Adam Cartwright had problem.
Well, two problems actually. And they were looking up at him with the wide-eyed trust of frightened little brothers. He tried to remain calm as an older brother should, but his confidence was waning rapidly. How had things gone wrong so quickly? It had only been a few hours since his father had left him in charge! But he had really done it now, and his eighteen year old mind was torturing him with the consequences.
He had lost the Ponderosa.
Well, not ALL of it of course. But enough that Pa would be sure to notice. He rubbed at his eyes and wished fervently that he hadn't begged for this responsibility. He looked at his brothers again and sighed. It really HAD been a beautiful day...
Morning hadn't even broken when he got up and hurried through his chores. The men greeted him with respect and he puffed out his chest at his new importance. Whistling happily, he heaved a bale of hay to the top of the stack and at first didn't realize that the foreman was speaking to him.
"Mr. Cartwright?" he was saying. "I think I'll take some of the men to check the herd in the north pasture. Shouldn't take but a few hours."
Adam nodded. "Good," he said. "Have a look at the fence-line too. Probably gonna need tending soon."
"Yes sir, Boss," the foreman acknowledged and left to gather his men. Adam smiled to himself at his unquestioned authority and went back to stacking hay.
"Adam! Adam!" six year old Joe called as he raced into the barn and jumped up on the lowest bale of hay. "Wanna go fishin'?"
Adam grinned. "Not today, little buddy," he said. "I've got to tend the ranch."
Joe's face fell and Adam reached out to help him off the hay. "Hey! Did you ask Hoss? I bet he'd take you."
Joe brightened a little. "OK," he said, dragging his toes in the sand. "Are you SURE you can't come?"
Adam nodded. "I'm sure," he said and watched Joe run off to find Hoss. "But do your chores first!" he called as an afterthought. He stood a moment in the empty barn and began to chuckle about how very easy it was to be grown-up.
His work went quickly and in less than an hour he headed back to the house to wash up. He found Hoss at the table hungrily spooning eggs into his mouth.
Joe was fidgeting on the couch, his fishing pole in hand and a filthy can of worms on the coffee table. Some of them had already wiggled free and were leaving slimy trails on the once-clean surface of the table. Adam shook his head and turned to Hoss.
"I thought you already had breakfast, brother," he grinned.
"Number two son very hungry growing boy!" Hop Sing answered for him as he busied himself with clearing the table.
Hoss grinned unashamedly. "I helped Hop Sing gather the eggs and he let me eat one of every three!" he said.
Adam laughed. "Well I hope the hens can keep up with you!"
"Don't you worry none about that!" Hoss declared as he scraped his plate clean.”I done already fed them extra corn!"
Adam glanced at Hop Sing. "What's all this?" he asked. "I was under the impression that nobody messed with Hop Sing's chickens!"
"Oh that ok, Mr. Adam!" the cook assured him. "Extra food make chickens fat and lazy--easier for Hop Sing to catch!"
Adam laughed and went to sit on the arm of the sofa beside Joe. "Well, what did he say?" he whispered, pointing at Hoss.
Joe sighed and snagged one of the worms that was oozing over the edge of the table. "He says he's gotta build up his strength first," he mumbled.
Adam grinned and tousled Joe's hair. "Don't worry," he said. "He eats a lot but it never takes him long." He eyed the worm that wiggled between Joe's dirty fingers and cleared his throat. "Now let's get these worms picked up before Pa finds one in his pipe or something."
Joe giggled and started stuffing worms in the can as fast as he could. His efforts left muddy fingerprints all along the tabletop.
"I'm ready, Little Joe," Hoss called as he gathered his fishing pole from the corner.
Joe jumped up excitedly, nearly upsetting the worm can in the process. Adam reached out to steady it as Joe ran toward the door before Hoss could change his mind.
Hoss grinned as he took the can from Adam and gathered up the poles.
"Hoss," Adam said. "I've got to go into town to collect the payroll. Will you be ok looking after him for a few hours?"
Hoss waved his concern away. "Ah, no trouble at all," he assured him, and happily followed Joe out the door.
Adam stood a moment, remembering his carefree days as a child. Then with an air of importance, he picked up his gun belt and hat and headed out to the barn.
He brushed and saddled his favorite mare--taking time to make her look just right--and laughed aloud when her whiskery muzzle tickled his neck. She was a tall chestnut with a flaming red mane and tail, and her near foreleg was white from the hock down. A tiny snip of white started between her eyes, growing wider as it traveled downward, and finally whitewashed her nose completely. Adam thought she was the most beautiful horse on the ranch, and Pa had promised that he could breed her come Spring. The foal would be his to keep and break all by himself! He gave the mare a final pat and swung up in the saddle.
"Come on Lady," he said. "Let's get to work."
He took the long way to town, giving Lady a good run along the way. The day was warm but not overly so, and a gentle breeze was stirring the mare's forelock cockeyed over one velvet ear. Adam reached out to smooth it down and laughed when it blew right back up again. Turning in the saddle he spied the cobalt blue of the lake peeking from between the trees, and had to resist the urge to go for a swim. Being grown up did have its limitations. He sighed and kicked his horse forward, away from the cool temptation.
Some time later he rode into the rough and ready town of Virginia City. It wasn't that long ago that he had had to be escorted by his father, who still hadn't gotten used to his eldest son coming to the mining town alone. Small houses and dingy shacks were scattered everywhere, built in no certain arrangement, and quickly filled by the droves that sought to strike it rich.
Adam swerved his horse to avoid a drunken miner and his scantily clad female companion--and shook his head at the spectacle. Across the street two men were shooting their guns in the air in threat or celebration--it was hard to tell which amid the general chaos of main street. Adam directed his horse toward the tiny building currently serving as a bank, and dismounted into the melee.
He took off his hat as he stepped into the dimly lit interior and strode purposely toward the caged window of the attendant.
The man shook his head furiously when he saw him and ducked out of sight.
Adam peered over the counter at the frightened little man.
"Henry?" he asked. "You feeling ok?"
The man mopped at his brow with his handkerchief and slowly rose to his feet.
"Oh, it's you, Adam," he sighed with relief. "I thought you might be the robbers coming back."
"Robbers?" Adam asked, feeling suddenly queasy at the news.
"Uh, uh," Henry confirmed, dabbing at his face again. "There was three of 'em. Cleaned out the whole bank!" He fingered an empty breast pocket. "They even took my new watch!"
