Web of Lies
The Sierra Sirens

Adam stood for a moment staring silently at the imposing office complex, trying to decide how to proceed. Though it was after business hours, the light from the window of Preston's corner office seemed to indicate that he was still there. No surprise.  Men like Buck Preston rarely worked 9 to 5. But after hours security would be tight, and if his suspicions were accurate, he would not be a welcome visitor. He cursed himself quietly. Heedless, to run off like that, without a plan. Not like him. But the sight of his younger brother, so suddenly and pointlessly bleeding and in pain, had left him unhinged.  The need for action had been overwhelming. In fact, it still was.  He wanted to talk to Preston - to face him head on - but first he had to get past lobby security, then the inevitable goons that Preston kept around to protect his person from people like...well, from people like him. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and slowly mounted the stairs to the entrance, potential plans whirling in his brain.

He stood to the side of the doorway, partly hidden by a decorative topiary, and watched the guard at the lobby desk. He looked bored. No one to check in and out. And he was certainly putting away the coffee. Well, good.  He would have to visit the men's room sometime. Adam leaned back against the masonry pretending to fumble for a cigarette and waited. The image of the pool of blood collecting on the front porch, Joe's hand, limp and still, in the middle of it, came to him, and he squeezed his eyes shut.  Stop it. This wasn't helping. He needed a cool head. A sudden touch on his shoulder made him jump almost out of his skin and he whirled around, instinctively drawing the gun from his pocket and pointing it.

"Whoa, there, brother."

Adam recognized Hoss almost as quickly as he drew and he relaxed, sagging against the wall. "Hoss. Don't do that." Then, "What are you doing here? Why aren't you with Pa and Joe?"

"Figgered you needed me here more." He jerked his chin to indicate the gun. "What in blazes you got that thing fer?"

Adam repocketed the gun. "Just as a safety precaution. Hoss, go to the hospital. Pa needs you."

"Pa's got Roy by now. Ain't leavin' you here all alone in yer frame o' mind - specially not now that I know about that gun."

"Hoss - "

"Adam, if'n you want me to leave yer gonna have to make use o' that peashooter an' I figger we done had just about enough of that fer one night.  So either shoot me er resign yerself ta me taggin' along."

Adam ran a hand over his face and sighed. "All right. But let me do the talking." He noticed the security guard rising from the desk and moving towards the men's room. "Come on, then."

Without the security guard it was ridiculously easy to make their way to the elevator banks. Low traffic within the building meant their elevator arrived with obliging promptness and they climbed in, thumbing the button for the Preston Office Suites. Adam made a mental note to check security at the Cartwright offices and make sure it was more effective than this. A soft ding indicated their floor and they stepped off before the Preston Offices' glass doors. The reception area was only half lit, with no receptionist in sight.

Hoss looked at Adam expectantly. "Now what?"

"Now we have a private chat with Mr. Preston."

"Reckon that's easier said than done."

"Good. I love a challenge." He tested the door. Still open.  Well, that
seemed careless, but there wasn't much to secure in the outer office and Preston was, after all, still here. Adam made his way down the corridor toward the executive office as casually and deliberately as he ever had for a business meeting, Hoss at his heels.

The door to the Executive Suite was closed. An ape of a man, bulging out of his dark suit, was seated outside the door, casually flipping through a magazine, but he got to his feet at the sight of them and stood directly in front of the door.

"Can I help you gentlemen?"

Adam eyed the telltale lump under the upper left-hand lapel of the man's jacket and folded his arms.  "Yes. Adam and Hoss Cartwright to see Buck Preston."

The man shifted his bulk a little more securely in front of the doorway.
"Mr. Preston is very busy and not seeing visitors right now."

Adam didn't budge. "He'll see us." he suggested.

The Neanderthal in the suit narrowed his eyes. "I said Mr. Preston is busy.  Now go nice, or I'll have to escort you out."

Adam opened his mouth to answer, but without warning, Hoss's fist shot out and caught the guard directly in the mouth. Before the man could recover, he had grabbed him by the collar and delivered two more shots to the face.  The man's eyes rolled back in his head and his knees sagged. Hoss lowered him gently back into his chair.

Adam stared at him. "Hoss - "

Hoss shrugged. "What? You said to let you do the talkin'. Figgered that left me first crack at the hittin'. Now, you wanna talk ta this feller er not?"

In spite of himself, Adam grinned. "Come on." Without ceremony, he pushed the office door open and stepped in.

Buck Preston stood up from behind his desk as they entered, his face
unsurprised. In fact, he looked - it took Adam a second, but it was a second too long. Even as he was turning around he heard the telltale snick of twin hammers being pulled back and saw two more guards positioned on either side of the office door, guns cocked.

Preston smiled. "Gentlemen." he said cordially. "I've been expecting you."

The smile Adam returned was cold and detached as he came to a standstill in front of Preston's desk.   Both he and Hoss knew the folly of going up against drawn guns.   Slowly, the Cartwright brothers raised their hands over their heads as the two thugs guarding the door moved quickly to frisk them, coming up with the semiautomatic in Adam's pocket.

"Interesting that you'd be expecting us, Preston.   Isn't that interesting, Hoss?"   Dropping his arms to his sides and adjusting his jacket, Adam turned slightly toward his brother and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"Yeah, Adam, that shore is mighty interestin'" Hoss nodded in agreement, his own lips drawn into a tight, humorless smile.

Adam turned once more to face Buck Preston, his dark eyes, steady, unblinking, fixed on Preston's opaque, steel-gray eyes.  Waiting, wanting Preston to speak next.   Here was the man, in all probability, who was responsible for the brutal ambush on his youngest brother.   Adam could wait, would wait, and see just what this coward had to say.   Maybe he would slip up, say something to incriminate himself.

Buck Preston forced himself to stare back into the clear hazel eyes.   Here he was, yet again, forced to lock horns with Adam Cartwright.   Just as he'd had to all his life.   And he'd come up short against Cartwright every time. Well, not this time.   Not ever again.   A small smile curled at the corners of his mouth as he spoke.

"What's not to expect, Adam, Hoss.   It's all over the news that Joe was gunned down and is in critical condition at Virginia City University Medical Center."   Preston watched Adam and Hoss carefully, gauging their reactions. The tiny smile twisted into a sneer when he saw both Cartwrights stiffen at the mention of Joe.   "And, am I surprised that you'd blame me for Joe's unfortunate circumstances?   No, not surprised at all.   Seems to me, Adam, that I'm the first one you blame when anything goes wrong in your pathetic life.   It's been that way since we were kids."   Smiling smugly as he finished speaking, Preston sat down behind the massive cherry desk, rocked back in the leather chair and brought his Italian booted feet up to rest on top of the desk.

Adam watched Preston, listened to his lies, the muscles in his jaw working overtime as he attempted to control his rage.  Looking into the cold, lifeless eyes only served to reinforce Adam’s conviction that Preston had ordered the hit on Little Joe.  Maybe things weren't going his way at the moment, but Adam was certain he could still trip up Preston.  Hell, he'd known the creep most of his life.

Realizing how foolish he’d been to force this confrontation with Preston with no plan and now his hand played, Adam sucked in a deep breath and pushed his anger down for the time being.  Pulling himself up to his full six foot two inches, Adam spoke slowly, deliberately—his deep voice low and threatening, his eyes never breaking from his adversary’s.

"Your denials are meaningless, Preston.  Hoss and I know you're behind Joe's shooting and you'll pay.   If the law won't deal with you, then we will. There won't be a place on this planet where you'll be safe.  We'll find you and exact our own brand of punishment, I promise you that."

Preston unconsciously rubbed his palms together, vaguely aware of how sweaty they'd become as Adam spoke and then tugged at his collar in an attempt to loosen it, swallowing hard.

Adam recognized Preston's manic movements--all too familiar actions that Adam had studied and learned, not only during their business meetings, but also while playing poker with him.  Knowing better, but unable to keep his mouth shut, Adam smiled triumphantly at his brother as he watched Preston and plowed ahead.

"You never were any good at poker, Preston.  You sweating and pulling at your collar are your “tells”—dead giveaways that you’re bluffing.  So--what are you lying about this time around?”  Adam faced Preston; the triumphant smile now replaced with a contemptuous smirk.

Preston's mouth twitched and his body trembled as he rounded his desk.   He could feel the heat as the blood rushed to his head.   Again, this damn Cartwright had bettered him, made a fool of him.   Here in his own offices, surrounded by his own armed men.  As he bore down on Adam, Preston nodded to the two men by the door.   No words were necessary, the gorillas knew the routine, one they had carried out countless times before on other unfortunate souls.

Before Adam could react, his arms were pulled roughly behind his back, leaving him defenseless.  Hoss moved forward instinctively to protect his older brother, but stopped instantly when he felt the cold metal of a muzzle shoved behind his ear.   Shrugging, he remembered too late about the thug he'd left flattened in the hallway, obviously now up and around.   The goon was nursing a bruised jaw, but ready for action.   Adam and Hoss watched the rapid movements of the men around them, sensing what was to come, yet powerless to stop it.

"You talk too much, Cartwright.   You've always talked too much.   Well, you're on my turf now.   In fact you're trespassing, and there's only one way we deal with trespassers."   Preston had managed to calm himself, slow his breathing, and once again gain control.   He smiled maliciously, slipping on thin, smooth, black leather gloves, as he approached Adam.   He meticulously worked the fine leather down over each finger, then over each palm, making sure they fit snugly onto his hands.

Adam watched Preston's exaggerated motions as he donned the leather gloves. Adam let his eyes flick shut momentarily, a soft sigh escaping his lips, in an attempt to regroup for the inevitable.   Damn, this sure wasn't going as he'd planned.   Ah--but, that had been the problem from the get-go.   He'd had no plan when he'd stormed Preston's offices.   Live and learn, he thought wistfully.   He opened his eyes to see Preston flexing his fingers directly in front of him.   A wry smile touched his lips when it dawned on him that, in fact, Preston was right.   He did talk too much, tonight anyway.   And try as he might, he couldn't stop himself, he was about to do it again.

"Just hurry up and get it over with, Preston.   You never did have any imagination."   Adam spoke disdainfully, looking up at the bigger, heavier Preston.

Hoss grimaced and shook his head.   Generally his older brother knew when to speak and when to hold his tongue.   Particularly when the other fellow held all the cards.  Sighing, the big man realized Adam's emotions had gotten in the way of his better judgment tonight.  Adam and Preston had always been on opposite sides of the fence, as school kids, as teenagers, and now as ranchers and businessmen.   Joe's ambush had shaken his family to the core, but somehow Adam felt personally responsible for Preston's actions.   Hoss could still remember how quiet Pa had been, waiting for the ambulance, and Adam's vow to bring Preston to justice.

As Hoss watched Preston finish putting on the gloves, he couldn't help but make a move toward Adam.   He was brought up short as the gorilla shoved the barrel of the automatic harder against the back of his head.   Hoss set his jaw, swallowed hard to settle his nervous stomach, and got ready to watch Preston do his dirty work.

"Sorry, Adam, cain't do nuthin' ta help you this time, but I swear, Preston’ll pay fer every mark he puts on you.”  Hoss's voice was almost inaudible as he forced himself to watch each blow Preston dealt Adam.   "I'll have my day with you," Hoss promised himself as he watched Preston throw a solid punch to his brother's midsection followed by a fierce double-fisted crack across the side of Adam's head.

Adam was right, Hoss thought, Buck Preston had made this personal.  The law couldn't punish Preston enough for the pain and suffering he'd wreaked on his family.


"Look, Hoss, I'm all right."   Adam pushed Hoss's hand away.   Leaning over the kitchen sink at the Ponderosa, the dark-haired man winced as he splashed cold water across the cuts and contusions marring the handsome face.   He let the water run, washing the last of the blood down the drain.

"Come on, Adam, let me help ya.   I need to put some Neosporin on those cuts, and dadburnit, that cut over yer right eye could use a few stitches."   Hoss pleaded, but already knew his pleas were falling on deaf ears. Thinking a threat might help, he added,   "Yer just lucky that Hop Sing already went ta bed.   He'd a doctored up that face of yers, shore as shootin'."

"Yeah, well, like you said, Hop Sing already went to sleep, and we aren't going to wake him.”  Adam straightened with some difficulty as he spoke, making a conscious effort to keep his arm and hand from cradling his aching ribs. Faced with his reflection, his demeanor softened and he couldn't help but chuckle.   "Not a pretty sight."   Picking up the towel he gingerly patted his face dry, then carefully lowered himself into the chair next to Hoss.

"An' that's another thing, older brother, I kin tell yer side's botherin' ya, like Preston mighta bruised some ribs, or maybe even somethin' worse."

"I told you, I'm fine, Hoss.   You worry too much."   Adam sighed as he shut his eyes, dropped his chin onto his chest, and pinched the bridge of his nose.   Hoss opened his mouth to fuss once more at Adam, then decided against it, noting his brother's familiar pose.   Hoss slouched resignedly back against the chair and waited for Adam to speak.

Head still bowed, Adam spoke softly, without opening his eyes or moving his hand.   "Look, Hoss, what happened tonight was my own fault.   I'm just thankful you didn't get hurt because I went off halfcocked to confront Buck Preston."   Sighing deeply, Adam raised his head, slowly opened his eyes, and looked hard at Hoss.   "After what happened to Little Joe tonight, I couldn't have forgiven myself if you'd been hurt too."

Hoss shook his head in disbelief.   "Gosh durn you, Adam!   You ain't responsible fer everythin' that goes wrong 'round here.  I wish I could git that through that thick skull of yers.   Jest 'cause you 'n Preston have issues, that don't mean it's yer fault that he decided to shoot Little Joe.  An' it was my decision to go with ya ta Preston's.   So, the way I figger it, if I got hurt, I ain't got nobody ta blame but myself."   Hoss waited for Adam to respond, and when his brother continued to stare silently at him, Hoss rolled his eyes and threw up his arms in exasperation.   "I give up!   I cain't talk no sense inta you when it comes ta Buck Preston."

Ready to change the subject, Adam asked Hoss about his last phone call to the hospital.   "Did you get a chance to talk to Doc Martin about Little Joe?"

Knowing that for now, Adam considered any discussion concerning Buck Preston to be over, Hoss moved on and answered the question.

"Nope.  Doc Martin's still in surgery with Little Joe.  Nobody's sayin’ much right now, not 'till he's outa surgery.  I couldn't get a hold a Pa, musta been busy with the doctors.   Now, I coulda asked fer Sheriff Coffee, but I figgered you didn't wanna talk ta him.   You know, Adam, what he'd tell ya about takin' the law inta yer own hands…"   Hoss hoped to get a rise from his brother when he brought up Roy Coffee's name, but was disappointed to see the hazel eyes lost in thought.   I best keep my eye on you, older brother.  I imagine yer determined to bring down Preston, an' I ain't lettin’ ya do it alone.

Adam gave a slight shake of his head to clear his thoughts, and slowly rose from his chair.   "It's time we got over to the Med Center to be with Little Joe and Pa."

"How you gonna explain yer face ta Pa?"

"Don't know yet, but I'll think of something."

As Hoss followed Adam down the steps, he couldn’t help but notice how careful Adam was being. It was obvious Adam was hurting more than he was letting on, and Hoss knew it wasn’t all physical pain. Ever since he could remember, Adam had taken on the burden of looking out for his younger and then smaller brothers.  Even after Hoss had outgrown being Adam's “little brother”, he knew that Adam was looking out for him.

Joe, on the other hand, was a different story. Although, his two brothers fought and argued they had a special bond. When Joe’s mother, Marie, had died, Ben Cartwright had “fallen apart” and had been unable to take care of his youngest son's needs. Adam had stepped in and taken over the role of parent and never fully relinquished it back to Ben.

Shaking his head, Hoss picked up his Stetson hat and truck keys. “Adam, you ain’t in any shape to be driving. So’s just c’mon and we’ll go in my truck. Don’t argue with me…”

Adam raised his hand, quickly silencing Hoss.  “I’m not going to argue with you. All I was going to say is that I will let you drive my car. I am NOT up to climbing in your truck or enduring the bouncing ride to town. That thing was not made for driving on roads.”

Chuckling, Hoss snatched the keys Adam tossed him out of the air. “Very funny. I like my truck just fine, and I don’t seem to recall you complaining when it got us up to the North Pasture when the road was flooded or last winter when the roads were icy.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry I dissed your truck. But I do think I’ll be more
comfortable in my own car, even if you are driving.” Adam grimaced as he slid into the leather seat of his racing green Jaguar. Settling back, his mind went to work on formulating a plan to take care of Buck Preston once and for all.

The rest of the ride to the hospital was spent in relative silence, each brother fearing what condition they might find Joe in when they arrived.  Adam silently berated himself for Little Joe suffering from another man’s hatred for him. If he could he would have taken the bullet instead of Little Joe, but Preston had planned carefully. The ambush on his youngest brother had taken place at a time when all of the Cartwrights were separated from each other. It was the only possible explanation. Joe might drive his family nuts, chase after girls and play practical jokes, but no one in the greater Virginia City area had reason to shoot Joe Cartwright. No one but Buck Preston, attempting once again to best Adam.

“Adam?” Hoss ventured quietly. “Yeah, Hoss.”  “I was just wonderin’ what you thought Preston was hoping to get out of shootin’ Little Joe?”

“Well, I think as usual he was trying to get “one up” on the Cartwrights.  Specifically me.  He said I was always blaming him. HE’S the one who always blames us when he loses a business deal or a venture capital fails. Why he even blamed me when his engagement to Mary Sue Cliburn failed. That’s just how he is Hoss. I know that’s not much of an explanation, but Buck Preston is one of the cruelest, most vindictive, jealous men I have ever had the misfortune to meet.” Adam shrugged his shoulders at a loss for words on how to explain an evil mind like Preston to his polar opposite in Hoss.

“I think I know what you mean. Men like him don’t think like us. They just do what they do regardless of the effect it has on anyone else. I feel sorry for him.”

In that velvet smooth voice, Adam quietly vowed.  “I do too Hoss, but not for the same reasons as you. He's going to regret the day he did anything to hurt our little brother. If it’s the last thing I do, I will make him pay for shooting Joe.”

“Easy Adam,” Hoss placed a hand on Adam’s forearm. “Let’s leave that up to the law for now. You ain’t in any condition to be taking on Preston.”

“You’re right Hoss, but when he least expects it I’ll exact my revenge.”

They arrived at the VCUMC without further ado. Hoss slowed his pace so Adam could easily keep up with him, without stressing his ribs. First thing he planned to do was have a doctor look at Adam’s ribs. If nothing else they were badly bruised from Preston’s sadistic attack on him.  Fortune was not going to smile on Hoss Cartwright.

As they entered the Emergency Room, they practically ran into Dr. Martin and Ben Cartwright.

“Pa.” Hoss and Adam exclaimed in unison.

“How’s Joe?”

“What’s the latest, Doc Martin?”

Ben held up his hands before either of his two sons could ask another
question. “Slow down boys. First of all, what happened to you, Adam?”

Dr. Martin had already begun inspecting the assorted cuts and contusions covering Adam’s face. “Son, how many times have I told you to lead with your left, not your chin.”

“Aww, Doc Martin, it weren’t nothin’ like that. He was bein’ held captive by two strong arms and couldn’t defend himself.”

“Hoss!” Adam commanded as he jerked his chin out of Dr. Martin’s hand.  “Look, I’ll explain as soon as you tell us how Joe is.”

“All right, boys, Ben. C’mon let’s at least go to my office. We’ll be a lot  more comfortable.” Leading the way down the corridor he headed for his office .

They reached Dr. Martin's office, with Adam trying to brush away his father's efforts to look at the injuries on his face.  He saw the deep worry in Ben's tired eyes.  His father looked exhausted.  Adam prayed that the news about Joe was not as bad as he feared.

The four men entered the office.  Hoss closed the door behind him as Dr. Martin motioned for them all to sit and walked around the desk to his own chair.  He sat, picked up a pencil from his desk, leaned back in his chair and found three pairs of eyes trained on him.

"Paul, ... please…" Ben's voice was low and his sons could detect the dread in it.

"Ben, I believe Joe is going to be all right, but it will be a long haul for him.  He's been moved from recovery to ICU.  He awakened from the anesthetic for a short period of time, but is probably sleeping at the moment, which I expect he will be doing for some time now. "

"As you know, he sustained a gunshot wound to the chest from a high-powered rifle."

Adam closed his eyes, trying to stop the horrifying scene from playing again in his head.  He’d been the first to find his little brother.  Joe, lying on the front porch, just outside the door, his face a deathly gray color, the wound in his chest slowly pooling blood on the wooden boards, unmoving as though he was already dead.

The image disappeared suddenly as Paul cleared his throat loudly for the third time.

"Um…Ben…boys...Joe has a collapsed lung, a couple broken ribs - several cuts and bruises.  It must be the Cartwright stubborness that keeps him going."

Ben sighed a bit in relief, "When do you think we can see him, Paul?"

"I don't see any reason why you can't see him now. But I do have to warn you he may be sleeping and it would be best if you didn't try and wake him just yet"

Getting up from their chairs, Ben looked over at Adam, pausing, then at Paul.

"I think that you need to take a look at Adam as well, Paul, those bruises are beginning to look worse. I don't need two sons in the hospital."

Adam looked from Ben to Paul, shrugging his shoulders. He started for the door, acting as though he was just fine.

"I'm fine Pa, I'm sure Paul has better things to do than look at my cuts and bruises. I'm fine really, right, Hoss?"

Hoss caught the look Adam sent him and looked at his father, the look on Hoss's face not quite as certain as the sound in his voice. Nodding his head at his father, Hoss reluctantly concurred.

"Yeah Pa, he's just fine!" Hoss headed to the door. Passing Adam, he murmured to him, "In a pig's eye yer fine..."

The four of them left Paul's office. The three Cartwrights slowed their strides as they started to get closer to Joe's room, their thoughts on how they last had seen Joe.

Hesitating Paul looked at their faces and saw the worry there. Pushing the door he motioned them in. Ben went immediately to Joe's side, Hoss right behind him.

Adam stood back from the bed a bit, his body tensed, the muscles in his jaw working to keep the anger under control as he looked at his young brother lying there. Tubes were running out of him, he had IV's in his arms, his coloring pale and wan.

His hands tightened into fists. Preston wasn't going to get away with this, Adam thought to himself. If it was the last thing he did, he would make him pay. He looked one more time at his little brother's face, turned and quietly walked out the door. No one noticed him slipping out. Painfully making his way down the hall, his thoughts turned to forming a plan of taking care of Buck Preston. It would have to be a well thought out plan with no mistakes this time.

Making his way outside, Adam headed for his Jag. It wasn't until he stood before it that he realized that Hoss had the keys. If he wanted to go anywhere he was going to have to find another mode of transportation.

Adam stood there for a moment staring through the window of his Jaguar at the flashing alarm light that mocked him from the dashboard of the driver's side. He had thought briefly of breaking into his own car, but the light had deterred him from following through, just as it was intended to deter would-be thieves.  Clenching his jaw in frustration, he tried to think of other alternatives. A taxi, he thought, would be practical, however he quickly scratched that from his options when he realized he had no money on him.  Quickly feeling for his cell phone he was relieved to feel the small Nokia phone in his pocket. Just as he pulled it out and thought of someone to call, he felt a strong hand clamp down on his shoulder. Tensing up he was about to give the intruder a powerful roundhouse when he heard a familiar voice.

"Here you are! Bet you forgot I had the keys when you took off, huh?" Hoss said, jingling the keys in front of Adam's face. Adam made a grab for them but Hoss pulled them out of his reach, "Uh-huh, no way buster, not in the mood you're in!"

"Hoss," Adam warned, "Give me my car keys."

Hoss shook his head, "Nope, brother. There is no way you are getting your car keys right now. I saw how you reacted in Joe's room; you're wantin' to do something stupid.  Well, if you don't remember, the last time you went off in a temper you got beat to a pulp. So, how about you just takin' a deep breath and relaxin'."

Adam narrowed his eyes, trying to intimidate his brother as he had done to others who crossed him.

Unfortunately, for Adam, Hoss had long ago grown immune to his brother's temper and scare tactics. "You can get that look off your face too, it's not gonna work with me."

Adam didn't respond, but only fumed.  "Look Adam, it’s been a long day.  Pa is staying here, but since there's not much we can do for Joe right now, we might as well go home. Come on," he spoke, trying to get his brother to relax, "Let's go home, get cleaned up and maybe get some sleep for once. I bet it’s been awhile since you've slept and trust me, you could use it."

Adam closed his eyes. Leaning against the car, he sighed as Hoss's words hit home.  He was tired, and Hoss was right, last time he went off in a temper he had gotten the worst end of it. No, it was time to step back and think of other ways to get back at Buck Preston. Maybe the guy couldn't be out muscled but he COULD be outsmarted - Adam had done it on numerous occasions. "Yeah, maybe you're right. Let's go home."

Hoss grinned, "Good thing you've decided to listen to reason, I was about to open a can of whup ass," emphasizing the point as he punched his right fist into his left palm.


 The next morning, after getting as good a sleep as he could muster under the circumstances, Adam went about attending to some of the more mundane daily tasks, such as the household chores, checking the family stock quotes, getting the latest numbers on his own stock portfolio, checking his email, going through the faxes that had accumulated at the Ponderosa Office, and checking up on the news of the day on CNN.

Despite doing his best to concentrate on these things, he actually spent most of the morning contemplating how best to bury the man that had almost buried his youngest brother.  By early mid-morning he had come up with his plan and how best to implement it.  Making a phone call to a good friend of his, he set a time to meet for the early lunch at a favorite spot in Virginia City.


 With his black leather jacket in hand, Adam grabbed his cell phone and keys off of the sideboard, heading for the door.  As he turned the knob, Hoss walked around the corner.

"Hey Adam? I was just goin' to ask you if you wanted to stop by the hospital to visit Joe with me. Pa needs to come home for a bit and wants someone to stay with Joe while he's away."

Adam turned around, glancing at Hoss, "I can't Hoss, I've got to go meet somebody."

Hoss took an appraising look at his brother. Adam was dressed in black slacks and a blue shirt with black dress shoes; a bit nicer than he would normally wear to just 'meet somebody'.  "Well, I know you ain't got a date!  Mind tellin' me where you're going, then?"

Adam frowned, he didn't like being questioned, "Not that I think it's any of your business but I've got a friend to meet for a couple drinks."

Hoss couldn't help but be suspicious, he was too worried about what else his brother might do to get back at Preston.  Gently grabbing Adam's forearm with his meaty hand, he asked, "Adam, I know you're hurtin' about what happened to Joe, but don't do nuthin' you'll regret later. Pa, me, and Joe can't have you endin' up in jail."

Adam didn't answer as he pulled his arm from Hoss's grip, opened the door and walked out to his car.  Unlocking the door with his remote he was quickly in his Jaguar driving off to his meeting.  Adam sped down the Ponderosa Drive, fuming at his brother's questions.  'If there's anything I don't need, right now' Adam thought angrily, 'it's a damn babysitter!'


Twenty minutes later, Adam sat at a secluded table in one of the more exclusive establishments in Virginia City, "The Silver Dollar".  It was one of Virginia City's oldest restaurants and also a favorite hang out of the local powerbrokers.  Here big business deals were negotiated, promises were made, and politics played.

Representative Maria Ayres sat across from Adam, twirling a spoon on the table as she listened to Adam tell her about the events of the last few days. She was an old friend of Adam's, had dated him in college and off and on ever since then. Her long, dark brown hair complimented her light complexion. Her eyes were a hazel color, which matched the intensity of Adam Cartwright's as he spoke.

Maria Ayres, a 3rd term United States Congresswoman representing the Virginia City area, faced no real challengers in the coming election. A master politician she had quickly risen in the ranks of the Republican Party and was marked for bigger and better things in the near future.  She was known by many on Capital Hill, in Nevada, and even nationally, as a force to be reckoned with, both politically and personally.  It was even rumored that she would be picked as a Vice-Presidential candidate in the coming election, making her the first woman to be nominated by the Republican Party.

She leaned forward, placing a hand on Adam's making him pause, "Adam," she whispered, "Do you realize what you're asking me to do?  This is politically explosive!"

Adam leaned forward, his eyes intense as he spoke, "Maria, I'm not asking you to do anything illegal, it would just..."

"It would just be slightly unethical and politically stupid!" She shot back.  "Don't you think it would raise some eyebrows if I were to suddenly launch Congressional hearings focusing on a well-known business rival of yours who has not been even accused of anything illegal at this point?"

Adam frowned, "Maria, please, I know if he were just thoroughly investigated you would be able to find some illegal practices, enough to even put him in jail... or more..."

Shaking her head sadly, "Look, Adam, you know as well as I do, that this wouldn't be smart for me, the Governor is supposed to announce his VP running mate in two days..." pausing, she said, "Let's just say, I will be under even more scrutiny than I am now.  I mean, you and I have been involved off and on since college - if the media got a hold of this and looked into it, they would have a heyday.  And something else you haven't considered... the traditional stance of my party. We're not exactly known for going after businesses, it would be hard to convince many people to dig deeper if we can't find any wrongdoing on the surface. And from everything you've ever told me about Preston, he's good at covering up his dirty work."

Adam frowned again, his eyebrows knit together in frustration, "Maria, please..." he pleaded, "Can't you, can't you just pull some connections, maybe get someone else to launch a Congressional investigation, or maybe even the FBI or Justice Department?  We can't let this - this murderer have his way with the law anymore! You know he's got the Virginia City DA in his back pocket!  You think Cal Devins will ever try to put him away for anything short of mass murder?"

Maria sighed as she looked into his distraught eyes, "Adam...I..." Looking away, she carefully considered his words, "I'll have to think on this some more.  I may have a few people I can talk to, but only on two conditions..."

Adam raised one eyebrow in question, "And these are?"

"First, you'll have to give me something solid on Preston. Something I can work with, something that will make a hearing and any further investigations by the Justice Department or any legal entity perfectly legitimate."

"How about the attempted murder of my brother?" Adam replied acidly.

Closing her eyes briefly, Maria took took an even breath to calm herself, "Adam, you know as well as I that we don't have any proof of what he did or didn't do. I need hard facts, some solid indication that he has violated the law."

Looking up at him for his reaction, she sighed inwardly at his composed, calm facade. Although he had been a mess of emotions only moments before, now he was impossible to read. She had no idea what he was really thinking; he was too good at hiding his true emotions, even with her.

"You said there were two conditions?" He prodded, his voice showing no emotion.

Maria eyed him for a moment, still hoping to see some flicker of emotions in his dark eyes. Seeing nothing she continued in a calm, soothing tone. "Adam, I know you. I know how upset you are about Joe, but you have to promise me not to do anything stupid to Preston. Not just for yourself, you have to keep out of trouble because if you bring unwanted attention to this, I'll drop you faster than you can say hot potato. Understand?"

Adam glanced up at her, his eyes smoldering, "Yes, I understand. I understand that you care more about politics than you do about your friends."

Maria narrowed her eyes in anger, matching Adam's intensity, "Adam Cartwright, you KNOW that's not what it's about. You, yourself have said that Buck Preston is a man with powerful connections. You also know that if I pull strings for you I am not only risking my political career, but I am also putting my party at risk this fall. And THAT, my friend, I cannot and will not do."

Softening her tone, she continued, "Adam, you are one of the best people I know. You know I would do just about anything for you, but there is only so much I can do under these circumstances." Pausing, she finally said, "Look, I'll make some phone calls to some people who owe me in the Department of Justice. We'll see if maybe they can do some digging for me, but knowing Preston he's been careful enough to cover his tracks fairly well. I just need something more substantial to move much further than that... I'm sorry, I wish I could be of more help."  Placing her hand on Adam's she spoke quietly, "I know how hard this is for you, Adam, but please understand there is only so much I can do at this point."

Adam nodded, somewhat mollified, "Thank you" he whispered back. "I do understand and what ever you can do will be a help.  Maybe with a little political scrutiny some of Preston's clients won't be so eager to do business with him."

Maria smiled slightly, patting his hand once again, "I'll tell you one thing, Adam, you certainly know how to get to a girl.  You haven't lost your touch. I wouldn't do this for anyone else."

Adam gave her a quick wink as he tipped back his glass of wine to finish the contents.  "Good to see you haven't been corrupted by Washington politics, then!"

Maria smirked, "No, only by you."

Adam glanced down at his Rolex and noticed the time. "I'm sorry, but I've got to be running and take care of some business.  Maria, as always, it is such a pleasure to see you." He gave her a smoldering look that she recognized as being a request to join him later that night.  A wicked grin glided across her face.

