on the threshold. He glanced around at the gathering of people, his gaze traveling from Ben to Hoss to Eliza, Adam and Li Ming, then to Chin Fong, tied up in the corner, and Tam Sing Po, motionless on the marble floor, a stain of red collecting under his cheek. At last he looked at Joe, who lay crumpled at the feet of Will Parton. His eyes again met Ben’s. “I’m sorry it had to come to this, Ben.”

Fury, compounded by disbelief, radiated from Ben Cartwright. He leapt to his feet. “It didn’t have to, Guthrey—it didn’t have to!” he rasped. “How in God’s name are you mixed up in this? You can’t possibly be working with Luke Parton!”

But his question was answered before the judge said a word, as a second man appeared in the doorway. He was almost classically handsome, except for a certain vacancy in his crystalline blue eyes. No warmth inhabited the symmetrical features, even though a smile outlined remarkably white teeth. 

“Willard Arrick …” Hoss said involuntarily.  

“Go on, Judge,” the new arrival said. “Tell him how it had to be.”

“I’m sorry, Ben,” Judge Blain repeated. “Luke can’t go to prison … or be hung. I had to think of some way of stopping that—I’m afraid the evidence is just too strong this time. No jury will acquit him, and in a court of law, I can affect a sentence, but I can’t overturn a verdict. I thought you’d go along. I never dreamed Joe would be hurt … or any of you …”

“But Guthrey—why? How did you get mixed up with scum like Luke Parton? And Joseph? You’d do this to him—a boy you’ve known for most of his life?” Ben had the satisfaction of seeing Blain falter.

But again Parton answered first. “Why? Why do you think? Judges aren’t paid enough to cover the way Guthrey lives. You never wondered how he bought that fancy house? All that high class stuff? What kind of friend are you, that it never occurred to you something wasn’t right?”

“Good investments would account for it,” Ben countered. “Shares in a gold mine. There are plenty of ways men get very rich these days.”

“Yeah,” Parton jeered. “Investments. Well, he invested all right—in a sure thing. My operation.”

Ben turned to his old friend. “What exactly does he mean, Guthrey?”

Guthrey Blain recovered his poise. “It means I did what I had to do, Ben. Not everyone looks at things the way you do. I wanted certain things in life, and throwing in with Luke Parton was the only way I could get them.”

“And so you subvert the law you’re sworn to uphold—”

“Oh, don’t be so pompous!” Blain, stung, colored with anger. “It’s not like I’ve ever let criminals go scot-free. I just lighten their sentences.”

“Considerably,” Parton snickered.

Ben remained focused on his old friend. “That’s how you repay the trust of the people of San Francisco?”

“The people of San Francisco don’t even notice. As long as I don’t stint on the sentences I hand out to most convicted men, they see me as an important force for law and order.”

“And that makes it all right?”

“There is no right and wrong here, Ben! That’s where you’re so short-sighted!” Blain, impatient, turned scornful. “Everything always had to fit into your nice little box—neat and orderly. Well, life’s not that way. I’d think you would have learned that by now.”

“Why would you think I’d have learned that it’s all right to cheat the people who put their trust in you?”

“That’s not what I said. I meant that you of all people should know that things don’t always turn out the way you think they will—neatly—as they should! I thought I’d carve out a good career here, enough to prosper, but it didn’t happen. And you, Ben … when you married Elizabeth, didn’t you think you’d live out a good life with her? Did you expect her to die? Or Inger? Or Marie?”

Ben drew himself up, the mixture of pain and anger on his face deepening at the mention of his wives. “Of course I know that life isn’t neat and orderly—or pain-free, Guthrey.”

“You just have to do the best you can and settle for that.”

“I suppose we differ, then, on what is meant by ‘the best you can.’” Ben raised his eyebrows and let them fall. “So San Francisco can say that since quite a few of its criminals are locked up, it’s not such an important matter that Luke Parton—one of the worst killers in California—is free to carry on his activities?”

“You twist my words—”

“Guthrey, save your breath,” Luke Parton cut in. “You’re never going to make the high and mighty Ben Cartwright see what you mean.”

Ben didn’t bother to look at Luke Parton; he kept his eyes on Guthrey Blain. “If he means that you’ll never convince me that dishonesty is the right way to do anything, he’s right. Or that kidnapping an innocent boy, beating him within an inch of his life, and threatening to kill him is right—” He shook his head. “And then you had the nerve to be so kind to me, so considerate … so supportive. I don’t know you, Guthrey. Lying comes too easily to you. The man I grew up with had principles.” He took a deep breath, his eyes never leaving the cherubic little man before him. “What happened to you? How did you lose—that—those—”

“My principles?” For the barest second, Blain looked sad. Then, again, he regained his composure. “I wonder what you would have done if it had been you, Ben … if you’d been in charge of trying and sentencing some of the worst kinds of men—the ones who vow to kill you, to hurt anyone you might care about just to get back at you. … And the good citizens of San Francisco—the good ones, mind you, the ones who live their decent, safe lives and make their decent, safe money—think that it’s perfectly proper that you risk your life every day, in every thing you do on your job, for wages that wouldn’t buy even a stake in the life you wanted to lead. You wonder why I feel like I’m entitled to more? You wonder?” 

“And so you thought you’d just take what was due you.”

Guthrey’s expression hardened. “After a while, I figured out how—yes. Luke made me an offer. I couldn’t refuse it.”

“But Guthrey … all that wealth and privilege—is it worth it?”

“What do you think, Ben? You live very well. Is it worth it to you?”

“We don’t live as you do, but that’s beside the point. However we live, we earned it. We didn’t take anything that was rightfully someone else’s. We didn’t lie. We didn’t cheat anyone. There’s nothing on the Ponderosa that we haven’t bought with our own sweat.”

“Oh, yes … your own sweat,” Guthrey said bitterly. “The great Ben Cartwright, surviving it all to have the life you wanted. Plenty of money, land, power, sons to carry on your name. A paragon, you are.”

“That’s not true and you know it. We’ve been fortunate, it’s true, but you could have done the same thing.”       

“I did, Ben. I just did it my way.”

Mesmerized, Adam listened to the verbal duel between his father and Guthrey Blain. He could hear the disbelief, the sadness and then the anger in his father’s voice, just as the judge’s tone gained strength, from its hesitant beginning to its final obstinate disagreement with everything Ben Cartwright stood for. Luke Parton, too, was focused on it; he watched disdainfully, while his brother Will appeared puzzled, as if he couldn’t quite follow the reasoning. Snake listened skeptically and the heavyset gunman simply kept his eyes on Ben Cartwright.

With an effort, Adam wrenched his attention away. He needed to concentrate on getting the gun. He glanced at Li Ming, and as if she felt his gaze, she raised her eyes to stare back at him. From her expression, he could tell that she too was considering their problem and coming up as empty as he was. But they had to try something. He glanced again at the marquetry box and her gaze followed his.

Then he stood up, attracting everyone’s eyes, and with a silent prayer, blustered, “If we’re going to have to listen to all of this, I need a pillow! You—girl—get me one.”

Will Parton and the heavyset gunman both lurched toward Adam, their carbines outthrust. “Sit down, you!” Parton ordered.

Hoss pulled himself to his feet, drawing Snake’s attention, just as Ben spun around to see what was happening behind him. Then he turned back and stepped toward Guthrey, as if by touching him, he could somehow bring his friend to his senses. But Luke Parton inserted  himself between them, sneering into Ben’s face to push him back.

Li Ming stamped her foot. “American swine! You do not call me ‘girl’!” she sputtered at Adam. “You haven’t a manner to your name!” She spun around to grab a large pillow from the chair behind her and hurled it at him—but she threw like a woman, and it careened downward, skittering across the top of the small table, knocking aside the marquetry box and the porcelain ashtray, which promptly shattered on the marble floor.

“Hey, you! Stop it!” Will Parton cried, and turned to the big gunman. “Stop her!”

The thickset guard grabbed her arm, but she twisted away, losing her balance in the mayhem and falling against Ben, then ricocheting into Adam. He caught her shoulders and steadied her against him.

“All right, all right!” Adam said. “I got the pillow.”

“Any more of that stuff and you’ll get a lot more than a pillow,” Will Parton spat, his gun aimed at Adam. He cocked it. “You got that, Cartwright?”

“I got it,” Adam said. From the corner of his eye, he saw Hoss step back from Snake, and his father relax in Luke Parton’s hold. He looked down at Li Ming, who remained still in his arms. She was panting with nerves and fear, and he had the devil of a time slowing the race of his own heart in the overwrought atmosphere. “Perhaps you’ll allow an American swine to help you sit down, ma’am?”