Adam stared at him and wished he didn't have to be grown up anymore. "Did you say they took ALL the money, Henry?"
"Every red cent, Adam," the man assured him, his face twisting into a tortured grimace. "I'm afraid we might have a riot when the town finds out!"
Adam hooked his thumbs into his belt and tried to maintain an air of calm amid his growing panic. The youthful rise in his voice gave him away.
"But...the payroll!" he stammered. "I've got men waiting for their wages!"
Henry gave him an understanding look.
"They'll just have to wait until the sheriff catches them no-goods," he said resignedly and sunk into a chair. "Looks like we'll all be waitin'."
Adam leaned heavily on the counter and rubbed a hand across his face. "Oh, this is bad..." he mumbled.
"You better bet it's bad!" Henry agreed, suddenly leaping up and running around the counter to pull the shades at the windows.
"You'd better go! I've got to lock up...QUICK!"
Adam turned and started back toward the door. Suddenly his feet felt extra big and his gunbelt hung unnecessarily heavy at his hips. Even his hat seemed to descend across his brow as if his head had suddenly shrunk an inch or two. If this was being grown up he really, really wished he had gone fishing instead.
He left Henry to guard the bank from potential rioters, and stepped back into the frenzy of main street. A drunken passerby barreled into him, nearly knocking him off his feet and forcing him to grab onto the hitching rail to maintain his balance. The sudden movement frightened his horse and she reared up and snapped the tied reins. Adam lurched forward, grabbing awkwardly for the bridle, and tripped over the drunk who had fallen into a stupor. With a thud he landed face first in the muddy street and sent his frightened horse galloping for home. Cautiously he got to his feet, attempting to dust the goo from his clothes, and remembering too late that young men of eighteen shouldn't cry. He bit his lip angrily and wiped at his watery eyes, leaving grit and dirt all over his youthful face. Finally giving up, he stuffed his filthy hands into his pockets, kicked angrily at an empty whiskey bottle, and shuffled down the street toward the livery stable.
It was well after lunch time when he rode slowly into the front yard. The aging nag he had rented exhaled thankfully when he dismounted, and he dropped down beside her at the water trough and tried to wash away the caked on mud. A flash of silver caught his eye and he leaned close to peer into the murky water. Sunlight played on the flitting images and he counted 10..11..12 lively...FISH! He smiled in spite of himself and turned just as Joe flew into his arms.
"We been fishin'!" he declared proudly.
"I can see that!" Adam laughed. "Where's Hoss?"
"In the house," Joe said. "He's hungry."
"What's new?" Adam laughed. He swung Joe up to his shoulders and walked with him back to the house. He found Hoss sitting on the coffee table, meticulously peeling an orange and chewing each piece with a look of distasteful resignation. Adam set Joe down and went to inspect the pile of peelings and the empty fruit bowl. He studied his brother curiously.
"I thought you didn't like fruit," he said.
"I don't," Hoss declared, swallowing laboriously. "But I'm powerful hungry!"
Adam shrugged in confusion. "Didn't Hop Sing make you lunch?" he asked.
"If he did, he done took it with him," Hoss moaned. "I can't find him no where!"
"He DISAPPEARED!" Little Joe offered.
Adam covered his eyes and took a deep breath. The missing cook would have to wait; he couldn't let his brother starve, could he?
"Well, why don't you just eat the fish you caught?" he suggested.
Hoss looked up with a horrified expression. "Them's still got the HEADS on, Adam!" he wailed.
Adam sunk into a chair and rubbed at his eyes until he thought they might fall out.
"Hoss...you've eaten fish before..."
The big boy hung his head. "I know," he sighed. "But Pa always did the preparin'."
He shrugged hopelessly. "Besides, Little Joe done already named 'em."
Adam leaned his head back on the chair and counted slowly to ten.
"Listen," he said. "I've got some real important business to take care of. It won't take long, and then I'll make you something to eat, ok?"
Hoss nodded plaintively and turned his attention back to the orange, tearing each section into smaller sections and laying the pieces in a line on the table. Then with delicate precision, he picked up the first morsel and began to chew it slowly, counting each bite and hoping to make the tidbits last until Adam returned.
Striding purposely toward the corrals, Adam slowed his breathing and tried to make his expression as calm as possible.
Variations of his forthcoming conversation rattled distractively in hishead:
'Men, I've got bad news. You won't be paid this month.'
'I'm sorry to inform you that your pay's been stolen.'
'Would you mind working for free until I find your money?'
His walk slowed noticeably as he got closer to the gathered hands who were just finishing up some odd jobs and waiting anxiously for their wages. They grinned openly when they saw him.
"There's the man of the hour!" someone shouted. "Virginia City here we come!"
Adam paused and swallowed nervously. "Um..er..um...." he stuttered.
"What's the matter, Boss?"
Adam blushed at the title, not feeling like anyone's boss at the moment, and tried to remember his rehearsed speech.
"There's...a little problem fellas," he choked.
The men stopped what they were doing and glanced at one another. "With our money?" someone asked.
Adam wished he could be anywhere else right now. "Well...yes...you see..."
"All I see is no wages for my hard work!" a big man complained. "No wages, no more work! I'll be in town!"
The others mumbled consent and began to collect their gear and saddle their horses.
Suddenly the foreman and his men galloped into the yard.
"Hey, Adam!" the foreman called." Them cattle in the north pasture done disappeared! We looked all morning and nary a trace!" He glanced around suspiciously as the men began to mount up. "Where's everybody going?"
"Seems our money's gone missing too!" came the answer.
"That so?" the foreman drawled, looking Adam up and down. Finally he shrugged and slowly backed his horse away. "Sorry Adam, but me and the boys can't work for free. Ya' understand?"
"But Vince!" Adam cried, trying to take hold of the horse's bridle. But the man pulled the horse around out of his reach.
"Sorry son," he called as he led the men away. "When you locate the money, you know where to find us."
Adam stood staring after them, frustration and fear vying for his attention. How was he going to run the ranch all by himself?
He was distracted by a small hand tugging at his clothes. He looked down into Joe's pouting face--his quivering lower lip stuck out in a vain attempt to maintain control.
"What's the matter, little buddy?" he sighed. "Has Hoss started eating your egg collection?"