"Sorry, not tonight, but thanks for the offer… that was what that was, right?" she asked playfully.

Adam returned her smile, "Well, if you change your mind … here's my number."  He reached into his inside pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a business card that he handed her.  As she took it, he grasped her hand and kissed it.  Maria slowly retracted her hand as she watched him leave.   Her eyes couldn't help taking in key parts of his anatomy.  Ever since she had known him there was one thing predictable about him and that was his final turn to look at her before he was out of sight.  He didn't disappoint her.

She smiled and waved as she reached into her briefcase and pulled out her Nokia mobile phone and hit the pound key, the number one, and then dial.  Leaning forward she placed her elbows on the table.  While listening to the ringing of the phone she read the business card she was holding in her hand.  "Adam Cartwright…Vice President"

Seeing his name in print made her think about their wild days at Harvard.  She had never been able to replace the magnificent lover that she had found in Adam Cartwright.  His attention to every detail about her and her body was unbelievable.  She couldn't control the wide grin that was determined to cross her face.  The only thing that turned her on more was power.  She was broken from her thoughts by an answer on the other end of her phone, she placed the card down on the table.

"Hello lover, it's Maria.”  She replied in a soft, sultry voice.  "He just left.  He was making a lot of accusations about you."  She looked down at the business card laying on the table, "He seems pretty determined to have you investigated.  I told him that I would try and make a few calls to some friends at the Justice Department." She glanced towards the door that Adam had exited through. "Of course I'm not going to!" she responded irritably, looking back down at the card. "I'm not pouting… I just don't like it when you treat me like a half-baked bimbo.”  Maria grabbed the salt shaker that was still sitting in front of her from lunch and poured some salt out on the tabletop.  She used it to spell out Adam's name then blew on it, erasing it.  She then spelled out another name and smiled, "What do you want me to do next?"  She asked as she sat back in her chair.  After a long pause she smiled wickedly, "That sounds like a good plan.  I'll see what I can do."

She crossed her free arm across her chest placing it under the arm that was holding her phone, "Will I see you tonight or will you be working late?"  She looked down at the business card on the table, smiling as she lifted it up towards her face, "No, that's okay… I have other plans anyway." Hanging up her phone Maria tucked the business card in her briefcase and left.

From the table behind her Hoss turned and watched her leave the restaurant.  Glancing at the table she had just vacated he saw the word "Buck" spelled out in salt.  He had a sickening feeling in his stomach that was quickly replaced by anger.  He needed to tell Adam, but how?  His brother was trusting this woman to help him and all the while she was playing him for a fool.  Hoss picked up his Stetson and placing a couple of bills on the table left The Silver Dollar to try and find Adam and break the news.


Adam arrived at the hospital and parked his Jaguar a good distance from the main entrance.  Having seen Maria he needed to walk off some of his "excess" energy.  She always did something to him.  She was beautiful, intelligent, but yet mysterious.  He had asked her to marry him once after they had gotten out of college but the timing hadn't been right for either of them.  She had her dreams of politics and he had his position at Cartwright Consolidated Enterprises.  When she had purchased her summer home on Lake Tahoe a couple of months ago he was the first one to knock on her door and welcome her.

Deep down, Adam was hoping this might be his door of opportunity to rekindle what was once lost.  Unfortunately, both of their work schedules had kept them on the road and this had been the first time he had seen her since that day.  A car horn blasted breaking him from his thoughts and forcing him to back out of the road.  He flashed the driver an irritated look then continued on his way towards the main entrance.

When the elevator door opened he stepped out into the hallway and turning to his right headed towards Joe's room in ICU.  Looking through the partially glazed window Adam spied his father sitting next to Joe's bed.  His bowed gray head meant that either he was sleeping or praying.  In Ben's lap was his well-worn Bible.  For as long as Adam could remember his father had always turned to it to get him through a crisis.  To Adam, though, it served as an unhappy reminder of the seriousness of Joe's condition.  Adam couldn't stop replaying the events that he had come home to that night before.

He had been at a late meeting and when he pulled up to the main house of the ranch he remembered thinking it peculiar that the front door was open and only a light in the living room was on.  Parking his car in the garage he was greeted by Hoss's Yellow Labrador.

"Hey Charlie.  What're you doin' boy?"  Adam said playfully giving the dog a firm scratch on the head.  Charlie broke from Adam's scratch and ran ahead stopping to turn and bark incessantly at Adam.  "What is it boy?  You waiting to get some dinner?  Hop Sing not feed you?"

The dog kept urgently barking at Adam who was starting to feel a sense of panic…something was wrong.  He adjusted his pace from a walk to a jog as he approached the front door.  He wasn't prepared for what he had found.  Joe was lying face down with a pool of blood surrounding his mid section.  In his one hand he was holding a mobile phone and the other looked like it was underneath him clutching his
chest.  There was a trail of blood that led from his body to the inside of the house.  Adam was scared.  He checked Joe's pulse on his carotid artery.  It was weak but at least he was alive.  Adam gently pried the phone from Joe's hand and quickly dialed 9-1-1 to get an ambulance to the scene right away.  His shouts for his father and Hoss were answered when they both came running from the stable where they’d been working.  His heart tightened painfully remembering the look on his Pa’s face.

It wasn't until the next day that the gunshot through the side window had been discovered.  It had found its target of young Joe Cartwright as he was coming from the kitchen.  The police figured that he had just sat down on the couch when it happened because there was a large pool of blood under the couch and the sandwich platter was broken along with some sandwich debris all over the floor.  The additional clues of the phone lines being cut and Hop Sing not being home due to his weekly visit in town with his family, had made it pretty clear to Adam that this had been a planned hit. The shooter knew Joe was in the house alone.

Ben raised his head and the movement brought Adam back to the reality that was facing him in the hospital room.  He saw his father lean over Joe then stand up straight and stretch his back.  Very wearily Ben Cartwright walked out of the room and headed down the hall away from Adam.  Adam had stepped out of sight to avoid being seen by his father.  When he was sure that it was clear he quietly entered Joe's room and took his father's seat beside his brother.  Adam listened to all the equipment beeping around him and watched the air bag raise and lower with each one of Joe's breaths.  Looking up at his youngest brother Adam was saddened by all the tubes that were taped to his face.  He couldn't help but feel responsible.

Taking a deep breath Adam tried to speak in a cheerful tone, "Hey little brother." He quietly said, "sorry I haven't been in to see you sooner.  Looks like they're takin' real good care of you though."  Adam felt awkward talking to Joe in this state.  It was so surreal and Adam just wasn't good at this kind of small talk…that was more Hoss's department.  Staring at Joe's pale face, a sudden wave of nausea and light-headedness overcame Adam.  He had never cared much for hospitals and the sounds and smells that surrounded him were a nagging reminder of just how much.  He rested his head on the edge of Joe's bed pausing to collect his thoughts.  When he felt his nerves had calmed Adam reiterated his promise of vengeance, "I'm sorry that this happened to you, Joe… I should've been there.  I promise that I'm going to get the man responsible… I promise."  Adam heard the click of the door.

"Adam?" came the tired question from his father.

Adam stood quickly glancing over at Ben, "Uh, hey, Pa."  Turning his eyes back to the still form of his youngest brother. "Has there been any change?"  His father walked over and stood next to his oldest son.

"No." came the gruff response.  Ben turned and looked at the bowed head of Adam staring down at Joe.  He placed an arm around his waist and patted Adam's lower back, "You look tired, why don't you go home and get some rest."

 Adam just shook his head.

"I can't.  I've got too much to do."  Adam raised his head and met his father's eyes. "You look terrible.  Where's Hoss?  I thought he was coming down here so you could go home and get some rest?"

"He was here, but I told him that I wouldn't leave.  Not until I was sure that Joe was going to be all right." Ben motioned Adam to step back from the bed so that they could get out of Joe's earshot.  "He said something about going to get some lunch and then try and find you.  He sounded worried."  Ben stared hard at Adam, "Is it something that I should be worried about too?"

Adam laughed a defensive laugh.

"No." Adam stated, "You know how Hoss is…he just likes to worry."  Ben just nodded.

"Well, your bruises say otherwise," Ben said, putting his hand on Adam's forehead and examining the scabbing cut over his eye,  "Your brother told me what happened." Ben lowered his hand, "You need to stay away from Buck Preston, Adam…let the law handle him."

Adam wrinkled his brow in anger, "He shouldn't have told you.  You've got enough to worry about."

"That's right Adam, so I'll say it again… stay away from Buck Preston…he's dangerous."  Adam couldn't promise his father anything.  He had a much bigger promise to keep.

"Yeah, sure.  Well, I've gotta be getting to the office and catch up on some things."  Adam said, crossing the room towards the door.  Pulling his Nokia phone from his pocket he waved it at his father, "If his condition changes, you'll call me, right?"  Ben reluctantly nodded his head.  He knew that his lecture had fallen on deaf ears.


Adam watched the elevator doors slowly open revealing the main reception desk of Cartwright Consolidated.  His father had truly built a magnificent empire.  Stepping off the elevator, Adam took in the smells of the office building.  They were so familiar and comforting to him.  He was very proud to be one of the Vice Presidents of this corporation.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Cartwright," came the greeting from the receptionist.

"Good afternoon, Julie," he responded, "Are there any messages for me?"

"No, sir." she answered, "Mary Sue picked them up earlier and took them back to your office." Adam nodded and, turning to his left, headed to his large, plush office in the corner of the building.

He met Mary Sue exiting his office.  She almost spilled her cup of coffee on him.  "Whoa!" she cried out, "I'm sorry.  Good afternoon, Mr. Cartwright," she said cheerily.

Mary Sue Cliburn had come to work for Adam several years earlier.  It was just before she had broken off her engagement with Buck Preston.  Of course, Buck blamed Adam for her change of heart even though it had nothing to do with him.  In fact, Adam didn't even know she was engaged to Buck until he overheard one of the office girls gossiping about it in the snack room.  He had never mentioned to Mary Sue how he found out.  He figured if she wanted him to know, then she'd tell him.  One year she finally did.  It had been a night after a staff Christmas party.  Adam was sitting in his office finishing up some work and Mary Sue had returned to wish him a Merry Christmas.  Somehow the conversation turned to her relationship with Buck.  Adam learned a lot about just how deep Buck's contempt was for him and the rest of the Cartwrights.  It was probably more than he cared or needed to know.

Adam continued into his office with the secretary hot on his trail.  "I didn't know if you were coming in today.  I've been trying to reach you all morning," she said frantically, "I tried to handle as many of your messages as I could, but the ones I couldn't are sitting on your desk according to their priority."

Adam placed his briefcase on the floor next to his desk. Moving to stand over the center he quickly riffled through his messages without looking up, "How come you didn't just call me on my mobile?  I've had it on all day."  When he heard no response he looked up at his secretary, "Mary Sue ?"

"I don't mean to be disrespectful, but … Well, do you have it on?" she asked apologetically.

Adam raised his eyebrow sardonically and, reaching into his pocket, pulled out his phone.  He discovered that it indeed was off.  "Dammit.  I guess with everything… I better check those messages too."  Adam tried to turn the power on and discovered the battery was dead. "Can you charge this back up or get another battery?"

"Sure," she stated, taking the phone from him, "Adam," she stated softly, "we were all sorry to hear about your brother.  Is he going to be okay?"

Adam looked back down at his messages, pausing to absorb her question.  For a few moments he had almost forgotten about Joe's condition.  He pasted on a smile and looked back up at her, "We don't know yet.  It was pretty serious.  Thank you for asking though."

She smiled at him, "I hope you know that I speak for the whole staff when I say that if there's anything we can do…I hope they catch whoever did it."

Adam slowly nodded at her.

"Well, I'll be at my desk if you need me." Turning she walked from his office and quietly closed the door behind her.

"Thanks Mary Sue ," Adam stared after her.  She was a very good assistant and he was lucky to have her as part of his staff.  He sat down behind his desk and picked up his phone so that he could dial in and check the messages on his mobile.  While he listened to them he continued to thumb through the messages in front of him.  He paused on one near the bottom that was from Ronnie Parker, a fraternity brother of his from college.  The message said he had just started an Internet investigation service and to call him when he got the chance.  Adam pulled the note from the pile and set it to one side…that might be very useful.

The next message came on, "Hey Adam, this is Maria.  It turns out that I'm not as busy tonight as I thought I was.  Give me a call if you still want to get together.  My number is 555-2246.  Hope to hear from you…maybe we can…  Well, I hope to hear from you."  She laughed and hung up.  Adam wrote down her number then quickly checked the rest of the messages to make sure there weren't any from his father or Hoss.  When he didn't hear any, he hung up the receiver button than dialed Maria.

"This is Maria.  If you got this message I must want to hear from you because I don't give this number to just anyone.  Leave me a message and I'll be paged and call you right back… Talk to you soon!  BEEEEP!"

"Maria, it's Adam.  Glad to hear you had a change of plans.  Use the code name when you call back.  I'll be sure to take the call." He hung up and smiled.  When they were in college they had made a game of creating secret nicknames to hide their identities from nosey roommates.  It kept the relationship exciting and mysterious.

Adam picked up the message from Ronnie and dialed the number.  He discovered that his good friend's business searched the Internet for any information about anything or anyone.  Adam wanted to know everything about Buck Preston.  This could be just the formula that Adam needed to outsmart Buck.  Ronnie and Adam were discussing the details of their business arrangement when Hoss walked into his office.  Adam motioned him to come in and sit down.  Wrapping up his conversation Adam let Ronnie know that he'd be checking in.  He wanted to stay informed about anything he found.  Hanging up the phone he moved to the front of his desk and stood in front of Hoss with his arms folded across his chest.

"What was that all about?" Hoss inquired.

"My latest plan," responded Adam enthusiastically.

Hoss scrunched his face at him. "It's going to keep you out of trouble isn't it?"

"Oh yeah." Adam replied.  A buzz on the intercom interrupted the conversation.  Adam turned and pushed the button, "Yes, Mary Sue?"

"Mr. Cartwright, there's a Ms. Kenobi on the line.  I told her you were in a meeting but she insisted that you'd speak with her."

Adam smiled and jumping up walked over to the phone, "Thanks, Mary Sue, I'll take it."

He got a real serious expression on his face before answering. "This is Adam Cartwright." He shot a quick glance at Hoss, who remained in the chair with a disturbed look on his face, "Yes, ma'am I did call you… can you hold on a minute?" Adam placed his hand over the receiver and whispered to Hoss, "Can you excuse me while I take this call?"  Hoss nodded his head, but Adam kept staring at him with the phone still covered, "I meant, can I have a little privacy?"

Hoss jumped up in understanding, "Oh!  Oh sure, Adam, but we need to talk when you finish up, all right?  It's kind of important."  Adam nodded his head then turning towards the large window behind him he returned to his phone call.

Hoss knew it was Maria.  Knowing Adam's history with her was going to make telling him all the more difficult.

The more Hoss paced as he waited in the reception area outside Adam's office, the angrier he became.  Although Adam never talked about it, Hoss knew that at one point in his life, Adam had wanted to marry Maria.  He never said so with so many words, but their sudden cool-down after college was a dead give-away that what he needed most was something Maria just couldn't give.

Although Adam had certainly had his share of casual relationships in the intervening years, that wasn't really who he was.  When Adam loved he loved deep, and Hoss knew Adam had never really found someone he was as comfortable with as Maria.

And now with this renewed contact with his former lover, what was in his brother's heart now?  Adam was a very smart man ---- one of the most brilliant people Hoss had ever known.  Not just book smart ---- that was balanced by common sense --- a special savvy that helped Adam excel in everything he tackled --- in fact it was that savvy that had gotten Cartwright Consolidated out of more then one tight spot, including scrapes with Buck Preston.

But sometimes, with women, it was a different story.  Hoss supposed his brother was too darn chivalrous and trusting for his own good.  Every once in a while, he was plumb blind-sided by a supposedly trusted female companion.  Adam was likely to charge full steam ahead with Maria all over again.

And Hoss would move mountains to ensure that his brother wasn't hurt like that again.  He would much rather pound the sense into Adam himself then have Maria lead his brother into a trap that could get him killed.  `Maria Ayres has used her last friend,' Hoss muttered under his breath as he stared through his brother's closed office door.

After what seemed like an eternity, Adam emerged from his office, pulling on his jacket.  He moved to brush past Hoss as he spoke.  "I'm sorry Hoss, I can't talk right now.  I've got an appointment.  Catch up with you later." He was surprised and irritated to feel his brother take a firm grasp of his arm and halt him in his tracks. "Look Hoss, this babysitter mode you're in is wearing a little thin.  Now let me go!"  Adam fumed.

Hoss knew his brother meant business when he used that tone but he wasn't about to let him go until Adam had heard what he had to say.  Not wanting to make a scene in front of Mary Sue, he dragged Adam back into his office and shut the door.

Although the office door `was' shut, Adam's shout reverberated throughout the main floor as he tossed his keys angrily onto the desk.  "Would you mind telling me just what in thunderation you think you're doing?"

Uh-oh.  When Adam started relying on his father's oft-used phrases he was really mad.  Hoss kicked at the carpet nervously and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Adam watched his brother fidget - a sure sign that he had something he knew Adam wouldn't want to hear.  He paled as he watched his brother and sat down on a corner of the desk.

"Has something happened to Joe?"  Adam spoke quietly, remembering his father couldn't reach him because his mobile was dead.

Hoss looked surprised and his head jerked up.  "Naw Adam.  It ain't nothin' like that.  Joe was fine when I checked in with Pa."

Adam let out a breath of relief.  "So?"  Adam folded his arms across his chest, waiting expectantly for Hoss to spill whatever was on his mind.

"Adam, you better sit down."

Adam looked down at his perch on the corner of the desk.  "Hoss, I am sitting down."

His middle brother finally looked up.  "Oh. Well, I think I need to sit down," and he did, in a chair near the door in case he needed to act quickly.  "Well Adam.  You see, the thing is…" He stumbled to a halt.

Adam sighed in disgust and moved to sit in his plush leather chair behind the desk.  He had a feeling this was going to take a while, but he didn't interrupt his brother, allowing him a chance to collect his thoughts.

"Adam, I went looking fer ya earlier today and went to "The Silver Dollar".

Adam leaned back in his chair, rocking it back and forth slightly. "Oh?  You must have arrived too late.  Neither Maria or I saw you."

Hoss blanched.  "Well Adam.  I reckon it's a good thing Maria didn't see me."

Adam's chair stopped rocking and it dropped sharply forward as he sat up straight and placed his hands on the desk, as though bracing himself for a blow.  "Just what are you talking about?"

"Well..well, Adam...as soon as you left, she made a phone call."  Hoss forced out.


"The phone call she made was to Buck Preston."

"BUCK PRESTON!!!" Adam kicked his chair back against the wall as he stood up suddenly, fuming.  He glared at his brother then took a deep breath, trying to understand what his brother was doing.  Taking another deep breath, he spoke to Hoss quietly.  "Look, Hoss, if you don't like Maria, just say so.  You don't have to make up any stories
about her."

Hoss sighed and stood, moving to square off against Adam at the other side of the desk, fists down and arms rigidly placed on the hard wood surface.

"Adam," Hoss's own voice deceptively quiet, "All my life, I've always listened to what you had to say, even if I didn't agree with it.  Now the least you can do is hear me out."

Adam sat back in his chair, defeated.  Hoss was right.  Of the three Cartwright brothers, Hoss was the gentlest, the one least driven to anger, and he had a sensible head that not only helped their business but helped the oldest and youngest siblings understand each other better.  The very least he could do would be to hear him out.  He leaned on a chair arm, his hand to his chin in thought as he rocked back in slow, measured beats.

"Adam, I know you and Maria go way back.  I know you still feel somethin' fer that gal."  He looked at Adam's face in that moment and knew he'd been right.  "But you are going to understand me, even if I have to pound it into your thick skull.  She's in cahoots with Buck Preston up to her eyeballs."

His brother didn't speak a word, didn't even bat an eyelash.  Hoss took a deep breath and delivered the final stinging blow.  "Adam, she doesn't care about you, she's only interested in using you.   Buck Preston owns her.  She's in his back pocket…and she's in his bed."

Adam closed his eyes as he abruptly stopped rocking the chair.  Very slowly, he swung his chair around, his back to Hoss, as he opened pain-filled eyes and stared out over the Virginia City skyline.

The deafening silence in the office seemed to go on forever.  Hoss watched the chair back, waiting for his brother to say something - anything.

Adam could only stare out the window - but he wasn't really seeing Virginia City.  How?  How could she do this?  How could she throw away all those years of friendship?  Of closeness?  He felt the bile of distaste rise in his throat.  He knew exactly how.  The one thing that consumed Buck Preston - the lust for power.

When Adam finally swung around to face Hoss his face was an impassive, hard mask, but it didn't fool Hoss in the least.  Underneath the façade his brother was hurting.  Adam was reacting the way he always did when hurt came his way --- he'd bury it under the surface, refusing to deal with it, waiting until it all exploded at once.    Hoss prayed that Maria Ayres and Buck Preston would be safely behind bars before that explosion occurred.

Adam said nothing, just stood and moved for the door with purpose.

Hoss once again jumped up and blocked his route.

"Get out of my way, Hoss."

"No way, brother.  I'm not going to let you throw yourself to the lions."

Adam turned to his brother angrily.  "Let me go, Hoss.  She's expecting me any minute.  I can't make it look like we know anything."

Hoss scrutinized his brother carefully.  "Just what do you have in mind?"

Adam put an arm around Hoss's shoulder.  "Now look.  Right now, neither Maria nor Preston know we know that Maria's crooked, right?"

Hoss nodded.  "Right."

"Now what sense would it make for us to have an angle to work on and not use it?"  He cut Hoss off before he could protest further.  "Don't worry Hoss.  I won't let her suck me in.  It seems I've learned a thing or two about the art of using people."

Hoss studied his brother for long moments.  He didn't like the idea of Adam getting himself in any further.  But Adam was right, they had to use whatever angles they could to put Buck Preston away.  He finally nodded his consent.

"All right, Adam.  What have you got planned?"

Adam paced for a moment, coming to a decision.  He glanced back at Hoss who was the picture of worry.

"Okay, so we know they are...both...enemies."  Adam seemed to have trouble with the admission as he stopped for a moment and turned back to stare out of the large picture window behind his desk.

"That's right, we do."  Hoss waited patiently for Adam to continue.

"Well, then, there's no way else to tackle this than to try and bring them both down.  If she's in with Preston, there's no telling what sort of corruption she's filtering through her political office.  They both love power, and she's after the Vice-Presidency.  That means Preston is after puppet control of that office, through whatever methods he can find.  Once he has a political figure like Maria in his back pocket, no telling what he'll do."

"Yeah, you're probably right, Adam. But they's mighty clever.  How we gonna prove any of this?"

Adam turned back to his brother.  "I'm not quite sure yet.  But there's something I've learned about crooked businessmen and bent politicians over the years.  Somewhere, at some time, some way, they leave a trail of dirt for us to find.  We have to pound the streets, Hoss.  Gather information.  Listen, observe and wait.  Sooner or later, we'll stumble onto something concrete, and when we do, Preston is going to get his just rewards."

Hoss sighed deeply as he noticed Adam was gathering his keys and jacket once again.

"Hey, Adam, you're not still going to meet her, are you?"

Adam delayed raising his head for just a fraction of a second to look at Hoss.  Hoss noticed the delay, then observed the easy, carefree smile that had been carefully placed on his older brother's face as he walked towards him.

"Don't worry about me, I'll be fine.  I can't make her suspicious.  She doesn't suspect I know anything."

"Well, you just watch yourself, big brother.  She ain't nothing but a big ol' widow spider waiting in her web for you to just walk straight in.  You mind you don't go gettin' all tangled up."

Adam smiled genuinely this time at Hoss's choice of words. "Not a chance.  Besides, what would I want with her, anyway?  She's allergic to animals.  How could I seriously like a woman like that, huh?"  Hoss and Adam both chuckled together, relieving the tension a fraction.  "Oh, Hoss.  There is something I'd like you to do for me after I'm gone.  You remember last week, I taught you how to send e-mail?"

"Er, yeah, sure Adam."  Hoss looked worried all over again.

"I need you to send an urgent message to this address."  He strode swiftly back to his desk and wrote Ronnie Parker's e-mail address down on a piece of paper.  "Here.  This is an old friend of mine who is going to look into a few things on the web about Buck Preston.  Send a message saying you'd also like to cross reference Buck Preston with Maria Ayres." Adam pressed the address into Hoss's large hand and slapped him on the shoulder.  "Can you do that for me?"

"Oh, sure, no problem, Adam.  I done mastered that e-mail thing.  Don't you worry none."

"Thanks.  And Hoss, if you should get any more news on Joe's condition, call me.  I don't care what time, okay?"

"Sure, Adam."

Hoss watched his brother walk out the door and disappear down the corridor.  He didn't like letting him go, but he felt better that Adam knew the truth about Maria.  At least now, he'd be careful.  Hoss then looked down at the piece of paper in his hand.  He frowned intensely. "Dadburnit, I suppose I'd better try and send this darn thing." After a few more minutes of contemplation, he left Adam's office and trudged down to the opposite end of the corridor.  On the way, he passed Mary Sue, who was just leaving for the day.

"Oh, Hoss.  Adam told me to give you this."

"Huh?"  Hoss turned and blushed as Mary Sue gave him a bright smile.

"His mobile phone number."

"But I know his number." Hoss came back to the reception desk.

"No, his phone was dead and I didn't have a spare battery, so I gave him mine for the night.  He wanted to make sure he could be reached and that you got the new number."  She continued to smile as Hoss blushed more deeply.

"Oh, thanks Mary Sue.  Sure do appreciate it."

"Well, of course, that's usually MY number.  So, don't lose it, will you?"

Hoss heard a strange inflection in Mary Sue's voice, but didn't comment. "No, Ma'am.  I sure won't."  He turned and started for his office again.

"Er, Hoss. Will you be needing anything?  I was about to go, but..."

Hoss turned and looked at her more thoughtfully.  "Nah, it's okay.  It's getting late.  You must wanna get home."

"No, not really.  I don't have anything on tonight."  She smiled again.

"Well, how about a cup of coffee then.  When I'm done, I'll walk you to the parking lot."

"All right."  Hoss turned red again as he watched her walk away towards the lunchroom.  She sure was a pretty little filly.  Then, he turned and contemplated his impending fight with the computer.

After Adam left the building, he could finally let some of his emotions loose.  Maria was in with Buck Preston.  After all these years, she was one of the few people Adam had always thought he could trust.  Why was he such a bad judge of character where women were concerned?  In business, there was none sharper or more astute than Adam.  But privately, he'd failed in sustaining any sort of worthwhile relationship with a woman.  Maybe he expected too much from his relationships.  Was it asking too much to want a woman that loved him completely and unconditionally in this harsh modern world?

Maybe there weren't any women left like that anymore.  Maria Ayres
was definitely OFF the list.  With that depressing thought, he fortified his heart, walked to his private car space, unlocked his jag and slid into the soft leather upholstery.

Turning over the powerful V12 engine, he sat for a moment, warming the car and thinking back to more innocent times in college with Maria.  She'd always been ambitious.  She'd wanted public office and power all along.  Adam was fooling himself thinking that being his wife, even though he was one of the richest and most successful businessmen in the country, would have ever been enough for her.  It was even less so, once she entered politics.

When Adam had heard that Maria purchased a summer home at Tahoe, he'd been half hoping she wanted to rekindle their relationship.  Well, that might have been correct, but it was obvious now it would have been for all the wrong reasons.  Preston could have been setting this up for months, even years.  Adam's expression hardened again, as Preston's deeds resurfaced in his mind.   Joe's pale and deathly white face hovered in his view. Cartwrights took care of their own.  If Maria was tainted with Preston's brush, then she'd better get ready for a fall. Gathering his determination, he squealed the soft tires on his jag as he left the underground parking area.

On the shores of Lake Tahoe, Maria Ayres prepared for Adam's arrival.  The house she'd purchased a couple of months earlier was a stunning showcase for the lake and her decadent taste.  Rich, dark, highly polished wood floors were in stark contrast to white walls, cream furniture and vividly colored modern art.  A round fireplace was the centerpiece in the lounge area.  It was enclosed by glass and crackled softly, reflecting deep red flames onto the glass doors that opened out onto a wide verandah.  An impressive, uninterrupted view of the brilliant blue lake and the Sierra Mountains lay in front of the house.

Maria prowled around her parlor, making sure everything was ready.  She poured herself a scotch and walked out onto the deck.  From there, she could observe the road that hugged the lake further around, towards the main gates of the Ponderosa.  She flicked her dark brown hair back from her shoulders and let her black silk negligee and lounging robe blow freely in the light summer breeze.  Even though she would ultimately destroy Adam Cartwright, what harm would there be rediscovering his superb lovemaking?  If even just for one night.  She laughed evilly as she watched the darkness close in on the landscape, and waited for the bait to fly into her web.

Adam threw his sports car into the switchbacks, ripping up and down the gears like a Nascar driver.  He was taking the road up Mt. Rose and was working out a lot of his frustration by driving like a man possessed.  The car performed well, hugging the curves and accelerating in the straights at a blistering pace.  Adam was two thirds of the way up and starting to feel good when he noticed blue lights flashing in his rear-view mirror.

"Oh, hell!"  Adam swore as he slowed and pulled over at the next turnout.  He stayed in the car and rubbed his eyes at the embarrassment.  Of course, it had to be none other than Roy Coffee in his sheriff's vehicle.

Adam pressed the button to lower his window, allowing Roy to push his concerned, but slightly smug face into view.

"Howdy Adam.  I don't need to tell you how dangerous you was just bein' on this here road."

"I know, Roy.  I don't know what got into me.  Sorry."  Adam sighed and looked at his life-long friend.

Roy stared at him hard. "Now, I know you're all cut up about Joe and all, but that don't mean you can endanger your life and others by drivin' like a maniac."

"Yes, Roy."  Adam resigned to his fate and listened to Roy deliver stern warnings for several more minutes.

"Now, I'm gonna give you a ticket, Adam.  Just to remind you that I'm serious."


Roy wrote a ticket, handed it to Adam and watched him drive away at a more sedate pace.  Roy was concerned about him.  He knew the suspicions about Joe's attempted murder.  Ben had poured out his concerns after the shooting.  Roy wondered if Adam was getting himself in too deep.  It was then that he decided he might follow Adam for a while, at a distance.  If he wasn't heading home, he might just need some help.

"Dadburnit!"   Hoss banged his thick fingers on his desktop.  "I'm just all thumbs!"

Mary Sue, hearing the commotion from outside Hoss's office, came trotting in. "What's the matter Hoss?  Anything I can do to help?"

"Oh, Dadburnit, Mary Sue.  I just cain't type this dang message.  And I plumb forgot what button to push to get on line."

Mary Sue smiled sympathetically and moved next to the bulkiest Cartwright brother. "Don't worry, Hoss.  I'll show you."

"That's mighty kind of you, Ma'am."

"Mary Sue, Hoss."

She sat down at the computer and corrected the message he'd been trying to create.  Her brow creased as she read the two names.  Her ex-fiancé, who had hurt her beyond reason several years earlier, and Maria Ayres.  Another person she didn't trust.  Mary Sue let her mind drift back to things she'd seen earlier in the summer.  Curious things between these two people that she'd not understood at the time.  Maybe she could help Hoss and Adam in their investigations.

Adam pulled up outside Maria's home and took a deep breath.  Why did he feel like a lamb to the slaughter?  He got out of the car and hit the alarm button.  He steadied himself and prayed that he could stay above it all.  As he rang the bell, he checked the small tape recorder in his jacket pocket.  He'd picked it out of his briefcase in the car as an afterthought.   From down the road a ways, Roy Coffee sat in his patrol car, watching patiently.

Slowly the front door opened.  Adam, his body tense, his mind racing, looked over the vision of Maria Ayres dressed in nothing but a lacy black teddy and flimsy silk robe.  Would his soul survive?  Would he be able to keep his wits about him?

"Adam, darling.  Come in…I've been waiting."

Gathering his courage, Adam smiled seductively, took her hand, kissed it and walked into her web.


Rain. Well, that just figured. But it suited his mood and he reached down automatically to engage the wipers as the first staccato spatter hit the windshield. The cloud cover blotted out even the faint light left behind by the encroaching dusk and he pushed on the high beams, wheeling recklessly into a turn. The tires whined warningly, grabbing for better purchase on the wet pavement. The spatter of rain was rapidly becoming a heavy thrum and he poked irritably at the defroster as condensation crept across the windshield. Somehow or other his hand, a little unsteady, failed to locate the elusive button and he glanced down impatiently to find it, slapping at it ruthlessly. He heard the obedient hum begin with half an ear - his mind was focused on the conversation running round and round in his head - and glanced back at the road, squinting to make it out through the diminishing fog on the windshield.