She glared at him and pulled away. “I can seat myself,” she hissed, and dropped to the floor, pushing the little table out of the way and spreading her skirts to her right—leaving space for him on her left, he noticed. He also noticed that the outflung skirts fell over the marquetry box.

He didn’t dare look at her. His heart was still pounding in his chest as he realized that if just one of the gunmen had panicked, they’d all be dead now. It had been an unconscionable gamble … but they’d had no choice. He exhaled long and hard and hoped his face wasn’t as flushed as it felt.

Ben turned back to look at Guthrey Blain, and from the corner of his eye, Adam could see that Hoss regarded him curiously. Once more, he dropped a subtle wink, and was rewarded with a flash of response in Hoss’ clear blue eyes. His brother knew that they’d just accomplished something, and was ready to join in whatever sort of action they could put up. Now it remained for them to figure one out. From the corner of his eye, he saw Hoss squeeze Eliza’s hand, and once again was reminded that somehow, they needed to keep the women safe, whatever they did.

Adam felt Li Ming shift next to him, and just for a second, felt the warmth of her leg against his. He sighed, his eyes seeking hers … and as before, he found her already observing him, awaiting his communication. The smallest smile flickered on her lips.

Then she began to arrange her skirts—to find the revolver, he knew, but for all the world she appeared to be just a woman fiddling impatiently with her clothing. A few minutes later, as she folded her knees in front of her, he felt the hardness of cold steel against his thigh. In the second that her skirt lay briefly over his leg, he slipped the gun behind him, sliding it under the pillow he had propped against the french door. Then he leaned back, and a moment later, transferred the little revolver to his belt, where it nestled unobtrusively in the small of his back.

The night looked a lot more promising than it had in hours.


“Guthrey, this is crazy. Someone’s going to get killed.” The words were out of Ben’s mouth before he realized how ridiculous they were.

Luke Parton burst into laughter. “Someone’s going to get killed?” he mimicked. “Of course someone’s going to get killed, Cartwright! And it’s going to be you—and all your whelp!”

“Guthrey?” Ben stared at Blain. “Are you going to let that happen?”

“There’s nothing I can do about it, Ben.”

“Of course there’s something you can do about it! You can stop it!” Disgust began to creep into Ben’s voice; he couldn’t prevent it. “The Guthrey Blain I know would stop it.”

“Well, I’m not the Guthrey Blain you know!” the judge burst out. “And don’t go looking at me like I’m dirt under your feet just because I don’t think like you! Do you know—do you know, God help me, that sometimes when I most envied you, I found it satisfying to think that your wives died? All of them? That not one was there to warm your life—your bed—through all the hardship it took to build the Ponderosa?” Guthrey grimaced impatiently at Ben’s stunned look. “Oh, not because I wanted you hurt! I was glad for you that you found women to love … women who loved you. But you see, I never did … and it was reassuring to see that in the end, happiness eluded you as well. It eludes us all. That’s it, you see, Ben—life isn’t happy. For anybody, really. So there’s no sense in establishing rules; they don’t make any difference. We just have to do what we can—guard what happiness we find. And that’s all I’m doing. I’m sorry it hurts you, but it can’t be helped.”

“Guthrey, that’s ludicrous. It can be helped. We can all just walk out of here.”

Guthrey Blain shook his head. “You know we’re beyond that, Ben. In the beginning, nobody had to get hurt. I was sure that you would ask Henry Teschemacher to release Luke Parton, and he would and that would be all there was to it. We’d let Joe go. That would be the end of it. Luke would have to go into hiding, but he was willing. He didn’t care—not as long as he controlled his organization. It was when you got noble that it all went afoul, so I suppose you really have only yourself to blame.” He shook his head again. “It’s too bad.”

“Guthrey, you can’t mean this. You can’t have sunk so low—”

“Sunk so low?” Blain laughed unpleasantly. “It’s called survival, Ben. You and Edward never got that—you were so concerned over your notions of ethics. Ethics aren’t important, you fool. Survival is.”

Before Ben could answer, Luke Parton shouldered in front of the judge. “I think I’ve heard about enough of this,” he said. “So you’re a saint, Cartwright. Well, you know what happens to saints. They have to be murdered or no one remembers them.” He chuckled. “You can’t know how right it is that it’s you we’re using to get me out of this. You ruined my operation in the Nevada Territory a couple of years back, and there’s something you need to learn before you die. You don’t cross a Parton.”

Ben continued to focus on his friend. “Just how did you get him out of jail? There’s no way Mayor Teschemacher or Chief Wilhoyt would have authorized it.”

“Of course not,” Parton cut in. “But Friday nights … why, most of the police are out on the street. Not many of them are around the jail, and not one was going to defy a judge who came in with a guard and said he was taking the prisoner out on his own responsibility. After it’s over, all Guthrey will have to say is that that guard was one of my men, and had a gun on him the whole time. Too bad, but the poor judge just didn’t have any choice. And he was trying—oh, so gallantly—to save his old friend.”

“Everything falls neatly into place,” Ben said sarcastically.

“Don’t you forget it, Cartwright. Don’t you forget it.”



Everything falls neatly into place? Not if I can help it … Joe lay on the floor, carefully flexing his muscles. To say that he was in pain, that he ached everywhere, didn’t cover it. There was not one square inch of him that didn’t have a grievance, but he gritted his teeth and tried to push all of that out of his mind. His only worry was that if he sprang up to help Adam and Hoss, he might somehow fail. A leg might refuse to hold him, or an arm buckle when he tried to rise. And so he tested them … and found, to his amazement, that with a little flexing, he could feel a modicum of strength returning. If only he could stretch … but he made himself lie still.

And then Luke Parton’s foot was only inches from his face … so close … so close, he could grab it. He could bring Parton down. He glanced up at Adam, but his brother’s eyes closed briefly, a subtle “no.” The time was not yet right.

“Now it’s about time we get on with this party,” Parton was saying. “I’ve waited a long time for it.”

“For what?” Ben Cartwright rasped. “For killing us?”

“You might say that. It’s not just the killing, Cartwright … it’s the fun of it. The fun of seeing you die piece by piece.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Parton strolled the few steps to where his men had set the array of revolvers they’d collected, and picked one up. “Well, you can’t imagine I’d put you out of your misery first,” he said, a sinister grin lingering on his lips. “Deprive you of the pain of watching your sons die, one by one? I wouldn’t dream of it.” Without warning, as if indulging in target practice, he whirled around and fired at Tam Sing Po’s prostrate form. A small, sickening thud and the appearance of grey hole in the Chinese man’s cotton tunic told them he had hit. In a second, the hole turned red and a fresh stream of blood issued forth.

Parton turned back to his observers. “Rid the world of a Chinaman. There ought to be a reward.” He contemplated shooting Chin Fong as well and then shook his head. “Might use the old man to help us get away.”

“Luke, surely you’re not just going to shoot them in cold blood?” Guthrey Blain queried.

Parton laughed. “How do you suggest I do it? In hot blood? A waste of my own strength. If you can’t stand it, go vomit in the corner. I don’t trust you enough to let you leave.”

Blain looked shocked.

“You made your deal with the devil,” Ben said to the judge. “I’m afraid now you see what the cost is.”

“Shut up!” Parton roared.

Even from his angle on the floor, Joe could see the wild light in Parton’s eyes. Like a mad dog, he thought … the slightest thing would set him off. They could all be dead in a second.

Above him, he saw Li Ming shoot Adam a quick glance—but he didn’t see how his brother responded, because Luke Parton acted first.

“You!” Parton growled, and in two steps was next to her. He caught her wrist and jerked her up. For a second, a jolt of fear flashed in her eyes, only to disappear behind a swift resolve. Adam leapt to his feet and then drew back, as Joe heard every gunman behind him step forward. They were all close now, their boots shadowy in his vision. He would have to act before long … Adam’s face was thunderous.

Parton laughed, his voice a trace high-pitched. His pale eyes pushed the limits of sanity. “I think, gentlemen,” he said, “that before we get on with the killing, we might enjoy ourselves a little. I don’t know about you, but it’s been too long since I’ve had a woman—a little rutting wouldn’t do me any harm. And we could give these boys here a nice little send off. Let them watch us have this Chinagirl … I’ll go first, and then you fellows can have her. Or maybe one o’ you can start on the saloon tramp!”

Only Will Parton did not howl with enthusiasm. “Luke, forget the girl,” he argued. “Let’s get this done and get outta here. The longer we wait to get you safe, the more dangerous it is.”

“No!” Parton shouted. He turned to his brother. “Now, shut up acting like a woman!” He extended his hand to Billy. “Give me your knife.”