"N...n....n...o," Joe moaned. "He tried to get the real thing..."
Adam sunk down on a pile of logs and pulled Little Joe up beside him. "What are you talking about?" he questioned. "Where did Hoss go?"
Joe rubbed his fists into his eyes and sniffled loudly. "He said he was gonna waste away waitin' on you, so's he went out to the henhouse to talk the chickens into layin' more..."
Adam grinned ruefully. "Then what's the problem?" he asked. "Except Hoss's empty belly?"
Joe's breath caught on a sob and a tear started to inch down his cheek. "He...he..."he paused and wiped the tear away. "Are you gonna be mad?"
Adam shook his head impatiently. "No."
"Are ya gonna holler?"
"Are ya gonna tell Pa?"
Adam covered his eyes and wished this day would hurry up and end. "Joe, where did Hoss go and what did he do?"
Little Joe stood up and retreated just out of Adam's reach. "He lost all the chickens," he murmured.
Adam stared at him in total disbelief. This was NOT happening...
Just then Hoss appeared from the side of the house, a fistful of tail feathers in one meaty hand and a frayed rope in the other. He scrunched his face into a piteous scowl and wiped his nose with one dirty arm.
"Oh...h...h...hi, Adam," he blubbered and collapsed onto the edge of the water trough, tossing the rope and feathers into a pile at his feet. A collection of downy feathers clung to his fingers tenaciously and he dipped his hand in the water to try to loosen them. The movement of the tiny feathers started a feeding-frenzy among the fish, and they swished and nipped eagerly.
"Hey! Dadburnit!" he cried, jerking his hand from the water. Finding no serious injury he slumped again into a pitiful lump and stared resolutely at the ground. From the corner of his eye he saw Adam approaching impatiently and blurted out his defense.
"I didn't mean to--honest!"
Adam took a deep breath, laid one hand on the water pump, the other on Hoss's shoulder, and stared real hard at his over-sized brother.
"What...did...you...do?" he enunciated slowly.
"Ah, dadburnit, Adam, I was hungry!" Hoss confessed. "And I went to check for more eggs."
"And...?" Adam prompted.
Hoss scooted the piece of rope around with his toe. "And Blacky followed me..."
Hoss nodded. "He done broke his rope again. But he didn't mean no harm! He just wanted someone to play with!"
Adam sunk down on the trough beside his brother. "He didn't...did he?"
"Yep," Hoss murmured. "Chased 'em clear to the next farm by now, probably. Little Joe hung onto his rope for a good spell, but...well..." He glanced apologetically at his little brother. "There really OUGHTN'T be a tree that close to the henhouse!"
Adam shook his head hopelessly. At least he hadn't lost any Cartwrights!
The younger brothers shuffled nervously during Adam's long silence, exchanging glances of doom. Finally Little Joe screwed up his courage and tapped Adam tentatively on the back.
"You gonna holler now?" he asked in a tiny voice.
Adam slumped in his chair and glowered at his brothers playing checkers across the room. "How can you play games at a time like this?" he mumbled sourly.
"It helps me relax," Hoss mumbled back, glancing sideways at his big brother. "Besides,I figured you was doin' enough worryin' for the three of us."
Joe giggled and took advantage of Hoss's momentary distraction to jump three of his pieces--not necessarily in accordance with the rules.
"Crown me!" he cried jubilantly.
Hoss glared at the board and at Little Joe. "I'd LIKE to crown you!" he muttered, trying to remember where the pieces had been before.
Adam rose suddenly and stalked toward Ben's desk, glowering at the mess of papers there and mumbling under his breath. Hoss grinned and poked Joe in the ribs.
"I think I liked him better when he was hollerin'," he whispered.
Joe tried hard not to laugh out loud, and failing that, went to pat Adam on the back.
"It's ok, Adam," he said with childish simplicity. "Tomorrow Pa will come home and fix everything."
Adam sighed and sunk down on the edge of the desk. "That's what worries me!" he grumbled miserably.
Little Joe regarded his brother who was usually so calm and annoyingly self-confident, and began to understand the enormity of their problem.
"We can help!" he volunteered bravely. "Right, Hoss?"
Hoss's face was creased with worry, but he was not about to be out-done by his baby brother. He nodded with a pale semblance of conviction. "Right!" And nodded emphatically.
Adam sat a moment longer wallowing in pity, then looked up at his brothers who were waiting for him to make the first move. He took a deep breath and stood up, hoping he looked more confident that way.
"Right," he said--none too bravely. "First we've got to get the men back." He stood up tall and tried to pump some courage into his youthful body.
"I'll go to town and get them. Why don't you two look around here and see if you can find the chickens?"
"Ok," Hoss answered with forced enthusiasm. "Maybe they left a trail of eggs to follow..."
Adam grinned a little and hurried out the door before he could talk himself out of going.
He strode purposely into the Bucket Of Blood and glanced around the crowded saloon. Pa would probably kill him if he knew he was here, but it couldn't be helped. He had to find the men.
A rowdy poker game was in session in the corner and Adam recognized most of the men as Ponderosa hands. Currently there was a heated argument over a pile of money that was being pulled this way and that across the table. Adam approached the mob and shoved a man out of his seat so he could stand on it.
"Ok, men!" he shouted from his pedestal. "You've had your fun--now I'm taking you back! I promise you WILL get paid one way or the other--and maybe a little bonus for waiting. But you have to stick it out with us or you can pack up and leave now! So do you work for the Ponderosa or don't you?"
The men were silent a moment, not so much because of Adam's speech, but because of the angry poker player who stood behind him with one hand on the money and the other holding a gun. Adam was looking only forward and was gratified by their sheepish expressions--imagining that he was the cause.
"Ya know, men," the foreman said slowly while keeping his eye on the loaded pistol. "Adam's right--we oughta be gettin' back to the ranch..."
There were nods and murmurs of consent and the men began to file hurriedly away. One big man at last disengaged the saloon girl who was intertwined around his neck, and shoved her toward Adam.