What he saw made him yank the wheel sharply to the right, the whine of the tires rising to a shrill scream, then dropping away to an ominous whoosh as they lost contact with the road and flew lightly above the blacktop, hydroplaning into a spin. For a moment there was a misty, careening flash of trees and rain and an open drop of space and then he felt the tires catch at the pavement - grip - and slow - turning obediently now under his guiding hand. Automatically he jammed at the turn signal, pumping gently at the brakes to slow his progress and pulling the car far over into the shoulder.

He sat for a second, feeling the adrenaline thundering through his veins in time to the rain beating on the windows, then shifted into park and thumbed the button for the hazard lights before carefully, almost delicately, reaching down to shut off the ignition. The hum of the engine fell silent. He sat that way for a moment, the only sounds the steady timpani of the rain on the car roof and his own ragged breathing, then gradually leaned forward to rest his elbows on the steering wheel. He watched the rain pounding the windshield, sheeting the glass, mesmerized - thinking…remembering. After a minute he dropped his head into his hands and sighed. Oh, Maria.

He didn't know what he had expected - of her - of himself. Deep inside he supposed he was hoping for an explanation - for something that would prove it was all a terrible mistake - a colossal misunderstanding.

Maria had looked - ravishing. Definitely dressed to seduce. But what did that prove? That's what he had come for, wasn't it? That didn't make a woman guilty of anything. She had led him inside and he had taken a minute to admire the layout - an elegant design - open and airy. She tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and glanced around with him.

"What do you think?"

"Beautiful," he admitted, taking in the high ceilings and the way the living room opened gracefully into a kitchenette and dining area.

"Can I get you a drink?" she gestured toward an elegantly appointed wet bar, then gave him a mischievous glance. "Look what I have ready. Do you remember?"

He followed her gesture and something inside him unraveled a little. "Of course I do." The words sounded suffocated to his own ears.

"Of course, this is a little better than that old blender in my dorm room, but I still make the best ones. You still drink margaritas, don't you?"

He nodded, wearing what he hoped was a cordial smile, sliding his gaze quickly away from hers. "Is there someplace I can hang up my jacket?"

She gestured over her shoulder. "Just toss it on the couch. I'm afraid I'm not a much better housekeeper than I ever was. Thank God for the cleaning woman."

He forced a teasing smile. "Some things never change." And some things do. Oh God, how they change. He slid out of his jacket and draped it neatly over one arm of the sofa, feeling the weight in one pocket bump against him. The tape recorder.  He glanced at Maria - she was busy at the bar - and pulled it out, palming it and slipping it into the couch cushions. He winced. What was he doing? Spying on a friend. How could he go through with this? His mind swung back to Joe, his face half-hidden by a respirator and his arms laced with tubes, and he hardened his heart. Well, if she was innocent this would only prove it and if she wasn't…he watched her carefully pour the margaritas and turn to him, flashing a warm smile.  His heart clenched like a fist in his chest. If she wasn't, he needed to know that. He couldn't quite meet her eyes and focused instead on the vista below, moving restlessly to the glass doors.

"Hell of a view."

"I was just thinking the same thing." She winked at him, smiling significantly, gliding across the room and offering him a glass. "Let's have a toast, shall we? To old friends."

"Old friends." The glasses chimed and he took a sip. The sting of the salt on his lip followed by the sweet/tart taste of the drink and coupled with the faint, spicy scent of her perfume was painfully reminiscent and he met her eyes fully for the first time, searching them for something. "You wear the same perfume," he said at last.

"Because you always liked it." She reached up and ran the back of her hand along his cheek. "It's so good to see you, Adam." Her touch burned him like liquid fire and he wondered how anyone could be so aroused and repelled at the same time. He brought his eyes back to the sprawling panorama below them. He felt her move closer, lean into his shoulder. The fragrance of her hair was intoxicating. "Now, you see, that was your cue to say that it's good to see me too."

He sipped at his drink. "I've missed you, Maria. Missed what we had." Or what I thought we had. Surely it wasn't just me? Did I imagine it all?

Her hand danced, feather-light, down his spine. "Well, I'm right here. And recapturing what we had is exactly what I had in mind." She put down her glass and moved in front of him, running her hands up his chest and leaning into him for a kiss.

He stiffened involuntarily and took a step back and away from her.

She stopped, her face still, something new there - questioning.

He groaned inwardly. And now he was making her suspicious. Oh, he was no good at this - he had never been any good at playing at love. What had made him think he would be? Because she was?  He cleared his throat, stalling a little. "I - have some bruised ribs - " he explained tentatively.

Her face relaxed and she reached up and swiftly unbuttoned his shirt, sliding her hands inside to push it open. She left a trail of heat where her hands brushed over his skin. She clicked her tongue softly as she studied the blueberry colored splotch that covered his left side. "Oh, dear - look at that. And what did this? The same thing that battered that beautiful face?"

"Buck Preston," he said simply, watching her.

She didn't even flinch. "Well, then, we really must do something about him." She forced his shirt gently down over his shoulders. "A number of nasty marks, haven't you? Has a doctor looked at these?"

He shrugged, then wished he hadn't. Ouch.

"Do you know what I think you need? Do you remember how I used to take care of you when you came back from a college game all bruised and battered? Well, I have the most wonderful tub here - Jacuzzi jets and the works - huge. Why don't I just warm it up and you climb in for a soak and then I'll climb in with you and work all those kinks right out. I'll have you feeling like yourself in no time." She rested her hands on his biceps and raised her brows at the tension in his arms. "I think it's just what the doctor ordered. You're wound up like a spring." She began to pull his shirt gently from his waistband.

He sought her eyes this time, trying to find out what was really there, his own a little pleading even though his tone remained light. "Speaking of doctors…did you ever finally get your doctorate?"

"Oh, my, yes - you should read my thesis sometime. I'm told it's very - " she paused, sliding her hands up his bare back, enjoying the play of the muscles under the skin. "absorbing," she finished in a whisper, standing on tip toe and offering her mouth again. This time he took it

The kiss seemed to go on forever, poised somewhere between his past and his future. Maria's hands traveled upward and buried themselves in the curls at his nape as she pressed herself lightly against him. His mind's eye whirled with pictures…he and Maria at a college football game…Maria confiscating his Harvard sweatshirt as protection from the cold…their first date…their first…time…then Joe's face, cold and still in a puddle of blood unexpectedly intruded itself, and his father's, worn and tired and creased with worry…Hoss's, anxious and concerned…he put his hands on her shoulders and pulled back.  "I can't do this."

He wasn't really aware he had said it out loud until she smiled at him, her own eyes lazy and drugged with passion. "I thought you were doing just fine." Her hands skimmed up his arms toward his neck.

He captured them in his own and held them firmly. "No."

She looked at him then and for the first time he saw something in her that made a shiver of unease run through him. No, Maria. Oh, no.

"What's this all about?"

He swallowed carefully, trying to gather his scattered wits. "Maria, I know I - that this was my - " he looked down at the hands he still held in his. They hadn't changed so very much. How had everything else? "I really thought that spending time with an old friend - talking and - would be comforting, would help - " Oh, God. He really had thought that, hadn't he? What a fool he was. "But now I realize - Maria, Joe is shot - my father is at the hospital - I should be there, with them. I'm sorry, but I have to go." He searched her face. Tell me it's all a lie. Tell me it's all wrong.  Tell me that Hoss was mistaken, that I'm mistaken, take me back to just a few hours ago when everything was so different and I believed in you…

She was watching his eyes, reading…what? He wasn't an easy man to read when he didn't want to be except, perhaps, by those who knew him well. Maria had known him very well indeed.

Something in her face became careful, frozen. "But Adam, you just got here."

He watched her eyes and saw something else there - something that chewed into his heart and left it dangling, empty and fragile and useless, in the middle of his chest. He felt his face harden.

"And now I'm leaving," he had answered coolly, and made a snatch for his jacket.

They had fought, then. He pushed himself away from the steering wheel and leaned back in the comforting leather of the seat, feeling drained and weary. He couldn't remember about what, exactly - it was loud and long - he remembered that... He smiled ruefully. Must have caused a stir among the neighbors.

It wasn't important anyway - he knew what they were really fighting about - about his rage and hurt and disappointment and disillusionment. Probably she knew, too. He had never been able to fool her, not really. Her sharp, incisive mind was one of the things he loved about her. Had loved. Past tense.

The sudden shrill of his cell phone made him jump, then fumble to grab it from the passenger seat.  Maybe Hoss…?  He glanced at the illuminated number - not Hoss - then pressed the phone to his ear. "Ronnie?"

"Hey, Adam." Ronnie's preternaturally cheerful voice crackled a little. "Got your brother's email. Think I have something for you."

"About Maria and Buck?" He cursed the faint part of himself that still hoped that Ronnie would have something that would explain Maria's involvement - absolve her of all suspicion. "What is it?"

There was a pause. "Not over a cell phone, okay? These things are anything but secure.  I don't even want to use email. Look, do you have plans? If you want to drop by I'll go over everything."

Adam released his breath slowly. Just what he needed - something useful to do.  "Sure. I'll be there right away." He hung up and adjusted his seatbelt, reaching for the key in the ignition. The small phone jangled again. He snatched at it. "You forget something?" There was a long pause. He frowned. "Ronnie?"

"Adam, it's me." He closed his eyes, pushing back a sudden tidal wave of emotion. Maria.  "Adam, I know I was - unreasonable…I was disappointed and I overreacted, but - I hate to leave things like this between us. Can't you please come back so we can work things out? Please, Adam."

He felt his fist tighten around the small phone. How had she gotten this number? Oh, of course - he had given it to her - just before Hoss had made his stunning announcement. "I'm sorry, Maria. I have someplace I have to be."

"I know, Adam." She sounded - was she crying? "The hospital. I know. But - there's something I have to tell you - something I should have told you a long time ago…it's very important. Please, Adam. I won't take long - I promise."

The blood pounded in his ears. Was this it? Was she going to tell him about Buck? Explain her involvement with him? Perhaps give him information that would finally lead to bringing Buck down? He stared at the line of black numbers on the face of the phone. Or it could be a trap. But what if it wasn't? Was it a chance he dared let go by? He drew in a breath. "All right, Maria." he said quietly at last. "I'm on my way." He thought he heard her sob as the connection was abruptly terminated. He turned over the engine and swung the car into a tight U-turn and pointed its nose back up the mountain.

Sheriff Coffee had sat and watched Adam disappear into Maria Ayres townhouse, suddenly uncomfortable. He had not missed the sight of the thin, silken robe that revealed more than it concealed and he flushed in embarrassment. He suddenly felt more like a voyeur than a friend trying to help.  He shifted in the front seat, undecided. Wasn't much point to sitting here watching a young couple have a date.  He wasn't sure what he had been watching for exactly, but certainly not that. Adam was having kind of a tough time and if he was looking for comfort in the arms of a beautiful woman, well, that was his business, not Roy's.

He glanced up at the storm clouds moving in overhead. Wouldn't be a bad idea to be back to town before the rain started, and it was going to start, mark his words. He reached for the radio and checked in, giving his location and noting that he was free for duty. He was about to turn over the engine when a sound caught his ear. Yelling. He glanced back at the townhouse. Well, that sounded like Adam, all right. His voice was shrilly topped by what must be Maria's. He shuddered. Hate to be in the middle of that fight.

The faint sound of thunder rumbled overhead. Maria's voice rose higher and there was a sound of breaking glass. He frowned a little. Then again, if this was going to turn into a domestic disturbance…

The radio crackled. "Hey, Roy - if you're still free we got a traffic pile up at the bottom of Mt. Rose. Some genius taking that turn too fast.  Since you're out that way we sure could use your help."

Roy hesitated. Well, Adam was a level-headed boy and Roy had already humiliated him once this evening - probably he could handle whatever ugly turn his love life had taken in there.  He picked up the microphone. "Sure thing, Charlie - I'm on my way."

Adam turned off the engine and sat studying the townhouse for a minute. Maria had left a light burning for him.

What was it she had to tell him? And how would he know whether or not it was the truth? He glanced at the car clock. Probably he should check in with Hoss, but he was in a hurry to get this over with. Well, Hoss thought he was with Maria and here he was. He'd call him on the way to Ronnie's and fill him in. He pushed open the car door before he lost his nerve and stepped into the rain.

Maria was not waiting at the door this time. He reached up to knock and the door swung gently inward under his hand. He hesitated. "Maria?"

Silence was his only answer. Maybe she was in the bedroom. He stepped cautiously into the foyer. "Maria?" he repeated, more loudly. The soft music she had had playing for his earlier arrival was still going, but otherwise, nothing. The lamps were on, the lighting subdued. He frowned. What sort of game was she playing with him now? "Maria, it's Adam.  I thought you wanted to see me?"

He made his way into the living room, glanced toward the bedroom. The door was ajar. He walked toward it, his feet sounding loud on the bare floors, kicked something heavy and solid in the dim lighting and heard it skitter across the polished wood, coming to rest with a faint "crack" against the glass doors. He turned his gaze to seek it out, identify it. Just like the good old days, he thought dryly. Things all over the floor.  He recognized the shape and something caught at his throat. He made a move toward it. Before he reached it, however, something else snagged his vision and he froze, the room swimming for a moment before his eyes. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…he dropped to his knees. Oh, God. Maria.

The blood had made some real distance - it sprayed one wall, drenched the skirt of the sofa, the bright crimson a stomach churning contrast to the cream walls and furniture. He fumbled and dropped the cell phone and had to scramble for it - the buttons seemed impossibly small to fingers suddenly gone cold and bloodless. He closed his eyes and waited for a seeming eternity.


He cleared his throat. "I need an ambulance…" he gave the address. His voice sounded faint and tinny to his own ears. "Better send a police officer, too." His eyes drifted to the item he had kicked against the doors. "She's been shot."

The 911 Operator might have been asking him something else - he couldn't seem to understand her anymore and tossed the phone aside, switching his attention to Maria. This couldn't, mustn't be happening again…first Joe, then Maria…

He turned her over gently. She was still wearing the teddy, but had swapped the silk robe for an oversized, faded Harvard sweatshirt. His, he thought, and the realization was almost his undoing.  She had kept it all these years? He clenched his teeth hard and got a hold of himself - no time for that now - Maria needed him.  He felt for a pulse. Faint, but there. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks he bent for a better look at the wound. Close range. Straight through, with a doozy of an exit wound…he stumbled to the bathroom and grabbed some towels, spotted an ace bandage and grabbed that too, then snatched a handful of cushions from the couch as he passed by. He pressed the towels on either side of the wound and then fastened them there with the ace bandage. While he was straining it tight, Maria's eyes opened slightly. He smiled faintly at her. "Just hang on, Maria. An ambulance is on its way."

She said something - it might have been his name or it might have been a sigh - then her eyes slid closed again. He pushed her hair off her forehead. "Don't worry about it - you're going to be okay." He looked at her. With her face washed free of makeup she looked shockingly like the young co-ed he had dated all those years ago. His heart crumbled within him.

Who would do something like this? Who would shoot her and just leave her? His eyes drifted questioningly back to the gun. And then be stupid enough to leave the gun? Not that there was anything special about it. It was an average semi-automatic - lots of people had them - he had one just like it himself. Had had, he corrected himself. He had lost his to Preston when he'd stormed his office…the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.

Preston.  His gun.  He gave Maria's hand a squeeze and left her for a minute to look at the gun more closely. Even in the soft lighting he could make out the initials "AC" stamped low on the handle. He stared, his mind racing. He lifted his eyes and skimmed the apartment. The margarita glasses were just where they'd left them - his fingerprints still on them. That fight he and Maria had had, loud enough to disturb the neighbors…and now here he was, covered in her blood. He went swiftly back to Maria's side and felt for her pulse again. Still there, but God, she was cold. He dragged an afghan from the couch and tucked it around her, thinking. Even if he got rid of the glasses and the gun his fingerprints were everywhere and ballistics would find the casing…besides, interfering with a crime scene, no matter what, was a little more than he could bring himself to do. He could explain, of course - Hoss knew that he no longer had that gun - that Preston had it in his possession. But the word of a loyal younger brother may not carry a lot of weight at the police station. He would have a lot of questions to answer - about his visit with Preston, his knowledge about Preston's and Maria's connection, his fight with Maria tonight…he closed his eyes. And not a single shred of proof to back up his claims.  Except…

He opened his eyes again. Ronnie.  Maybe the information he had would help him - would add some credibility to his story. He had to get to Ronnie. He looked at Maria. But how could he leave her here…?

The faint sound of sirens approaching carried over the patter of the rain and he stood, torn. Could be the ambulance. Could be the police. He made a decision. He couldn't do anything from an interrogation room, but if he could get to Ronnie, maybe he could do something to bring Preston down. Now, before he had the chance to hurt anyone else. The way he'd hurt Joe. The way he'd hurt Maria. He gave Maria's hand a squeeze. "Hang on, Maria. Ambulance is almost here." He felt a twinge of conscience as he made his way to the bedroom. He didn't like going contrary to the law, but right now he didn't stand a chance - he and so many other innocent people. He would hear what Ronnie had to say, then he would go to the law himself.

The fire escape was outside the bedroom window, just as he'd guessed. The window opened smoothly and silently and he swung himself out onto the iron grating, pulling the window shut behind him. The sound of the siren was closer now, and he kicked the ladder to its full length, scrambling down it and dropping the rest of the way to the earth, losing his footing on the slippery ground and landing on his knees in the mud. He swore silently as his bruised side protested and clutched it for a minute, catching his breath. The siren's sudden nearness was all the impetus he needed to get him back on his feet and moving. He peered around the side of the building for a glimpse of the siren-bearing vehicle. Nothing in sight yet, his first minute of luck in days.  He was in his car with the engine started while the siren was, he guessed, a good couple of turns of the winding road away.

Despite his racing heart he kept the car at a slow, even pace - no speeding tickets now - no need to draw attention, either - wondering idly what the penalty was for leaving the scene of a violent crime. By the time he had rounded the third bend he had to pull over to let the ambulance pass. He let out his breath in relief. Good. They would take care of Maria. He would check in on her later tonight - when he checked on Joe - after he talked to Ronnie and before he went to talk to the police. He realized his teeth were chattering - either from shock or the rain that drenched his clothes - and turned the heater up to high. The length of Mt. Rose was disappearing under the steady spin of his wheels and he took his first full breath as he recognized the approach to the bottom. Not much further now.  He swung into the final turn and had to suddenly slam on his brakes - the Jaguar skidded and stuttered onto the shoulder before he could bring it to a stop.

Before him was an enormous traffic pile up, as far as the eye could see in the dark and rain - lit by a few flares, with Roy's men working patiently to clear the road and get traffic moving again.  Probably all had been delayed further by the need to get the ambulance through.

He hesitated, trying to decide what he dreaded more - the wait, or having to go through a police cordon. He could turn around…he shifted into reverse - three wheels growled under him and one spun futilely. Oh, no. He got out.

The rain batted at him, drenching him further, but washing away some of the mud and the blood as he bent to look at the wheel. It was deep in the mud - right up to the rim. He would not be budging it without a tow truck. Or, at least, Hoss.  He stayed crouched there, staring at it as the rain pelted down on him, suddenly exhausted, his mind blank. What now?

He could get back in the car and wait for someone to come find him. Or…he looked away from the road, to the terrain that comprised the road's shoulder. Or, the Ponderosa wasn't too far from here. He could make it cross country if he went on foot.  Little slippery, of course, in the mud and rain, but…he made up his mind - or what was left of it. He was running on empty now, instinct overriding logic and brainpower. He gathered Mary Sue's cell phone and his keys from the Jag and set the alarm. He would send someone back for it. A tow truck.

He started down the muddy slope, keeping just out of sight of the road. Well, Pa, he thought as he slipped part of the distance on some wet leaves and jarred his side painfully, maybe now you should start to worry. Just a little.


The downpour had finally quieted to a gentle, intermittent drizzle, the tail end of a fast moving squall.  Adam had been on the move for over an hour, scrambling blindly without benefit of the moonlight to help him pick his way over the uneven terrain.  He'd stumbled time and again in the darkness, finally tumbling down an embankment, landing hard on his bruised ribs.  After that last fall, he had to rest.  He wouldn't stop long, just long enough to get his wind.  Sagging against a nearby tree trunk, he cradled his injured side gingerly and sucked in a great gulp of the cold night air to feed his oxygen-starved lungs.

"Damn!"  Adam hissed softly at the sharp pain that pierced his chest.  Doubling over, he pressed both arms tightly against his ribs, hoping to stop the agonizing spasm that gripped him.  Slowly, carefully he exhaled. "Of all the damn luck," he whispered bitterly as he let himself slide down the rough tree trunk and collapse onto the damp ground at its base.  He took short ragged breaths; each transformed into snow-white vapor as it connected with the cold night air.  As bad as he hurt, he guessed he'd cracked a rib.   Shoulders hunched forward, head bowed, Adam waited for his breathing to slow.

Nothing he'd done since his brother had been gunned down had gone right.  The disaster at Preston's, the failed tryst with Maria, his stuck car, his busted ribs.  Hell, even the weather wouldn't cooperate.  Furious that so much could go so wrong, Adam straightened and slammed his fist against the hard ground.

"Ahhhhhh, sh…!"  Adam growled under his breath as his battered ribs protested the sudden movement.  His muffled curse was carried away by the winds that blew the storm quickly across the night sky.  More frustrated than angry now, he collapsed back against the tree and wrapped his arms tighter around his chest.  Joe.  His father.  Hoss.  They all needed him.  Tonight even Maria needed him.  And here he was, dead in the water.  No help to anyone.

His plan to hike from the highway to the ranch had seemed like such a good idea an hour ago.  But the sudden deluge had left Black Diamond Creek swollen and impassable.  So instead of a direct route home like he'd planned, he'd been forced to flounder along the steep stream bank until he could cross it safely.  The storm clouds had obscured the moon leaving the countryside shrouded in darkness.  Moving quickly had been difficult, impossible really.

So many bad decisions.  Not like him, not at all.  He wasn't thinking logically, hadn't been since he'd seen his baby brother with his chest blown apart.  He had strong feelings for everyone involved - Joe, Preston, yes, even Maria - and everything that had happened had hit him hard in the gut.  Shaking his head, Adam cursed his foolishness, his inability to keep his emotions in check.  Something he was usually so good at.

He lost his train of thought as he shivered involuntarily.  The rain had finally stopped.  The temperature was dropping.  Lifting his head, he opened his eyes and looked up past the towering pines.  The gray blustery clouds moved rapidly across the night sky to the southeast.  As he stared upward, Adam's lips curled at the corners in a small smile.  Almost full, he thought, as he watched the waxing moon slide from behind the final tenacious thunderhead.  Surrounded by countless stars, the luminous gibbous moon bathed the ground in a soft pale light that filtered through the branches.  His spirits lifted immeasurably.  Not as much light as the full moon could offer but enough to guide him to the Ponderosa.  He'd been given another chance; he wouldn't waste it.  He loosened the vise-like grip he had on his left side.  With an iron will, Adam pushed the pain in his ribs down and away.


He made better time after the storm passed.  He walked steadily toward his home, avoiding open meadows, losing himself in the moonlit shadows of the surrounding woods.  On some level, he was still freezing, bone-tired, and his side ached, but he refused to acknowledge it.  Instead he concentrated on keeping his head clear, his goal fixed.  He needed to find some transportation and get to Ronnie.  Ronnie was still his best shot at nailing Preston and clearing himself of Maria's shooting.

Finally, after more than an hour, Adam could see the lights of the big ranch house shining through the trees up ahead.  Energized by the sight, he quickened his pace.  As he got closer, he frowned.  Odd that all the lights in the house were on, but no cars were parked in the circular drive.

Cautiously he crept around to the side of the house.  There, parked at the back of the immense brick apron, almost lost in the darkness, sat three VCPD cruisers, including Sheriff Coffee's.  Adam shook his head.  Guess that meant they'd ID'd his gun.  And how hard could that have been?  The police didn't even have to bother to track down a registration.  He silently promised himself the next handgun he owned wouldn't bear his initials.  Then again, he thought cynically, that shouldn't be a problem.  Convicted felons couldn't own guns.

Moving stealthily back to the front of the house, he crouched in the shadows of the stately firs that lined the drive.  He considered his options.  He figured the house was crawling with cops, waiting for him and no doubt looking for evidence.  He got a sick feeling in his stomach; maybe they were planting evidence too.  Apparently though, no police were stationed outside--too cold.  Big mistake on their part.  But lucky for him.  He looked over to the stables.  For a moment he considered attempting his getaway on Sport.  A sharp twinge on his left side made him abandon that idea almost as quickly as he'd had it.  There was no way he could ride a horse back over the rough terrain and then on into Virginia City.  He'd have to stay off the roads, travel through the woods again.  No, he didn't think he could stay on a horse.

Adam shivered.  He needed dry clothes.  He hadn't noticed the cold as he'd hiked cross-country to the house.  In fact, he'd worked up quite a sweat.  Now, standing still, he realized how cold he was.  He forced himself to move, knowing that if he didn't he'd freeze.

There was no way he could get to any of the cars in the main garage--the cops wouldn't be that careless.  They probably had a man hidden there.  But maybe he could sneak into the laundry room and get a change of clothes.  Staying low, Adam darted from the edge of the drive to the front left corner of the house.  He sought the cover of the boxwoods that grew along the front as he made his way to the kitchen door.  Just as he was about to slip under the railing and test the side door to see if it was unlocked, the front door swung open.  Ben Cartwright stepped onto the porch, followed by Roy Coffee.  Instantly Adam dropped back into the shadows, only a few feet from his father.  Motionless, he listened intently.

"Roy, you've known Adam since he was a boy.  Do you honestly believe he could shoot anyone in cold blood, much less a woman he cares about?"  Adam didn't need to see his father's face to know how upset he was.

"Ben, you know as well as I do, it ain't about what I think.  It's about a woman shot down in her home and Adam's gun found at the crime scene.  Hell, Ben, I saw Adam go into Miss Ayres' townhouse, an' shortly thereafter I heard those two young folk arguin' all the way out in my squad car.  Glass a breaking, a real humdinger of a fight.  An' Ben, I never saw your boy leave neither.  It'll go easier on him if he just gives himself up."

"You've already told me what you saw, Roy, and that you found Adam's gun at Maria's.  But what you haven't told me is if you think Adam is capable of such a crime?"

"Well, you got me there, Ben.  You truly do.  No, I don't think Adam shot that woman.  But the DA's breathing down my neck to arrest Adam.  The evidence may be circumstantial at this point, but it all points to your oldest.  And Ben, I imagine that by the time the forensic team is done going over that townhouse, the evidence will be piled up so high against Adam it's gonna be nigh to impossible to refute.  An' another thing, the DA's office demanded we put out an APB on Adam."

"An APB!"  Ben roared.  "Thunderation, Roy, you know good and well that Devins is on Preston's payroll.  And who knows how many cops are in Preston's pocket as well. You've got to pull that APB. Adam doesn't stand a chance of being brought in alive; Preston will make sure of that."

Ben was putting up a strong front, but Adam knew his father better than anyone and he could detect the fear and anguish in his voice.  Ruefully Adam shook his head.  His father had enough to worry about with Little Joe hurt and in the hospital.  He should have handled things better; he'd let his father down.  Now with the APB, how was he going to get around any roadblocks?  Hell, he didn't even have a car.  And going on foot any further was out of the question.  Maybe Roy was right.  Maybe it was time to give up.   After all, his father and Roy would make sure that he made it to jail safely.  Better than a bullet in the back from a bad cop.  For all his good intentions, things couldn't be more screwed up.  He would have to contact Ronnie from jail.  Hoss would help him.

His mind was made up.  As he started to stand two vehicles pulled up to the front of the house.  Once again he dissolved into the shadows.

Cal Devins emerged from the driver's side of the first vehicle and strode toward Ben and Roy.  Ben scowled when he saw the Virginia City District Attorney.  His frown deepened as he looked past the advancing DA to see the Eyewitness 2 News Team pile out of the news van.

Crouched low behind the boxwoods, Adam watched.  It was difficult to see everyone clearly, but he could see the News 2 van through the hedge.  It didn't take but a moment to recognize Cal Devins' voice.

"Sheriff Coffee, your office said I'd find you here.  I hope that means
you've apprehended Adam Cartwright."

The young DA moved and spoke with a confidence bordering on arrogance.  Clearly, he was accustomed to getting his way.  Short, the top of his head barely topping Ben's shoulder, Devins had learned early in life to compensate for his small stature with an acid tongue and an aggressiveness that intimidated most people.  Physically, the fates had not been kind to him.  His skin was pale, almost translucent, indicative of the hours spent in his office poring over legal documents.  His facial features were ordinary, save for the piercing eyes that glittered like blue ice crystals set deep in a snow bank.

"Pretty late for the DA to be out, ain't it, Mr. Devins?"  Roy asked with
feigned politeness.  "An' no, there's been no arrests yet in the Ayres' shootin'."  Squinting, he looked over Devins' head and watched the Channel 2 news anchor, Bob Beat, run a quick comb through his hair and straighten his jacket while the lanky blonde cameraman fiddled with the videocam.  "What in tarnation are those news folks doing here?  This is still a police investigation an' they ain't got any business here.  I came to serve Ben with a search warrant and my men are collectin' evidence as we speak.  Ifn' Adam shows up, I'm prepared to take him in for questioning."   Looking down his nose at Devins, Roy spoke slowly, pointedly, "Now I suggest, Mr. Devins, you let me do my job, an' you do yours."

Ben stood silently.  The past twenty-four hours had taken their toll on the Cartwright patriarch.  His handsome features were drawn tight with worry; forgotten stubble lined the strong jaw.

"Mr. Cartwright," Devins taunted.  "It's a shame the family name's been tarnished by your oldest.  And rest assured, Adam will pay for what he's done to that woman."  Smiling cruelly, blue eyes glowing, he continued to push.  "A real cold fish, that one.  From the looks of the crime scene, first he made love to the victim and then murdered her."

Ben moved with deadly speed, his last frayed nerve ripped apart by Devins' words.  Reaching out, he grasped the small man by the collar with his strong hands.  He easily lifted Devins off the ground until their eyes met.

"You're garbage, Devins." Ben snarled, his brown eyes blazing brightly as he tightened his hold on the DA.  "You ever say that again about Adam and Maria, I promise I'll kill you."

Kicking and squirming, Devins' pale face reddened as he gasped for air.  He grabbed at Ben's hands and pulled, attempting to loosen the death grip around his neck.  As he struggled to breathe, confusion flashed across the pale blue eyes.  As fear flooded through him, Devins was bewildered by this new emotion.

Roy was quick, but not quick enough to stop Ben.  He muscled his way between the two men and roughly pried Ben's hands from Devins' throat.

"What are doin’, Ben?  Let him go!"

Reluctantly Ben slowly released Devins and let him fall to the porch.

"I want you off my property, Devins.  NOW!"  Ben's heart raced, his blood pumped furiously through his veins.  It took every ounce of control he possessed to keep from grabbing Devins again.

Devins' polished veneer was gone.  He got to his feet shakily, still gasping for air, rubbing at his neck.  His flushed face was dotted with sweat.  Nervously he backed away from Ben and struggled to speak.

"Sheriff, I want this man arrested for assault!"  Sputtering, the panic was evident in his voice.  "I have witnesses," he gasped, turning to the news team behind him.  Spotting the red operating light glowing in the darkness, he grunted triumphantly,  "I've even got it on tape!"

Roy kept a tight hold on Ben's upper arm in case he wasn't finished with Devins. The Sheriff had been a close friend of Ben's for over twenty years, and he couldn't remember a time when he'd seen Ben so out of control.  ' Well,' Roy thought,  'Ben's been through hell and Devins more than deserved it.'  Giving Ben an admonishing glare, Roy cleared his throat and addressed the DA.

"Now simmer down, Mr. Devins.  I don't think you'll be wantin' to press charges against Mr. Cartwright.  Ya see, I don't think the voters would like seeing the DA harassing one of Virginia City's most prominent citizens.  And," Roy paused and looked condescendingly at Devins, "I don't know where ya got yer information, but Miss Ayres is still quite alive."