Billy withdrew the long, wicked blade from his belt. Parton set his revolver on a table and took it, his eyes gleaming. “They say China girls are made different from American women—crosswise, you know, where our girls go up and down. I been trying to find out if that’s true—I’ve had every China girl I’ve ever had time to—but not one of them yet has been that way. Of course, this one’s a little different. Maybe that rumor’s only true about expensive China girls—and this one sure is that. We’ll all have a chance to see here. Will, Billy—you make sure these gentlemen don’t make any trouble. And watch the judge too; I don’t trust him on stuff like this. Snake, you get the clothes off that dancer there.”

Snake’s lips drew back over his teeth in a snarl of lust, but like a moth near a flame, he was enthralled by the wild light in Parton’s eyes. For a second, he forgot Eliza, his gaze riveted on his boss.   

Parton jerked Li Ming’s arm behind her back to pin her against him, then suddenly leaned closer, as if he were going to kiss her. She arched away from him—only to hear him laugh nastily as he slid the knife up to her neck. Off-balance, she teetered awkwardly, and delighting in her weakness, he drew the blade across her throat. “You try anything, and this is what will happen to her,” he said. The blade was razor-sharp; a fine red line appeared, upon which tiny droplets beaded against the immaculate skin. He wielded the knife with a mocking flourish.

Something inside of Joe snapped, and a white-hot anger raced in his blood. Now—and he was not alone.

The rage of fear for Joe that had been a part of Adam for three days exploded. The little revolver was in his hand before he could think, and it spit fire at Luke Parton—just over Li Ming, into the killer’s arm, sending the knife flying through the air to hit the floor beyond anyone’s reach. Parton’s eyes blazed with fury as Li Ming wrested away from him, but before he could pull her back, Joe hit him at the knees, knocking him down.

Watching all the posturing with the knife, Snake was a second late in his reaction—all Hoss needed to swipe the gun from his hands when the dark man tried to aim it. Hoss grabbed his shirt, lifted him off the floor and hit him hard in the gut, doubling him over, and then hit him again for good measure.

In an instant, Will Parton got off a shot, which whistled past Adam and landed with a thunk in the wall beyond. Adam dodged to one side, as another shot whined past, shattering a pane of glass behind him. He fired reflexively; the bullet sang close to Will’s gun and cut a path in the bearded man’s forearm, forcing him to lose his grip on the gun. It fell to the floor.

At the same time, Ben leapt at the third gunman, but not before the man could level a carbine. Once again, the acrid smell of gunpowder burned the air, and at that close range, Billy could not miss. Ben toppled backward, a stain of red spreading on his shoulder. Hoss wheeled and threw Snake against his henchman, then grabbed both men by the collar and bashed their heads together.

But Luke Parton could not be counted out. He struggled to rise, kicking viciously at Joe. His outstretched hand clawed at the covering of the table where he had tossed the gun with which he had shot Tam Sing Po, and in the chaos, the revolver slid off the edge. It landed just beyond his reach—and just beyond Eliza, so that Adam had no clear shot. Jamming the Smith & Wesson into his belt, he scrambled across the floor, dimly aware that Guthrey Blain was reaching for one of their Colts on the chair across the room, but there was nothing he could do about it. Joe was so pale he looked as if he would pass out, but he clung to Luke Parton tenaciously, destroying the wounded killer’s agility, slowing him down as he reached for the gun.

Adam hauled Parton to his feet and struck swiftly with his fists—but the man was like someone possessed. He launched a roundhouse punch that would have been deadly had it connected; as it was, Adam got in two hits to Parton’s abdomen as the gunman reeled from the effort of his misdirected assault. But still the killer fought, returning with strikes to Adam’s ribs, until finally, when he stepped back to gather just one quick breath, Adam came hard with a fist to the jaw. Parton whirled backward, just as Will picked up his carbine and Guthrey Blain grasped a Navy Colt.

“Hoss!” Adam cried, but it was too late. Blain was training a gun on brother—and so quickly that Adam almost didn’t realize his own thoughts, he wondered which was worse: to face a killer like Luke Parton, or an old friend of whom you were unsure? Guthrey Blain had never intended that Joe be killed—could he now shoot them down himself?

Hoss flung himself, toppling the slighter man. The revolver hit the marble and slid harmlessly away—just as a gun roared from across the room and Luke Parton, holding a smoking Colt, burst into maniacal laughter. Adam swayed in surprise, nearly woozy with fear for Hoss. But Hoss, his face bleak, rolled away unhurt. Judge Guthrey Blain lay still, a small red wellspring beginning to gurgle from his chest.

The Parton brothers were not finished. Will, his eyes sparking hatred and the fingers of his useless arm dripping blood, aimed his carbine at Adam with his other hand. 

“Adam!” Joe screamed just a second before Luke Parton, in a flying leap, crashed into the oldest Cartwright son—and just a second before Will fired. Then Adam and Luke, spinning with momentum, hit the floor hard in a tangle of arms and legs.

For a second, the entire room was silent, the only sound sporadic heavy breathing. Snake groaned.

Adam tried to sit up.

“Adam?” Joe called out hoarsely. “You okay?”

Adam pushed against the body on top of him. No pain … he hadn’t been shot. Or at least, not seriously. A narrow burn across his side betrayed where a bullet had grazed him. “Yeah … you all right?”

He pushed again, and flung the body back. Luke Parton’s crystalline eyes already were glazing in death. An ugly dark stain had diffused across his back, was even now seeping damply across his shirt front, rubbing off onto Adam’s leather vest. Adam exhaled a long, nervous sigh. The bullet which had grazed him had gone through Luke Parton first. But who had fired it?

And then he saw Will. Luke Parton’s brother was sitting on the floor, his back against a bookcase, his expression blank. The carbine lay on the floor. Adam pushed himself to his feet, crawling across the floor to get it before Will Parton could shoot again. But the gunman just sat, staring ahead dazedly. By mistake, he had killed his own brother.


Hoss was the first to gather his wits. “Pa?” He pushed himself to his feet for the few long strides to his father’s side.

Ben struggled to sit up. “I’m all right, son,” he answered a little breathlessly. The color was draining from his face, and he leaned back against a chair to steady himself.

Hoss probed gently at the wound and then bent him forward to check his back. “Looks like the bullet went clean through,” he said, relief resonant in his voice.

“I’m telling you—I’ll be fine.” Ben was a little weak, but matter-of-fact. “I’ve been hit a lot worse before.”

Adam rose shakily. “Joe, are you sure you’re okay?”

Joe lay like his father, leaning against the settee, his face chalky. “I’m all right, big brother. Just a little winded, that’s all.”

“I don’t think that’s all, but it’s better than what you could be,” Adam said sardonically. With a sinking heart, he made himself walk over to Tam Sing Po, crouch down, turn his new friend over, already fighting the sadness … and to his amazement, he realized that the tong member’s chest was rising and falling sporadically. He was alive.

“Sing Po!” Adam whispered in disbelief.

Tam Sing Po blinked, his eyes struggling to focus. “Adam?”

“Hold on … we’ll get you help—just hold on!”

As if he hadn’t just been so drained that he could hardly stand, Adam clambered across the floor to Chin Fong, who was straining at his bonds. He jerked open the knots, not bothering to apologize that he was not gentle.

“Get a doctor—fast!”

“Chinee ah ’Melican?”

“Both—as quickly as you can.”

Chin Fong nodded and disappeared out the front door.

Eliza climbed unsteadily to her feet. “I’ll find water—bandages.”

Li Ming, rubbing her shoulder, struggled up as well. “Come. We must find my servants—they will help.” 

Adam felt tears gathering in his eyes. That Tam Sing Po might die because of them—he grabbed a pillow, eased it under his friend’s head and propped him up gently.

“It will be all right, Adam Cartwright,” Sing Po murmured. “I will wait.”

“Don’t talk. Just save your strength.” How many times had he said that to his brothers, to friends who’d been shot? A quick spiral of nausea shot through him. It was so easy to kill … to be killed. Across the room, the fatal ocean of red spreading from Luke Parton’s body was mute testimony. Thank God, he could feel Sing Po’s breath easing. And the bullet which Parton had so casually fired had, like some of the others, gone clean through, in this case through the upper back, exiting just below the collarbone in front. Adam examined his friend’s eyes, watched them track when Hoss bent over them. Perhaps there had not been lasting damage from the ferocious blow to the head. … Maybe—with any luck—Sing Po would recover. Where were those doctors? How far did Chin Fong have to go? He stood back while Eliza bathed Sing Po’s face and held a compress against his wound. Li Ming knelt beside his father.