"Watch after Sylvie for me, will ya?" he stammered as he beat a hasty retreat after his friends. The young lady bumped roughly into Adam's knees, reflexively throwing her arms around him and grabbing onto the steadying force of his backside. He teetered on the chair, desperately trying to disengage her hands and blushing at the proximity of her face to the convenient cushion just below his belt. The other patrons of the crowded bar began to laugh gleefully at his predicament, and the man behind him took advantage of the situation by stuffing his pockets and running. Adam tried to get down off the chair, but slipped in Sylvie's tight grip and fell in a heap on top of her. The laughter rose appreciatively and his blush deepened in proportion. It didn't help that his body was now betraying him with unbidden --and quite obvious--reactions. He rolled away from her, but she clung to his neck and kissed him wetly on the mouth.
"You're cute!" she declared, now sitting on top of him, her flimsy skirt not quite hiding his embarrassment. He squirmed uncomfortably and closed his eyes. Was this day ever going to end?
Suddenly a familiar voice broke through the rising merriment of the room and made him want to keep his eyes shut forever.
"Why, Adam Cartwright!" Sheriff Coffee declared. "If your Pa could see you now! Why, it would just break his heart after the good and proper upbringing he's given you!"
Adam thought that if he blushed anymore, his face might catch fire.
"It's not what it looks like!" he stammered from his rather compromising position.
The sheriff shook his head woefully and ignored his defense. "You were always such a good boy..." he reminisced. "Helpful...honest...upright... Never thought I'd see the day that Adam Cartwright was frolicking on the floor with a loose woman!!"
Sylvie stopped stroking Adam's hair and jumped up with a flourish. "Hey!" she cried indignantly.
Adam scrambled to his feet while he had the chance. "I wasn't frolicking!" he insisted, and tried to stuff his escaping shirttails back into his pants.
Sylvie tried to help him but only succeeded in loosening more of it. He sighed pathetically and slapped her hands away, hanging his head and waiting for Roy to pronounce his fate. "I wasn't..."he mumbled lamely.
Roy let out his breath slowly and folded his arms in front of him. "Now son," he said. "I realize you're growing up--- and I always knew I'd have my hands full when the Cartwright boys got old enough to notice girls---and it's a perfectly understandable reaction to a pretty young thing with almost no clothes on---! But Adam, there's a time and place for everything!!!"
Adam again disengaged Sylvie from his neck and pointed at the over-turned chair.
"But...but...I just fell off the chair, Roy!" he cried.
The sheriff shook his head sadly. "Jumpin' up on chairs with saloon girls!" he chided disappointedly and looked Adam up and down. "Been drinkin' too?"
Adam picked up his hat from the floor and pushed it down over his tousled hair. Then giving up his fight with Sylvie, he draped an arm over her shoulders and sighed deeply. "The way this day is going," he drawled, "that's not a bad idea.”
Hoss came around the side of the house just as Joe appeared from the other side. Their dejected expressions spoke of their unsuccessful hunt.
"You didn't find nuthin' neither?" Hoss asked his little brother, eyeing the lump that Joe held wrapped in his shirttails. "Whatcha got there?"
Little Joe let go of his shirt and sent a barrage of vegetables tumbling to the ground. He smiled up at Hoss proudly.
"Taters?" Hoss grimaced, and toed a spindly tuber. "And carrots? I thought we was lookin' fer chickens!"
Little Joe grinned and squatted down to arrange the vegetables into neat rows. "I WAS lookin'!" he insisted. "And then I saw Hop Sing's garden and 'membered how he's always chasin' chichens outta there. So's I went in to look and..." He suddenly picked up a stringy carrot and looked at it forlornly.
"And what?" Hoss prompted.
Joe chewed on his lower lip and stared at the limp little carrot. "And...and..." He wiped his nose and looked up at Hoss. "I didn't want you to be hungry no more..."
Hoss stared ruefully at his baby brother. "Ah shucks,Joe," he said, eying the collection of roots and forcing a smile. "I suppose we could boil 'em up or somethin'..."
Little Joe brightened immediately and jumped up, kicking dirt all over his neat rows of vegetables. "I'll go get some water!" he volunteered.
Hoss grabbed a bucket from the porch and followed Joe to the well where he was already clambering up on the stones to reach the rope. He took hold of the end and noticed the frayed appearance.
"Hey!" he cried. "It's busted!"
"Let me see that," Hoss said, reaching out to study the broken rope.
"Hello?" a distant, hollow voice echoed.
The brothers took a step back and stared at each other.
"Did you hear that?" Joe asked in awe." The well said somethin'!"
"Nope!" Hoss answered shakily. "I didn't hear nuthin'! You must be imaginin' things, Little Joe!"
"Anybody there?" the voice called again.
They gaped at each other and stepped further away.
"My 'magination's gots good ears," Joe said quietly.
Hoss swallowed hard. "Yep," he said. "Mine too." Together they started to inch their way back toward the well. The sun was setting behind the tall trees, creating long shadows and adding to the general eerie appearance of the yard. Hoss motioned for Joe to stay back while he carefully raised himself up to peer over the well's stone edge. Squinting his eyes to see into the dim recesses, he suddenly let out his breath in relief.
"Hop Sing!" he cried. "Watcha doin' in there?"
They could hear the Asian cook splashing in the watery depths. "The rope break and I fall in!" he said. "Start to call for help, but something land on head. Go to sleep LONG time!"
Little Joe had pulled himself up on the edge and was trying to get a look into the well. Hoss put a hand out to steady him.
"Now don't YOU take a tumble in there!" he ordered, and received an irritated look from his little brother.
"What's that by your foot?" Joe called, ignoring Hoss's concern and leaning further into the hole. Hop Sing felt around at his feet until his fingers found the cloth of a heavy sack. He pulled it up and looked at it in the dim light.
"Money!" he cried. "Lots money!"
"That must have been what hit you on the head," Hoss deduced." Look! There's another bag behind you!"
Joe straddled the edge of the well and Hoss gritted his teeth worriedly, but refrained from holding him on.
"Why would anybody throw money down a well?" Joe asked in confusion.
"Must be stolen," Hoss answered and sighed, wishing Pa or Adam were here to deal with this. "Hop Sing, you'd better poke around down there some more and see what else you find. I'll go get a rope to get you out."
Joe hopped down to follow Hoss to the barn. He watched in silence as Hoss proceeded to saddle his pony and tie a long rope to the saddle horn.
"Hoss?" he finally asked in a small voice. "Do you think the bad men will come back?"
Hoss paused a moment, wanting to spare Joe any concern. "Yep," he said at last. "They're gonna be wantin' the money."
Joe shuffled his feet in the sand. "You gots a gun, don't ya?" he asked hopefully.