Ben's eyes never left his adversary.  His hatred for Devins stuck in his throat, choking him.  Devins posed a real threat to the safety of his beloved son, and Ben longed to neutralize that threat.  He had caught Roy's warning glance and knew that killing Devins wasn't the answer. Not here, not in front of Roy, anyway. Devins was dirty, Ben knew it.  He just had to dig deep enough to find the dirt.  Studying Devins, Ben was surprised to see not only shock, but also disappointment register on the DA's face when he heard that Maria was still alive.

"Maria Ayres is alive?"  Devins asked incredulously.  "I was told she'd died during surgery."

"It really don't matter what you were told, 'cause the fact is, that young woman is still alive.  So you're dead wrong when you say Miss Ayres' was murdered.  An' furthermore, there's no solid proof that Adam Cartwright pulled the trigger.  We're still gatherin' evidence.  You, better than anybody, Mr. Devins, ought ta know that accusing Adam at this point is unprofessional, actually libelous. An' revealin' information about a crime scene to the news media… Well, counselor, I'd say you'd be better off ifn' I just destroyed that tape.  Hand it over to me."

Devins was furious.  This wasn't the footage he'd come out here for.  Roy Coffee had won this round, but Devins knew the game was far from over.

"Manny, shut off your damn camera and give Coffee the tape.  And don't you argue about it either, Beat," Devins finished when he saw the news anchor start to protest.

Reluctantly Manny pulled the videotape from the camera and handed it to Roy.

"I've already told you that I want you off my property."  Ben glared at Beat and Manny.  He had had enough for one night.  "You too, Devins."  Ben moved menacingly toward the DA, and continued speaking in low ominous tones meant only for Devins' ears.  "Remember, anything happens to Adam, and I'll hold you personally responsible."

With the memory of Ben's hands wrapped tightly around his throat, Devins backpedaled, almost tripping over the newsmen.

"Get outta my way," Devins snarled as he stormed to his car.

How could he?  How could he have let that doddering old sheriff and pompous rancher rattle him?  He didn't need any mistakes right now.  His ultimate plan with Buck Preston took precedence over his hatred of Adam Cartwright and his family.  Little Joe had already stumbled onto too many details, and they'd tried to silence him.  Unsuccessfully.  Now Maria was still alive.  Preston and he made perfect partners.  Preston supplied the money and muscle, and he supplied the brains.  Well, he'd muddied the waters tonight with Cartwright and Coffee.  Stomping on the gas pedal, Devins promised himself he'd be more careful next time.  As he sped down the long drive he almost collided with Hoss's truck.

"Watch where yer going!"  Hoss shouted out his window at the disappearing taillights of Devins' sedan and the news van.  Looking forward again, he pulled his big pickup up to the front door and jumped out.

"Hey Pa, Roy.  Who was that that just lit outta here?"

"That was Cal Devins, the DA.  He overstayed his welcome."  Ben stood with his hands on his hips, staring down the dark drive.  Shaking his head as if to clear any more thoughts of Devins, Ben turned to Hoss.  "I'm glad to see you home, son."  He opened his arms and warmly embraced his middle boy.  "How's Joe?"

Adam, shrouded in darkness, had watched and listened.  He'd heard most of what Devins had said.  He'd shed tears of joy and relief when he'd learned that Maria wasn't dead.  Visions of her lifeless body wrapped in his sweatshirt; his sweatshirt stained crimson with her blood, continued to haunt him.  Tired of running, tired of being cold, tired of the persistent pain in his side, Adam longed to leave the night shadows and let his father embrace him.  He needed the strength and security his father and brother offered.  His mind raced, but he remained still.  Sadly he realized he couldn't go to his family just yet.  After listening to Devins, Adam knew he didn't stand a chance if he was arrested.  He'd never get a fair trial.  And with dirty cops on the force, he possibly would never even make it to trial.  No, impossible as it was, he'd have to stay on the outside, do some investigating on his own.  When Ben asked about Joe, Adam leaned forward, straining to hear Hoss's answer.  He'd been so worried about his little brother.  But Hoss turned as he spoke, the answer to his father's question lost in the night.  Adam's heart sank as he watched the front door close behind the three men.

He was shivering in earnest now.  He sniffled a few times, then coughed softly.  The resulting pain that clamped down on his chest dropped him to his knees.  Doubling over, he bit through his lip trying to still the coughs that wanted to follow.  It took a few minutes, but finally he stopped coughing, calmed his ragged breathing.  He promised himself that he'd let Doc Martin take a look at his ribs as soon as he got the chance.  In the meantime, he needed some wheels.  He still had to talk to Ronnie.

Slowly he stood, keeping his arm wrapped protectively around his side, and looked back at the closed front door.  If only he could talk to Hoss alone.  Hoss would help him.  He didn't want to involve his father.  He would insist that he turn himself in.  And he wasn't ready to do that.  Adam let his gaze drift away from the house to the magnificent front yard and drive.  He and his father had decided to keep artificial lighting on the grounds to a minimum, so most of the yard was lit only by the brilliant moonlight.  It really was beautiful.  He'd helped his father plant most of the trees and plants almost twenty years ago when they'd built the big ranch house.  They'd left the old growth pines, neither he nor his father willing to destroy something so ancient and noble.  His eyes traveled across the grounds and settled on Hoss's pickup.  Hoss's truck.  He smiled as it dawned on him.

Holding his side, he stayed low and crept along the drive, hidden in the inky shadows of the majestic pines until he was even with his brother's truck.   Coming out from the cover of darkness for a split second, he crossed to the driver's door and opened it.  He reached down, pressed the seat release, and slid with some difficulty into the cramped back seat.  He'd given Hoss a hard time when he'd purchased the extended cab, saying nobody would ever sit back there.  Now he thanked the Lord above that Hoss had gone ahead and got what he'd wanted.

The cab was still warm.  Hoss must have been running the heater on high.  It wasn't much, but he was out of the wind and the cold.  Hoss would eventually come back out.  He prayed it would be sooner rather than later.  And not tomorrow morning or he'd be frozen.  Then they could go to Ronnie's.  He lay down across the narrow bench, careful not to bump his injured side.  Images from the past twenty-four hours whirled around his head.  Joe, Maria, Preston, and now Devins.  He tried to sort them out, tried to stay awake.  But gradually his lids grew heavy and he drifted into a fitful sleep.


Adam tried to turn over to drag the covers across his body, wondering why his bedroom was so cold. The pulling on his ribs as the seatbelt buckle dug into his injured ribs brought him instantly awake. This brought on the full realization that he was still laying in the cramped confines of Hoss's truck.  He inched the sleeves of his shirt and coat up to look at his watch. 5:30 a.m.  There was still time to get in the house without running into Ben or Hoss. With any luck he would be able to grab a change of clothes from the laundry room and get out without either of them be any the wiser that he had been on the Ponderosa. Hop Sing was another story. The wiry little cook was liable to be up baking. He would have to use the utmost care.

Less than 15 minutes later, he was dressed in dry clothes and headed to the equipment shed with a set of keys.  He eased open the door and slipped in feeling his way to the light switch.  Locating the light switch he flipped the lights on. He grabbed another set of keys off the keyboard and walked over to his motorcycle.  At least with the full-face helmet he could travel without fear of being recognized. Slipping the black helmet on his head, he pushed the sleek, black BMW café racer out of the shed and closed the door. The simple effort of pushing the bike out the door made his ribs feel as if someone was pushing a hot poker in his side. He fully intended to push the bike a mile before he started it. The noise of the bike would rouse the household and further embroil them in his plight.

Once far enough from the ranch house he would start the motor and be on his way. Riding a motorcycle was not going to be the easiest thing to do the way his ribs felt, but if he took the truck it would be easy to trace. Hopefully, it would take them a while to notice his bike was gone. He needed to access his computer to see if Parker had been able to unearth any information linking Maria and Buck Preston. That would give him the leverage he needed to carry forth his plan of revenge.

Riding his bike down the back streets of Virginia City, he made his way to the office. As he drove he called Ronnie on his cell phone. Not for the first time, he was happy to have phone access while he drove. The microphone embedded in his Bell helmet made it possible to make phone calls while he drove. As Vice President of the family business he couldn’t afford to be out of touch for any length of time. There was no answer, so he left a voice mail for him to get in touch as soon as possible.

He pulled his bike into the private executive entrance to the parking deck.  No one else would be coming in this early, but to avoid any problems he pulled the bike into the space between a dumpster and a wall.  Inserting the keycard into the slot beside the elevator door he called the car down to the basement. If it hadn’t been for Joe, the company’s executives would have never had this kind of private access. With that fleeting thought, Adam groaned, wondering how his younger brother was doing. While his computer booted up he would make a call to the hospital to check on his condition.

Sinking gratefully into the chair behind his desk Adam allowed himself the small luxury of a moment of silence. Since taking Joe to the hospital he had not had a moment of peace or privacy. Gently he probed his side checking to see how much damage had been inflicted on his ribs. What I wouldn’t give for five minutes in the Jacuzzi. But I can’t be worried about some sore ribs when Joe is lying in the hospital fighting for his life. Damn Buck Preston!

Typing in his password he accessed his email account, hoping that there would be some information from Ronnie. Scrolling down through his inbox, his finger froze on the mouse. His inbox contained a message from the DA’s office.

Clicking on it he read through it.


We need to talk. We both are after the same results Meet me at
8:00 in the parking lot of your office building.

I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’ll be waiting.


Adam leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. Staring at the screen he contemplated the mysterious email. What could Devins want? It was obvious he was on Preston’s payroll.  Shaking his head he went through the rest of the emails. Ronnie had left an email giving the status of his search. Nothing had turned up but he had found a few leads that might be promising. Glancing at the rest of his emails was fruitless. His mind was busy turning over the email from Devins.

He checked his voice mail and made the call to the hospital. The nurse wouldn’t reveal any information and he couldn’t say who he was. Certainly Roy had an officer keeping a watch on the room and knew Adam would be checking in on his youngest brother.

There was still time to get to the basement and on his motorcycle and stake out the parking lot before Devins arrived. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught off guard or set up by Preston through the DA.

Nothing could have prepared him for the outcome of the meeting. Thirty minutes after the hour of eight he could be found sitting at his desk once again, looking at Cal Devins. “So you mean to tell me you aren’t really a district attorney?”

“That’s right. I’m not.” Devins grinned at Adam.

“And you really are an agent for the federal government in the employ of the CIA?”

“Exactly. See, I told them you were a smart guy.  I wanted to talk to you at the ranch when I went out there, but your father and the sheriff cancelled that plan.  I need your help. It's obvious Preston had Ayres shot and placed the evidence at her apartment to point towards you. He’s been under investigation by the CIA for the last 6 months on a variety of charges. No offense, but we didn’t need you to ruin our investigation over the shooting of your brother. We have enough evidence to get him on that too.”

“What is it you want from me? Because I plan to see Buck Preston pay for what he’s done.” Adam ground out from between clenched teeth.

“Take it easy, Cartwright. You’ll get your revenge if you’ll just cooperate.  This is what I need you to do.” Cal Devins leaned over Adam’s desk and placed a piece of paper on top of the blotter.


While Adam and Devins were meeting in Adam’s office, Ben and Hoss were back at the Ponderosa getting ready to go to the hospital to see Joe. He had roused the evening before and though there was a long siege ahead for him, Dr. Martin felt he would have a full recovery. Paul, finally, was able to talk Ben into going home and getting a night’s sleep, not knowing that Ben would again spend most of that night awake and agonizing about his son, this time his eldest.

Ben knew without even asking Adam that he had not shot that woman, but he was terribly worried about Adam’s situation as a suspect in the attempted murder of Maria.

Ben and Hoss both picked at their breakfast, knowing they needed to eat, but finding it difficult with all the worry. If possible, Hoss was even more worried about Adam than his father because he knew that Adam’s physical condition was not good. He was afraid Adam had some broken ribs and he cringed when he thought about the possible complications from those.

In addition, he had not confided in his father his fear that Adam had been attracted to Maria once again. He knew that Adam had believed him about Maria’s involvement with Buck Preston, and that Adam was feeling hurt, anger and betrayal over that. As well, Hoss knew his brother was feeling guilt and anger about Joe’s shooting. All in all, he figured Adam to be in a state of emotional turmoil and probably not thinking as clearly as he should be.

Startled, Hoss looked blankly at Ben when his father questioned him about his obvious lack of appetite.

"Don't worry bout me Pa, you've got enough to worry about right now." Hoss sighed.

Ben nodded, "I suppose that we're both too worried to eat anything at the moment." Pausing, he looked sadly at the two empty seats at the table.  "Maybe you should see about finding Adam. Lord knows what your brother has gotten himself into, he's going to need help.  Maybe you can talk enough sense into him, get him to turn himself in."

Hoss pushed the last of his potatoes in a pile at the edge of his plate.  "Yeah, I reckon older brother is finally in over his head."  Standing up he rested his hand on his father's shoulder, "You go be with Joe, Pa. I'll take care of Adam, bring him home in one piece."

"I hope so, Hoss, I hope so." Ben said, his voice showing the strain of the last few days.


"There's really no need to read it. You sign it, turn yourself in, it's just for show. To make Preston feel secure in knowing that you're taken care of."  Devins smiled.

Adam ignored his advice and read the paper, frowning as he did so. "But this is an affidavit admitting to the attempted murder of Maria!"

"Look, Cartwright, like I told you, it's just for show. We won't prosecute, we just need a little more time for Preston to make his move.  Then we'll get him, and your name will be cleared."

Adam eyed Devins suspiciously, "I don't feel real comfortable signing an affidavit.”  Devins remained quiet as Adam thought it over. Finally, locking eyes with Devins, he said, "Give me some time to think it over."

Devins frowned, "I don't think that's such a good idea, Cartwright, time is one luxury none of us have. And how long do you really think you can hide from the law anyway? This way I take you in and guarantee your safety."

Adam shook his head, "Just the same I'll take my chances alone for a bit longer.  Tell you what, I'll contact you in say, 24 hours?"

Devins obviously didn't like the idea, the frustration apparent in his voice. "Well, it's your life I suppose. But if you would just come with me, and sign the affidavit, we could take care of Preston sooner rather than later."

"You've heard my conditions. I'll contact you this time tomorrow." Adam said evenly.

Devins threw his hands up in the air, "All right, but don't get caught cause I can't help you between now and tomorrow."  Standing up he headed for the door, shaking his head in dismay at the stubbornness of the oldest Cartwright son.

Adam watched Devins go, his eyes boring into the back of the retreating man.  He carefully rubbed his temple, weariness threatening to overtake him.  With his eyes closed he carefully went over the unpleasant events of the last few days.  What he wouldn't give for all his troubles to be gone right now. His brother shot, possibly dying. His old friend, lover, and lest he forget, betrayer, shot, and also near death.  And finally through some twisted acts of fate he had wound up as a wanted man, running from the law, his family, his friends, for a crime he didn't commit. And worst of all, time was quickly running out on all accounts.

Cradling his head in frustration he didn't hear the click of his office door.  Startled by the presence standing before his desk he looked up, relieved to see his secretary Mary Sue Cliburn, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt.  Giving her a weak smile, he motioned for her to sit down.

Mary Sue took her seat and assayed his condition as he continued to knead his temples.  He didn't look well.  Dark circles underneath his eyes, the bruises and cuts received the night before contrasted sharply with his sallow coloring.  No doubt he could use a doctor and several days of full rest.  "Well, I see the last 24 hours have continued to be unkind to you, Mr. Cartwright.  Just what did you get yourself into?"  When he didn't answer she continued, making an effort to speak in a soothing tone, "It's all over the news about Maria Ayres. I'm sorry, I know she was a friend of yours."

Adam peered at her cautiously from underneath his hand, "Yeah, me too.  What else have you heard about it?"

Mary Sue took a deep breath, giving him a weak smile, "Well, nothing else that I believe.  I know you didn't do it, Adam." She said reaching out to give him a comforting pat on the arm, "But you shouldn't be here. You're lucky it's a Saturday and no one's here, but the Virginia City PD is patrolling by here pretty regularly. And I couldn't help but run into our lovely District Attorney Cal Devins in the lobby. What on earth was he doing here?"

"He wanted to discuss the terms of my surrender," he said sarcastically. Not giving her any further details, he quickly changed the subject. "I forgot it was Saturday - that would explain your casual dress, but why are you here, exactly?"

"Hmm, not surprising that with all that's happened you'd forget what day it was.  And as for me being here…well, I had a couple things to finish up before next week's company-wide meeting. Assuming we're still going to have that of course!" her voice faded as she watched Adam with concern.

Removing his hand, he knit his eyebrows in thought, "You say the cops have been keeping a close eye on the building?"

"Well, as I drove here I passed no less than 5 police cars with within half a mile from the building. Looks like they're staked out on just about every corner with in within walking distance.  Don't see how you expect to leave here with out being seen. And, you do realize that it will only be a matter of time before they come in here to search the building."

Closing his eyes, he silently cursed himself.  If he had been smarter he wouldn't have stayed here so late in the morning, now he risked the chance of being caught before even talking to Ronnie. Ronnie - the email said he had found nothing, but the phone call said something else. He would have to contact him, talk to him in person, but how?

Opening one eye, he peered at Mary Sue, "Maybe you can help?  I have a friend working on a project for me. It's very important that I talk to him, but for obvious reasons, it's not safe for me to set up a meeting time with him myself." He paused, the plans forming in his head.

"Well, what is that you want me to do? Call him?" Mary Sue questioned, prodding him along.

"Yes, but not from here, maybe your house, or even a pay phone. I need you to tell Ronnie to meet me at Ponderosa Pines Ski Resort.  Tell him - tell him, to meet me at my cabin on the bluff in 3 hours.  It's vitally important that he come, I don't have much more time."  Grabbing a pen, he scratched Ronnie's number on a post-it note, handing it to Mary Sue.

"Mr. Cartwright…Are you sure you're thinking this through? Don't you think that the Sheriff and his men, as well as some of the Virginia City PD might be keeping a close eye on any property you and your family own?"

Adam grimaced, she was right, he wasn't thinking things through…was he TRYING to get caught??  Rubbing his forehead again, he sighed, "You're right. I don't suppose you have any better ideas?"

Giving him a sympathetic smile, she said, "Well, I do actually. You know my sister Patty, right? Well, she's got a condo just outside of town, tucked back in the woods. And it just so happens that she's out of town for the next couple of weeks. In fact I've been checking on her house now and then.  It's a nice enough place and more importantly you aren't likely to be seen by anyone, the other owners are only there during the ski season.  Why don't you set it up to meet your friend there?"

Adam smiled, "Mary Sue, you are an angel!  What would I ever do with out you always looking out for me?"

Mary Sue blushed out at the compliment, changing the subject she said, "Ok, I've got the message for your friend Ronnie.  Anything else you want me to do?"

Adam didn't answer right away, thinking over her question carefully.  "You know how to get me out of this building, without getting caught?"

Mary Sue  smiled, "I've got a few ideas, actually.  Think you can handle being in my trunk for the ride to your cabin?"

Adam grimaced at the prospect of squeezing in a small cramped trunk.  "Do I have much choice?"

She gave him a sympathetic eye, "It's not gonna be very comfortable but it's the only idea I've got.  I don't think you can get out of here this late in the day with out bein' caught."

Adam sighed, "Unfortunately, I think you're right."  Carefully touching his ribs, he grimaced at the thought of the upcoming rough ride.  Why couldn't one thing be easy for him, just once?


Hoss walked out of the house, his mind on his two brothers.  He knew Adam would be looking for a hideout by now. He had to know he was a wanted man, but where would he go?  Trying his best to think like Adam, he was surprised to find himself already at his truck opening the door.  Pulling the door open he noticed something was not quite right.  The driver's seat was pushed all the way forward.  Scratching his head he peered in the back seat. He knew he hadn't been back there in several days. There was no reason for it to be pushed forward, unless someone or something had been back there since last night.  Investigating further he noticed fresh mud on the seat and the floor.  It had to be Adam. He must have been here last night, but why didn't he wake them, why didn't he ask them for help?  He began to look for more signs when he heard a car pull into the drive.

Out of the car stepped a man dressed in jeans and a denim shirt. Spotting Hoss he walked toward him, pushing his sunglasses back on top of his head.  Extending his hand, he said, "Mr. Hoss Cartwright.  My name is Jim Franklin, Agent Jim Franklin, of the FBI."  Pulling out his ID he flashed his credential to Hoss.  "I'd like to talk to you about Buck Preston, Cal Devins, and more importantly, your brothers!"


Adam felt the car come to a complete stop, its engine turned off.  At first he thought the bright lights were the result of the long car journey and its effects on his pain-wracked body.  It was not until he felt the hand on his shoulder and heard Mary Sue's soothing words that he realized they were finally at their destination.

"Come on Adam, let's get you inside. You don't look well at all," Mary Sue said, trying to help him out of the cramped trunk.  "We were lucky, there were a few times back there that I thought the cops were going to stop us for sure!"

Adam wasn't really listening, he was concentrating on not screaming from the pain in his chest that seemed to intensify with each movement.  Finally managing to extract himself from the trunk, Mary Sue helped him to stand as he swayed, almost losing consciousness.

"Whoa, there, Adam. Maybe this ride was rougher on you than you thought. Come on, only a set of stairs to take, and then you can rest for the remainder of the afternoon.  AFTER we get you something to eat, of course."

Adam nodded weakly, "Right… Well, let's get the rest of this over with shall we?"

With Adam leaning on Mary Sue's shoulder she helped him as best she could into the condo.  Settling him down on the sofa she handed him the TV remote.  "Here, entertain yourself while I give your friend a call and make you something to eat."

Adam laid his head back on the soft pillow Mary Sue had brought for him,
thankful for the warmth and comfort.  "Thank you Mary Sue, for everything."

"Don't mention it. Umm, Adam? I was thinking…You want me to contact Hoss or your Father? They've got to be worried sick about you."

"NO! Leave them out of this. I don't want Hoss or my Father involved anymore than they already are."

"Adam, at least let them know you're all right. I'll be careful. I'll call from my cell phone, just to let them know you're okay," Mary Sue insisted.

"No, Mary Sue, not right now.  I'll let them know something soon, okay?"

She stared down at the injured form of Adam Cartwright.  His family had always been so good to her, despite her difficult past.  "It's against my better judgement but all right…I'll wait."

"Thanks." He smiled a gentle, relieved smile, "and Mary Sue?" Adam laid his hand on her forearm preventing her from getting up.

"Yes?" she asked

He paused for a moment, swallowed hard, then looked up at her, "Would you mind calling the hospital and checking on my brother? …and Maria?"

Mary Sue returned an empathetic look, smiled, then patted his arm.  "Not at all. I'm curious as well."

Adam relaxed and watched as his assistant walked towards the kitchen.  Relaxing he lay back on the pillow and placed his forearm over his eyes.  It wasn't long before he was fast asleep.


Hoss stared at the FBI credentials very carefully then shifted his eyes at the two agents standing in front of him. "I'm listenin'. What's this all about?"

"Is your father here?  I'd like to speak with both of you," Agent Franklin responded, folding up the black leather case with his badge in it and placing it back in his pocket.

"He's inside.  Let me go…" but Hoss was cut off by the sound of the door opening and turning he saw his father walk out on the porch. "Pa, these men are from the FBI.  They say they have information about Joe and Adam."

Ben reached his middle son's side and acknowledged the two men standing before him, "I'm listening. Why was my son shot?"

"Sir, I won't beat around the bush.  Your son Joseph intercepted some very important correspondences between Buck Preston and around a dozen politicians in the state of Nevada.  Correspondence that are a matter of national security.  We want those e-mails."

Ben and Hoss exchanged disbelieving glances.  They knew that Joe was really good with computers but they had no idea that he had become a top-notch hacker.  "If my son was able to get to this correspondence how come the FBI can't?"

"Well, sir, the truth of the matter is that by the time our specialists accessed them they were virtually unreadable.  They had apparently been corrupted by a worm virus.  Fortunately, one of our people had received information from a Ronnie Parker regarding these files and now we're trying to track them down…along with Mr. Parker."

Hoss wrinkled his brow in concentration then realizing he'd heard the name before looked back up at the agent, "My brother Adam was working with him before the shooting of Ms. Ayres.  We've been waiting to hear from him."

"Well, if you do," the agent responded, handing Hoss his business card, "give us a call.  We need to get that information into the hands of the proper authorities so we can finalize our case against Preston."

"I'd like to see him punished for the pain he's caused my family." Ben spoke out firmly.

"We understand, Mr. Cartwright, thank you for your time." Turning the agent headed towards his car.

Hoss turned to Ben. "I've got to find Adam!"

The agent stopped and turned back towards them, "Mr. Cartwright.  I know this has been a rough time for your family but it's very important that you and your son don't interfere with this investigation.  It's bad enough you have one member of your family in trouble with the law.  Let us handle this.  Any undue interference could result in more problems than solutions."


Mary Sue picked up her purse and started rummaging around for her cell phone so she could call the number Adam had given her.  Pausing, she looked over at her guest on the couch.  Her instincts were telling her to call his father or at least Hoss to let them know he was okay.  Her heart jumped when the sudden and familiar ring from Adam's jacket helped her recollect that she had loaned it to him.  Walking over to the kitchen table, she felt the inside pockets of his leather jacket and found the small phone.

"Hello?" she whispered into the phone making sure not to disturb Adam.

"Mary Sue?" it was Hoss.

She quickly grabbed her sweater from the back of the chair and walked out onto the front porch, "Hoss?" she responded with pleasant surprise, "Boy, am I ever glad you called."

"I thought Adam had your phone?  Does that mean you've seen him?  Or better yet, is he with you?" It was as she suspected - his family had been worrying.

"He wouldn't let me contact any of you.  I ran into him at the office and thought it was best to get him somewhere safe."

"Thank goodness you were there.  Is he all right ?" the concern was thick in Hoss's voice.

"I think he's okay, just tired and a little banged up.  I'm not sure stowing him away in my trunk was the best thing for his physical condition," she said apologetically.

"No, you were right to get him out of there.  I just got done talking to the FBI - this thing is so deep it ain't even funny.  They asked me to stay out of the way of their investigation, but I can't until I know Adam and Joe are out of danger."

Mary Sue leaned back and looked into the cabin window, "Well, Adam's sleeping now, and judging by his condition he will probably be out for awhile.  He asked me to call about Little Joe…Hoss, has there been any change?"

"Well, the Doc said he's going to make it, but he's still got a long ways of healing to go."

"Oh, that's great news!" she said with relief.

"Parculiar, though, he woke up for short bit last night.  Just long enough to see Pa and me. He couldn't talk, but he asked for a pencil and paper to write something down."

"What did he write down?"

"Play Ball.  Seems kind of parculiar, don't it?  Does it mean anything to you?" Hoss inquired.

Mary Sue wracked her brain for anything that might connect Joe and those words together, "Sorry, doesn't ring a bell. " She paused for a moment before continuing, "Hoss?"


"Have you heard anything about Maria?"

There was a long pause before he answered, "I don't know nothin' about her condition."

She noticed the change in Hoss's voice and decided to let it drop.  She'd go by later and see for herself how Maria was.  Having been Buck Preston's girlfriend for two years had taught her a lot about discretion.  She was well aware of Adam as well as Buck's history with the beautiful politician.  In fact, Buck always blamed Adam for her breakup with him, but it had really been Maria.

"Mary Sue?  You still there?" Hoss's voice interrupted her thoughts bringing her back to the present.

"Yeah Hoss." She responded, "Listen, I have some things that I need to take care of.  Where can I find you later today?" she asked.

"You can reach me on my mobile. You have that number?"

Mary Sue blushed.  Hoss's number was programmed in her speed dial, "Yes." He didn't seem to think anything of her response, which relieved her.  "What are you going to do?"

"I need to try and track down Ronnie Parker.  He's got some information that I think will help Adam and Joe,” Hoss responded.

"Ronnie!" she exclaimed, "Adam gave me a number to try and reach him.  Why don't you call him?"

"That's great! What is it?"

"Hold on, let me get it." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small sticky note, "It's 555-6892."

There was a pause as Hoss made his notation.  "Thanks.  You know, you're putting yourself in a lot of danger helping Adam.  If you tell me where you are then you don't have to be involved anymore."

Mary Sue sensed Hoss's concern, "I'm fine.  I want to help your family.  Call me this afternoon and let me know what you find out, okay?"

"Okay.  What are you going to do?" he wondered.

"I'm going to check some e-mails and maybe run a few errands.  Goodbye Hoss.  And be careful." She hung up the phone and, standing, she went back into the house, checking one last time on Adam.  He was still quietly sleeping.  Mary Sue grabbed her purse and headed to the Virginia City Hospital.


Scanning the hospital hallway, Mary Sue made sure that no one was watching when she gently pushed open the door to the hospital room.  The room was quiet except for the rhythmic beeping of the equipment.  Looking over at the still form of Maria Ayres, she admired her one-time competition.  Thankfully, those days were in the past.  Walking up to the side of the bed and reaching down she carefully stroked her black hair, "What have you gotten yourself into this time?" she said quietly.

"Hello Mary Sue," came the deep voice from behind the hospital room door.

Mary Sue yanked her hand back and turning locked eyes with the mysterious man, "Buck?" she was completely unprepared for this meeting, "Wh - what are you doing here?"

Buck stepped forward and stood at the foot of the bed.  He stared down into the pale face of his mistress. "I think we both know, don't we?"

Mary looked back down at Maria, "I, I don't know what you mean."

"Oh stop pretending,  Mary Sue.  We both know that I'm in love with her." He blurted out with hardened eyes.

Mary Sue let out a defeated sigh, "I guess I always knew." She turned and looked at Buck standing at the end of the bed, "Is she going to live?"

Buck shifted his eyes to her and nodded his head.  He started to look back down but paused, wrinkling his brow, "What are YOU doing here Mary Sue?  Seems you of all people wouldn't care what happened to Maria.  Unless…" Buck's eyes widened with realization, "You know where Cartwright is, don't you?" He stepped from the end of the bed and towards her, grabbing her arm with a hardened grip, "I want him, Mary Sue.  I want to make him pay for what he did to Maria.  You better tell me where he is right now or I'll - "

"Or you'll what?" she stated, yanking her arm out of his grasp.  Staring him down, she narrowed her eyes. "You don't scare me any more, Buck.  I'm not the same shy, easily manipulated young girl you use to know.  This is a free country and I have the right to go anywhere I want WITHOUT asking for YOUR permission.  Now, if you'll excuse me… I have business to attend to."  Stepping around Buck, she walked towards the hospital room door.

"Mary Sue?”  Buck called after her, "I'll be watching you! VERY closely.   Cartwright's a dead man -  you hear me?  A dead man.  Be sure to take THAT message back to him."

Mary Sue  never turned around to acknowledge his statement -  just headed out the door.


“Oh, there you are, Hoss.  Little Joe just went back to sleep.”  Ben closed the door softly and continued, a trace of optimism still evident in the weary voice.  “Tell me you’ve found your brother.”  The past three days had taken their toll on Ben Cartwright.  No amount of rest could erase the worry and exhaustion that had finally settled into every line of his strong features.  But here was Hoss, and he could count on him to find Adam.

“Well, yes and no, Pa.  Let’s head on down to the coffee shop and I’ll fill ya in.”  He hated seeing his father so tired and troubled.  And he knew what he was about to tell him wouldn’t help at all.  Looking over his father’s shoulder at the door Ben had just closed, Hoss questioned,  “How’s Little Joe doin’?  Any improvement?”

“Each day he seems to get a little better.  He was awake again this morning for a bit, but fairly groggy and confused.  He wanted to know what happened, why he was here in the hospital.”

Hoss gently wrapped his arm around his father’s shoulders and began to guide him down the hall while they talked.

“So did ya tell him?”

“No, not exactly.  Paul said not to upset him, to let him rest easy and let his body heal.  I just told Joe he’d had an accident.  That seemed to satisfy him for now.”  Ben stopped suddenly, almost tripping up his son.

“What is it, Pa?  You all right?”

“Yes, Hoss.  Fine.  Just had a thought though.”  Ben reached up and slowly messaged his temple.

“You sure you’re feeling all right, Pa?  Maybe Doc Martin oughta take a look at you, just to be on the safe side.”

Ben heard the worry in Hoss's voice, and couldn’t help but smile.  Leave it to Hoss with all that was going on to be concerned about him.  He continually marveled at the strength and compassion his middle son possessed, how in tune he was with his family.

“Hoss, I’m really fine.  Just thinking.”  Putting his arm around Hoss, Ben gave him a fatherly squeeze and started walking again toward the elevators.

“So, Pa, just what was ya thinkin’?”