It seemed an eternity before a small Chinese man bowed his way into the room. Ben insisted that Tam Sing Po be seen first.

“We owe too much to this gentleman to take any chances,” he said. “I’m all right. I’ll hold.”

The American doctor who came a few minutes later agreed. “You’re damn lucky,” he told Ben. “A few inches to the right and you’d have been a goner. As it is, you’ll be sore as hell and weak for a while, but you’ll do just fine.”

Although the white doctor may have been surprised to find a Chinese physician working in the same room, he didn’t show it. Looking over Soong Ah Lee’s shoulder, he agreed that Tam Sing Po’s chances of recovery were good.

“And what about these fellows?” the doctor inquired, glancing around him. “I see a couple who certainly are no longer in need of my services, but what about these two?” He indicated Snake and the gunman Luke Parton had called Billy. “I would not be at all surprised if they’ve been concussed. And you, young man”—he peered over small wire spectacles at Joe—“you look like you’ve dueled with a windmill and lost.”

“I’m fine, Doc—just, y’know—”

“Look him over good, Doctor,” Ben interrupted. “He’s had a hellish last few days. These other two can wait.” He twisted to find his oldest son. “Someone needs to get the police … take care of what needs to be done …”

Adam nodded and climbed stiffly to his feet, then bent to lay his hand briefly on his father’s shoulder. “I’ll do it.” And finally he indulged in the one action he’d put off: he looked around to find Li Ming.

She was bent over Joe, bathing his brother’s forehead with a cool, damp cloth. But she looked up—automatically, it seemed—and met his gaze solemnly. Her dark eyes flickered, momentarily unguarded, sad, weary … and then Joe said something, a reckless grin animating his face, and she turned back to him with a tender smile. 

Adam retrieved his revolver from where it lay on the table and made his way to the front door. Outside, the night was clear and chilly and the nip of salt was in the air. He was so tired that he could hardly move.


Day Four


 Chapter Fourteen

It was AFTER midnight when they got back to the What Cheer House. Adam moved his belongings into Hoss’ bedroom so that Joe could share the room with their father, but despite their exhaustion, no one was able to settle down. Finally Ben, whose arm was bound to his chest to minimize the movement of his wounded shoulder, sent a boy for refreshments. They all sat in the suite’s drawing room going over and over the events of the past few days, although it made no one feel any better or safer or smarter.

“It was my own fault that I got caught again,” Joe told them. “I went to Judge Blain’s house. I thought I’d be safe there.” He shook his head disgustedly. “He welcomed me—can you believe that? He welcomed me! Seemed real happy to see me. Told me to make myself comfortable while he sent for you and for some policemen to stay with me till they could get whoever was behind all this into custody.”

“Hardly your fault, Joe,” Adam said. “Going to Judge Blain’s made sense, at the time.”

“When’d you find out diff’rent?” Hoss inquired.

“When the so-called ‘policemen’ arrived. It was Will Parton and Snake and that fellow they called Billy. Snake in particular wanted to make sure I understood the dangers of trying to escape again—that’s how I got this black eye and …” He trailed off at the look on Ben’s face.

Tears were standing in Ben’s eyes. “Joseph, I wouldn’t have had this happen to you for anything in the world.”

“Aw, Pa, c’mon now,” Hoss interrupted. “Ain’t none of this happened on account o’ you.”

Ben cleared his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Perhaps not directly on account of me, but it was brought about by a man I trusted.”

“We all trusted him,” Adam reminded him quietly.

“But I knew him—I’ve known him since he was a boy. How did I not see …?”

“That he had the capacity to be dishonest?”

“He had more than the capacity. What Luke Parton said—what kind of a friend was I that I didn’t notice how the way he lived hardly fit his income? I did see that, but I just thought he’d invested well. That’s what my fault was … that I missed the warning signs—all the things through the years that should have told me that Guthrey Blain wasn’t what I thought he was.”

“He fooled us all, Pa,” Adam said. “He fooled a whole city. Let it go; the important thing is that Joe’s alive.”

“You’re right about that,” his father rejoined fervently. “The important thing is that Joe’s alive.”

“Y’know, the thing that gets to me ain’t the dishonesty ’r the ethics ’r whatnot,” Hoss mused. “I mean, I know all that’s important, but I know plenty o’ folks who’ve gone crooked here ’r there. I don’t condone it … but I figure we all deal with our problems however we can. What I can’t get is cheatin’ on an old friend. He used Joe, an’ I’m findin’ that mighty hard to fergive. I reckon he had to be pretty far gone to’ve done that.”

“I told him …” Ben’s voice grew low and then picked back up again. “I told him I’d give up everything I had for any one of you boys. He knew that. He knew that nothing mattered except you—not the Ponderosa, not all our money or assets … nothing …”

“Except one thing,” Adam returned, his voice still mild. Ben looked up, his eyes questioning. “The bigger family—the public, our fellow citizens, our neighbors. We aren’t any one of us more important than another when it comes to the law. You couldn’t sacrifice all of them by letting a man like Luke Parton blackmail his way to freedom … not even for one of us.”

Hoss looked a little skeptical, but he nodded.

Ben turned to Joe. “Do you understand, son?” he asked carefully.

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I do, Pa.”

“You’re sure?”

Joe nodded again. “Yeah, Pa.” His voice was thick. “How d’ya think I’d have felt the first time Parton killed someone, after you’d got me back by setting him free? I’d have felt like somebody died in my place.”

Tears welled up in Ben’s eyes again. With his free hand, he reached out to squeeze Joe’s shoulder, but he couldn’t speak. Joe worked up a lopsided grin.

And then slowly the grin faded from Joe’s battered face and his own eyes filled with tears. “Pa … Darby …”

Adam cut him off. “Joe, that wasn’t your fault—”

“Lil’ brother, ain’t nothin’ you coulda done,” Hoss interjected. 

“Son …” Ben’s voice was soft. “Son, you had nothing to do with Frank Darby’s death.”

“Pa, if we’d come back to the hotel earlier—”

“They’d just have jumped you earlier. You had no control over that.”

But Joe just looked away.

“Joseph …” Again Ben reached out to touch Joe’s shoulder, this time turning his son so that Joe had to look at him. “Joseph, Frank Darby was a friend to you … a friend to all of us. We’ll all miss him, and there won’t be a time that we think of what happened here that we won’t be angry about such a senseless murder. But I knew Frank very well, and I’m sure—very sure—that he was proud to fight by your side; he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He was a grown man, and he did what a good man would do.”

“But he died, Pa.”

Ben nodded. “And he knew what could happen to him, son. He knew the dangers … and he knew the joys of life too. He knew that sometimes things just don’t work out. A man accepts that.” He exhaled a long breath. “Tomorrow we’ll make arrangements for a funeral.”

“I’d like to—I mean, would it be okay if I say some words over him?”

“I think that would be very appropriate.” Ben’s eyes gleamed with warmth. “Sometimes, Joseph, I wondered if you would ever grow up … but tonight, I wonder if I just wasn’t paying enough attention when you did. You’re a fine man. I’m very proud of you, son.”


It was well into the dark hours of morning before exhaustion finally took its toll, and everyone said good night. But long after his sons had gone to sleep, Ben lay awake for what seemed like hours. Ever since he’d learned Joe was missing, he’d found it hard to sleep; what few hours he’d managed had been heavy, the sort of slumber that left him more exhausted than if it had never occurred. He’d reassured himself that once Joe was safe, he’d enjoy a long, restful night—looked forward to it, wondered sometimes if it would ever happen. 

But now that Joe was safe and there was no reason not to drift off into bliss, he lay restless and unsatisfied. He relived, it seemed, every moment of his association with Guthrey Blain, particularly over the past three days. He damned Blain and himself and Luke Parton until he was sick over such a stupid waste of his own time. Deep down, he agreed with his sons: there was nothing he could have done, no real way to have predicted what another man, even a friend, would do.

 And then he realized that his restiveness had nothing to do with Guthrey Blain or Luke Parton or anyone else. It was simply that he’d almost had to live through the death of a son … all three sons. That he himself might have died was insignificant. Just to come so close to losing them was so terrifying that he could not even approach the thought head-on. He had had to sidle up to it, thinking about Blain, about himself, about all kinds of extraneous things.

He took a deep breath and lay back on his pillow, his insides sucked tight and quivering like jelly at the same time. He tried to face his fear like a man … everything in their life could change in an instant; he knew that better than anyone. He’d lived through it three times already. All they could do was fight for each other, do their best—and they’d done that tonight. They’d given their best.