Hoss shook his head and sighed. "Ah, that's just a squirrel gun, Joe," he said. "Can't do much more than put holes in their hats!"
Joe fell silent and followed Hoss back to the well.
"Heads up, Hop Sing!" Hoss called as he tossed the end of the rope down into the hole. Then he boosted Joe up on the pony to get it moving, and slowly the cook was pulled to safety, a money bag in each hand.
"Wow! Look at all the money!" Little Joe cried, sliding down and running to take hold of the heavy bags.
"You ok, Hop Sing?" Hoss asked, looking at the drenched cook with concern.
Hop Sing nodded. "I alirght, Mister Hoss," he assured him. "Come! We need to hide money before bad men return!"
Exchanging worried glances, they gathered the money and followed the little cook into the house.
Adam trotted his horse slowly toward the Ponderosa. He was anxious to get home but reluctant to gallop in the fading light.
It had taken more than an hour to convince the sheriff that he had done nothing wrong--and that Pa REALLY didn't need to be informed--and now it was practically too late for traveling. He rested his arm across the saddlehorn and slumped deeper in the saddle. At least this day was almost over...
Suddenly something lurched from the trees beside the road and powerful arms pulled him from the saddle.
"What the...!" he started to yell before a beefy hand clamped down over his mouth and made speaking impossible.
"Adam, it's me!" his foreman whispered, loosening his hold a bit. "Sorry about that, but there's someone up the trail aways. Had us pinned down for hours!"
He slowly let go of Adam who scanned the shadowy woods on either side of the trail.
"Us?" he asked.
Vince nodded. "Me and the boys. I've got men stationed all around. Whoever's up there, they can't get away."
Suddenly a frightful rustling noise shook the trees in front of them, and Adam fell down behind a bush and shakily drew his gun. A movement to the left echoed the first, and the woods came alive with the scratching, rustling, swaying of branches.
All around the heads of the men poked cautiously out, peering into the gloom and trying to catch a glimpse of the intruders.
Behind them in the trees the horses stomped and whinnied nervously. Adam inched his hand out to snag a large stone and tossed it into a noisy clump of trees.
The world erupted with shrieks and motion and the surprised cries of the men. Some of them abandoned their posts completely and made a hurried dash toward the horses. Others opened fire franticly---the bullets whistling closer to their friends than near any supposed enemy. One man lurched off-balance against a tree, slapping the air around his head and nearly crying at the attacker that clung there.
"They've got me! They've got me!" he shouted as something beat a steady tempo against the sides of his head and pushed his hat down over his eyes.
He hollered again and continued his wild dance with something like daggers holding fast to his hair and scratching like needles at the back of his neck. The horses snorted and whinnied fearfully and the dusky woods was filled with the shouts of the men as they tried to calm them. Up ahead was the scuffling sound of another struggle and the yelp of a man as an intruder found its mark. Adam squinted his eyes at the dim mass confusion as men and other shapes ran to and fro from one clump of trees to another. Thoughts of safety and home haunted his memory and made him close his eyes in the hope that all this would go away. His ears were ringing with the clamor all around, and more than once Vince fell back against him--scaring him witless every time. Never, never again would he ask Pa for such an awesome responsibility! Provided he lived that long anyway...
Up ahead a strange movement caught his eye and he cautiously leaned around the bush to get a better look. There was nothing to see, but suddenly a loud unexpected sound shook the night and made his mouth drop open in embarrassment. It was the unmistakable sound of a rooster crowing.
They had found the chickens.
Adam and Vince looked at one another and grinned sheepishly.
"It's been a long day..." the foreman mumbled.
Adam nodded. "Absolutely," he said with a tired sigh.
It was a slow ride back to the ranch, herding the chickens in front of them. Unlike cattle, the fowl had the distinct advantage of running underneath the horses, which tended to spook the already nervous beasts. Add to that the nature of the birds that caused them to panic if they were pushed above a walk, and it was obvious that they would be getting home very late indeed. Adam groaned at the darkening sky and slipped a foot from the stirrup to shoo a reluctant hen forward with his toe. He sure hoped Hoss had gotten something to eat by now...
It was well past suppertime when the bedraggled group rode up to the house.
The men dismounted without a word and hurried with their horses toward the corral. Vince took hold of Adam's arm and leaned in close to whisper.
"You won't tell nobody 'bout this, will 'ya, Mr. Cartwright?"
Adam shook his head and groaned. "I'd rather die," he assured him.
About then the front door was flung open and Hoss and Joe ran out excitedly.
"Adam! Adam!" Joe cried. "You'll never guess what we found!"
Hop Sing appeared in the doorway behind them and spied the errant chickens. He ran forward, rambling in Cantonese and attempting to herd the exhausted birds toward the henhouse.
Adam broke into a surprised grin. "Hey, Hop Sing!" he called. "Glad to have you back! Did my brother's appetite scare you away?"
The cook gave him a quick wave and disappeared around the side of the house with the chickens. Hoss tugged on Adam's sleeve.
"There's somethin' else, Adam," he said. "Come look!"
Adam handed his horse's reins to Vince and followed his brothers into the house. He tossed his hat on the credenza and bent to untie his gunbelt. And then he saw it. Money. Everywhere. On the sofa. On the table. On the stair railing. Even hanging on lines that criss-crossed the room from one end to the other.
"What the...?" he stammered.
"We found money!" Joe said, grinning importantly.
"I can see that!" Adam answered. "But where....and why...?"
"In the well with Hop Sing," Hoss explained, as if that were an everyday occurrence. "We think it's stolen!"
Adam stared at him a moment, wondering why the cook had been in the well, and deciding he really didn't want know.
"Yeah," he said. "It's stolen. Some men robbed the bank in Virginia City this morning."
"Did you hear that, Little Joe?" Hoss hollered. "We're heroes!"
"Maybe a reward even!" Joe hoped.
"Maybe," Adam answered noncommittally. "We'd better get all this in the safe 'til morning." He gazed again at the rows and rows of bills that lined every surface of the room and gave his brothers a long look. "Now can somebody tell me about...this?"
"That Little Joe idea!" Hop Sing answered as he came through the door. "He say money TOO wet!"
Adam shook his head and laughed. "Of course," he said. "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Maybe your head's too full of 'sponsibility," Little Joe suggested.