“Well, funny that the first thing Little Joe did when he came to last night was to write down that cryptic message, “play ball”.  Seems to me, he was pretty single-minded about it.  He wanted that piece of paper and after he wrote, “play ball”, he fell back asleep.  And now this morning, he can’t remember anything about it.”

“Did ya ask him about it this morning?”

“I did.  I thought it was important enough to see if he could remember what it meant, might be the key to this whole mess.”  Sighing, he shook his head in frustration.  His youngest almost murdered.  His oldest possibly hurt and in hiding.  Stopping short again, Ben turned and gripped Hoss's forearm.

“Hoss, answer me, have you found Adam?  I saw Roy earlier and he’s worried some trigger-happy cop…”

“Hey, Pa.”  Hoss interrupted, squinting down the hall at the bank of elevators by the nurses’ station.  “Ain’t that Mary Sue Cliburn waitin’ there fer an elevator?  Kinda hard to tell, but she looks mighty upset, like maybe she’s been cryin’.”  Hoss broke free from his father’s grasp and hurried toward Mary Sue.

Mary Sue dug in her purse, searching for a tissue.  She’d promised Adam she’d find out about Maria.  Two hours ago it had seemed simple enough.  But now with all the old memories flooding back, nothing seemed simple anymore.  She thought she hated them both, Maria and Buck.  They’d hurt her so badly.  But seeing Maria near death and Buck so vulnerable had dredged up forgotten feelings.  Maria and she had been so close in college.  God, that seemed a lifetime ago.  And Buck, she thought she was over him.  How could she have loved such an evil and dangerous man?

This was more than she could handle alone.  She needed to find Hoss.  Warn him about Buck’s threat to kill Adam.  Her vision blurred as more tears filled her eyes.

“Mary Sue, what’s wrong, darlin’?”

She’d been so distracted she hadn’t heard Hoss approach.  Quickly she brushed her eyes with the back of her hand.

“Hoss.  I’m so glad you’re here…” The lump rising in her throat made it impossible to speak.  Swallowing, she tried again, her soft voice cracking with emotion.  “I need to talk to you.”

Looking into the compassionate face of her friend, Mary Sue choked back a sob and closed her eyes.  Big tears spilled out onto her dark lashes and slipped down her cheeks.  Instinctively Hoss wrapped his arms around her and pulled her protectively into his massive chest.  Gently he stroked her soft brown curls trying to soothe her.

Ben had followed close on Hoss's heels.  He recognized Mary Sue as Adam’s personal assistant at the office.  He tapped Hoss on the shoulder and tilted his head toward the lounge.

“Let’s get Miss Cliburn into the waiting room where she can have some privacy.”

Hoss nodded and guided Mary Sue away from the elevators into the waiting room.  The room was small, furnished with a couch and a few chairs.  A pot of coffee, hours old, languished on a table at one end of the room.  They were in the West wing of the Med Center, and the afternoon sun blazed in through the dirty windows making the room uncomfortably warm and close.  As Hoss helped Mary Sue settle on the couch, Ben paced back and forth, his nose wrinkling in disgust.  He hated hospital waiting rooms and having raised three active boys, he’d seen more than his share.  But this time the waiting was interminable.  He shuddered trying to shake the sense of foreboding he felt.  He looked back at Mary Sue.  His instincts told him she knew something about Adam.

“Mary Sue, you know where Adam is, don’t you.”

“Pa, that’s what I was gonna tell you about earlier.  Mary Sue here has seen Adam, but wouldn’t tell me where he was.”  He licked his thumb and gently swiped at the mascara smudges under her eyes.  Handing her his blue bandana, he gave her an encouraging smile.  “Now what was it that you wanted to tell ol' Hoss.”

Mary Sue began, her voice still unsteady, an occasional sniffle interrupting her words.  “Adam didn’t want you to worry, didn’t want you to get involved.  That’s why he asked me not to tell you where he was.  But things have gotten so out of control…” She paused to blow her nose and wipe the last of the tears from her eyes.

“Not to worry?  Not get involved?”  His deep voice low and slow at first, Ben was near a full-blown bellow by the time he finished.  Shaking his head in an emphatic NO, Hoss hoped to get his father to simmer down.  No sense in upsetting Mary Sue any more than she already was, Hoss figured.  Ben, looking behind Mary Sue, saw Hoss's movements, nodded his acknowledgment, and took a deep breath to settle his nerves.

Ben sat down on the couch next to the young woman and placed his hands over hers.  “Mary Sue,” he pleaded, “if you know where Adam is, you must tell us so we can help him.”

She could see the anguish in his eyes.  Hesitating, she knew that what she had to tell him would upset him more. “Mr. Cartwright, Hoss …Adam is safe.  He’s resting at my sister’s condo on the south edge of town, in the Mitchell Canyon development.  It’s pretty deserted this time of year; most of the homeowners only show up during ski season.  But Adam--he’s running on empty and,” pausing, she looked at Hoss and back again at Ben, “I know he’s hurt worse than he’s letting on.”

Ben dropped his head to his chest and sighed.  Then Adam was hurt, maybe seriously.  So like his oldest to minimize his injuries, try to keep his family from worrying.  He looked up, back into Mary Sue’s big brown eyes.  He sensed this wasn’t all the woman knew about his oldest son.

“There’s more, isn’t there.”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright.  I’m afraid there is.  I just ran into Buck Preston.  He’s crazy.  He thinks Adam shot Maria and he told me to tell Adam that he’s a dead man.”

Mary Sue’s words cut into Ben like a knife.  “No, God, please no.” he whispered, his voice full of agony.

Hoss watched, heartbroken, as his father lowered his head and cradled it in his hands.

Hoss gave Mary Sue’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and knelt down next to his father.

“Hey Pa, I’m headed over to the condo in Mitchell Canyon.  You stay here and take care of Mary Sue and Little Joe.”

Ben looked up, his eyes bright with unshed tears.  “Find him, son.  Find him and bring him home.”


The soft supple leather felt good against his tired body.  The familiar configuration of the Jag’s instrument panel glowing faintly in the darkness was comforting.  The perfect response of the expertly crafted engine reassured him as he accelerated into the night.  He could sense the power he controlled as his car devoured the deserted stretch of road ahead, headlamps cutting a swath of white through the blackness.  But where was he?  The shadowed landscape he raced past was unfamiliar and the road was becoming narrow and twisted.  He glanced at the speedometer and was surprised to see the needle pass 80 and continue to climb.  Instinctively he eased his foot off the accelerator, listening intently to the engine, ready to downshift.

He barely heard it at first; the heady whine of the Jag’s engine commanded his attention.  But there it was again, a plaintive, guttural moan.  Turning, he could just make out a figure in the dim light.  It was his baby brother, Little Joe, slumped in the passenger seat, his best white shirt marred by a single, neat hole in the center.  Bright red blood began to slowly ooze from the tiny hole, turning the shirt crimson.  Without thinking, he let go of the wheel and desperately pressed his hands over the hole.  Transfixed, he watched his brother’s blood seep through his fingers, run down his arms, and pool on the console.

The sound of screeching tires skidding across pavement rocked Adam back to reality.  Snapping his head around, he was blinded by the brilliant white light cast back from his headlights as they danced wildly in the darkness.  The Jag careened down the road, skidding precariously from side to side.  He grabbed at the spinning wheel and pumped the brake.  The Jag only flew faster and faster.  Furiously downshifting, he listened for the angry response of gear pulverizing gear.  Instead, the whine of the engine intensified and Adam watched in shock as the needle passed 100.

“Adam…Adam.  Help me…help me…“

“Dammit, Joe.  Can’t you see I’m trying?”

What the hell was wrong with his car?  And the road?  The road, the night sky, and the ebony terrain racing by slowly merged together, their unique shapes gradually blurring into an uncertain haze that enveloped the Jag.  The car continued on its wild journey, rushing onward, the haze that surrounded them now becoming an endless chute, sides, top and bottom indistinguishable, one from the other.  All bathed in the dazzling white light of his headlamps.  Dizzy, confused, Adam fought to get his bearings.

Up ahead he could see a pinpoint of black.  It grew larger and larger as the Jag hurtled forward.  His temples throbbed unmercifully as he felt his blood surge furiously though his head.  His chest screamed in pain, his heart hammering against it, threatening to explode.  Everything depended on him, he knew that much.  He had to stop his car.  To leave the tunnel, to enter the blackness meant certain death.  For him, for Joe.

Instinctively his foot pounded against the useless brake again and again.  The black hole dominated his senses.  Suddenly they were airborne, sailing through space.  He shouted for his little brother, tried to warn him.  Joe…where was Little Joe?  Joe, the car—everything gone, lost because of him.  Now there was only him, spiraling alone down into the infinite black abyss.

“Adam.  Wake up!  You’re having a nightmare.”  Hoss held his older brother firmly down on the couch, trying to keep him still.  With every toss and turn, Adam groaned in pain as he jostled his injured ribs.  “Come on, Adam, it’s me Hoss.  Wake up, it’s just a bad dream.”

His brother stopped struggling against him and slowly opened his eyes.  Hoss saw confusion and uncertainty flash across Adam’s face.

“You’re at Mary Sue’s sister’s place,” he soothed.  “You musta been having one hellova a dream.”

Looking around the room, then up at Hoss, the hazel eyes finally registered recognition.  Hoss heaved a sigh of relief and slowly released his grip on Adam’s arms.  Coming into the condo, into the dark room, he’d heard the tortured moans.  Moving quickly into the living room, he’d found his brother tossing restlessly in his sleep.  Adam had been wrestling with his own demons.

“Boy, am I glad to see you still in one piece, Adam.  You’ve sure had Pa and me worried.”

“How’s Little Joe?”  Adam fought to keep his voice steady, his nerves calm, as bits and pieces of the nightmare flooded his consciousness.

Sensing his brother’s uneasiness, Hoss answered quickly, “Little Joe’s improvin’ every day.  Been awake a couple times even.  Doc Martin says he’s gonna be just fine.”

“Thank God.”  Adam whispered softly, visibly relaxing.  Hoss watched him closely, suddenly understanding the nightmare that tormented him.  The muscles in Hoss's face twitched.  Adam had suffered enough.  Hoss silently vowed they wouldn’t be separated a second time.

Taking a careful breath, Adam closed his eyes and started to sit up.  He clenched his teeth and grimaced as he fought the red-hot pain that cut like a blade through his left side.  He struggled another moment, but the pain was too great.  Grunting in defeat, he fell back against the couch, clutching his injured side protectively. “Hoss, give me a hand up.”

“Do I got a choice?”  Hoss grumbled as he carefully reached under Adam’s back and gently helped him into a sitting position.  “Don’t think I don’t know how bad you’re hurtin’.  First thing we’re gonna do is go to Doc Martin’s house and let him take a look at those ribs.  Dadburnit, Adam, ya trying to kill yerself?”

“Yeah, my side’s giving me some trouble,” he conceded.  “A visit to Paul would be good.  I need him to strap my ribs, maybe give me something to help with the pain.”  He gave Hoss a small conciliatory smile.  “What time is it anyway?”  Mary Sue had pulled all the blinds to cut out the sunlight so Adam could sleep.

“Close to 5.  Sit tight, I’ll open the shades and let some light in here.”

“No, not yet.  I think the light would just bother my eyes.”  Adam knew he looked like hell, and the longer he kept Hoss from seeing his face in the light, the better.  “So Mary Sue must have told you I was here.”

“Yup.  She told Pa and me when we ran into her at the hospital.”  Adam nodded.  “Pa’s mighty worried about you.”  Adam didn’t acknowledge his comment this time.  Hoss continued on.  “You know the police are still after you.”  Another affirmative nod.  “Did you know the FBI’s involved too?”

“The FBI?”

“Apparently Little Joe stumbled onto some private emails from Preston to some big-shot politicians here in Nevada.  Don’t it just seem like everything Preston touches turns to manure?  Anyway, the FBI figures Joe has those emails hidden someplace and they need ‘em for their case against Preston. Not only that, but the FBI’s also lookin’ for your pal, Ronnie.  Seems he’s uncovered the same emails our little brother did.”

Adam leaned back against the couch, arms wrapped tightly around his ribs, listening intently.  After a moment, he spoke.

“Has Joe said anything about the emails at all?”

“Nothing specific, but last night he wrote down “play ball” on a piece of paper.  What do ya think he means by that?”

“Sounds like maybe a password, maybe a file name.  Didn’t the agents ask for all of Joe’s computer stuff?  Hard drive, CDs, discs, any backups from the mainframe?”

“Yeah, Pa and I turned over everything, his PC from home and his computer at the office.  But we couldn’t find his laptop.  Seems it just vanished.”

Adam nodded.  “Have you or Mary Sue been able to get in touch with Ronnie?  It’s odd the FBI couldn’t locate him, unless he’s in some kind of trouble.  With Joe still out of it, Ronnie may be my only hope of trapping Preston.”

“I’ve tried to reach Ronnie a couple a times today.  Mary Sue gave me his number.  I left him my cell number.”

Hoss waited, but his brother seemed deep in thought.  “Adam, Mary Sue ran into Preston in Maria’s room at the hospital.”  Hoss paused again, this time he had Adam’s attention.

“How’s Maria, Hoss?”  Adam strained to keep his voice from trembling.

“Not so good.  They’ve got her stabilized—but her condition is critical.  Might make it, doctors won’t say for sure yet.”  Hoss waited, Adam remained silent.  It hurt Hoss to know how much his brother was suffering.  Finally Hoss continued, “There’s somethin’ else ya need ta know.  Preston figures you’re the one that shot Maria.  He said he’s comin’ after you.”

“That’s good.”  Hoss had to strain to hear his brother, his voice was so low.  “That’s good, ‘cause then I won’t have to look too hard to find him when I’m ready to kill him.”

“Adam, I know how you must feel, but ya gotta let the law handle Preston.”

“I know you mean well, Hoss, but you don’t have any idea how I feel.  You trust me on that.”
Adam closed his eyes.  Maria couldn’t die.  He had to get to the hospital to try to see her, talk to her, before…

Hoss could see Adam was finished talking for now.  Even in the darkness, Hoss knew the impassive mask was once more firmly in place on his brother’s face.  Shaking his head sadly, Hoss stood, moved to the front windows, and pulled open the blinds.  The late afternoon sunlight filtered in casting a yellowish hue over the room.  Now Hoss could see his brother’s face clearly.  Dark circles rimmed pale eyelids.  Yellow and green bruises that should have been hard to see instead stood out starkly against ashen skin.  The ragged gash over his right eye was red and swollen.  Hoss knew it was infected.

“Adam, you look like shit.”

“Probably.  Haven’t had a good night’s sleep for a few days.”

“I ain’t kidding, Adam.  I’m gonna clean them cuts, an’ I don’t wanna hear a peep from you.  Understand?”

Adam nodded.  This seemed to satisfy Hoss for the moment.  “Here,” he handed Adam the remote, “relax and watch some TV ‘till I find what I need.”  Turning, he headed toward the back rooms of the condo in search of medical supplies.

Adam absently clicked the TV on and ran through the channels.  He stared at the passing channels without seeing, his mind turning over all the information Hoss had given him in the past half-hour.  Hopefully Ronnie was still alive and would somehow contact him.  The FBI had Joe’s computers and files, but maybe the file in question was hidden on his laptop.  And who the hell knew where that was.  Maybe Buck had already found it.

Buck.  That bit of information surprised him the most.  He had no doubt that Buck ambushed his brother, but if Buck hadn’t shot Maria, then who?  Maybe Cal Devins?  And who did Devins really work for?  His head was throbbing, he hoped Hoss would bring some aspirin.  Maybe Mary Sue’s sister had something stronger.  He had no time to rest; he wanted to get Hoss to take him to see Maria in the hospital.  Maria.  He jerked his head up, suddenly realizing he was hearing her name on the television.

“…Maria Ayres, third term United States Congresswoman from Nevada was pronounced dead at Virginia City Medical Center earlier this afternoon.  She was a victim of a gunshot wound.  Police have stepped up their search for Adam Cartwright, an executive officer of Cartwright Consolidated Corporation.”  Adam watched as first a recent picture of Maria flashed across the television, then sat mesmerized as his own face filled the screen.

“Adam Cartwright is wanted by Virginia City Police for suspicion of murder of Miss Ayres.  Cartwright’s personal car and motorcycle have been found in the Virginia City area and police believe he is still in the vicinity.  The authorities consider him to be armed and dangerous…”

Hoss reached down and took the remote from his brother’s hand and turned off the set.

“Adam—I heard.  I knew she was hurt bad, but I didn’t really think she was gonna…”  Hoss let the words trail off, thinking if he didn’t say them, then maybe it wasn’t real.  Adam hadn’t moved.  "I’m sorry…”

Adam didn’t hear him.  He continued to stare at the blank television screen as a solitary tear slipped down his face.

It was a mistake.

Adam reached automatically to take the remote back from Hoss and find another channel. There would be a correction on another channel - it was a mistake. It had to be.

The television hummed back to life and he clicked the channels steadily, watching. Bright pictures flashed by - him, Maria - Maria alone - him again…the message droned over and over - different words, but saying the same thing…Vice Presidential hopeful…successful Congresswoman…Harvard graduate…oh, God …he felt something pull on his arm and yanked it irritably away. The pull continued, more insistently, and he looked up to see Hoss's face hovering nearby. His lips were moving, but there didn't seem to be any sound coming out. Frowning at the interruption to his search, Adam turned back to the television. The screen abruptly went dark, the picture swallowing itself in a blip of sound. He blinked, pushing uselessly at the remote before noticing that Hoss stood by the set with his hand on the on/off button. Adam glared at him. What the heck was Hoss up to? Didn't he know that he needed to see? He stood up to turn the set back on. Or meant to.

He had only barely lifted himself from the sofa when a molten thrust of jagged-edged pain knifed through his side, dissolving his legs under him and dropping him to his knees. He vaguely heard the clatter of the remote on the hardwood floor as he clutched at his waist, trying to blink the sudden wash of red from before his eyes and push the agony back to manageable proportions. Oh, this was not good…

Hoss floated again on the periphery of his vision - still moving his mouth without talking - what was the matter with Hoss? why wouldn't he speak up? as Adam scrabbled blindly to get his free hand back on the remote. The pain sawed relentlessly through his ribcage, impaling him, and he swallowed convulsively, trying to suppress the urge to vomit. Distantly, he felt a soft woolen weight drop around his shoulders and then a firm grip steadying him. His vision was clearing a little now as was the low pitched humming that overwhelmed his ears, and it came to him suddenly that Hoss was saying something, even though the words swam in and out of his hearing. "Breaths…careful breaths…take your time…I gotcha…" There was a strong bulwark supporting his aching forehead then and he automatically complied - breath in…ouch…out…a little better…in…"that's it…easy…" there was a familiar arm around his shoulders, too…that was better…he wasn't going to throw up after all…"…truck out front…doctor…" Doctor. Hoss was taking him to the hospital? To Maria.  Good old Hoss… "…still with me? …stand? Nice and easy, now…I swear if you ain't…" He felt the couch behind his knees and sat abruptly, only prevented an awful jarring by Hoss's gentle intervention.  "You sit tight, now." Hoss disappeared from his field of vision. He shifted the arm that cradled his ribs delicately but the pain, though persistent, seemed a little less acute. In his other hand he found, to his surprise, the recaptured remote. Immediately, he hit the button. The television flared back to life.

"Would you give me that?" The remote was snatched from his hand with a violence that startled him and sent sailing across the room, landing with an ugly crunch in the far corner.

Adam frowned. "Now, that wasn't your property." His voice sounded tinny to his own ears. Hm.

"Shut up and drink this."

Adam accepted what smelled like very strong coffee gratefully and took a sip, almost spitting it back out. "God, how much sugar is in there?" he paused…slow breaths… "You know I like my coffee…" Breathe in…"…black…"

"I said, drink it."

Adam squinted questioningly at Hoss. Hoss didn't sound like himself at all. But then, he didn't suppose he sounded much like himself either. Certainly didn't feel like it. He sipped tentatively at the coffee, making a face, but drinking it. The warmth spread through his veins and gradually his head felt a little less like it was floating above his shoulders. He drew in another cautious, experimental breath, spoke carefully. "Could you turn the TV back on?"

"No need. As soon as you finish that, we're leaving."

Oh, yeah. The doctor's.  Maria.  Good ol' Hoss. He sipped at the coffee. Awful.  "I'm done."

Hoss looked in the mug and took it from his hands, then reached down to help him up.

"I can do it," croaked Adam irritably. Hoss ignored him, supporting him carefully to his feet. To Adam's surprise, his knees wobbled under him again before steadying. What the heck was wrong with him? He moved to shrug off the woolen comforter Hoss had draped around him, but Hoss held it fast in place.

"That stays."

Adam pushed at it indignantly. "I am not going to the hospital decked out like your grandmother!"

Hoss was unmoved. "Whether you like it or not, yer teeth are chatterin'. Think it's shock.  Now don't give me any trouble or I'm carrying ya ta the truck."

Adam studied him measuringly through his wavering vision. "You couldn't lift me. I'm not Little Joe."

Hoss met his gaze coolly. "Wanna try me?"

Adam hesitated, then straightened with as much dignity as he could muster - well, almost straightened - the hitch in his side wasn't allowing much leeway. "No," he admitted.

"Glad ta see ya got some sense left."

Adam would have liked to have returned a crushing reply but found that he needed all his breath just to navigate the distance to the door. Well, why shouldn't he be dressed like a grandmother, he thought ruefully. He was certainly moving like one. Hoss leaned him against the wall as he went to open the truck door and Adam took a minute to glance about. The early evening air was fresh and cool, the sun just beginning a fiery descent. How many hours did that leave until Cal Devins' deadline? Not enough. Did they get to enjoy sunsets in prison? Probably not. Still, he'd see more of them than poor Maria…NO. He firmly slammed the door on that thought.

It was a mistake. He would see for himself at the hospital. Once he talked to her…Hoss's hand on his arm startled him out of his musings and he tried to straighten up again. Ow. Maybe not. Must've busted or torn something. He looked at the open door of the truck in front of him and gulped, wishing suddenly for his low-slung Jag. Getting up in there was going to hurt. He closed his eyes and took as deep a breath as he dared as he tried to prepare himself…and found himself sitting in the front seat. He furrowed his brows at Hoss, who was silently reaching across him to fasten his seatbelt for him. He knew Hoss was strong, but…his eyes followed his brother's imposing figure as he carefully shut the passenger door and moved around the cab of the truck to climb into the driver's seat. He'd make sure he never underestimated him again. He shut his eyes, trying to focus the fuzzy wheeling of his brain, to figure things out, then opened them with a start when he felt a light touch on his forehead.

"I'm all right," he said gruffly. "Just start the car."

There was a brief silence. "Adam, we're here."

"What?" Adam tried to sit up straight - thought better of it. The sky was indeed noticeably darker and the truck had magically transported itself…someplace else. He frowned. "This isn't the hospital."

"No, it's Doc Martin's. Remember I said we was goin' there?"

"I thought - " Adam fumbled clumsily through his memory - he did remember something about - "I thought we were going to see Maria?"

The silence this time was longer. "Adam, Maria's dead."

He felt a cold weight settle on his chest and tried to shake it off. "You don't know that."

"Adam, it was all over the news."

"It's a mistake."

"Adam - "

"It could be. You don't know," he was surprised at the ferocity of his own voice. Hoss reached for him and he pulled away, hissing with pain as his ribs made contact with the seatbelt buckle. Bad idea - bad…Hoss's expression in the fading light was eating a hole of dread in his stomach and his mind churned, grasping for explanations. "It could be a trick." Hoss just looked at him, but the steel bands around his own chest loosened a little at the thought. "The FBI…or Preston…it could be…an elaborate…Cal Devins, maybe…"

"Okay, Adam."

Adam narrowed his eyes at him. He knew that voice - it was the one Hoss used to soothe scared animals when they were tangled in barbed wire and thrashing about, hurting themselves worse. "It could be," he repeated doggedly. "You don't know for sure."

"Okay." Hoss undid his own seatbelt then carefully unfastened Adam's. "We'll talk about it later. Right now let's get you inside to the Doc. Don't go tryin' to climb down without my help, now."

"I don't need - " Hoss looked at him hard and he subsided. What was the point. He probably did need. "You should have called ahead to let him know we were coming. Under the circumstances."

Hoss gestured with his cell phone as he dropped it in his jacket pocket. "Did it on the drive here."

Adam was silent. The total loss of that slice of time created a hairline fracture in his confidence so he maintained his silence as Hoss assisted him from the truck and toward the small brick house.

Dr. Martin met them at the door. "Well, nice to see you boys. Sort of a house call in reverse." He closed the door behind them and shook his head slowly as he looked Adam over. "Come into my examining room. Have you done anything I recommended at all?"

He helped Adam up onto the examining table and tugged gently at the afghan, which Adam was surprised to find himself clutching like a lifeline. Despite his objections it had offered some measure of comfort and warmth, though he hadn't until this moment actually been conscious of feeling chilled. A little sheepishly, he surrendered it.

Doc Martin handed it to Hoss, pausing to turn Adam's face to the light and finger the festering cut over his right eye. Adam jumped as he touched it and the doctor clicked his tongue softly in response. "Good job of keeping this clean," he remarked placidly.

"I've been kind of busy," Adam countered. "I guess you should know you're treating a suspected felon?"

"Personally, I'm sure I'm treating an honest citizen. Just a matter of time till I'm proven right."

Adam felt a lump rise unexpectedly in his throat. "Thanks, Doc," he whispered.

Doc Martin lifted his chin in his hand and peered closely at his eyes. "If you really want to thank me - " he reached for a blood pressure cuff, "you'll try to follow at least a LITTLE of my medical advice." He began to inflate the cuff and Hoss shifted nervously.

"It's his ribs or stomach I think, Doc."

Dr. Martin was studying the gauge. "I'll get there in good time, Hoss. First things first." He let the blood pressure cuff deflate and took Adam's wrist, his eyes on his watch. "Hm." His face was unreadable. "Usually my nurse does this - I'm a little out of practice." He noted some numbers on a pad. "Can you open your shirt for me?"

Adam fumbled with the buttons, caught sight of Dr. Martin preparing a syringe out of the corner of his eye. "What's that for?" he asked uneasily.

"Local anesthetic. I'm going to have to debride that wound on your forehead and disinfect it. Gonna hurt some."

Hoss swallowed, itching to give Adam a hand with his buttons but knowing it wouldn't be welcome. He watched as Dr. Martin took Adam's jaw firmly in one hand and pushed the needle under the skin around the swollen cut. Adam flinched. Hoss flinched in sympathy.

Doc Martin used his needle three more times before he seemed satisfied. "All right - let's take a look at your chest while that takes effect." He parted the front of the shirt and frowned, then pushed it down over Adam's shoulders. "Don't do anything by halves, do you, son?" he murmured, palpating it gently on the right side, making his way patiently to the discolored area on the left.

Hoss peered over his shoulder and grimaced. "Goll darn, Adam," he grumbled.

"Since I doubt you've been walking around like this for the last twenty-four hours…" Paul paused a moment, listening to something only he could hear in Adam's chest, "I assume you did yourself further damage somewhere along the way?"

Adam had his eyes closed, reviewing the previous night's activities in his head. "Probably…" Paul's examining hands moved to the darkest point on the bruise and Adam choked back a strangled cry. Hoss took an involuntary step toward him.

Paul didn't raise his eyes from his examination, but said calmly, "Hoss, I need a couple of things from the next room - one of those collar and cuff slings - a rib belt - some gauze. Could you fetch them for me?"

Hoss hesitated, undecided, then turned reluctantly to the door. "Sure, Doc," he agreed slowly. With one backward glance, he left the room.

"Be a little easier for everybody," sighed Paul philosophically.  "You aren't going to pass out on me, are you?" Adam didn't trust his voice, so he gave a short, terse shake of his head. "Good." He pushed again, paying attention to the give of the bones under his fingers, felt the thin, chill film of sweat that sprang up on the skin under his hand. "Well," he decided at last, "It's hard to be positive without an x-ray, but I'd say you've got a nice fracture there - came pretty close to being a flail chest, I think." The skin under his hand grew colder and he looked up quickly to search his patient's face. "Are you sure you're not going to - ? Oh - " He got a glimpse of the suddenly milky grey-white complexion and reached deftly for the metal basin stored under the examining table. He made it just in time.

This time Paul winced in sympathy - there was nothing worse than throwing up with broken ribs. He supported Adam's head patiently, waiting for the spasm to pass, then waited another count of ten when it finally did.

"Finished?" he asked lightly, feeling Adam sag heavily against him. Adam nodded slightly. "Inside out yet?" Adam gave a short gasp that was probably meant to be a laugh. "All right. Here - rinse out your mouth. Careful, though - spitting is going to hurt." He waited until his patient was finished then put the basin aside and helped him wipe his mouth. "Now I want you to lay back and stretch out for a bit…that's good…." he reached down beside the table and, untangling a nasal cannula, fitted it.

Adam's eyes flew open. "What's that?"

"Oxygen. If it hurts like that you probably haven't taken a deep breath in a while. I want to get your oxygen levels up." He moved to the metal cabinet on the wall and selected a bottle and a disposable syringe.

Adam's half-hooded eyes followed him. "What's that for?"

Paul smiled. Adam was probably asking out of habit because he didn't sound as if he really cared much. He disinfected the top of the bottle and tore open the envelope for the syringe. "Ever hear of bupivicaine hydrochloride caudal?" Adam shook his head marginally. "It's a nerve block. Gonna make you feel a whole lot better and get you breathing properly again."

Hoss entered with his arms full of medical supplies. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of the basin and glanced over at the examining table. "How's he doin'?"

"He's in the room, thank you."

Hoss chuckled a little at the characteristic tone and grinned at his brother. "Guess that answers my question. Ornery as ever."

Adam opened heavy eyes to search the room for him. "Actually, since you ask, I've been better."

Hoss put down the supplies and walked around to the far side of the examining table where he could get a better look. "Yeah, I've seen you lookin' better, too."

"Give it time. That oxygen is going to work wonders." Dr. Martin pushed gently on the cut on Adam's forehead. Adam didn't seem to notice and Paul nodded his satisfaction, reaching for a small brush-like tool. "Let's take care of this now."

Hoss rested an over-sized hand on Adam's shoulder as Dr. Martin began and Adam half-opened his eyes at him, then let them drop closed again.

It seemed to Hoss no time before the doctor was covering the wound with ointment and a fresh square of gauze. Adam had barely moved throughout and, thinking he was asleep, Hoss breathed softly, "Looks like it's knocked the vinegar right out o' him."

"Don't count on it." Adam's voice was faint but the acerbic edge was firmly in place.

.Hoss felt better just hearing it.

Doc Martin studied his work, wiping his hands on a paper towel. "All right, son - I want you to relax here while I talk to your brother - maybe take a little nap."

Hoss felt Adam's muscles tense under his hand and looked at him questioningly, then remembered the nightmare he'd found him in the throes of earlier and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "Maybe just rest yer eyes. We won't be long."

Adam didn't even bother to open his eyes this time - just half-lifted a hand in acknowledgement. Hoss glanced at the jacket he still had slung over his arm and looked a question at Paul, who shrugged in return. Nodding his thanks, Hoss draped the jacket over Adam and, giving his shoulder another pat, followed Paul out of the examining room.


Numb. Just a little while ago it had seemed like everything hurt, body and soul, and now everything was numb. Dark, menacing images hovered just at the edge of his consciousness as he hung suspended in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness. A step in either direction would probably bring them back full force, but for now they were at bay. He wondered idly how long he could stay this way.

A sudden shrill in the quiet room made him start, the back of his hand slapping against something solid then dropping back to the table. He furrowed his brow but didn't bother to open his eyes. That sounded familiar. The sound came again, more insistently, and he stirred a little. What was…? Oh. Phone . He sighed inwardly. Well, let it go to voice mail. The phone shrieked again and he swallowed, his worries beginning to resurface now. Damn. Wait…it could be something about Joe…reluctantly he peeled his eyes apart and tried to reorient himself and track the source of the ringing. He saw the jacket carefully laid over his torso and smiled slightly in spite of everything. His brother Hoss.  One of a kind.  Wait…jacket…Hoss's cell phone…he felt for the jacket pocket with his right hand, moving as little as possible - fished it carefully out and brought it clumsily up to his ear. "'Lo?" His voice sounded strange to his own ears. There was a pause.


He fought to place the voice. "…Ronnie?"

Ronnie laughed. "Man, am I glad to hear it's you! I was calling your brother."