He felt his insides begin to relax. He’d told Joe that Frank Darby had known the joys and the dangers of life … well, he knew them too. He’d been sure that Adam and Hoss did, and after tonight, perhaps his youngest knew that basic rule of a man’s existence as well. They could only be thankful when their best was enough.

And then he knew a wave of gratitude so forceful that it brought tears to his eyes. Tonight, when the Angel of Death had set out on his ride, he had not come for Joe or Hoss or Adam … or even for himself. Thank God. Thank God.

It would not be long now, he told himself as he felt the first harbingers of the rest that he craved. He would sleep until he woke up … there were no chores, no obligations, no reasons to get up before he damn well pleased. His own most pressing duty now was to arrange a funeral for Frank Darby; in view of his condition, they would have to have the undertaker call at the hotel, but he would see that the ceremony was the best money could buy. And a marker—they would purchase a fine carved stone to mark Darby’s grave in a good cemetery.

He wished—he dearly wished—that he could bring Darby back …

Just before he drifted into sleep, he realized that he dearly wished he could bring Guthrey Blain back too. The Guthrey Blain he’d known in Boston, before life had presented challenges that his friend couldn’t meet … before his friend had become a stranger to him.  

Four Days Later


Chapter Fifteen 


Coming back to the What Cheer House from a brief errand, Ben reflected that he would be happy to go home. He couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong with him, and he didn’t even try. It went way beyond the fatigue caused by his wound; it was like a weariness of the soul … the strange, unwelcome aftermath of the previous week’s events. He hoped that seeing the Ponderosa would help him get past it—put things right again. Even the paddle wheeler up the delta to Sacramento should help, he figured. The fresh, clean air of the bay, and the view of the beautiful rolling hills and live oaks were always good medicine. He chafed at the extra day they would spend in Sacramento to give him a chance to replenish his strength. 

Yes, it would not hurt any of them to get home, he told himself. He had watched his boys carefully in the days since Joe’s kidnapping, and he supposed that they were as good as anyone could be after going through something like that. But nothing was as it had been before they had made this trip. Nothing was right yet.

Surprisingly, it seemed that Joe had been the quickest to recover. He had read a verse at Frank Darby’s funeral and that had seemed to restore his spirits. Ben smiled to himself. They had expected to be the only mourners at the ceremony, and had been pleasantly surprised when four men from the Bradison Cattle Company had attended. Darby had been part of the Cartwright crew whenever they had brought cattle over to the coast, and it was heartwarming to see that, over the years, his solid, honest character had been noticed and appreciated.

But Joe … it was amazing—a benefit of youth, Ben supposed—that he had gotten over his kidnapping as quickly as he had. He had simply picked up and gone on. Only the loss of his friend had bothered him, and he seemed to be dealing with that.

Hoss was harder to read. He was pretty quiet about his deeper feelings anyhow, and about something like this, it was difficult to tell what was inside him. He hadn’t said anything. It was just that sometimes when you caught him unexpectedly, you found him lost in his thoughts, miles and miles away.

And Adam … Ben ran a finger under his collar. He really didn’t know what his oldest son was feeling, but he could sense the unease that roiled within him. On occasion, he had surprised a dark look on his son’s face, or noticed that he was dangerously close to sarcasm or anger when the situation didn’t call for it … as if something was going on within himself that he couldn’t really control. It was clear that he was still struggling with almost losing a brother, with the death of a friend, and with seeing an old friend disintegrate before his eyes … turning those events over in his mind, trying to make sense where there just wasn’t much to be made. It would take longer for Adam to get over this. Going home would help.

He chuckled. Of course, he would have to round them up to go home. Both Hoss and Joe had left earlier, dressed in their best clothes. No telling what plans Adam had for today, but Ben did not count on spending any time with him.


His eyes on the sun-washed slope of waving grass, Hoss reflected that he hadn’t seen such a perfect day in a long time. Off to his right, the clear sky over San Francisco Bay was so pure and untouched that it looked almost hallowed. Up ahead, the stand of sequoias and tall old pines that lined the hill beckoned them to stop, to rest, to enjoy a lazy afternoon.

He turned the bay mare off the road and headed the buggy a little way down the hill, over to the shade of the trees. “This look good to you, ma’am?”

Eliza, sitting next to him, allowed a little smile. “Hoss, you have beautiful manners, but please—‘ma’am’ sounds so formal. I hope you don’t feel all stiff and formal around me!”

“Yes, ma’am.” He blushed and grinned, his eyes twinkling. “I mean, no, ma’am, I don’t feel formal at all.”

“Good. And to answer your question—it looks wonderful. Look out there at the bay! It’s so beautiful!”

“Right there, just beyond those redwoods, you can see the place where all the ships come in from the ocean.”

She sighed contentedly as Hoss brought the buggy to a halt. He unloaded the big picnic basket the What Cheer House had made up for him, and then came around to lift her from the seat, his approval of her showing in his eyes. Her dress was a lovely rose color, and modest though it was, it couldn’t disguise her alluring figure. His hands, when he grasped her carefully at the waist, reached nearly all the way around her.

“Oh, Hoss …” She gazed out at the bay. “Is there a prettier sight anywhere?”

“Well, yes’m, there is. Or, at least, as pretty a sight, and that’s the lake by our ranch. Lake Tahoe. It don’t look a lot different from this … lots o’ real dark blue water, y’know, kinda with a life of its own … an’ green trees ’n’ such.”

She gazed at him appreciatively. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me at all. For today, though, we’re fortunate to have this, are we not?”

“You bet we are.” He went around to unhitch the mare and hobble her while Eliza unfolded a blanket and began to set out their picnic. When he’d finished settling the mare for the afternoon, he just stood silently and watched her fussing with the plates and the covered dishes of food.

“Ma’am … I mean, Eliza …”

She looked up in surprise. “Yes, Hoss?”

“That water an’ all these trees ain’t the only pretty view today.” He came to join her on the blanket, his eyes never leaving her face. “In fact, set up next to you, I’m not sure they’re not just downright ugly.”


Adam stood in front of the mirror, buttoning his navy blue broadcloth vest and avoiding his own gaze. His lips moved soundlessly, a deluge of words eddying through his mind.

“Upon further thought, I think …” That sounded muddled and weak. “I really couldn’t go back to Virginia City …”  What did going back to Virginia City have to do with anything? “Certainly you know …” Why should she? If she knew anything in his mind, he wouldn’t be in this predicament.

He glanced up to catch his image in the looking glass and couldn’t decide whether to explode with anger or burst out laughing, which annoyed him even further. He took a deep breath and tried to relax.

First of all, he had no problem with the concept of apologizing. When he was wrong, he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. He believed in admitting mistakes … but damn, this time it was hard to find the words. How in the world did you say to a woman, “I’m terribly sorry I thought you were a whore”? And worse than that, a whore in the employ of a man like Luke Parton.

This was the last little loose end from that nightmarish time, and it had been plaguing him ever since he had awakened the morning after they had gotten Joe back. He owed Li Ming an apology for the way he had treated her when he’d first met her. He had no idea how she’d take it—she might very well laugh in his face, order him from the house or simply be coldly and finally aloof. That didn’t matter. It was an issue within himself; he’d been wrong and offensive, and he owed her an apology. But how could he phrase it in such a way that his apology wouldn’t be worse than his offense?

Nor did it matter that very possibly she was a whore, although he doubted it. Suey Lai Chang had said that nothing was as it seemed, and some inner voice now told Adam that Li Ming was many things, but not a prostitute. At any rate, that was none of his business.

He realized then that he was watching himself try different approaches in the mirror and came to a disgusted halt. “If people had to see themselves apologize,” he muttered as he reached for his coat, “they’d never do it.”

“Did you say something?” his father’s voice carried from the drawing room.

“Just clearing my throat.” He shrugged into the jacket and straightened his tie. He was as respectfully dressed as he could manage. He went out into the next room.

Ben’s eyebrows rose. “You’re pretty dressed up. Did you boys find time to meet women before Joe was kidnapped?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you all had baths last night. That in itself is noteworthy. And Joseph left not thirty minutes ago in what he wears every time he’s trying to impress a girl. And if neither one of those reasons is compelling enough, you have to admit that Hoss going off this morning in what for him amounts to a suit is incontrovertible evidence.”

Adam offered a little grin. “Maybe we’re just tired of work clothes.”

Ben’s brows rose again. “And pigs fly. All right—off with you. Whatever you three are up to, I hope you enjoy yourselves.”