Adam laughed again. "You know, Little Joe," he said. "I think you're right!"
A dirty scruffy man shuffled across the floor of the abandoned line-shack and kicked his companions awake with his stockinged toe.
"Come on!" he ordered. "It's nearly daybreak! We gotta be gettin' to that ranch to retrieve the money!"
"What if someone found it by now?" one man asked.
"They better not 'ave!" the leader retorted. "Or it's bad news for them!"
A third man yawned and pulled on his boots. "I'll go saddle the horses," he said as he struggled lazily to his feet and headed toward the door.
Outside the morning air was brisk and cool, and he paused on the porch to stomp his feet and rub his arms to awaken his circulation. A strange snuffling sound caught his attention and he walked around the side of the house to investigate.
And there it stood--bigger than life and twice as mean. It was a bellowing, foot-stomping, head-shaking son of Satan if he ever saw one. And it glared at him menacingly.
It was the Ponderosa's new bull.
"Uh...John?" the man called out in a rather falsetto voice.
"What is it?" came the answer from inside. "You got them horses saddled yet?"
"Uh...not exactly..." the frightened man said as he slowly inched his way back around the porch toward the door.
"Well what is it then, Bradley?" John hollered.
Bradley gulped as the bull followed his retreat and groped around behind himself for the door handle.
"Well...'ya know that fence 'ya cut yesterday when the posse was after us?"
Bradley swallowed again as the bull pawed the edge of the porch.
"Well...I'm thinkin' that wasn't such a good idea..."
"What on earth are you blabbering about?" John demanded, and Bradley could hear him stomping across the floor and flinging the door wide open. "Ah, geez...."
The bull had been joined by his current harem of twenty-five cows, and a dozen or so steers. They surrounded the cabin completely, and the once-still morning was filled with the sounds of their lowing.
The bull snorted threateningly and eyed the open door and the man that blocked the way. Quickly John reached out and grabbed his companion, hauling him inside and slamming the door shut behind him. The click, click of the bull's hooves sounded on the wooden porch, and an eerie scraping noise shook the building as the animal rubbed his horns impatiently on the door frame.
The men inside scrambled hurriedly to stack anything movable against the sagging entryway, then collapsed gratefully against the barricade.
"So what do we do now?" the third man spoke at last.
The leader shrugged in irritation as his well-laid plans went awry. "We'll just have to wait, is all," he said.
Hoss took one more look down the dim hallway before picking up his boots and hurrying down the stairs in his stockinged feet. The wooden steps creaked loudly in the still house and he paused more than once to make sure no one had heard. Finally he made it to the great room and gathered his hat and vest. Now...just a little further---past Hop Sing's room and to the kitchen to get some pork chops left over from dinner---and he just might make it!
"Where 'ya goin'?" a familiar voice called so close behind him that he almost screamed aloud. He whirled around to see Little Joe standing there in his over-sized nightshirt and rubbing his eyes sleepily.
"Little Joe!" he hissed. "What did I tell you about sneakin' up on a body like that?"
"I WASN'T sneakin'!" Joe cried in defense. "YOU was!"
"Oh...yeah..." Hoss mumbled. "Well...never mind about that. You oughta get on back to bed."
"But where 'ya goin'?" Joe insisted in a none-too-quiet voice. "Can I come?"
"No, Joe," Hoss whispered impatiently. "It's still DARK outside. You're SCARED of the dark, remember?"
"Am not!" Joe insisted loudly, and the click of an upstairs door could be plainly heard.
"Now you've done it!" Hoss grumbled, casting a nervous glance toward the stairs. Adam stood on the landing, arms crossed over bare chest and dark eyes searching the room below. Hoss couldn't help but think how much he resembled Pa in these circumstances.
"Where are you two going?" he demanded sternly.
Hoss gave a nervous smile and cleared his throat. "I don't suppose you'd believe we was fixin' to start our chores?" he asked lamely.
Adam just shook his head.
"Ah, dadburnit, Adam!" Hoss confessed. "I was just goin' to look for Blacky! He's been gone all night!"
Adam came down the stairs and took Hoss's hat and vest from him. "Can't that wait 'til morning?" he asked as he hung the things back in their places.
"But, Adam!" Hoss insisted. "He's all alone! Probably near starved!"
Adam grinned. "I'll agree he's a little like his owner in that respect," he said and put an arm around Hoss's shoulders. “But Blacky's big enough to take care of himself." He smiled and thumped Hoss on the arm. "At least until we've had breakfast."
Hoss brightened. "Then I can go?" he asked hopefully.
"We'll ALL go," Adam suggested. "You two have got to go to town and return all that money you found, right? Afterwards we can look for Blacky."
Hoss and Joe smiled at that and followed Adam up the stairs to get properly dressed for breakfast.
"Is he still out there, Nick?" Bradley asked his companion who had cautiously raised the edge of a curtain to peek outside.
"Yep," came the disappointed reply."We ain't NEVER gonna get outta here!"
"I suppose we could shoot 'em," Bradley suggested hesitantly.
Their leader shook his head. "The shot might bring the posse or something." He got up and paced around the small cabin.
"Why don't they ever put back doors in these things?" he complained.
"Probably never had a bull blocking the front one," Bradley suggested, glancing out again to see the huge beast settle itself casually on the porch with its back resting against the doorjamb.
The man named John jumped up impatiently and strode to the side window.
"Well we're not gonna sit around here all day!" he declared. "One of us needs to get to the horses--without our friend out there seein'." He looked out toward the trees where the horses were and considered the window. "Come on, Nick," he said, "you're the smallest."
"I ain't goin' out there!" Nick protested and jumped when the bull turned to look at him through the window.
"You'll do as I say!" John ordered as he hauled the man across the room. "Now go get them horses! And be quiet about it!"
Nick resignedly put a foot on the windowsill and was about to climb out when Bradley put a hand on his shoulder.
"Hey, wait a minute!" he whispered. "What's that?"
"What's what?" John asked irritably. "I don't see nuthin'!"
"There's somthin' moving near the horses," Bradley insisted and pointed at a dark shape darting in and out among the trees.
John waved him away and pushed Nick forward again. "Shadows, is all!" he declared. "I swear--that bull's got you jumpier than fleas on a bullfrog!"
And he hooked Nick's belt and hauled him up on the window ledge.