"He's here with me - this is his phone…" Adam made a move to sit up. "Ronnie, where ARE you?"

Ronnie laughed again, but it had an edge to it. "I won't ask you if you won't ask me. Some mess, huh, pally? Worse even than some of those we got into in college! Say, can you meet me? I got some stuff you should see."

Adam cradled his ribs and eased himself onto his elbows and then carefully into sitting position, letting out a small sigh of satisfaction when it didn't hurt anything like it had. Paul was right - that nerve block was a beautiful thing. "When?"

"'Bout an hour?"

Adam glanced at the door Hoss and Dr. Martin had disappeared through. "I think so. Where?"

"You know The Copper Kettle? It's kind of a dive, but nobody who hangs there knows us and it's kept pretty dark.  Noisy and a big crowd to disappear into if things go wrong. What do you say?"

Adam hesitated. He'd have to talk Hoss into being his escort…"Yeah, okay. Don't wait more than an hour for me, though. If I don't show up by then it means something's gone wrong."

He heard Ronnie chuckle. "Still the same Adam. Always cautious."

"Yeah," agreed Adam ironically. "Especially lately, huh? We'd better hang up. See you soon, Ronnie. Glad you're okay."

"You too, pal. See you soon." The phone clicked off. Adam was sitting and looking at it when the door opened.

Hoss threw up his hands when he saw him sitting up. "Thought Doc told you to lie down fer a spell?"

"Sorry. Phone rang."

Hoss crossed the room and took it from his hand. "Pa?"

"No. Ronnie.  He wants us to meet him."

Hoss eyed him. "Us?"

"Well. Me.  But I don't think I can drive."

"Dang right. I'm not sure you can even stay sittin' up. How 'bout I meet Ronnie and you stay here and take it easy fer a piece?  Or I can take you back to the condo."

Adam gingerly fingered his ribs. "I can't, Hoss. I'm running out of time."

"We'll take as much time as it needs, Adam."

Adam shook his head. "No, you don't understand. Cal Devins gave me twenty-four hours…"

"Cal Devins." Hoss frowned. "When did you see him?"

"This morning." He kept his arm cradling his ribs and carefully tested his breathing. "He wanted me to sign an affidavit…a confession…"

"He WHAT?" Hoss rumpled his brows. "Why would you do a blame thing like that?"

"Said he was after Buck…said it would help trap him. That he would rip it up afterward. I asked for some time to think it over…he gave me twenty-four hours."

Hoss's frown deepened. "Starting when?"

"About eight this morning."

Hoss turned his frown on the clock. "Hmph. Little more than twelve hours left. What happens then?"

"He comes after me with both barrels unless I turn myself in."

Hoss rubbed at his nose. "You trust him?"

Adam hesitated. "I don't know," he admitted.

The door opened again and Dr. Martin stepped in, carrying a couple of bottles. He saw Adam and shot him a look of pure exasperation. "Don't you think you could at least wait until you leave my premises to cast all my medical advice to the winds? Lie back down, please."

Adam looked at Hoss with a mute plea clear in his eyes.

Hoss rubbed at the back of his neck this time, wondering ruefully which of his brothers was better at wrapping him around their finger. Pretty much a toss up, he reckoned. "Doc, think you could fix him up to travel?"

Dr. Martin looked sharply from one brother to the other. "If you mean travel home, yes. I'd like to see a good three days of bed rest, Hoss - give those bones a chance to start knitting."

Hoss sighed. "Yeah, I know, Doc - me too. But we got us a situation here." The doctor eyed them both keenly. Hoss tried again. "Doc, you know if there was any other way I wouldn't be askin'."

Paul nodded in slow resignation. "I suppose that's so." He glared hard at Adam. "You realize that nerve block won't last forever? It's just a temporary reprieve." Adam nodded, not daring to speak and ruin his chances. Paul turned his glare on Hoss. "And you'll see that he follows instructions? I don't want to have to do any explaining to your father."

"To the letter, Doc."

Paul looked at them both again, sighed reluctantly. "All right, but listen to me now." He held up one bottle. "This is your antibiotic, for the infection. One pill every eight hours until they're gone.  Don't miss any, or you'll only make it worse. This - " he held up another bottle. "Is an analgesic.  Every four to six hours, as needed. No alcohol.  I'm going to put your left arm in a cuff sling to help support the ribs and keep that arm immobile. I'll send a rib belt along with Hoss, but I'd like you to avoid using it if at all possible since I don't want to restrict your breathing in any way if I can help it. Make sure you take at least five or six good, deep breaths an hour. Come back for another nerve block if you find you can't." He gave Adam a couple of pills with a cup of water and handed the bottles to Hoss. When Adam had swallowed Paul picked up his wrist and counted his pulse again. "Hm," he said non-committaly. "Let's see how your blood pressure is doing." He studied the gauge for a few minutes after inflating the cuff and when he looked up this time his face was much more relaxed. "Well, " he said grudgingly. "You're certainly in better shape than you were when your brother dragged you in here. I must be a very good doctor."

Adam gave him a small grin. "You must be." His expression changed. "A good friend, too. I know you took a big chance for me, Doc. I appreciate it."

Dr. Martin waved this aside. "Need me to call your father? Tell him I treated you?"

"Not Pa, Doc, " Hoss interrupted. " - just in case they can track that back to you. But if you can call Mary Sue Cliburn and tell her ta get word ta Pa I'd sure appreciate it. I'll give ya her cell phone number."

"All right. Let's get your shirt back on you, then, and the sling. Then I'll leave Hoss to ride herd on you."

Hoss grinned. "You can count on me, Doc. Write it down fer me and I'll make sure he don't skip one single instruction."

Adam rolled his eyes. "Thanks a lot, Doc. You have any idea how mule-headed he can be?"

"Me?" Hoss shook his head in disbelief. "Me, huh?" He gave a snort of laughter. "If that ain't the pot callin' the kettle."

Hoss eased Adam down from the examining table, thankful to find his brother much stronger and surer now than when he'd found him a couple of hours earlier at the condo.

"Thanks, Hoss, but I can manage."  Adam brushed Hoss's hands away, used the edge of the table to steady himself and then took slow, measured steps, heading to the front door.  "Let's go, we've got less than an hour to hook up with Ronnie."

"I'm right behind ya. An' don't go tryin' ta get inta that truck by yerself, hear me?"  Hoss's brow crinkled in concern as he watched his brother leave.  "Jest how much activity is safe fer that busted rib, Doc?"

"Truth of the matter?  None."  The doctor's blunt response surprised Hoss.  Seeing Hoss's bewildered expression, Paul shook his head resignedly and continued.  "Bottom line, Adam's taking an awful chance.  The nerve block is a mixed blessing.  I used it to deaden the nerves around the fracture so it won't hurt to take deep breaths--make sure Adam gets enough oxygen into his lungs to keep them clear.  Otherwise, pneumonia's a real threat.  Normally with an injury like your brother's, after I administer the block, the patient's confined to bed."  Paul looked hard at Hoss, needing him to understand the inherent risk of letting Adam go.  "Hoss, even pain has its purpose.  Without the pain to remind him he's hurt, it's conceivable that Adam could make things worse.  Then we'll have a real mess..."  The grim look on Doc Martin's face as his words trailed off told Hoss all he needed to know.

"I don't see how we got much of a choice at this point."  Hoss spoke softly, almost to himself, his broad shoulders sagging visibly.  "I'll jest hafta keep him safe and outta trouble as best I can."

Paul Martin had been doctor and close friend of the Cartwrights since before Joe's birth.  Almost better than anyone, he understood each Cartwright personality, the family mechanics, and above all, their fierce loyalty to one another.  He could see the worry in Hoss's gentle features, and he could sense his fear, too.  Fear of losing Adam, and helpless to stop it.  Placing his hands on Hoss's shoulders, Paul's voice was kind, compassionate.

"Hoss, your older brother can be as headstrong as your father sometimes."  He gave Hoss a reassuring wink.  "And unfortunately this is one of those times.  I saw the determination in his eyes tonight.  I couldn't have stopped him.  You couldn't have either, short of hog-tying him.  He knows the risk he's taking.  You're doing all you can do."  He hesitated, searching for the right words, something to ease the young man's guilt.  Finally he spoke.  "Try to remember, son, Adam chose this course, not you."

"Thanks, Doc.  I'll try to remember."  Hoss smiled a small, tight smile.  He could be just as determined as Adam.  More so, if it came to that.  "I best catch up ta him 'fore he tries to get into ol' Walter's truck by himself."

Adam waited on Doc Martin's front porch.  The tiny porch light's stingy offering left him shrouded in the evening shadows, concealing the visible signs of his recent tribulations.  Moving carefully, he dropped his chin against his chest, then rolled his head slowly from side to side, trying to ease the tightness in his back and neck.  He drew in a deep breath of the cool night air.  Not too bad.  Nothing like before.  He couldn't help but smile.  After so much pain...  He took another deep breath.  He wouldn't forget Doc Martin's warnings about the block; he knew he was on borrowed time.  But still, what blessed relief.  Now, to talk to Ronnie.  Sounded like he was in trouble.

Squinting into the darkness, Adam could make out the outline of Hoss's truck in the drive.  It was too dark to tell what color it was, but the shape was all wrong.

"Glad yer feelin' better."

Adam started, he hadn't heard Hoss come up from behind him.  Turning to Hoss, Adam nodded his agreement. "Yeah, thanks.  Much better."  Adam was about to turn back toward the truck but even in the faint light, something in Hoss's eyes made him hesitate.  Brows furrowed, head cocked slightly, Adam studied his younger brother's face another moment.  With a small shrug, he turned from Hoss.  "Where'd you get the truck?"

A small smile began to lighten Hoss's somber face.  He couldn't forget how Walter had wanted to help.  Making the clandestine switch in the bowels of the hospital parking garage.

"Well, ol' Walter, he insisted we switch trucks so I could git around without the police or Feds followin' me.  Pretty smart fer an old codger, ain't he?  Guess he's been around more 'n I care ta know."  Hoss chuckled.  "Although big brother, after all this is said and done, I figger we'll be mighty savvy ourselves about being on the wrong side of the law."

"Truer words never spoken."  Adam responded lightly.  He still puzzled over the look he'd seen moments before on Hoss's face but was thankful Hoss seemed to have come around and was ready to move on to find Ronnie.

Hoss started toward the truck barking out orders as he went.  "I'm gonna give ya a hand up, and I ain't takin' no guff from ya neither.  I'll git ya to the Copper Kettle, but on my terms."

With his back to Adam, Hoss missed the nod and knowing smile that crossed his older brother's face.

` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` `

"How much time does he have left?"

"Just under twelve hours.  By 8 o'clock tomorrow morning."  A single lamp cast a small circle of light on the highly polished wood surface.  Cal Devins poured a second brandy into the gleaming Lalique snifter.  Swirling the deep amber liquor, he watched intently as the viscous liquid clung tenaciously to the sides of the bowl before slipping seamlessly to the bottom.  The corners of his mouth turned upward in a humorless smile.

"But Buck Preston may take care of Adam Cartwright for us before that deadline comes due."  He leaned back, away from the light, the pale face disappearing in the shadows.

After several minutes of silence, the man on the other side of the desk leaned forward, his face barely illuminated.  Still there was no mistaking the shadowed Neanderthal features; he was one of Preston's hired thugs.

"Yeah, Mr. Devins.  It couldn't 'a worked out better if we'd 'a planned it."  Pressing forward, into the circle of light, the thug's surly features were fully illuminated.  The unforgiving light revealed the low-angle slope of his forehead, lifeless eyes, a lantern jaw stuck on the pre-requisite bull neck.  "Me gettin' Cartwright's gun that night in Mr. Preston's office sure was lucky, huh, Mr. Devins?  Mr. Preston never even asked me for it."

"You did fine, Rocky.  Did real good bringing that gun to me."  The cold voice continued from the darkness.  "You keep your mouth shut about meeting with me and I'll make sure your sister keeps getting the medicine she needs."

"Yessir, Mr. Devins.  I ain't gonna tell Mr. Preston nothin' 'bout the gun or 'bout us meetin'.  'N thanks for taking care of my sister."  The gorilla pushed away from the desk and rose from his chair.  "Ya want I should find out if Mr. Preston has found Adam or his brother, Hoss?"

Like a ghost, Devin's white face floated forward into the light.  The ice-blue eyes glittered in anticipation of the imminent showdown.  Maybe he would be rid of Adam Cartwright and Buck Preston at the same time.  Maybe tonight with any luck.  Preston had become a liability.  Just as Maria had.  Fools.  To let their feelings get in the way of business.  And now Preston was in a jealous rage, his sights set on Cartwright.  His smile was pure evil.  Who said he hadn't planned this?

"Yeah, Rocky.  That'd be good.  Check in with Preston.  If anyone can turn up the wayward Cartwright boys, Buck's organization can."  Looking up at his hired gun, Devins continued.  "Yeah, might do Sheriff Coffee good to take some lessons from Preston."

Rocky's broad shoulders heaved up and down in sync with some guttural grunting noises Devins assumed to be laughter.  He had no patience for idiots, even useful ones.  "Get going, Rocky.  And on your way out stop by Lucy Butler's office and tell her I want to see her."

` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` `

Hoss hustled around the front of the truck, but his brother was too quick.  Adam was out of the truck and headed across the street before Hoss could get around to give him a hand.  Shaking his head, Hoss hurried to catch him.

"Looks like a goooood place ta get mugged."  Hoss grumbled under his breath as he squeezed between two parked cars.  Stepping up onto the curb, he almost tripped over something.  In the faint glow of the street lamp it was difficult to tell exactly what it was.  Looked like a body.  Leaning forward cautiously, Hoss squinted, trying to see if it was alive.  Slowly he reached to turn the body over.  A loud snort and a wheeze jerked him back.  The stink of old bourbon filled his nostrils.  He looked up; Adam was already way down the sidewalk.  "Sorry, ol' timer, you'll jest have ta sleep this one off."  Carefully he stepped around the drunk and jogged to catch up to his brother.

"Real nice neighborhood."  Hoss muttered to himself as he fell in step beside Adam.  He'd passed several more drunks passed out in doorways.  Some punk had tried to sell him something called ecstasy, whatever that was.  He grumbled some more as he searched the row of dilapidated buildings for their destination.  Then he saw it.   A green neon martini glass floating at an odd angle under a flashing white neon COP ER
K TTLE.  Hoss eyed the low-slung wooden structure with suspicion.  "Is this the only Copper Kettle in town?"

His question unanswered, Hoss glanced over at Adam.  His brother seemed to be moving easily, breathing normally.  Like nothing had happened.  A cold chill spread through Hoss as he remembered Doc Martin's warning.  Right now only the sling was left to remind him of Adam's injury.  Louder this time, he tried again.  "You sure this is the right Copper Kettle?"

Adam nodded, distracted.  Except to give Hoss directions, he'd spent most of the ride over in silence.  Something Hoss had said earlier bothered him.  Preston's accusation.  It didn't make sense.  Why would Preston think he'd shot Maria?  Preston had his gun, took it that night he and Hoss had shown up unannounced at Preston's office.  The same monogrammed gun the police had found at Maria's.  The alleged murder weapon. Preston had it last.  Lost in thought, Adam didn't hear Hoss calling his name.

"...  Adam, you all right?  You look like yer a million miles away."

With a frustrated sigh, Adam nodded in agreement.  "Guess I was.  What were you saying?"

Stopping in front of the Copper Kettle, Hoss repeated, "I said, you sure this is the place we're supposed to meet Ronnie?"

"This is the place; Ronnie'll be here."  Hoss grimaced at the steel in Adam's voice.  He could feel it in his bones; this night promised nothing but trouble.  Raising a short supplication, Hoss shouldered the door to the Copper Kettle inward.

The place was long and narrow, shaped like a shotgun.  Bar on the right, tables packed together on the left, a couple of pool tables and booths at the far end.  It was Saturday night and the Copper Kettle was rocking.  The music was loud and the smoke thick enough to cut.  The clientele, mostly blue-collar, was rougher than the Saturday night crowd at the Silver Dollar further uptown.  Adam sure knew how to pick 'em, Hoss thought ruefully.

Adam paused in the doorway letting his eyes adjust to the light.  His gaze traveled down the length of the room and then back.  Ronnie was right, a good place to lose yourself, Adam thought as he searched the crowd.

"Any sign 'a Ronnie?"  Hoss asked as he moved alongside Adam.

"No, not yet."  Adam could feel the tension build in the muscles along his neck and back.  Ronnie was here; he just hadn't spotted him yet.  Without Ronnie, he had nothing.  Just a lot of suppositions and unanswered questions.  He forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths, then started slowly down the center of the shotgun, staring through the smoky haze at each unfamiliar face.  He was beginning to think that maybe Hoss was right, maybe he did have the wrong place, when he finally spotted Ronnie at a corner table.

"Hoss, there he is!"  Adam wove his way quickly through the crowd.  As he came up alongside the table he saw Ronnie wasn't alone.

"Adam, you don't know how glad I am to see you."  Ronnie stood up to grasp Adam in a bear hug, pulling up short when he saw the sling.  Looking closer at his friend's face in the dim light, Ronnie whistled softly between his teeth.  "Looks like you've met with a bit of trouble yourself, pally."

Adam looked down at the sling and nodded.  "Yeah, big trouble this time."  He looked hard at Ronnie.  "I'm counting on you to have some answers."

"Have a seat, boys, there's someone I'd like you to meet."

Adam sat down across from the woman already seated.  She was young, maybe in her late twenties.  Intelligent looking, not unattractive.  She watched Adam closely, slowly turning a slender silver cigarette lighter over and over in her hands.  Adam looked up to meet her gaze.  As their eyes locked momentarily, an uneasiness crept over him.

Adam, Hoss, I'd like you to meet Lucy Butler, works for Cal Devins."

Adam's heart skipped a beat.  What the hell was Ronnie doing bringing in somebody from the DA's office?  Something about her unnerved him.  Inhaling deeply to steady his nerves, he stiffened as he felt something grab at his left side.  He glanced over at Hoss; he hadn't caught it.  Didn't really matter now, either Ronnie could help or he couldn't.  And by eight tomorrow morning it'd be all over anyway.

"Hey, not to worry.  She's come over from the dark side," Ronnie added quickly, looking from one Cartwright to the other.  Hoss seemed to relax a bit.  But Adam.  Ronnie had known Adam for a long time. The guy was a rock.  He'd seen him with the stuffing knocked out of him before. This was different.  Same old tough exterior, but his eyes.  Something about his eyes...

"Drinks?"  The nasal voice was a propitious interruption.  A cocktail waitress, much younger than she looked, stood next to Hoss, waiting to take a drink order.

"Two coffees, black."  Hoss ordered, pointing to Adam and himself.

"Coffee ain't fresh, mister."

"No matter.  Stronger the better."

"I'll have another Jack.  Neat."  Lucy handed her empty glass to the waitress.

Hoss figured things must be mighty tough in the DA's office.

"Coffee for me too."  Ronnie added.  Looking back at his old friend, Ronnie couldn't help asking, "Adam, you sure you're all right?  You're not looking too good."

Adam offered a tight-lipped smile.  "I've felt better, and no doubt I've looked better.  Hoss hovering over me is about all I can take, don't you start too."

"Okay, okay, pally."  Ronnie threw his hands up in mock defeat.  "You just don't look like your old self, that's all."  Ronnie settled back into his seat and continued.  "Anyway, Adam, you asked me to see what I could find out about Buck Preston.  It wasn't too hard to break into his computer network; his first line of security was standard type stuff, nothing fancy.  Makes my job easy.  Unfortunately, everything I found was innocent enough.  It wasn't until you told me to try linking Maria Ayres with Preston that I hit the jackpot."

Adam's jaw muscles tightened imperceptibly.

"I found a folder full of email between Maria and Preston.  A lot of it was personal."  Ronnie paused.  "Adam, you know they were lovers."

The face remained impassive, only the slight jumping of his jaw muscles revealed any emotion.

"Sorry, pal.  She was in deep with Preston."  Adam stayed quiet, didn't interrupt, so Ronnie plowed ahead.  "She was no good, Adam. Cold as ice, that woman.  You're better off without her."

Once again, the waitress stepped to the table at just the right moment to deliver the round of drinks.

He swallowed the lump in his throat that threatened to choke him.  So what was the big deal?  Hoss had already told him that Maria loved Preston.  She only wanted to use him.  Right?  Maybe, maybe not.  He couldn't let her go that easily.  His chest tightened as he remembered their last phone call.  She'd seemed so vulnerable.  And his sweater, why put that on?

"Mister, hey mister.  Ya want sugar?"  Adam blinked realizing the waitress was asking him something.  Not trusting his voice, he simply shook his head.

Hoss leaned toward Adam and spoke softly so only his brother could hear.  "I know you don't wanna hear this, but yer lookin' mighty peaked.  Maybe we oughta git outta here and head back over to Doc Martin's.  Ronnie and this Miss Butler can come with us."

"Not yet, Hoss.  Not yet.  I need to hear the rest.  Now."

Hoss shook his head.  He could hear the resolve in Adam's voice.

"Go on, Ronnie."

Ronnie shot a quick look at Hoss.  Hoss only shrugged.

Taking a deep breath, Ronnie continued.  Miss Butler sat silently, swirling the bourbon around the bottom of her glass.

"Like I said, most of the emails between Buck and Maria were of a personal nature, but there were some occasional references to the State Parole Board.  I dug a little deeper, hacked through another level of security and found some more files.  These were a little better protected, harder to get into. Cal Devins' name popped up occasionally in some of these emails.  But nothing to really incriminate him.  He's slippery.  The emails I could open indicated some funny business with the Parole Board.  Like maybe some
government officials accepting payoffs for granting paroles.  Adam, this correspondence is just the tip of the iceberg.  I think we got enough evidence with the emails to bust Preston, it's clear he made several payoffs to some Parole Board members.  Looks like this is what your brother stumbled onto.  Almost got him killed too.

The knots in Adam's neck and back loosened for the first time in days.  "Preston deserves worse than prison for what he's done, but for now, it'll have to do.  You said you don't have anything concrete on Devins?"

"Look, Adam, I have a feeling, but no proof, electronic or otherwise, that Devins is up to his short little ass in all this.  I figure he's the middle-man between the buyers and the Board.  Guess you could call him the facilitator.  But you see, that's where Miss Butler comes in."

Adam looked over at Lucy.  She readily met his gaze.

"While I was hacking into Preston's computer network I intercepted an email from Miss Butler, er, Lucy, to Maria Ayres.  That's how we hooked up in the first place.  She and Maria were friends, and when Maria was shot, she wanted out."

"You're willing to testify against Devins?"  Adam asked.

"For a price."  Her voice was low, mysterious.

The four were so engrossed in their conversation they didn't see Preston's hired guns enter the small bar.  Nodding to each other, the three thugs split up, and worked their way quietly through the crowded room toward the small table in the back.

“A price?!” Adam shot out angrily.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, “What kind of price?”

The young woman sat back, swirled the last sip of her bourbon around in her glass and then shot it back.  Leaning forward she placed the glass on the table crossed her arms and looked over at Adam defiantly.

Hoss noticed a familiar face in the broken mirror hanging on the wall in front of him.  He watched as the man casually worked his way through the crowd, “Uh, I hate to be breakin’ up this important conversation, but I think we’ve got trouble.”

“Oh shit.” Ronnie whispered but never lost the smile on his face, “I was afraid this might happen.”

“What?” Adam questioned, “WHAT might happen?”

“I don’t know what he’s talkin’ about but I got my eye on one of Buck’s thugs moving towards us.  Those guys usually travel in packs…just got to figure out where the rest of them are.” Hoss answered.

Adam could feel the sense of panic rise up in his belly.  This day… this week had just gone from bad to worse, “So, Ronnie, how do we go about disappearing in this big crowd?”

Ronnie laughed, “Not to worry, pally.  You forget that I was always getting us out of those close calls with the sorority moms.  I had a feeling Buck would have one of us tracked so I already came up with a plan B.  Hoss, you and I will do what we can and sneak out the back while Adam and Lucy will sneak out together through the front.  We’ll all meet up at Harbison Point in a half an hour.  If for some reason the other pair isn’t there then assume something went wrong.  Take what information you have to someone you trust, all right?”

The group nodded reluctantly.  Lucy was digging around in her purse and pulled out a can of pepper spray and a stun gun.  Adam looked at her then at Ronnie as if to say, what in the world is this girl’s deal?  Ronnie just grinned and gave Adam a thumb’s up.  He thrived on these kinds of situations.

“Hoss, have you spotted any others?” Ronnie whispered.

“I see one over by the jukebox.” Adam stated flatly.

Lucy held up her cosmetic mirror and primped her hair. “I see one more over by the bathrooms.” She folded up the compact and slipped it back in her purse, “We need to move before they do so we retain the element of surprise.  Let’s go Adam.” Slipping her purse over her shoulder Lucy scooped up the weapons in one hand and reached across the table grabbing Adam’s arm with the other.

Adam winced as his ribs banged into the table as she pulled him forward. “Damn!” he shot out tripping over Hoss as he got out from behind the small, square table.  He quickly scanned the area trying to determine the exact number of thugs. He spied only one.

Lucy released Adam’s arm and placed a can in his hand, “Use this if one of ‘em gets too close.”

The two continued to work their way towards the door until Lucy stopped.  Adam saw the gorilla of a man blocking her path.  He heard a small electrical shock followed by a tightened scream.  The large body that fell down next to him Adam recognized as one of Buck’s men.  In fact, it was the one who held him while Buck had brutally beaten him, to be exact.  Adam looked at the can in his hand and a wicked grin crossed his face. Leaning down he began to spray.  The agonized scream that followed was absorbed by the inaudible conversation around them.

“Come on, let’s get out of here!” Lucy cried tugging on Adam’s arm and leading him out the front door.


Ronnie and Hoss both jumped up and turned towards the two men dressed in black suits that were running full force towards them.  “I’ll get the one on the left, Hoss!” Ronnie cried out just as a hard fist landed on Hoss's right cheek.

Hoss quickly shook it off, pursed his lips forward and lowered his brow.  The goon was about Hoss's size, but all Hoss had to do was think about his little brother lying in that hospital bed and all his anger rose into the single blow that landed square on the mouth of his attacker.

The man stumbled backward and bumped into a couple of biker’s sitting at the next table over.  Their bodies flung forward and beer splashed all over.  The thug didn’t apologize and as he gathered himself to go back towards Hoss he felt his collar tighten around his neck as he was pulled back.  Looking to either side the hoodlum was face to face with two VERY large men who slammed him down on the table, “You spilled our beer.  You’re going to buy us another one!”  Hoss smiled as he watched them take care of business for him.

“Hey Hoss!” a strained voice came from beside him, “I could use a little help here!” It was Ronnie struggling to kick his attacker off.

Hoss turned and grabbing the man’s lapels he pulled back his arm and landed a firm fist to the man’s left jaw. At the same time Ronnie grabbed a bottle of whiskey from a table nearby and smashed it on the man’s head.  The attacker swayed than collapsed forward onto the floor.

“Thanks, Hoss!” he called out, “Let’s get out of here while we can!” The two slipped through the crowded bar and out the back door.


Adam and Lucy exited the front of the bar.  Standing on the street front Lucy scanned the area then suddenly turned to the right and headed down the sidewalk.  Adam looked around trying to spot Ronnie and Hoss.  No luck.  He turned to say something to Lucy but she was already halfway down the street.  Using his good hand he pulled his coat tighter around his shoulders than followed after her.

Lucy unlocked the passenger door to her white Ford Fiesta and waited for Adam to catch up. “Hurry and get in,” she ordered holding the door open.

Adam reached up and placed his hand on the top of the door frame.  “I got it.”

Lucy shrugged, let go and walked around the front of the car to unlock the driver’s door.  After tossing her purse on the seat she climbed in.

Adam shook his head not believing how this whole evening had turned into a big cloak and dagger event.  He gingerly placed his leg in the car then carefully lowered himself into the seat, a small groan escaping from his lips.  The car couldn’t have been more than a foot off the ground.  He heard the gentle hum of the engine and noticed the driver was staring at him impatiently.  Leaning forward Adam pulled the door shut.

Lucy, busy looking over her left shoulder, made sure the street was clear.  As she started to pull out a black Lincoln with tinted windows came roaring up from behind them. “Hey!” she screamed as she slammed on her brakes. “You idiots need to learn how to drive!” She paused a moment than took another look and pulled out into the street.

Adam felt a pinch in his side and tried to get comfortable in the cramped car.  He froze as a certain position caused a sharp pain to radiate up his side.  When it had passed he tried to relax again.  “Now that we’ve made our daring escape where are we headed?” he asked.

Lucy ignored him, focusing on the street in front of her.  When she came to a stoplight she reached over and grabbed her purse.  Feeling around inside of it she pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims and removed a cigarette.  She placed it between her lips, reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out her slim, silver lighter.  Flicking it a few times it finally produced the fire she needed to provide her reassuring orange glow.  A chorus of car horns blew from behind her.  “Dammit!  I see ya!  I see ya!” she yelled out as she shifted her car into first gear, tires squealing as the car jolted forward.

“So, where we go…” Adam began.

“We’re goin’ to the rendezvous spot.  Weren’t ya listenin’!” she took a nervous drag off her cigarette, quickly released it and shifted the car into second.

Adam shifted forward in his seat than leaned back.  He looked over at the woman who he had just met less than a half an hour ago.  He hadn’t gotten a good feeling about her then and he wasn’t feeling any better about her now.  She had bleached blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail that revealed a series of pierces in her ear.  She took another drag off her cigarette, placed her hand on the steering wheel and rolled down the window to release the smoke into the night.  She dropped the butt out the window and rolled it back up.

Finally they reached the city limits, “Sorry to yell at you back there…I’m a little tense.” She said with nervous laughter, “That was a close one, eh?”

 Adam nodded his head, “Yup, a real close one.” He let out a long breath of air.

“You figure Ronnie and your brother got out all right?” she asked turning towards Adam.

Adam thought for a minute trying to figure out the mechanics of the situation, “Ronnie’s a pretty smart fella and Hoss is strong…”

“Yeah.  I’m sure we’ll be seein’ them shortly.” She answered.

The two sat in silence as Lucy maneuvered her small vehicle up through the Nevada mountains.  When they arrived at Harbison Point there were a couple of cars parked overlooking the lake.  Lucy pulled into a space that was to the far left and away from the other vehicles.  Turning off the engine she pulled on the emergency brake and let out a deep breath.  She rolled down her window, closed her eyes and relaxed back into the seat.

Adam rolled down his window and took in a breath of the cool evening air.  Hopefully Hoss and Ronnie would be there soon and they could finish putting the final nails into Buck Preston’s coffin.


Entering the darkened alley way Ronnie motioned for Hoss to follow him but the two were grabbed and shoved into a car, the door slammed, the locks “clicked” and the car moved forward.

The darkened interior of the car made it difficult for Hoss and Ronnie to figure out where they were.  The adrenaline rush was still pumping at full force from the events in the bar.  There was a divider between the front and rear seat of the vehicle.  Ronnie struggled to open the side door, but it was useless… locked tight.

“Welcome, Mr. Parker,” came a deep, Transylvanian type voice from a speaker system. “It’s good to see you again.” The voice broke into an evil laugh.

Hoss looked around in panic, they needed to find Lucy and Adam.  Hopefully they had managed to get away and would be at the rendezvous point. “We gotta figure a way out of here,”  Hoss whispered to the man beside him. “I hope your plan called for THIS to happen.”

Ronnie leaned over to Hoss and spoke from the side of his mouth, “I never figured on us gettin’ caught.”

“Stop your whispering and tell us everything you know!” the voice boomed out again.

“Don’t tell ‘em nothin’ Ronnie.” Hoss spoke up defiantly.

Ronnie looked at Hoss then continued to gaze around the car as he tried to come up with an escape plan.  His eyes had finally adjusted to the darkened inside and he could see that the divider was actually one way glass.  The interior was familiar... it reminded him of…settling back a devilish grin crossed his face.

Hoss was confused, “What are you doin’?  You come up with somethin’?”

Ronnie nodded, “You can come out now...joke’s over.”

The dividing window lowered and the sound of laughter spilled forward, “Hello Ronnie.”

“You’re an ass.” Ronnie stated flatly, “Hoss I’d like you to meet…”

“We’ve already met.” Hoss answered.

“Hello Mr. Cartwright.” Agent Franklin said with a nod of his head, “I see you took my good advice to heart.”

“Sorry sir, but this was just too personal.” Hoss responded.