Enjoying myself is not what I’m up to, Adam observed mentally when he tugged on the iron ring in the gatepost of the House of the Four Dragons. In his mind, he could almost hear the deep toll of the doorbell inside. Then the heavy wooden gate swung inward and Chin Fong appeared. For the first time since they had met, the old man’s face relaxed into a smile.

“Mistah Cahtlight welcome,” he said, and opened the gate more fully.

Adam nodded. “Good afternoon, Chin Fong. I wonder if your mistress is—ah …” Available? Free? Good lord, even with his university vocabulary, he could not find words that did not sound insulting.

“Light this way. She is wit’ someone jus’ now, free soon.” Chin Fong led the way into the house, to a small parlor—a cozy study, actually—and bowed Adam in. “Wait he-ah, please.”

Adam took off his hat and looked around. The room was very feminine, its walls a pale sage green accented in gold leaf, after the French fashion. The furniture, from a lovely desk near the window to a few chairs, a settee, and a couple of occasional tables, was graceful and superbly made. A potted orchid stood on the desk and Aubusson rugs muffled any sound of his steps as he examined a wall of leather-bound books. He felt as if he were in a Parisian salon.

It was a few minutes before he realized that a door next to the bookshelves was slightly ajar, and when he moved closer, he could not help but hear the low murmur of voices. One of them was his youngest brother’s.

Adam knew he should either step back or close the door—but then, the sound of a closing door would intrude on Joe and Li Ming, who sat on a settee with their backs to him. When they turned to each other, Adam could see them both in profile. So, he should step back … cross the room at least, sit on the settee where he probably wouldn’t hear anything that was said. But he couldn’t. Instead he stood silently and listened to Joe tell Li Ming how beautiful she was.

“You have to admit,” his brother was saying, his voice charmed with laughter, “when a guy’s running from folks who want to kill him and he jumps over a fence into nowhere, he doesn’t expect to be rescued by somebody like you.”

Li Ming’s voice was equally laced with humor. “Yes, I agree, Joe Cartwright. And I will flatter you by telling you that you’re by far the most delightful young man ever to land in my garden.”

Joe inched a little closer to her. “I just wish I didn’t figure I’m the only guy ever to land in your garden,” he bantered.

“Well, most people do come to the front door.”

“Aw, seriously, Li Ming, I am very grateful to you. You know that … and I really do wish we’d met some other way. I mean, I’d have been happy to come here by the front door.”


“And when I come back, you can bet I’ll use the front door every time. I did today, you’ll notice.” Then the teasing faded from his voice and he stared intently into her eyes.


“I know it might seem like I’m young, but you know, sometimes young can be good,” he murmured, his voice going a little husky. His gaze lowered to focus on her lips.

Li Ming reached out to cup his chin in her hand. “Young is very good, Joseph,” she said softly. Her voice was firm, too, but Joe wasn’t paying attention to that.

“I’m happy you—”

“Joe …” She laid two fingertips over his lips. “Listen to me. … I am very glad that when you climbed a wall and dropped into a garden, it was mine. I was very glad to help you, and glad to help your family put an end to the heartache that came to this city because of Luke Parton. Our success, you know, came very much because of your courage and your intelligence …” Again, he started to speak and she gently silenced him. “Let me finish. … You went through a lot, and I have given great thought as to how I might help you forget those terrible days.”

“Li Ming, that’s just what I had in mind, and I thought we—” 

“Joe, you will listen, please …” She waited until Joe sat back, wiped the humor from his face and the seductive warmth from his eyes. “Now … yes, you are young—you are a lovely boy. Do not look so hurt; it is unwise to try to be old too quickly. Savor every year, every day that you have—and I think, Joe Cartwright, you will have very many of them to enjoy. I wish that for you … as I wish it for my younger half-brothers … and if I had one here with me, I would so hope that he could be like you.”

“A younger brother!” he objected. “Well, I like that! Here I am telling you you’re a beautiful woman, and you’re telling me I’d make a great younger brother!”

“It’s true,” she smiled, and even he could not resist the honesty and affection in her eyes. “We have a bond, do we not? Don’t you feel it too?”

He sobered. “Yes, ma’am. I feel it too,” he admitted. “I knew I could trust you, right from the beginning, and when I thought I’d put you in danger, I felt awful. But …” A raffish grin slanted on his face. “Well, I do think you might be surprised at how good I could be at some things … okay, okay, I won’t argue with you. However you feel, I don’t want to lose your friendship.”

Her lips quivered. “Trust your older sister. I’ve planned a very pleasant afternoon for you—at least one happy memory to take home from your visit to San Francisco.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I want to. And I think you will approve when you see what I have in mind. You are to go into the garden, to the dragon fountain. You will find there a young friend whose family I have recently welcomed from China. I feel quite certain that you will think she is very beautiful. She is also very sweet, and she is most anxious to meet you.” She clasped his wrist. “She speaks English, but perhaps not as well as I, so you must be patient and help her. I know I can trust you to do that.”

For a moment, there was complete silence in the room, and then Joe leaned over to kiss Li Ming on the cheek. “You know,” he said, clearing a certain thickness from his voice, “I have to admit … for such a beautiful and desirable woman, you make a pretty good older sister.”


The door had barely closed behind Joe when Li Ming, without so much as turning her head to look at the entrance to her study, said, “Yes, Adam?”

Adam flushed crimson and wished that he could disappear into thin air. Then he reminded himself that it wasn’t he who had opened the door. He had not asked to be privy to her conversation with his brother. He took a deep breath and joined her in the room which faced the garden. Thank God, he noted mentally, it wasn’t the one where he’d first met her, where they had taken on Luke Parton and his henchmen. That would have been bad luck for sure.

“You knew I was there,” he said.

“Not all of the time. When did you arrive?” Her eyes, dark and unreadable, gave nothing away.

“Not very long ago.” He cast around for some way to start a more pleasant conversation. “I—ah, I came to convey my family’s gratitude for what you did for Joe—for all of us. You didn’t ask to have Luke Parton and … well, for us to descend on you. We’re … very grateful for everything you did.”

Still her expression was impassive. “There is no need for your gratitude. I could have done no less.” Belatedly, she noticed that he was still standing, his hat in his hand. “Please sit down.”

“Thank you.” He sank down on the settee and dropped the hat on the table next to it. Still the right words would not come, and he found himself unable to meet her gaze. At last, feigning a composure he didn’t feel, he managed, “I owe you an apology.”

Her eyes glimmered. “For what?”

“For how I behaved when I first came here,” he said. Finally, he met her eyes. “It was very rude. I had no right to assume anything about you. I’m sorry.”

She smiled faintly. “I waited to hear you say those words when you came back that afternoon.”

He reddened again. “I’m … sorry about that too. I’m afraid my temper got the better of me.”

But to his surprise she shook her head. “No … when I thought about it later, I decided that it was I who owed you an apology, and it was my pride that got in the way.”

His could feel the confusion on his face; she looked almost as uncomfortable as he felt.

“I was hoping you’d come back so I could tell you that,” she continued. “I’m sorry that I misled you. As you said, had I just told you the truth, Joe would not have left the house. We could have found another way, a safer way, to get Luke Parton and his men.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. You were protecting my brother,” he disagreed.  “If I hadn’t been so”—pig-headed?—“ … Well, anyway, you had no way of knowing who I was, and I didn’t do anything to inspire your confidence.” And then he hadn’t the slightest idea of what to add.  

After a long, difficult moment, she suggested, “Perhaps we might agree to put it in the past.”

“That’s very kind of you,” he replied quickly.  

Now she was just regarding him calmly. When he met her gaze, she looked away—but not before he’d seen a little flicker of hesitation … perhaps even a little light of—what? He couldn’t tell. Damn it, he couldn’t think of a thing to say. He’d accomplished his mission, and it had gone better than he’d hoped. He should be happy to leave, to get out of there and put it all behind him. But a strange sort of malaise afflicted him, left him sitting still like a wordless idiot.

“I suppose I should go,” he said at last, and stood up. “I just wanted you to know how I felt.”

“You left,” she offered unexpectedly. In a whisper, as if she hadn’t really meant to say it. Staring at the far wall, not at him.

For a second, he stopped breathing. He couldn’t take his eyes off her, and he willed her, commanded her in his mind, to look at him. Finally she did, her dark eyes, for an instant, vulnerable.

“Someone had to get the police,” he replied, his throat tight. A few seconds ticked by before he continued, against his will, “You were busy with my brother.”

She rose, her cheeks pink. “He’d been hurt.”