Suddenly a furry face with rows of teeth popped up just below his foot, and he fell back into the room with a shriek, collapsing on top of his companions. The shape bounced a few more times then loped back toward the horses, yapping and nipping at their heels. The men stared at each other a moment before scrambling to their feet again and rushing to the window.
"It's just a dog!" John yelled in disgust. "Quick! He's after the horses!"
Nick again put a leg out the window. But as he eased himself out he happened to glance to the left just as the bull ambled around the corner to get a look at all the commotion.
"Ah, shi----!" he choked as he once more lurched backward. "I ain't goin' out there!"
The yapping intensified and the horses began to dance and snort nervously. Then kicking and bucking, they started to pull back on the lines that tied them--and with repetitive snaps, they were free. Wheeling around they galloped away through the trees with Blacky baying eagerly right behind.
In the silence that followed the cattle casually settled back down to rest, and the slap of their tails on the buzzing flies was the only sound.
Bradley cleared his throat. "Well," he asked lamely. "Figure we can ride the cows?"
The sun had just crested the tall trees when the Cartwright brothers reached the trail that led to Virginia City. As they trotted along they broke into a light-hearted rendition of 'Oh Suzanna'.
Hoss's voice was slightly off-key and Joe's adolescent tenor had trouble with the low notes, but Adam--who had studied music —-carried the tune quite well. They were enjoying the moment when suddenly Hoss held up his hand and pulled his horse to a stop.
"Hold on!" he called. "I think I heard somethin'."
Adam turned his horse back to face Hoss. "You mean you can hear over all that bellowing?" he teased.
Hoss waved him away. "Shhhh!" he hissed. "I KNOW I heard somethin'!"
Adam and Joe scanned the trees to the right of the trail and cocked their heads to listen. Then they heard it too--like a distant roll of thunder-- advancing closer and closer with each passing second. The horses' ears began to swivel this way and that, and their heads swung as one toward the trees.
Adam could feel a distinct vibration--even through the saddle--and he suddenly wheeled Lady around as he recognized the sound.
"Look out!" he called to his brothers and they too scrambled to get out of the way.
The trees to the front began to dance and sway, and three frightened horses emerged at a gallop, a scruffy dog close behind.
They balked when they saw the riders and reared back on their haunches to pivot around them. Hoss got control of his pony just as a familiar tail shot past.
"Hey! It's Blacky!" he cried, whistling loudly so the pup could hear him over the commotion. The little dog stopped his pursuit and cocked his head as he searched for the source of his master's voice.
Hoss jumped down from the saddle and called again. "Come on, Blacky! Good pup!"
That did it. The shaggy pup got his bearings and flew into Hoss's arms. Hoss laughed and held him tight as he strode back toward his brothers.
"I KNEW he missed me!" he said proudly. "See how fast he was runnin' home?"
Adam nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah," he agreed. "And I saw what he was chasin' too. Where did those horses come from? They weren't wearing Ponderosa brands..."
“Yeah..." Hoss murmured as he gazed in the direction the horses had gone.
"Maybe they're LOST!" Little Joe spoke up helpfully.
Adam grimaced at the suggestion and motioned for Hoss to mount up. "Come on," he said. "Let's go find out who's missing some horses."
Hoss put Blacky down and climbed on his horse to follow his brothers through the trees. The runaways had blazed a very evident trail, and they trotted easily along with the overgrown pup loping happily beside them.
A short time later the trees parted and they found themselves on a small hill overlooking a green valley. A tiny cabin stood off to one side and cattle rested here and there, lazily cudding in the morning sun. Adam leaned across the saddlehorn and sighed with finality.
"Well, there's the beeves that went missing from the north pasture," he said with relief. "Figure we can get them back where they belong?"
"Uh...Adam?" Hoss stuttered nervously. "There's someone down there..."
Adam squinted toward the shack and saw a distinct shadow in the window.
"Yeah," he nodded while waving his brothers out of sight. "I see 'em."
"Wadda we do now?" Hoss asked uncertainly, and Adam almost groaned aloud. Did he REALLY have to make another decision?
But before he could speak Blacky noticed the cattle down below and loped forward to investigate.
"Blacky, no!" Hoss cried, to no avail.
The little dog picked up speed and began to run circles around the resting cattle, barking himself into a frenzy. The huge beasts looked at him nervously and tossed their heads as he passed, but none of them bothered to get up. From inside the cabin they heard a crash and a strangled cry, then the curses of the trapped men echoed through the valley. Adam took a deep breath. Time to think of something...
He turned to his little brother. "Joe," he said, "you still got that slingshot Hoss gave 'ya?"
"Yep!" Joe answered, reaching into his back pocket.
Adam pointed to a clump of trees a few yards away. "Think you can hit the door from over there?"
Joe nodded eagerly and began to search the ground for pebbles and other ammunition.
Adam glanced at Hoss. "Think you can hit anything with that squirrel gun of yours?"
Hoss blinked nervously. "Well...yeah..." he answered. "But I don't..."
Adam gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry brother," he said. "I don't want you to kill 'em; just scare 'em a little."
Hoss sighed with relief and went to get the gun from the scabbard on his saddle. Adam waited for Little Joe to reach his hiding place, then motioned for Hoss to cover one side window while he took up position guarding the other. Taking a deep breath, he drew his pistol and called out to the cabin below.
"We know you're in there! The cabin is surrounded! Come out with your hands up!"
There was a long silence then another string of curses emanated from below. Adam balanced his shaking hand on his knee and waved to his brothers to begin the assault.
The peaceful morning was shattered by the steady crack of gunfire and the rapid thuds of rocks hitting the wooden door. The cattle scrambled up and scattered everywhere, and the little dog gleefully chased them all. The huge bull rose with an angry bellow, swinging his horned head against the cabin--shattering two windows simultaneously. The cursing inside rose an octave, turning into frightened screams.
"Alright! Alright!" someone called from inside. "You've got us! Hold your fire!"
Adam held up his hand and the others stopped their bombardment of the cabin.
"Come out where we can see you!" he called out.
There was a long silence and a pair of eyes appeared cautiously around the edge of the window. "Is the bull still there?" a voice questioned.
Adam sighed and waved to his little brother. "Little Joe," he said. "Can you move El Jefe, please?"
Joe grinned widely at such important orders, swung up on his pony, and loped toward the cabin. The bull eyed him suspiciously from his corner of the porch.