“I figured you’d say that.” He replied.  “And you!” he said pointing his index finger at Ronnie, “you are the slipperiest son of a bitch that I ever knew.  You realize that we've been searching for you for days!"

Ronnie just laughed, “I gotta keep your job interesting!”

“Interesting my ass, we need the rest of the files… we’re running out of time.”

“What do you mean?” Hoss questioned moving forward.

“He means that Buck must be preparing to leave the country and we need to nail him before he does.  I gave you everything I had.” Ronnie answered.

Hoss looked from Ronnie back to the agent, “Well, then what are we waiting for?  Ronnie gave you the goods to put him away so why don’t you do it?”

“Because Ronnie’s files were incomplete.” Agent Franklin stated seriously.

Ronnie moved forward on his seat, “What do you mean IN-complete?  I gave you everything I had.  Five hundred forty-eight different emails connecting Buck, Maria and the parole board to all their dirty business.”

“Well, when we opened the files half of them were in some sort of crypt.  When our analysis team finished organizing them we discovered the ones that outline the exact days, prisoners, and politicians that were involved were missing.  Did you make a backup?” Franklin inquired.

“I did.” Ronnie stated running his hand through his hair nervously, “but it was made from that disk… it’s going to be just as messed up.” He let out a long breath, “DAMN!”

“Well, what’s that mean?” Hoss asked. “That we ain’t got nothin’ on Preston?”

“I’m hoping we have other means.” Franklin responded.

Ronnie snapped his fingers, “You know me, I ALWAYS have a back up plan.  Did you look for the missing files in Joe Cartwright’s stuff?”

Franklin nodded his head, “Nothin’.  They must’ve been destroyed before we confiscated it all.”

“But why would Preston shoot him if he knew he’d destroyed all the evidence?” Hoss asked.

“To send a message to your family to not cross him.” Franklin stated, “It isn’t any big secret that Buck Preston and your brother Adam have a history.  By the way, where is your brother?”

“We split up at the bar.” Ronnie answered. “He and Lucy Butler took off out the front.”

“Lucy Butler?” Franklin asked, “Cal Devins’ personal assistant?”

“Yeah.  I contacted her when I was searching for any files connecting Maria Ayres and Buck Preston.  Maria had written an email to Lucy that I managed to intercept and she had mentioned Adam’s name.  Maria was sounding like she wanted out.”

“Really.” Hoss and the agent responded in unison.

Ronnie smiled at Hoss, “Yeah, really.”

Hoss dropped his head thinking about the conversation he had overheard at the restaurant.  He remembered how hard it had been to tell his oldest brother that the woman he loved was betraying him.  Or had she?

“Hoss!” Ronnie spoke up firmly giving the large man a shake on the shoulder.

Hoss broke from his thoughts and looking up realized that Ronnie and the agent were both staring at him.

“Can you think of any place that your brother may be storing those missing files?  He found them way before I did, so it’s possible he had time to back them up BEFORE they attached a virus.  Anything,” Ronnie stated hopefully.

Hoss thought for a moment. “His laptop.”

“That’s right, we never did find it.  But where do you think he hid it?” Agent Franklin asked.

“Obviously somewhere safe,” Ronnie answered.

Hoss thought for another moment longer. “Well, one time when he woke up he wrote down the words ‘Play Ball’ on a piece of paper.  We have no idea what it means, but it may be a clue.  He was pretty insistent on writing it down for us.”

“Play ball...play ball…” Ronnie repeated out loud, “Shit, that could be anything.  A password, a hint to a location, a code to a safety deposit box.” Ronnie laughed. “Franklin why don’t you get your analysis team working on THAT one.”

“Shut up Parker.” Franklin held up his cell phone and dialed. “Hey Simpson, Franklin here.  Ask Frankie and the staff to start working on the words “Play Ball” as a possible lead in the Preston case.” Franklin glanced over at Ronnie’s amused face and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know what it means, that’s why I’m calling you!” he yelled and then hung up his phone.  Looking back at the two passengers he shrugged his shoulders. “You never know, they might actually come up with something.”

Ronnie just nodded sarcastically.  The sudden shrill ring of Hoss's mobile phone caused them all to jump.  Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket he held it up to his ear, “Hello?”

“Hoss?” came an excited, sweet voice.

“Mary Sue?” Hoss exclaimed, “Mary Sue, what is it? Is everything all right with Joe?”

“That’s why I’m calling!” she answered. “He’s awake and is asking to see you and Adam.  Can you come right away?”

Hoss looked at the anxious eyes of Ronnie and the agent, “Well, of course I can!  That’s great news!  We’ll be right over.” He hung up the phone and slipped it back into his pocket.

“What was that all about?” Agent Franklin asked.

“Is your brother all right?” Ronnie asked anxiously.

“Sounds like he’s fine.  He’s awake and that’s the most important thing.” Hoss smiled, “We need to go pick up Adam and Lucy first and then…”

“There’s no time!” the agent stated. “We’ve got to find out what those code words mean and your brother is the only one who knows.”

Hoss looked questioningly towards Ronnie than back at the FBI agent. “You don’t understand, my oldest brother is out there.   He’s beat up, exhausted and needs our help.  We said we would meet them and we need to go meet them.”

“Sorry Mr. Cartwright, but it’s going to have to wait.” The agent turned back around and ordered the driver to head to Virginia City Medical Center.

Hoss looked to Ronnie for help but all he got in return was a shrug. “They’ll be okay for a little while Hoss.  He’s with Lucy and she’s a pretty tough customer.  If I know your brother, he won’t rest until he figures out who killed Maria anyway.” Ronnie smacked Hoss on the shoulder. “Don’t worry.  They’ll be okay, I promise.”

“They better be,” Hoss grumbled. “They better be.”


The car shook as Lucy Butler slammed the door.  Adam straightened not realizing that he had dozed off.

“Are they here?” he asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“No,” she answered as she wrinkled her brow.  Reaching into her purse she pulled out her mobile.  Her hand hovered over the number pad for a moment then she turned to Adam, “You got Ronnie’s cell number?”

Adam shook his head. “You think something’s wrong.”

Lucy scratched her head before punching in some numbers, she held the phone up to her ear cocking her head to look at Adam. “I think so.  We’ve been waiting here for over an hour.”

Adam looked down at his watch and noticed that the time was now quarter till eleven.  He was running out of time to meet with Devins.  Devins…Lucy was his assistant, he didn’t need to meet with him now because she had all the evidence he needed to bust Preston.

“Uh, hello.  Is this Ronnie?” Lucy said into her phone, “Oh.  Sorry I must have the wrong number.” She slammed the receiver shut. “Damn!  We need to get in touch with them!”

“Lucy, it’s obvious that they’re running a little late so why don’t we just sit back and relax for a bit and see if they contact us.  Ronnie’s got your number, right?” Adam asked her.

Lucy stared at the steering wheel of her car. “Yeah,” she slowly drawled out, “I think so.  But he told us to not wait longer than a half an hour.  What are we going to do?  Ronnie was the one with the grand plan.  I’m sure he figured it was going to be us getting into a mess and not them.”  She turned and looked at Adam. “You knew him in college.  Has he always gotten a rush out of dangerous situations?”

Adam paused a moment to recollect those wilder days.  He had met Ronnie during fraternity rush.  A fast talking young man with nothing to prove to anyone and a whole world to experience before his life was over.  Adam had spent all his life being cautious about every move he made which made his friendship with Ronnie all the more unlikely, but Ronnie had a way of talking you into doing anything.  Before you knew it you were in the middle of what seemed like an impossible mess, but somehow Ronnie always got them out of it and laughing over a beer before the next day’s sunrise.  Adam appreciated his carefree, live for the moment attitude… it reminded him of… well, it reminded him a lot of his youngest brother Joe.  Adam smiled to himself.  How many times had he yelled at Joe for being so carefree, yet it was the main characteristic in his best friend that he admired most.

“Adam?  Aaaaaa-dam?” Lucy was singing out as she waved her hand in front of his face.

Adam turned and looked at her. “Maybe we should come up with our own plan.” Adam tried to turn his body towards her but winced as he felt the returning twinge in his side.

“You okay?” Lucy quizzed him. “You need me to get you to a doctor or somethin’?”

Adam paused than shook his head vigorously. “No.  No doctor.  I’ll be fine, just give me a minute.”  Lucy watched him pull a bottle of pills from his pocket and take one.  He held his breath as he swallowed, then relaxed.

“Maybe if we got out of the car,” she said as she popped open her door.  The dome light came on as she stepped outside.  Closing the door she stood up straight and took in a deep breath of the frigid mountain air. “Damn it smells good up here!” She leaned inside her rolled down window and grabbed her purse. “I need a cigarette.”

Adam slowly opened his door, the dome light returning like a small sun and placed his legs on the ground.  It actually did make him feel better to be able to stretch.  He looked up at the other cars parked above them.  He noticed that the couple in the closest car had stopped what they were doing and were staring.   Turning toward Lucy he commented, “Maybe we should turn that dome light off so we don’t draw any attention.  After all, I am a wanted man.” He turned back around, propped his elbows onto his knees and lowered his face into his hands.

Lucy looked up at the couple.  Climbing back into the small vehicle she managed to turn off the lamp and the car interior went black. “That ought to keep those busy bodies minding their own business.” She lit her cigarette and moved to sit on a rock at the edge of the parking area.

Adam managed to stand up and slowly walk over next to her where he looked down at the lake below them.  The sounds of the crickets echoed up through the hills.  He took a deep breath and as he exhaled he slipped his right hand in his pants pocket.  “So, what’s a nice girl like you doing involved in a mess like this?”

Lucy exhaled a stream of white smoke. “I think I was led astray.  This was supposed to be an easy gig… turn over the information, testify against Devins, and return to my normal, happy life.” She laughed bitterly.  She turned and looked up at the man beside her. “I heard about you on the news.  I know you’re not the one who shot Maria.”

Adam continued to stare at the lake. “Well, that makes two of us.”

“I told Devins that I knew it wasn’t you,” she answered taking another puff.

Adam turned and looked down at her. “Your boss.  Interesting man Cal Devins.  How long have you been working for him anyway?”

“I don’t know.  A couple of years.  I got a lot of dirt on him,” she said as she flicked the cigarette butt into the gravel. “He shouldn’t have pissed me off.”

“What did he do to make you so mad that you’d turn on him?  Ronnie mentioned that you changed sides when Maria was shot, that true?” Adam asked.

Lucy stared off towards the lake and then stood up.  She turned and looked at Adam with eyes full of bitterness and revenge. “You don’t mess with my family and not expect to pay.”

Adam tried not to let the surprise reflect in his face.  He’d known Maria for a long time.  He had dated her for two years in college and a year afterwards.  When she refused his marriage proposal they had tried to remain friends but it had been too painful for Adam.  They had run into each other off and on over the years.  Adam tried to think if she had ever mentioned any family.

“I know.  She never talked about us,” Lucy responded flatly.  Adam’s lack of a response was answer enough.  She let out a laugh. “We knew she was too embarrassed.  Why shouldn’t she be?  Growing up in a trailer park with a father who was an alcoholic and a mother who was a hypochondriac it’s no wonder she never told anyone.  I ran away from home when I was fifteen with some boy who promised me everything and gave me nothin’.  It wasn’t a good life but at least it wasn’t with them.  Maria was smarter…she studied hard, got a scholarship, changed her name…she showed ‘em all right.”

Adam stood in silent disbelief.  He had never known any of it. “Where are they now?” he asked.

“Don’t know and don’t care.  I hope they’re dead,” she stated. “I think Maria was sending them money for a while just to keep ‘em quiet.  If word got out that she was from the wrong side of the tracks, well…it could’ve really hurt her pristine image.  A few years back I saw her on some talk show.  I was in prison for dealing drugs.  I decided I’d had enough of this crap and I really wanted to make a change so I worked up my nerve and called her.” She turned and looked at Adam with a smile, her tone softening, “Can you believe that she was actually happy to hear from me?  You could have knocked me over with a feather.” Lucy picked up a rock and tossed it down into the valley below them, “It’s my fault she started associating with Preston…”

“What do you mean?” Adam questioned.

“Well, that stuff that Ronnie was talking about with the payoffs to get prisoners early parole and stuff… I was one of them dirty deals.   That’s how I started working for Devins.  Maria was desperate to get me out.  She’d tried everyone and finally she went to Buck and asked him for his help, but it came with a price…a BIG price.  It’s like she sold her soul to the devil, you know?   Buck set it up for me to work for Devins…so that I could keep an eye on him.  That was the trade off and if I ever tried to leak the information to the press or the police well he threatened to ruin Maria’s career.  After what she’d done for me I couldn’t let that happen.”

“So, he was blackmailing her,” Adam responded.

“At first.  Then it got complicated when he set his sights on her.  He must’ve gotten in her head and convinced her that he was the best that she deserved.  In fact, it was an email to me where she mentioned your name that hooked me up with Ronnie.  Seeing you again really threw her for a loop,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, she had a way of doing that to me too,” Adam mumbled.

“When I heard she’d been shot I figured I wouldn’t be far behind.  They knew I had access to all those files.  With Maria dead they got nothin’ to threaten me with except jail, I guess, but if they admitted what they’d done they’d be incriminating themselves as well.  I decided it was time to get out of there so I asked Ronnie for his help and here I am.” She shook her cigarette packet and pulled out another one, then lit it. “I can’t believe she’s dead,” she said somberly.

Adam relaxed his shoulders absorbing her words.  He couldn’t believe it either and he still wasn’t positive who had done it.  Buck’s threat to kill him for the shooting just didn’t make sense.  “Lucy?” he finally asked. “Since you’ve pretty much been in the middle of all the key players you must have an idea about who you think killed Maria.”

“Well,” she started, “I’ve been givin’ that a lot of thought and here’s what I think happened.  I remember the day that Mr. Preston came storming into Mr. Devins’ office…


Lucy stood up as Buck Preston busted in the back door to the reception area of Cal Devins’ office.

“Where’s Devins!” he demanded angrily.

Lucy crossed her arms and shot back a defiant glare. “He’s in his office, but he’s in a meeting.”

“I don’t care.  He’s about to be in a meeting with me!” Preston moved to the office door and flung it open.

The two men looked up at Preston simultaneously.

“We need to talk,” Buck stated forcefully.

Cal Devins shot his guest an apologetic look.  Standing up he closed the books that were lying between them. “We’ll finish this up another time, Mr. Handley.”

The older gentleman nodded and standing slowly scooped up the ledger and left the room.

Once Devins was sure that the man was gone he turned back to Preston. “Now, what’s this all about?”

Preston started to speak, but Devins halted him with an index finger. “Lucy, could you please close the door?  Mr. Preston and I have some business to discuss.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Devins,” The young assistant responded.

Devins watched her pull the door shut.  Distracted by his business at hand he never realized he hadn’t heard it latch closed. He then turned back to Preston. “Now, what’s the big idea bustin’ in here like that!  And in the middle of the day!  I thought we agreed that we wouldn’t be seen together.”

“We have a little problem that if it doesn’t get taken care of quickly it’s going to land us all over the front page of the Virginia City Chronicle, maybe even USA Today!” Preston answered angrily.

“And what might that little problem be?” Devins asked sitting back down in his leather executive chair.

“Joe Cartwright has somehow broken into our files and intercepted all my correspondence with you, Maria Ayres and a lot of other Nevada politicians,” Preston stated. “Memos regarding the Parole scandal.”

“You say that he broke into OUR files.  You mean, YOUR files,” Devins stated pulling a cigar from a box on the corner of his desk and lighting it. “I don’t use computers except as a boat anchor.  I destroy all my files just for this reason.  I guess my paranoia has served me well.”

“Oh, don’t try and act like you aren’t a part of this, Devins, because if I go down, YOU’RE goin’ with me,” Buck snarled.

“So, let me get this straight.  You’re here because some computer hacker whose last name happens to be Cartwright intercepted some PRIVATE correspondences.  First of all, who cares that you and Maria Ayres are having a thing and secondly, you can’t possibly have been SO stupid as to have actually named names in your memos.  Did you?”

Buck Preston shoved a stack of books that was sitting on the edge of the desk to the floor and turned his back to Devins.

Pulling the cigar from his mouth Devins moved from behind the desk. “I can’t believe that even you were that stupid.” He walked over to a round table that had a bottle of brandy sitting on it.  Pouring himself a drink he threw it back in one gulp. “So, what are you going to do about it?”

“Me?” Buck answered turning towards Devins.

“Yeah you.  My name isn’t on those emails.  This is YOUR problem.”

“But I expect YOU to take care of it,” Preston shot back.

“Oh no, I don’t get my hands dirty unless it’s my head on the chopping block.”

“Well, it’s going to be when this information gets out.”

“What do you mean?” Devins questioned.

“Just wait and see Devins, I figured you to double cross me at some point.”

“You’re bluffing,” Devins responded taking another puff from his cigar. Devins studied Preston’s face as he took another puff from his cigar.  “You know, as I recall you’ve already got a grudge against them Cartwrights.”  He blew the smoke upward. “Wasn’t it with that oldest boy… Adam, I think his name is.” Devins sat down on the edge of his desk. “The story I heard was something about him stealing your girl, wasn’t that it?”

“You shut your damn mouth, Devins,” Preston said, pointing his index finger at him.  “This hasn’t got anything to do with that.”

“Easy there.  I’m just telling you that you got every reason to hate them Cartwrights and now’s your chance to get even before they ruin you for good.”

“So, can I count on you for you help?” Preston asked.

“No way.  This is your mess, you clean it up,” Devins replied getting up and walking back behind his desk.

Buck stared at him through narrowed eyes, his mind moving on to his next plan of action. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, turning and leaving, the door slamming behind him.

Buck stopped in front of Lucy’s desk. “Lucy,” he said leaning closer to her, “Have you been a good girl and keeping up with the paperwork I requested?”

Lucy nodded her head slowly.

“Good,” he said with an evil smile and a wink. “Have it delivered to my office as soon as you can, all right?”

“Yes sir,” she replied weakly.

Buck opened the back door to leave, pausing for one last comment. “By the way, the Governor’s going to announce his running mate for the upcoming Presidential election next week. Your sister has a real good chance, don’t you think?” he turned and walked out the door.

Lucy stared after him understanding exactly what he was saying.


Adam nodded his head taking in the information. “Well, that confirms it.  And the paperwork.  What was he talking about? And how does that connect to Maria getting shot?  It was Buck that had the files.”

“I’m gettin’ there,” she replied. “I had been keeping all those hard copies for Buck at my place.”

“So, let me see if I’m following you here.  Joe found files to incriminate Buck and Maria and Buck had you keep files to incriminate Devins?” Adam asked.

Lucy shrugged. “There’s no honor among crooks.” She lit up another cigarette, “So anyway, I think Devins went to Maria’s condo that night to pressure her for information.  You know, find out if Buck was really bluffing.”

“What makes you think he went there that night?” Adam asked.

“Because he called Maria and told her he was coming over.”

Adam held his hand up to his forehead and massaged his temples. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.” He looked up at Lucy.  He took a deep breath and spoke slowly. “Why would she agree to that if she had already invited me over?”

“Oh this was after you left,” she stated.

Adam stared at her, dumbfounded.

Lucy smiled. “Let me start from the beginning…”

“Please,” Adam answered.

“After you left that night, Maria was upset.  She called me and was telling me how much she still cared about you and should she call you back and tell you the truth…”

“The truth?” Adam asked.

“About her and Preston and all the crooked politics she had managed to get herself involved in.  She knew she could trust you and knew that if anyone could get her out of this mess it would be you.  I told her to follow her heart…that I’d be supportive of any decision that she made.  That’s when her phone beeped.  She thought it might be you calling back so she clicked over… apparently it was Devins.”

“What did he say?” Adam wondered.

“He started to threaten her.  She told him that she didn’t care; that she was through with all the dirty politics and was going to tell Preston that she was quitting.  He insisted she not doing anything hasty and that he would come over so they could talk.  Maria told him not to, that she wouldn’t be there.  He told her that she better.  It scared her.  When she finally clicked back over to me she sounded pretty upset.  I told her to call the cops and insist they take her into protective custody.  She wasn’t ready to get the police involved. She told me not to worry.  That she would take care of it.  The next day I saw on the news that she’d been shot and that you were being charged.  I knew it was a frame job…I just didn’t have any proof.”

Adam lost himself in the information, his eyes losing focus as he relived the phone call from that night.  His voice was soft, distant. “So Maria had wanted out.  She called me and asked me back.  Something in her voice HAD sounded so vulnerable, maybe frightened.  If only she had asked for my help sooner.”  His dark eyes cleared as the realization hit him, the soft voice now angry. “Devins must have called from a cell phone right outside her condo.  He knew she was alone.”

“But if Devins did shoot her it still doesn’t explain how your gun got there.  Had you dropped it when you were there that night?”

Adam laughed sarcastically. “Why would I have brought a gun with me that night.  I certainly wasn’t expecting any trouble.  Anyway, Buck had taken it from me the night Hoss and I busted into his office to confront him about shooting Joe.”

“So Buck was the last one with your gun, huh?” She pondered the situation for a minute.  Suddenly her eyes flew open with realization. “That guy,” she said as she pointed at Adam repeatedly, “that guy at the bar that I popped with the stun gun.  I saw him in Devins’ office not a couple of hours before.”

“Yet he was there in Buck’s office the night Hoss and I were there.  He’s working for Devins but pretending to be working for Preston,” Adam answered.

“That would explain how your gun got into Devins’ hands, wouldn’t it?” Lucy asked excitedly.

Adam nodded. “Yes, it would.”

“Man, I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall of Maria’s condo when Devins showed up there.  I bet they had a pretty interesting conversation,” Lucy said.

Adam snapped his fingers. “The tape recorder!”

“What?” she asked

“I placed a tape recorder in Maria’s couch that night.  I was hoping to get her to confess something about Preston that would connect him to Joe’s shooting,” Adam answered. “I left before I could retrieve it.  Actually I had forgotten about it until just now.”

“That’s it!” Lucy exclaimed. “What are we waiting for?  Let’s go get it and see if it taped their conversation!” She was already moving towards the car.

“Yeah,” Adam responded. He slowly climbed back in the car.  A wave of relief flooded his body for the first time in days.  Finally some pieces to this complex puzzle were falling into place.


Hoss could barely contain his anxiety as the federal agent's car moved through the streets of Virginia City toward the hospital. He was anxious to see Joe, to talk to him, just to reassure himself his little brother was all right. But Adam was out there at Harbison Point expecting to meet him there. The thought of Adam up there alone without any backup made his skin crawl.

If it weren't for the divider that separated Franklin and his driver from himself and Ronnie, he would have reached over the seat and 'convinced' them to turn around and head back toward the Point. As it was, he was just about completely helpless, and it was a
feeling he didn't like at all.

He breathed a great sigh of relief when the car pulled to a stop outside the hospital entrance. He clenched and unclenched his fists until Franklin stepped out and opened the back door closest to the hospital entrance. He nearly shoved Ronnie out in his haste to exit the vehicle and moved quickly inside, not bothering to check and see if the others were behind him.

In these wee hours of the morning, there was little activity in the hospital. The usually thriving information desk just inside the lobby was deserted and only one of the hospital's security staff maintained a vigil in the darkened room. When he saw Hoss, he moved
forward to intercept him.

"I'm sorry, sir. Visiting hours are over."

Hoss barely acknowledged the middle-aged man in the blue uniform. He was looking down the hallway, his thoughts on his brothers. "Well I'm headin' to ICU to see my brother." And Hoss shouldered past the guard.

Fortunately, Franklin stopped the guard and flashed his badge. "Sorry officer. I'm Agent Franklin with the FBI. It's critical that we see his brother."

The hospital security guard stepped back in open-mouthed shock and let them pass. He'd had to deal with unruly patients in the ER or vagrants trying to gain access to the building for a night's shelter, but he was way out of his league dealing with the FBI. He watched as the elevator doors closed over the three men and the elevator light signaled its ascent to the fifth floor and critical care.

Hoss moved quickly through the main doors of ICU, flanked closely by Ronnie and the agent. Once again, a staff member was about to protest about visiting hours but was silenced by Franklin's badge.

"Good to know you spooks are good for something," Ronnie whispered to Franklin with a grin.

Ben, who had been watching for his sons' arrival, spotted Hoss and the others approaching the room. Before they could enter, he stepped outside and stood in front of the ICU door next to the guard Roy had placed there to guard Joe's room, just in case.

He grasped Hoss's hand and squeezed it with both of his. "Hoss, he's awake!" Though he kept his voice at a whisper, Hoss could hear the delight in his father's tone. But before he could say anything, Franklin interrupted.

"That's good Mr. Cartwright. We need to talk to him right now." He moved to enter the ICU room but Ben blocked his way.

"I'm afraid you're just going to have to wait, Franklin."

"Look here, Cartwright, this is federal business and I won't have…"

"No YOU look here, Franklin. My son has just been through hell and I'll not have him upset by strangers coming in and grilling him as soon as he wakes up. He asked for Hoss and Adam, and JUST the two of them. My boys can relay any necessary information to you."

Franklin started to protest, but closed his mouth, knowing it would do no good. Hoss felt no small amount of satisfaction to have Franklin feeling the helpless one for a change.

Ben didn't acknowledge Franklin and looked down the hallway expectantly, then to Hoss. "Where is Adam? I thought he'd be with you?"

"I've gotta meet him later, Pa. Is Joe up to talkin'? I really gotta speak with him urgent like."

"He's still awake but in a lot of pain.  They removed the respirator earlier but speaking is very difficult for him. But you better talk to him now before he falls asleep again."

Hoss nodded. "I won't keep him long, Pa."

Ronnie and Franklin waited outside while Ben and Hoss quietly re-entered Joe's room. Hoss was relieved to see his brother awake but blinking sleepily. He was still very pale and the chest tube remained in place, as well as the IV's and oxygen.

He approached the bed and leaned over it, stroking the hair back from Joe's forehead tenderly. "Hey, Shortshanks. Been waitin' fer you to come around. We missed you."

Joe's eyes were pale and fatigued with the effort to stay awake. His voice came out somewhere between a croak and a strangled, forced whisper.


The fingers of Joe's left hand moved weakly but Hoss saw and held it in his own, squeezing gently. "Take it easy, little brother." He paused for a moment, then plunged forward, not wanting to trouble Joe with questions but having no choice. "Joe, I hate to ask you at a time like this, but I need to know. Your laptop.  Joe, where's your laptop?"

"Where's .Adam?" Joe seemed not to hear his question.

"He'll be here soon, buddy.  But I need your help. Can you help me, Joe? Where's your laptop?"

Ben hovered close on the other side of Joe's bed, his fists clenching the guardrail on that side.

Joe looked at Hoss, blinking tiredly. "Charlie…"

Hoss was confused. Maybe Joe was delirious. "What do you mean, Joe? Someone named Charlie has your laptop?"

Joe continued, trying to make his brother understand. He squeezed Hoss's hand weakly and a faint smile etched his face. "You forgettin'…about your own…dog?"

Hoss and Ben exchanged perplexed looks. Hoss leaned closer. "What does Charlie have to do with any of this?"

"Member my...baseball jersey?" Joe was pushing the words out on a struggling breath.

Hoss's eyebrows drew together in consternation. He still didn't understand where this was leading. "Yeah, I remember. Last week ol' Charlie got a hold of it and you just about chased him plumb across the Ponderosa trying to get it back.”  Hoss smiled then, remembering. "I reckon Charlie outfoxed ya, huh little brother?"

Joe nodded faintly. " `S in the doghouse...with the…laptop."

"The laptop's in ol' Charlie's dog house?”  Joe nodded and a slow smile spread across Hoss's face. He gently ruffled Joe's curls in delight. "That was mighty slick o'you little brother. I always knew you was the tricky one in the family."

Hoss had to admit it was the perfect place to stash the laptop. Anybody who knew him knew Charlie didn't like strangers on the property. More then that, he was very territorial, even with the family, and made it known in no uncertain terms that his doghouse was off limits.

Ben leaned down to his son, knowing he was quickly tiring. "Joseph, how do we find the files you tapped into?"

Joe's voice was fainter than ever as he spoke.  "Find, files…play ball. Password...Charlie."

Ben was relieved. They could finally bring this thing to a close. He stroked Joe's forehead soothingly, watching as his eyelids grew heavier and heavier. "You've done a fine job, Joseph. Sleep now. You need your rest."

Joe was asleep before he'd even finished speaking. Hoss moved around to the other side of the bed and grabbed Ben's arm, guiding him toward the door.

"Pa, I need you to go with Franklin out there to the house and get that laptop. Gimme the keys to your car so Ronnie and I can go git Adam."

"And leave Joe here alone?"

Hoss sighed. "I don't like it either, Pa but we don't got much choice. Besides," Hoss nodded out the door toward the officer stationed just outside. "We've known Frank Jeffers just about as long as we've known Roy. And I gotta git to Adam." He held his hand out impatiently for the car keys.

Ben didn't like the look on Hoss's face but retrieved the keys and handed them over. "Where are you going to find him?"

"He's supposed to be waiting for me up at Harbison Point. Hopefully he stayed put like I told him too."

"And if he didn't?" Ben worried.

Hoss rubbed his forehead. "Well then…I reckon I'll swing by Maria Ayres' place. It's not far from Harbison Point and he may go back there to search the place in case he can find something the cops might've missed."

Ben nodded as Hoss opened the door. "Be careful, Hoss. I want you both to get back home as soon as possible."

But Ben was speaking to empty air. Hoss had already disappeared through the door.


 Adam winced as Lucy swerved around yet another curve. The Fiesta was definitely not the road-hugging Jaguar and Lucy's racing skills left a little something to be desired. Adam was as anxious, if not more anxious to get to that tape recorder than Lucy was, but he wanted to get there in one piece.  He found himself unconsciously tapping the floor on his side for the imaginary brake pedal.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Lucy turned down the road leading to Maria's home. Lucy began to drive at a considerably more cautious rate as she inched closer to the house. They scanned the streets on both sides for any signs of trouble. Finding none, Lucy inched forward into the driveway, dousing the headlights as she did so. They didn't want to attract any unnecessary attention to themselves.

Lucy slung her purse over her shoulder and grabbed a flashlight from beneath the seat. "Come on," she whispered, and strode toward the house, not waiting to see if Adam was following.

Adam was not having as easy a time. It had been painful getting into the small car. Getting out took a Herculean feat.  The movement jabbed painfully at his side but he willed the pain away. With any luck, he could get the tape back to the authorities, go home and sleep for a week and try to forget any of this ever happened.

Shutting the car door quietly, he moved up the walk. Lucy had already used her keys to enter the house and had turned off the alarm system before he made the front door, ducking beneath the police tape. When she flipped on the lights, they both were frozen in their tracks. Adam was forced to relive the night of Maria's shooting all over again, the now dried rust-brown stains on the carpet and couch an all too vivid testimony that Maria Ayres, the woman he had once wanted to marry, now lay dead in the morgue. He swayed a moment as the pain washed over him anew. If only Maria had…

A touch on his arm startled him. "Come on, Adam," Lucy spoke softly. "What's done is done. All we can do now is prove Devins killed her."

Adam started to take a deep breath to clear his lungs, then thought better of it. He headed around to the front of the couch and began probing beneath the cushions for the familiar rectangular object.


Hoss floored the pedal of the white Lincoln Town Car, taking each curve on the mountain road as quickly as was possible. He had briefed Ronnie on the way.

"A dog house?"

"That's what I said. It worked didn't it?"

Ronnie couldn't help but smile, despite the gravity of the situation. "Yeah it sure did. I guess I'm disappointed. I was expecting something about a secret passageway or decoder ring or maybe a locker at the bus station. But I gotta admit," he shrugged, slapping his leg, "it's brilliant. Simple, but brilliant."

"Yeah, well you just keep thinkin' brilliant thoughts, Ronnie, because Adam is probably gonna need `em." As he spoke he turned the final curve revealing Harbison Point on the west side of the road.  He quickly swung the big vehicle into the pullout, along side the only other car there.

To his great disappointment, it wasn't Adam or Lucy. Judging by the steamed-up windows, it was two kids out on a date. He opened the door and went around to the car, hoping at least they might have seen something.

"You in there! Open up! I need to ask you a few questions." Hoss studiously avoided looking into the vehicle as the window slowly rolled down.

"What is it now? We answered all your questions before…" The young man's voice trailed off as he realized it wasn't the same person asking questions this time.

"Sorry to bother you, young fella, but I need to know if you saw a man and a woman here earlier. The man is just a bit shorter then me, dark hair, dressed in black. He's got a woman with him about yeah high with bleached blonde hair..."