Adam took a step closer, his eyes never leaving hers. A strange sort of fever had simmered between them from the moment they had met, he realized—he’d known that, even when he wouldn’t admit it to himself, even when he didn’t understand it. He’d feared losing it—losing her; that much was sure. That was why he was here. And now, like a gift, their tenuous connection was back. It was back, with a jolt of energy that was akin to a lightning strike. He had no words, nor even thoughts. He didn’t need them. He reached down to grasp her shoulders, to pull her to him and kiss her … deeply, thoroughly, passionately, his senses spinning on the edge of control.

In the heat of the moment, it was as if they had an unspoken language that only the two of them comprehended. His kiss was not for the faint hearted; he stole her breath, but he didn’t have to steal her will. She gave that freely. And finally, their faces flushed and their eyes intimate, she took his hand and led him back to the entrance hall, and up the stairs.


Hours later, as the shadows of twilight lengthened in the garden, Adam watched the light fading on the dragon fountain. It had been an incredible afternoon. For the first time, the burdens of the past few days were gone, and a delicious sense of peace rose in him. The fierce longing for something he couldn’t quite identify—rationality? kindness? love?—had been expressed and satisfied. In those far corners of his mind, he was not alone.

Their first coupling had not been about love. It had been a release—from the tension and anger of the past days. After that had come the gentleness of caring, the exploration of that intangible link which had joined them from the beginning. The memory of what had passed between them swirled in his head like a beautiful dream.  

A flash of gold in the dying light caught his attention, and he smiled faintly at one last shaft of sunlight on the rearing dragon. In minutes, the lavender of twilight would create an entirely new world. Deep within him, he felt the question that he’d asked all of his life—the one that all the wisdom of adulthood could not answer. How could beauty—such as the sunlight, and the clean mountain air of the Ponderosa, and Li Ming—exist right next to ugliness like Luke Parton, and the brutal street toughs of the Barbary Coast, and the ignorant, selfish people he met so often? How?

He felt her eyes on him then and turned slowly, a smile dawning on his lips and warming his face.

“That’s quite a sight,” Li Ming said wryly, eyeing the blue silk lap robe he’d knotted around his waist. His shoulders and chest were bare; the rich bolt of cloth draped to the floor.

He chuckled. It had been particularly delightful to discover that she had not only courage, brains and beauty, but a sense of humor as well. “It’s your lap robe,” he deadpanned, and crossed the room to the big bed. She lay propped against a mountain of pillows, the fine linen sheet drawn up over her breasts, her long black hair spilling over her shoulders. He sat down on the edge of the coverlet, facing her, and lifted her hand to his lips.

“Where did you come from?” he murmured.

She ran a fingertip over his lips. “You mean, in your life.”

“I mean I want to know more about you.”

“You know everything important, Adam Cartwright—you have from the beginning.”

Adam nodded. “We knew each other so soon after we met,” he agreed, an echo of perplexity in his voice.

“I am honored.”

“As am I.” He kissed her palm, but his eyes never left hers. “Now tell me more.”

She glanced away, and he let the silence lengthen, knowing that she was not shutting him out, but just finding a place to start.

“I could see so much of who you are by watching you with your father,” she finally said. “There is a bond between you.”

He nodded.

“There is between my father and me too.”

“Suey Lai Chang said that you are here on behalf of your father.”

“It is true. That is not widely known, however. It is not safe.”

“Are you in danger?”

“No …” Her eyes clouded. “No, my father would be.”

“He’s a general?”

“Yes. A very powerful one. Well known, even beyond his own region. That is why I do not use my family name—I must see that nothing I do here can be traced to him.” Again he had to wait for her to go on, and at last she did. “You have heard of the civil uprisings in China—how dangerous and how difficult it is to live there now.”

“Yes. That’s why so many Chinese come here.”

She nodded. “Some of the worst bloodshed has gone on in the area where I grew up.” She sighed resignedly. “As often happens when a struggle goes on for so long, there is much blame on either side. A few years ago, my father began a secret campaign. He believes that no matter how this ends, people of great value are being lost on both sides. Philosophers, poets, musicians, those who study the sciences … they are dragged into the fighting and their talents are wasted, or else they are persecuted by one side or the other.”

Adam kissed her hand and held it in both of his.

“In spite of what you might think with all the Chinese you see here in California, it is difficult to convince a Chinese to leave his homeland. But some see, as my father does, that what they have to contribute must be nurtured, and if that cannot happen in China, then it must happen elsewhere.”

“You bring them here?”

Her tongue darted on dry lips. “In greatest secrecy. Most would not be allowed to leave, and my father could be executed for helping them. And yet, he sends them—and their families, of course. It is up to me to see that they disappear into Chinese society here, or to help them on to France; many go there.”

“And you’ll do this as long as your father needs you?”

“Yes. You would too, Adam. You see, it is not just for him.” He watched her blink away tears. “I know—I know that unless he comes here, I will never see him again … and he will never leave his home.” She sighed. “I do it because he wants me to, and because it is right.”

“Right …” Adam mused.

“You are acquainted with it—I know you are. I knew it the day you arrived, whether or not I would admit it to myself.”

“Yes, I am acquainted with the concept,” he replied dryly, and smiled. “I knew a lot that day that I wasn’t admitting to myself, either.” He reached out to trace her cheek with a fingertip, erasing a tear that had escaped down her cheek. A quirky little grin played on his lips. “Where did the reputation as a house of pleasure come from?”

“You know what it is like when there is something people can’t explain. My neighbors had to find some reason for the strange lady with the big house. It was a plausible story that afforded me privacy, so I didn’t care—until you came.”

“You must admit, Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins are a unique touch,” he teased her.

“Quite. And four dragons for four men. … None of it is true. I don’t even know those men, although Edwin Crocker, Charles’ brother, is a friend of my father’s. He is my protector on the rare occasions that City Hall becomes curious. But my dragons … my dragons are far more important than four railroad barons.”

“And what do they signify?”

“Patience … my Adam.” She extended one hand to play idly in the hair at his temple, her silence telling him that she had disclosed all she intended to for the time being.

“I’m a very patient man,” he assured her, but at the intimacy of her touch, his heart began to hammer in his chest and his interest in dragons diminished markedly. He reached down to unfasten the knot of blue silk at his waist. “In fact, right at this moment, I can’t imagine why we’re talking about railroad barons …”

“Or illicit houses of women?”  

He leaned forward, every vestige of humor fading from his face as his eyes turned smoky with desire. “There will never … ever … be anything even remotely illicit about you,” he said hoarsely. 

She caught her breath, her dark eyes wide with emotion. And then the fine French sheet fell away from her, and he took her in his arms.   


Much later, they lay beside each other and watched as flames danced in the fireplace. When the evening chill had invaded the room, Adam had lit the fire which had been laid on the hearth, and Lu had brought them dinner. They had eaten in the glow from the flames, Li Ming in a dressing gown and he in his lap robe. Then they had returned to bed, simply to hold each other. The serenity was almost more than he could bear.

“You will not always remain in the Nevada Territory, will you?” Li Ming murmured unexpectedly, her breath a warm tickle against his chest.

Adam’s brows furrowed in surprise. “What makes you say that?”

She pushed herself up to stare into his eyes. “No reason. It’s just what I think … that you want to see other places … other peoples … other cultures.”

He had thought he’d been relaxed before. Now, suddenly, it seemed as if his final barrier had fallen. A film of moisture threatened his eyes. He had to look away, but his hand tightened on her shoulder.

“I know you went away once before—to school. Joe told me. But you came back.”

“My father needed me.”

She kissed his cheek. “I know. Your brothers were younger. You wouldn’t take any more time away. … But it’s different now.”

“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I’m not used to the idea yet—but yes, I’m going to travel. Sometime. Soon, probably … ”

“You’ll come back, though, won’t you?”

Adam nodded. “Home is where I belong … ultimately. It’s where my father and brothers are.” He shifted, gently sliding her off his chest and turning toward her, so that they lay very close, face-to-face. He wound his fingers into a long, stray lock of her hair and drew it back from her cheek. “You’re clairvoyant,” he said softly. “Sometimes I’m not sure enough what I want.”


She smiled at him, her eyes warm and deep in the firelight. “Oh, I think you are. Perhaps it seems strange to you … doing something like that just for yourself.”


“It does, a little.” Then he dropped his gaze a little sheepishly, his cheeks heated by more than the fire. “I know better … I know the Ponderosa will run fine without me. Hoss and Joe can do the job.”


Li Ming snuggled in closer and ran her fingertip along the line of his brow and over his ear. “If you grow faint of heart, I shall send out my dragons.”


He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her flush against him and burying his face in her hair, nuzzling her neck. “You were going to tell me more about those dragons.”