"Come on, Bully," Joe prompted. "Time to go!"
Carefully he arranged a loop in his lariat and rode purposely toward the large beast.
Then leaning forward, he hooked the loop over the bull's sharp horns and pulled the noose tight. El Jefe hung his great head and mooed plaintively.
"Stop yer belly-achin' and come on!" Joe ordered as he began to ride away.
Resignedly the bull followed peaceably behind.
Hoss and Adam rode down to meet Joe just as the outlaws emerged from the cabin, looks of disbelief creasing their faces.
They glanced from one Cartwright boy to the other and the leader spit angrily on the ground.
"Why they ain't nuthin' but kids!" he shouted as he reached for his gun.
But Adam already had his pistol at the ready. "Drop it!" he ordered. "All of you!"
The men disgustingly threw their guns on the ground and Hoss jumped down to collect them. "We done it, Adam!" he gloated. "We actually done it!"
Adam grinned a little but didn't take his eyes off the outlaws. "Hoss? Joe?" he said. "Ya think you can get these cattle back to the north pasture? I suspect there'll be a fence in need of mending too."
"Well...yeah...I think so," Hoss answered as he climbed back on his horse. "What you gonna do?"
Adam smiled slyly as he eyed the outlaws.
"I believe our friends here just invited me to ride along on their walk to town," he said.
"WALK!" one of the men shouted. "Are you crazy? That's more 'an ten miles!"
"Yep," Adam agreed. "Probably oughta get started." And he guided his horse forward to give the leader a nudge with its head.
Grumbling and cursing the men began to make their way toward the trees.
Ben Cartwright rode into the front yard of the Ponderosa and smiled. Everything SEEMED to be in one piece! He really hadn't been worried; just understandably nervous about leaving the boys alone for the first time. Well they weren't actually alone--they had the hands and Hop sing, after all!
He dusted off his pants and stepped through the front door, prepared to warmly greet his sons, and was disappointed when they weren't there. He could hear Hop Sing puttering in the kitchen and smiled again.
If it was getting close to suppertime, those boys couldn't be too far away! He threw his hat on the credenza and went upstairs to wash up.
A short time later he heard hoofbeats and glanced out his window to see his sons ride up to the house. They looked worn out as they climbed wearily down from their mounts and handed the reins to one of the hands. That's odd, Ben thought. Why weren't they taking care of their own horses? If he had told them once, he had told them a thousand times---if you had time to ride the animal, then you had time to clean him up afterward! He made a note to speak to his boys about that oversight, but for now put it out of his mind and hurried down the stairs to greet them.
The door opened just as he got there and revealed his sons looking...relieved?... worried? He ignored the look and embraced them, catching Little Joe as he flew into his arms.
"I saw you ride up," he said. "You're getting to be a real cowboy, aren't you Joe?"
"El Jefe thinks so!" Joe spoke up then glanced at his brothers and bit his lip, realizing too late that THAT was one of the secrets they had agreed not to tell.
"El Jefe?" Ben asked, looking from one to the other. "What were you doing messing around with him?"
"It's alright, PA," Adam spoke up in his defense. "The cattle escaped from the north pasture. Joe just came along while ....we ...put them back."
"Oh," Ben said, wondering at Adam's hesitation. "Well, you boys look beat! Come sit down and rest. Hop Sing has supper almost ready."
Hoss and Adam threw their hats down beside Ben's and collapsed together on the couch.
Ben swung Joe down between them, hearing a familiar jingle just as a handful of silver dollars spilled from his pocket and clattered on the floor. Ben picked them up and looked at Joe strangely.
Hoss spoke up quickly. "Uhh...I gave him those..." he said.
Ben held the money in his closed fist and eyed Little Joe sternly. "Have you been bribing your brothers again?"
"No!" Joe shouted defensively. "It's a REWARD!"
"Reward?" Ben asked in confusion as he settled himself on the coffee table in front of his sons. "Reward for what?"
Adam rubbed a hand across his face and decided they'd better come clean before Joe got in trouble. "Um..it's part of the reward for catching the bank robbers," he said hesitantly.
Ben's eyes grew wide. "Bank robbers?" he said.
"AND finding the money!" Hoss continued proudly.
"In the well!" Joe continued. "With Hop Sing!"
"The well?...Hop Sing?..." Suddenly Ben broke into a huge grin.
"That's...um...some story, boys," he humored them. "Tell me...did anything else happen during my long absence?"
"Well..." Hoss said, missing the sarcasm. “Blacky got lost with the chickens...But that tweren't nuthin' compared to Adam losing all the men!"
Ben turned to his eldest son. "You...um...lost the men, Adam?"
Adam blushed uncomfortably and tried to avoid his father's gaze. "Well, not LOST actually," he said. "They just LEFT when I couldn't pay them..."
Ben rubbed his eyes. This story was starting to make him tired. "Son," he said. "May I ask WHY you couldn't pay them?"
Little Joe tapped him on the knee. "'Cause the bank robbers stole all the money!" he explained. "Wasn't you listenin', Pa?"
Ben gave him a long-suffering look and glanced up as Hop Sing entered the room.
"Supper almost ready!" he announced happily. "Good to have ALL Cartwrights together again!"
Ben laughed as he got up to make his way toward the table. "It's a good thing no one is LOST, right boys?" he said with a wink.
His sons glanced at one another in amazement. They had been so worried about him discovering their secrets; it hadn't even occurred to them that he might not believe them! They got up to follow him, but he pointed them toward the stairs.
"I think you boys can take a moment to wash up," he suggested and looked at them curiously. "How did you all get so dirty, anyway?"
Hoss turned to answer him but he held up his hands for silence. "Never mind!" he laughed. "I don't want to know!"
The boys shrugged and started up the stairs. Ben watched them go and smiled to himself. He must have tried to impress his own father with a tall tale now and then!
He started to take his place at the table, but something he had seen on his arrival still nagged at him. He cleared his throat loudly.
"Uh...boys?" he said, and waited for them to stop and turn around. "Can someone answer just one thing?" He scratched his head and gave them a long bewildered look.
"Why are there fish in the water trough?"
Complaints, Opinions, Recommendations?
Who do we think we are?
Why are we doing this?
Standards & Practices
Alphabetical by Title
Alphabetical by Author
Character Bios & More
Input & Opinions from Readers, Authors, Site Owners