“M’m … ah … yes …” She arched into him, answering his kiss. “Soon …”






The sky had turned grey when Adam awakened. Across the room, the fire had died. It was utterly silent, except for the gentle, rhythmic sound of Li Ming’s breathing. He lay still, just enjoying it, and the warmth beneath the silken comforter. Against him, the feel of her body was exquisite … and the simple knowledge of her being, right there beside him, was too precious to believe. He could almost feel the seconds, and then the minutes, ticking by. The grey faded, eventually to be overtaken by a petal pink that made him wish he had dozens of roses to present to her. She moaned softly in her sleep.


At last, as the morning sky brightened with gold, he slipped out of bed, ridiculously gratified that she whimpered and clutched his pillow to her, but glad that her eyes remained closed. He tried not to think as he fastened his shirt, pulled on his pants, struggled into his socks and boots. He was buttoning his vest when he realized that she lay awake, watching him. Neither of them spoke. He put on his jacket and went to sit beside her on the bed.


“I don’t know what to say,” he confessed.


She sat up and shook her head, her long black hair waving gracefully. “I don’t either.”


He chuckled. “Perhaps you could tell me about those dragons.”


She smiled back, trying to numb the pain of separation. “Ah, yes …”


“Suey Lai Chang says that in Chinese lore, they’re benevolent beings.”


“Very benevolent—like angels. They signify greatness, goodness … blessings.” She clasped his hand in both of hers and held it to her. “Go with my dragons, Adam Cartwright. They will protect you.”


“In many ways, Li Ming, just the thought of you protects me.”

She nodded, her eyes alive with understanding. “As the thought of you will watch over me and give me strength.” She dropped her gaze to his hand, parting his fingers and stroking them gently. “There are nine Chinese dragons … my favorite is the ninth—the Dragon King. He is actually four separate dragons, and each reigns over one of the four seas—the east, the west, the north and the south, so that wherever you go, you are always in their realm.” She looked up again, straight into his eyes. “They are life, Adam. You will always be safe. Live your life.”

 Adam reached out for her, drawing her to him, holding her tightly before he brushed a kiss across her cheek. “Who are you, Li Ming?” he whispered huskily.

 "Just someone you met, my Adam,” she murmured. “Someone I hope you will meet again.”


Chapter Sixteen 


The sun was high by the time the paddle wheeler left the Central Wharf for Sacramento. Ben, on the second level, watched the skyline of San Francisco recede across the water. He chuckled. On the deck below, Joe was already engaged in conversation with a saucy-looking young blonde whose mother hovered so close that it would be only a matter of time before his son moved on. Probably, Ben judged, to a slender redhead who sighed with boredom at the incessant chatter of what looked like an elderly aunt.

Beside him, his middle son stared at the city they were leaving, a little quiet. Hoss had returned the evening before flushed with pleasure. It turned out he’d spent the afternoon with Miss Eliza—what was her last name? Ben wasn’t sure he’d been told. Anyhow, Miss Eliza appeared to be fully aware of Hoss’ value as a person and a man, and that gave her exalted standing in a father’s eyes.

“Pa, I been thinkin’.” Hoss turned away from the view.

Ben roused from his reverie, and winced at the pain in his shoulder which told him that he should move more carefully. “What about, son?”

“’Bout how we’re over here in San Francisco. Big city, y’know … it’s supposed to be more civilized ’n we are back in Virginia City … safer, you’d figure.”

Ben’s brows rose with interest, but he said nothing.

“Well, it ain’t. An’ it wasn’t just the other night, with the killin’. We been here, what, a week? In three-four days, we got in more fights than we get into at home in a month—six months!”

“Hoss, you know, it’s not the place that’s dangerous … it’s the people.”

“I reckon. I just figured we had more rambunctious people over in Nevada. I mean, that’s what most people’d say.”

“Then I guess most people’d be wrong, wouldn’t they?”

“Looks like it.”

Ben smiled faintly, and leaned on the railing as his thoughts circled in his mind. Already Hoss and Joe were putting the trauma of the past week behind them—and for that, he knew a visceral relief. The way they lived, it just wasn’t helpful to dwell on things like what had happened to them in San Francisco.

Hoss stepped back and adjusted his hat. “Think I’ll go downstairs and see if Joe needs any help with that lil’ blonde.”

Ben chuckled and ran a hand carelessly over his son’s shoulder. “Give him a run for his money.” But when Hoss had walked away, he turned troubled eyes toward Adam, who lounged against the rail, a little farther toward the bow. His oldest son had not come home until dawn. No one had been up yet, and he hadn’t let Adam know that he was lying awake already. There had been no time—or privacy—to say anything since then, if indeed there was anything to say. He wondered where his son had been, but he shied away from asking. And now … now Adam just stared out over the water, lost, as he often was, in his own thoughts.

“Be good to get home,” Ben offered, and moved closer.

Adam glanced briefly at his father, and then back out over the bay. “Yeah.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s been one of our better trips.” Adam said nothing, and Ben, watching the unchanging expression on his son’s face, was surprised into blurting, “Well, you don’t think it has, do you? Your brother was kidnapped, we were nearly—”

“No, Pa, I know it hasn’t been easy.”

Ben swallowed his irritation. “Sometimes I don’t understand you.”

“And sometimes you do.”

Ben shot his son a piercing look, only to dissolve into a smile at the amusement in Adam’s eyes. Touched, he sighed contentedly, but managed to grouse, “Only you could find something to appreciate in the past few days!”

“Always something to learn, Pa. You taught me that.”

A comfortable silence fell between them as they watched the water sliding by and felt the fresh, clean wind on their faces. The paddle wheeler churned steadily away from Yerba Buena Cove and across the east end of the bay, bound for the delta and the river inland. Surreptitiously, Ben let his eyes travel back to his son, studying Adam’s profile against the bright sky, and then, curious, he followed his son’s thoughtful gaze. Across the bay was the narrow opening to the Pacific that San Franciscans called the Golden Gate.

“Passage to unknown destinations,” he said softly, “far away and fascinating.”

“That it is,” Adam agreed. He glanced down at his hands, folded before him, worked-hardened and casual in their strength … and yet gentle—he hoped gentle. A voice whispered in his mind. “Don’t worry, my Adam. When you leave, it will be just your first step on the journey back to them.”


The End 

Historical Notes 

In the early 1860s, San Francisco was a unique locale—a growing, prosperous and relatively safe city, wrapped around a little den of sin known as the Barbary Coast. “The Coast” was a downtown area bounded, roughly, by Montgomery, Stockton, Washington and Broadway. Its lifestyle was colorful, dangerous and often disgusting; periodically it was cleaned up, but often, as in this story, it was extremely hazardous. Although it would last as an area of decadent entertainment until about 1917, by the middle 1860s it had become fairly civilized. And as for the city of San Francisco ~ by the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, travel writers were referring to it as second only to New York among American cities. 

Of all the Barbary Coast entertainment establishments mentioned here, only the Bella Union actually existed. From its inception in 1849 until its demise in the fire of 1906, it was regarded as the most popular “resort” there, and counted among its many headliners both Adah Isaacs Menken and Lotta Crabtree. It was not crooked or dangerous, as many of its neighbors were, and in the early 1860s, it was as portrayed here. All the other melodeons, concert saloons, groggeries, wine and beer dens, and opium dens are fictional, but they and what went on in them are based on fact. My greatest departure was that most of the Barbary Coast women are portrayed here as working independently; historically, many were managed by pimp-like men who sat in the saloons and secured “work” for them at a price. 

The What Cheer House, which operated from 1852 until it too was destroyed in the fire of 1906, was one of the most famous of the city’s hotels. In reality, since it catered to farmers and miners, the rooms were probably not as fancy as the one in “San Francisco Holiday,” which I had in mind as a prototype for the Cartwrights’ suite. Otherwise, however, it was as portrayed here. It boasted public baths in its basement, a free library, a free boot black, and a dining room with the city’s first a la carte meals. (It also was for men only and alcohol was prohibited on the premises, but it survived anyway.) For visitors to San Francisco, its location at the southwest corner of Sacramento and Leidesdorff Streets is now marked by an historical plaque. 

DuPont Street, the main artery of Chinatown, is today’s Grant Avenue.  

The Devil’s Kitchen, also known as the Palace Hotel, existed, pretty much as depicted here.    

I cheated on the tong. The Suey Sing tong did in fact exist—it and (don’t laugh) the Hop Sing tong were among the earliest Chinese associations founded in California, and at times they were the most powerful. However, their influence in San Francisco’s Chinatown did not become extensive until the late 1860s, not early in the decade, as portrayed here. 

Mayor Henry Frederick Teschemacher was a real person; the depiction of him here is fictional. 


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