"Yeah, yeah." The kid snorted in disgust. "Everybody wants to know about this guy. What's the big deal?"

Hoss felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "What do ya mean, `everybody wants to know about this guy'?"

The kid looked at the big man just outside his car, just as big as the first goon, and decided it was no time for smart answers. He answered plainly. "This man and woman you described - they were up here for a while. Looked kinda restless. Climbing in and out of the car, smoking cigarettes…they obviously weren't here for a date.”  He noticed the big man was growing impatient. "Anyway, they left and not long after, some big guy pulled up in a car, and was standing there where you are demanding to know if I'd seen him. He wasn't nobody to mess with and I told him."

"Told him what?" Hoss asked anxiously.

"That the man and woman headed north up this road about 15 minutes ago.  That's all I know."

"Damn," Hoss muttered under his breath. Then he spoke to the kid again. "Was it just one man?"

"Well, I didn't get a good look at him but there was another man in the car with him. They said they wanted to find this guy so they could have a talk. That's all I know, I swear."

Hoss clamped down on his fear and asked one more question. "How long ago did the man leave?"

"Not long after your friend."

"DAMN!" The cold pit of fear in his stomach changed to a hot churning. Adam was in trouble. He had to get to Maria's, fast. He moved fast for a big man and in a heartbeat had climbed back into the Lincoln and had the tires squealing as they tore out of the pullout and headed up the road.

Hoss just prayed he wouldn't be too late.


"Nothing." Adam straightened carefully from his position on the floor, making a mental note that bending over was a choice best not repeated. He sat back on his haunches next to Lucy, eyeing the sofa in frustration.

Lucy chewed her lip. "Maybe the cops confiscated it? They don't tell you everything they got, you know."

"Maybe." Adam frowned. "Maybe the tape ran out before Maria was shot and doesn't prove anything - except, of course, that I was here and that Maria and I had a fight…" His voice trailed off.

Lucy jogged his arm to bring his attention back. "How long was the tape?"

Adam blinked. "An hour. But the recorder is sound activated - it would turn itself off if there wasn't enough noise. I wasn't here that long - at the very least it should have picked up your conversation with Maria…"

"Unless she made that from the bedroom," Lucy pointed out.

Adam shook his head briefly. "In that case, it should have picked up her shooting - it would have turned off while she was in the bedroom making a phone call. That would have left plenty of tape…" he shut his eyes, trying to reconstruct the timeline in his head. Had he looked at the clock at all? His eyes flew open. Yes! When he had returned - he had glanced at the dashboard clock and thought about calling Hoss - something - something worthwhile should be on that tape!

"We have to move the couch," he said abruptly. "Look under it. If that recorder was working at all it should have something we could use." He stood carefully, using the arm of the sofa to lever himself to his feet.

Lucy snorted. "Yer gonna move that sofa?"

"Well, as long as we've already interfered with a crime scene, what's a little more? In for a penny…"

Lucy shrugged. "Didn't mean that. Meant yer gonna drag around a sofa with a bad arm?"

Adam paused, glancing down at his sling. She had a point. "My arm isn't hurt - it's my ribs."

Lucy gave a crack of laughter. "That's much better. Better let me move it."

Adam hesitated. It made sense, of course, but it went against everything in him. "I - " he laughed shortly. "I'm not sure I can just stand here and watch you move a sofa."

Lucy pulled out a cigarette and tucked it between her lips. "So you think it would be more gallant to leave me sitting in the middle of a violated crime scene with a guy hemorrhaging from a punctured lung? I'll take my chances with the sofa." She saw him looking at her sternly as she flicked her lighter into action. "What? Oh, this?" She inhaled deeply. "What the hell? We already crossed the crime scene tape - like you said, in for a penny…"

Adam laughed. "Good point." He found he was smiling despite himself. In some ways she really did remind him of Maria.

Lucy took another deep drag on her cigarette and glanced around for an ashtray. Not seeing one, she perched her cigarette on the edge of the wet bar sink and bent over to grasp one end of the sofa, dragging it aside. "Sheesh," she said, walking around it to do the same on the other end. "Darn sofa beds always weigh so much."

Adam tentatively fingered his ribs. "Probably I could - "

"Forget it, Galahad." Lucy gave a grunt and swung the other end aside. They both looked. A lot of dust bunnies, a bic pen, some spare change…no tape recorder. Lucy pushed out her lower lip. "Damn."

Adam kneaded at the gauze taped to his forehead. "Let's pull the bed out." He started to lean over and Lucy raised her eyebrows at him. He took a step back, holding up his hand in surrender. "All right, all right. I feel like a kept man."

Lucy grinned and tugged at the fold-away bed.  It came part way, then stopped. "Huh. Think it's jammed."

Adam eased himself to his knees to look. His heart skipped a beat. "There's something caught - I think - " He reached into the folded metal frame and felt something oblong and plastic. "Got it - hang on - " He began to gently work it loose, stopped suddenly and closed his eyes. How could such a small movement hurt so much? "Think you better," he admitted after a second.

Lucy stopped at the sink to take another drag on her cigarette, then knelt next to him and stuck her hand in to feel for herself. "Well, I'll be damned." She gave it a good yank, pulling the small tape recorder free and staring at it with something akin to reverence.

She looked so long that Adam reached over and gently took it from her grasp, hitting the rewind button. "Here goes nothing." He settled himself with his back against the sofa arm. Lucy went to retrieve her cigarette and a glass to use as an ashtray, then sat on the floor next to him. Adam heard the tape finish its rewind and hit the "play" button.

There was a brief crackling of static, then, "Hell of a view." His own voice.  "I was just thinking the same thing." Maria.  Oh, God..…had it really only been a day or so ago? Adam suddenly felt a little sick and leaned his head back against the sofa arm and closed his eyes. Lucy sat quietly next to him, drawing on her cigarette.

Their conversation was short - shorter than he had remembered. It seemed like only a few seconds before he heard himself saying, "And now I'm leaving. " The sound of their fight followed. What if he hadn't left? What might have happened then? He closed his eyes tighter, as if that would shut out his thoughts. He heard Lucy give a short burst of laughter and opened his eyes at her in surprise.

She saw his expression and shrugged. "Nothin'. Just listenin' to you guys fight - Jesus, Maria loved a fighter. No wonder she was so gone on you."

Adam turned away. "I think you're confusing me with Buck Preston."

"Preston? In his dreams.  She may have been with him, but you were the one she was in love with." She saw his expression and raised her eyebrows. "You didn't know that?"

Adam just looked at her. She shrugged again. "Huh. And you're supposed to be so smart."

The fight ended with the tinkle of breaking glass and the resounding slam of a door..…then the sound of Maria's broken sobs. Adam pressed a hand over his eyes.

Maria's choked voice continued in a one-sided telephone conversation. "Yeah, Lucy, he just left…no, we had a big…I don't know… I can't do this any more. I just can't. The way he looked at me, I could hardly…" more sobbing. Adam resisted the urge to cover his ears with his hands. Evidence, he told himself. It was important evidence, that's all.  "I want to tell him, Lucy. Tell him everything. God, I barely stopped myself as it was. If anyone can help me - hang on. I have another call." There was a short pause. Her voice sounded eager this time. "Adam?…Oh. You.  I'm on the other - look. Let's make this short and sweet. I'm out. It's over. Find yourself another pigeon…No. I said - No, don't - Look, if you do, I won't be here…I don't care. I'm finished - through. I'm sick to death of…Don't you threaten me! No, you listen to me, Devins - "

Adam's eyes opened wide and turned to meet Lucy's. Pay dirt. He reached over to hit the rewind button, check that bit again.

There was a sudden splintering crash and the front door blew inward, the knob bouncing off the wall with a crunch of crumbling drywall. Silhouetted against the shadowy night were two massive figures.

Adam fumbled for the sofa arm, fighting to regain his feet, but he wasn't nearly fast enough. Before he could even clearly register who their untimely visitors were, one of the huge black figures had swooped down on him and grasped him by the collar, yanking him to his feet and slamming him against the wall with a force that made the room dissolve in a flash of white light.

"You son of a bitch!" He was slammed into the wall again, buzzing filling his ears, almost drowning out the sound of Lucy screaming. He clawed ineffectually with his free hand at the corded arm holding him, trying to draw air into lungs that seemed to have forgotten the trick of breathing. Faintly, as if from a great distance, he heard a strangled grunt and a thump that shook the floor and rattled him painfully in his attacker's grasp.  "I'm gonna kill you, Cartwright, for what you did - nice and slow - "

The last word ended on a scream of rage and pain and he was suddenly released, sliding to the floor with a thud that was almost as agonizing as the slam had been. He gasped, cradling his ribs, digging his fingers deep into the pile of the area rug as the world jumped and shimmied in a haze of mottled grey.

"Damn you! You stupid, crazy, ungrateful bitch…" The voice sounded pained now, too - good. Sometimes it truly was better to give than to receive. "You coulda blinded me!"

"Stay right where you are!" That was Lucy, her voice shrill and high. "Don't come near or I'll spray this in the other eye."

Adam tried to straighten some, using the wall at his back for support. Oh, God, that hurt. Was Doc Martin ever going to be pissed with him.

"Adam - Adam, are you okay?"

Adam ground his teeth, but couldn't find the breath to reply. The images before him cleared just enough though that he could make out Buck Preston on his knees in front of him, clutching at his right eye. He could feel Lucy standing beside him and tried to squint upward to see what she was doing. She must have snagged her purse somehow, because she was holding what looked like the pepper spray aimed at Buck in a two handed grip.

"Don't try anything!" her voice rose even higher. "And don't expect any help from your goon! He took a good jolt from my stun gun. You really need to hire better help - for such a big guy he sure overreacted to a little cigarette burn!"

"Jesus," Preston grunted. "What the hell is the matter with you? So loyal to Maria that you protect her murderer? Give me that damn thing - " He made a move for her and she sprayed a warning shot that caught his hand. He let out another bellow of mixed pain and fury.

"I said don't move!"

Adam tried again to sit straighter, ended up slumping bonelessly back against the wall.

"He didn't kill her, you stupid moron! Now, take your goon and just get out of here!"

Preston sneered. "Just like your sister. Believe anything a pretty face tells you. Well, just look where it got her."

"Shut up!" Lucy sounded close to tears and Adam tried desperately to find the strength and wind to rise and help her. Instead he coughed and the resulting explosion of pain nearly put him under again. "Don't talk about my sister again! Just go!"

Preston sounded more confident now. "C'mon, Lucy. You don't really want to hurt me. I helped you. I helped Maria. Now just give me that silly little toy and we'll talk about this."

Adam could feel Lucy's hesitation, then Preston's satisfaction. "That's my girl. I've always looked out for your family, haven't I? Now give me that." Preston rose slowly to his feet, holding out his hand. Adam knew that he had to get up - now - or they were lost.

"I said it's over!" The new voice sounded loud in the brief, tense silence and caught them all by surprise. Preston's face stilled, going white.

"What the - " he stared from Lucy to Adam as though he'd seen a ghost, then whirled to look behind him.

"You heard me! Over!"

His face worked strangely. "…Maria?" he whispered.

"Guess you didn't read the fine print, Maria. Shame, really. See, it's not over till I say so."

Adam managed to get his eyes fully open, fixing them on Preston who looked puzzled and faintly terrified. "Who…? Devins?  Where…?"

There was a quick gasp of surprise and horror then a muffled gun report. Then a slight pause, and Devins' disembodied voice came again, soft and sibilant.  "Now, sweetheart," he said with matter of fact calm. "Now it's over." The tape stopped with a faint click, audible in the heavy silence that blanketed the room.

Preston blinked, trying to make sense of it, finally catching sight of the tiny tape recorder on the Persian area rug by the sofa. "Sweet Jesus," he breathed at last. "Jesus Christ. Cal Devins.  That slimy, two-timing son of a bitch."

Adam finally managed to draw a shallow breath, letting his head fall back against the wall behind him and shutting his eyes. "My sentiments…" he swallowed painstakingly, sipping in another tentative breath. "...exactly."

Damn his chest hurt.  Felt like somebody was skewering him with a white-hot poker.  Maybe Preston had knocked something loose, maybe the nerve block had finally worn off, or maybe, maybe---not being there for Maria when she’d needed him the most…  He grimaced as the poker twisted cruelly in his chest.  Instinctively he wrapped his right arm tightly over the strapped arm, pushing them both hard against his ribs.  Knowing Devins had murdered Maria was one thing.  But to hear it.  Hear her voice, sense her terror, hear the deadly shot.  He gasped involuntarily as the poker turned, burning hotter.  Panting, he waited for the spasm to pass.  And then he remembered Devins’ final words.  Cold, heartless.  ‘Now sweetheart.  Now it’s over.’  Shuddering slightly, Adam ground his teeth together so tightly he thought they would shatter.  Slowly he opened his eyes.  Devins was a dead man.

He swiped at the beads of sweat forming along his upper lip.  There were no other options, he steeled himself against the pain and began to inch his back up the wall.

“Adam, hold on, let me give you a hand.”  Lucy loomed in front of him, her eyes awash with tears.

“God, Lucy, I’m sorry you had to hear that.”  He grunted in pain as Lucy pulled on his right arm.  “Hey.”  His eyes watered.  “Better take it nice and easy.  This is gonna take a few minutes.”

Lucy looked over her shoulder.  “Preston, put the tape recorder down and give me a hand.  Seein’ as how you landed him here in the first place.”  As she let go of his right arm, Adam began to slide back down the wall, losing the precious few inches he’d gained.  “An’ hurry up, ya big shit!”  Adam couldn’t stop the small smile that quickly twisted into a grimace as he landed with a thud on the floor again.  Maria’s sister, no doubt about it.  The language was rawer, the edges rougher, but the spit and vinegar were the same.

“Move over, Lucy.  You’re in my way.  Let me get him to his feet.”  Preston’s voice was thick, husky.

“You sure you’ll be careful?”  Her tone was suspicious.  Adam could feel his muscles tighten in anticipation of Preston’s ‘help’.

“Yeah, yeah.  I’ll be careful.”  Lucy backed away, and Preston came into view.

As Preston squatted next to him, Adam could see his own anger and hate mirrored in the opaque gray eyes of his adversary.

“I’m gonna kill Devins,” Preston growled, his voice still heavy with emotion.

“Like you tried to kill my brother?”  Adam’s expression was unreadable, only the muscles that pulsed fiercely along his jaw line betrayed his feelings.

Still reeling from the revelation on the tape, it took Preston a second to comprehend what Adam was saying.  Blinking several times, he shook his head in disbelief.  “I already told you, Cartwright, I had nuthin’ to do with your brother’s shootin’.”

Preston let his eyes wander over the cuts and bruises on Adam’s face then travel down to the sling, before continuing.  “I’d of thought after our last discussion, you’d of gotten that message, loud and clear.  Always were a little slow, eh, Cartwright?”

Joe lying in a pool of blood flashed cross Adam’s mind.  Without thinking, Adam pushed up from the floor and made a grab for Preston’s neck.  His breath caught in his throat as the poker dug into his chest deeper than ever, spreading a wall of fire up and down his left side.  Groaning loudly, he dropped back onto the floor, clutching at his side, trying to hold his breath.

Between the pounding in his head and the explosion in his side, it was impossible to concentrate on anything else.  Motionless now, he waited till the pain gradually dulled, the drumming in his ears attenuated to a low hum.  Little by little, he began to hear Lucy and Preston, loud and angry, arguing above him.  It took him a minute, but slowly it all came back.  Dumb, really dumb, trying to take a shot at Preston.  His time was running out, and he’d need what sense and strength he had left to go after Devins.  And right now he needed Preston’s help.

 Wearily he lifted his head and struggled to speak, pushing each word out on a hoarse whisper.  “Preston…  Lucy…  … hand up.  Talk…  …need to talk.”

 “Ya better be more careful this time,” she threatened angrily.

“Okay, okay.  But it was his fault, Lucy, not mine.”  Preston squatted down next to Adam once more.  “Truce?”

Adam nodded once.  Hazel eyes black with fire, his hoarse whisper now braced with steel, he made a promise.  “I’ll settle up for Little Joe later.”  He paused momentarily, then continued, never taking his eyes from Preston’s.  “You’re right about one thing.  Devins will answer for Maria’s death.”  Preston met Adam’s steady gaze with his own and nodded in understanding.

Catching a few short, careful breaths, Adam tried to relax and let Preston lift him off the floor.  Almost up.  New voices.  More shouting.  Coming from the front door.  He couldn’t see over Preston’s enormous frame, but the one voice was unmistakable.  He fought the urge to scream as Preston’s grip tightened around his ribs.  Moaning softly, he pushed against Preston with his good arm as everything started to fade.

“Get your hands off him!  You’re dead meat, Preston!”  More shouting.  Lucy’s voice now.  Hard to hear over the heady whine in his ears.  Suddenly the vise-like grip around his chest was gone.  Squinting, he tried to bring the shapes in front of him into focus.  His chest was on fire again.  His knees felt like Jell-O. Wrapping his arms fiercely around his chest, pushing hard against the pain, he felt the wall slide up against his back one more time.  Damn that Hoss.  What a time to make his entrance.  He was out before he hit the floor.


“Adam.  Wake up, it’s me Hoss.”  Hoss knelt by the sofa, wiping Adam’s forehead and cheeks gently with a cold cloth, careful to avoid the bandage above his right eye.  “Come on, Adam, open them eyes fer ol' Hoss.”

He watched the eyelids flicker, then slowly open.  “Now that’s better.”  Hoss sighed in relief.  “Thought ya’d never wake up.”  Hoss continued to fuss over Adam, pressing the cool compress against his face. He spoke softly, soothingly as he watched his brother carefully.   “Ya gave me quite a scare, big brother.  How ya doin’?”

Adam looked around the room, then settled his gaze back on Hoss.  “Splendid, just splendid.”

Hoss grinned, glad to hear his brother’s voice, his sarcastic edge, even if it sounded like he had a mouth full of cotton. “Whoa there.  I don’t think yer goin’ anywhere.  Time we got an ambulance and got you to the hospital.”  Hoss gently lowered Adam back down on the couch.

“No way, Hoss.  Not yet.”  Hoss heard the grit in his brother’s hoarse voice.  Adam pressed ahead.  “How long I been out?”  Hoss didn’t miss the strained features either, or the arms tucked protectively around the injured ribs.

“Not long, mebbe ‘bout five, ten minutes at the outside.  But that ain’t the point, Adam.  Yer new friends over there” tilting his head across the room, “been trying to tell me ‘bout what’s on that tape recorder.  It don’t matter, yer gonna git yerself killed goin’ after Devins.  Yer ribs have gotten worse.  Ya fergit what Doc Martin tol’ ya?  Dadburnit, Adam, ya kin hardly get a breath of air.  We got the tape.  That oughta be enough to convict Devins of Maria’s murder.  Get you off the hook.”

Adam’s gaze lifted over Hoss's shoulder.  Turning, Hoss watched as Lucy, Preston, and Ronnie joined him at the sofa.  Jerking his head up toward Lucy, Hoss continued.  “An’ Lucy here will testify against Devins ‘bout that Parole Board stuff.  Right, Lucy?”  Silence.  “Right, Lucy?”  A little louder this time.

Lucy squatted down next to Hoss and tenderly brushed her hand across Adam’s cheek.  “Sorry, Hoss,” she began softly.  “Remember I said there was a price for my testimony?”

“Pri…?”  Hoss started but was shushed gently by Lucy’s index finger against his lips.

“Your brother understands my price.”  Adam nodded.  “I want Devins put away for murdering my sister.”

“Yer sister?”  Hoss asked incredulously and Ronnie looked perplexed.

“Maria was my sister.”  Hardly stopping for a breath, Lucy forged on, her voice taking on a bitter edge.  “It’s simple, Hoss.  I don’t want Devins getting off on some technicality or by buying the judge and jury.  Nope.  The tape’s not enough.  I want his confession.  No murder confession from Devins, no testimony from me.”  Lucy stood up and moved towards the sliding glass door, leaving her back to the others as she stared into the night.  Ronnie hesitated, then followed, grabbing her pack of cigarette’s from the table as he passed.  Shaking one out of the pack, he lit it and handed it to Lucy.

Hoss studied his brother as he leaned back on his haunches.  Brows knitted together, nose scrunched up, he considered her ultimatum.  It didn’t take him long.  “No way, Adam.  No way in hell are you gonna go after Devins.  I’m takin’ you to the hospital!”

As Hoss leaned forward to push himself up from the floor, Adam reached out with his right hand and clamped it down on Hoss's forearm, stopping him.  Looking at his brother’s bruised and bandaged face, Hoss could see the stony set of the jaw, the brightness in the eyes.  He’d seen that look before, but not nearly as absolute as tonight.  He knew he’d never budge his older brother, not at this point.  Sighing resignedly, Hoss dropped back to his haunches and placed his hand over Adam’s, giving it a firm squeeze.  “You win, Adam.  Ya got a plan?”

“Thanks, Hoss.  I owe you one.”  The look Adam gave him was almost worth taking the risk, Hoss thought.  Almost…

Hoss watched Adam reach gingerly into his shirt pocket and pull out two small vials.  “Which one’s the pain medication, Hoss?  Give me a couple of those, will ya?”  Adam tried to ease his right arm behind and under him in an effort to sit up.  Hoss watched the tired face contort into a grimace.  Reaching over to give him a hand, Hoss shook his head and heaved a great sigh.


“Huh, Hoss?”

“I ain’t fergot about what Preston did ta Little Joe, “ Hoss growled under his breath, too low for Preston to hear.  His voice got louder as he stood and turned to face Preston.  “Mebbe you fergot that Preston shot Little Joe, but I ain’t fergot.”  Eye to eye, Hoss pushed his face close to Preston’s.  “I’m gonna make him pay.”


Adam leaned carefully back into the soft cushions, eyes half shut, dozing on and off.  Sitting up made it easier to breathe.  Not the deep breaths Doc Martin had wanted him to take, but enough air to keep him going.  And as long as people weren’t knocking him around, he could almost manage the pain.  Unfortunately Doc Martin’s block seemed to have about worn off, but the pain pills should help some.  He only had to hang on for another hour or so.  He could manage that.  As long as he didn’t have to get up…

He watched as Preston and Ronnie got the condo ready for their guest.  Lucy was in Maria’s bedroom, taking a shower, preparing herself for their little party.  And Hoss.  Adam smiled; Hoss was checking the ropes binding their other guest.  The gorilla that had shown up with Preston was none other than a fellow named Rocky.  Adam had recognized him as the ape that had taken his gun at Preston’s office the other night, and better still, Lucy had remembered him as one of Devins’ flunkies.  After Preston finished working him over, Rocky must have thought his stint with Lucy’s stun gun was a walk in the park.

It’d taken more than an hour, but they’d finally gotten things sorted out.  Preston almost started the fracas all over again, trying to flatten Hoss for accusing him of attempting to murder Little Joe.  Ironic.  Wasn’t this how he’d gotten his ribs busted in the first place?  Unconsciously he cradled his left side.  Then Lucy confronted Preston with the conversation she’d overheard between Devins and him about getting rid of Joe, after Joe had stumbled onto the incriminating emails.  Preston insisted he’d wanted Devins to take care of Joe.  And to insure Devins’ complicity, Preston had had Lucy gather the files necessary to blackmail Devins.  Mulling it over, hearing Preston’s side of the story, Adam figured it was possible, in fact probable, that Devins had ordered the hit on his little brother.  Adam frowned; Devins would pay dearly for that.

And the files Lucy had taken from Devins.  They’d be gold in the Fed’s case against Devins.  But Lucy had no intention of testifying or producing those files without Devins’ murder confession.  Couldn’t really blame her.  Devins had lots of contacts.  Powerful contacts.  Wouldn’t be impossible for him to walk.  Adam’s features hardened.  No way he was gonna let Devins walk.  Not after what he’d done to Joe.  To Maria.  His heart tightened in his chest.  He’d make Devins pay for that transgression too.

“Hey, Adam. Ya know ya don’t look so good?”  Hoss sat down carefully on the couch next to his brother.  “And yer breathin’, if ya kin call it that, don’t sound none too good neither.”

“Yeah, I know that, Hoss, I know.  But I’m doing okay.  Really.”  Adam turned to watch Ronnie and Preston.  It was hard to lie to Hoss.  Hoss knew him too well.

“Ya may think yer foolin’ the others, but ya ain’t foolin’ me.”  Hoss reached over and let the back of his hand rest lightly against Adam’s cheek.  Snorting angrily, he stood up, turned his back to Adam, and shoved his hands deep into his pockets.  “Ya runnin’ a fever.  ‘Spose ya knew that, too.  Dang you, Adam.”  He dropped his head and shook it in disgust.  “I’m supposed ta be takin’ care a you.  I tol’ Pa I’d make sure nuthin’ happened to ya.”  He snorted again.  “Yeah, right.”

Adam could feel his throat squeeze.  He swallowed hard against the lump that was trying to choke him.  He hated putting Hoss through this.  But he couldn’t pull it off without his help.  “Hey, Hoss.”  Adam spoke softly, wanting only Hoss to hear.  Hoss turned slowly and locked eyes with Adam.  “You’re doin’ fine.  Pa would be proud.  It’s almost over.”

Hoss studied his brother’s face again, looked past the bruises, the cuts.  Nodding slightly, Hoss realized now just how high a price his brother was willing to pay for justice.  His brand of justice.  But justice no less.  A half-smile crossed Hoss's face as he shrugged.  “Don’t try ‘an butter me up, Adam.  Ain’t nuthin’ you kin say that’s gonna change the way I feel.  An’ I cain’t talk ya outta this fool plan, so let’s get on with it.”  Glancing at his wristwatch Hoss continued.  “It’s jest after 3 AM.  ’Bout time ya made your call.”  Hoss handed Adam his cell phone.  “I’ll check and make sure Ronnie has the tape ready ta roll and I’ll see if Lucy’s almost ready.”

Adam nodded tersely and waited for Hoss's signal.  After a few minutes, Hoss along with Ronnie and Preston stood in front of the couch.  “Everything’s ready,” was all Hoss said.

Adam punched in the numbers.  Waited for the phone to ring, then for a voice to answer.


“Devins, it’s Adam Cartwright.  I need to speak to you right away.  I can’t wait till eight.  Come to Maria’s place now.  Come alone.  I’ll be there.”

“You decided to get smart and sign the confession, eh, Cartwright?”  The voice was thin, cold, like a sheet of ice.

“No, Devins.  I don’t need to sign any confession.”  Adam paused momentarily.  “I know who killed Maria Ayers.”


Ben watched the red taillights disappear into the night.  Sighing heavily, he shook his head, thoroughly puzzled.  He should feel better---shouldn’t he?  The FBI was close to wrapping up their case.  They finally had what they had wanted so badly - Joseph’s laptop, a file name, and even the password that gave them access to all those damning emails.  Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong.  The Feds weren’t telling him everything.  The cold and the darkness didn’t help things either, just made him feel worse, more exposed.  Shivering slightly as the chill wind bit at his neck and face, he scrunched low into his heavy corduroy jacket and pulled the fleece collar as high as it would go.  He tried hard not to think about Adam, hurt, alone, out in this weather.  Pushing his hands deep into his pockets, he made his way slowly across the empty parking lot toward the hospital’s main entrance.  The automatic doors hissed softly as they slipped opened letting him pass into the wide corridor leading to the lobby.  At this late hour the walkway was dark, dismal, a perfect match for Ben’s mood.

Small cylindrical lights set high on the walls punctuated the blackness along the corridor.  The fixtures spread an eerie yellowish glow down the shadowed walls that spilled out onto the faded blue linoleum turning it a sickly shade of green.  Walking across the putrid green puddles only added to Ben’s sense of unease.  Something wasn’t right, he could feel it in his bones.  The same sense of foreboding he’d felt earlier when Mary Sue had told him about Adam was settling in around him once more.  Determined to make some sense of it all, Ben mentally began to review his conversation over the past three hours with the FBI agents.

Switching to autopilot he retraced his steps along the all too familiar path, past the darkened shops--gifts, flowers, coffee, on into the main lobby, now silent and deserted, to the registration desk.  He nodded absently to the night guard, then continued to the bank of elevators.  Stepping in front of one of them, he automatically reached over and punched the up button.

Forehead creased, his thick silvery brows knotted in concentration, he stared ahead, straight through his reflection mirrored in the polished steel doors.  Lost in thought, he never heard the soft ping announcing the elevator’s arrival, never saw the elevator doors slide apart, pause momentarily, then swoosh softly shut as the elevator raced off to answer another pre-dawn summons.

The ride over Mt. Rose to the Ponderosa had been fairly quiet.  Agent Franklin and his partner, Russo, had asked him a few questions.  Mostly about Charlie and his doghouse.  Where was it located on the property?  Would Charlie chew on the computer?  Did it get wet in the doghouse when it rained?  Ben snorted inelegantly.  What did they think a doghouse was for if it didn’t keep the damn dog dry?  Never did ask him about Joseph or the shooting.  Nothing about Maria either.  And she was lying dead in the morgue!  Both victims of Buck Preston.  Just thinking about Preston made his lips curl in disgust.  And now Preston had his sights set on his oldest son.  The FBI certainly wouldn’t give a damn about that either!  They were fixated on one thing and one thing only.  That damn laptop!  Enough evidence, they’d assured him, to charge Preston and certain unnamed state and federal public officials with fraud, bribery, and most importantly, conspiracy.

His heart bumped hard against his chest.  Had Maria been involved?  Hard to believe, but it’s the only thing that made sense in this whole senseless mess.  Thinking back he remembered the dark suits guarding Maria’s hospital room.  The suits hadn’t been Virginia City PD either.  Definitely had the look of Federal Agents.  So why post Federal Agents if you thought it was a crime of passion?  Somebody had been sloppy, Maria had lived.  And somebody had wanted her dead.  Well, they got their wish.  His heart bumped more fiercely.  He pushed his knuckles hard against his forehead, trying to force the pieces together.  The answer was here; he just had to think.

Ben’s defeated moan broke the stillness of the lobby as it suddenly dawned on him.  Adam must have found out about Maria’s involvement and had tried to help her.  That would be so like his son.  Rubbing at the sudden tightness in his throat, his strained features softened for a moment as he thought of Adam, always the knight in shining armor.  But now Adam was caught up in this deadly game too.  The muscles along his jaw line tightened visibly, his brows furrowed even deeper.  Still, something was missing.  All the pieces didn’t fit yet.

The police and the FBI seemed to have two different agendas.  Roy had said the DA’s office wanted to charge Adam with Maria’s murder.  That’s where all the evidence pointed.  Unfortunately.  But the FBI.  They hadn’t mentioned Adam once to him.  Seemed to pointedly avoid talking about Adam altogether.  Odd.  And they never once brought up Maria’s murder or Joseph’s attempted murder.  More intent on arresting Preston on conspiracy charges, not a murder charge.

Ben sighed in frustration.  There had to be more.  If Preston hadn’t ordered Joseph’s assassination, hadn’t murdered Maria…then who?  Ben wracked his brain, searching for clues, snatches of conversation, anything that might offer an explanation.  Perhaps a bigger fish than Preston?  Possible.  Quite possible.  The Feds were certainly playing it close to the vest.  Realization flickered in the dark brown eyes.  “That’s it!” he whispered hoarsely.  Turning sharply, Ben headed back to the registration desk.  His mind raced as he strode across the lobby purposefully.  “Damn the FBI,” he snarled under his breath.  “Damn them if they think they’re going to use my son as bait.  We’ll just see about that!”  Ben was so preoccupied that he almost bowled over Paul Martin.

“Whoa there, Ben.  Who’s going to look after those accident-prone boys of yours if you put me out of commission?”  Paul chuckled as he steadied himself.  “And who the hell are you talking to?”  Cocking his head, Paul looked again at his old friend.  “Something’s happened, hasn’t it?  Little Joe?  Did he take a turn for the worse?  Nobody paged me.”  Paul’s eyes narrowed.  He’d known Ben a long time; he could read the man like a book.  “It’s about Adam, isn’t it?”

Almost as if he hadn’t heard a word, Ben grabbed the doctor by the shoulders.  “Do you know where Adam is?”  His eyes were bright with worry, the voice anxious.

Paul sighed in resignation.  “I was hoping that by now he’d either come to see me again or would have decided to get treatment here at the hospital.”

Ben didn’t like the look on Paul’s face, and he didn’t miss the word ‘again’ either.
“I’ve got to find Adam now and you’re coming with me.”  Ben didn’t wait for an answer but pulled the doctor along behind him.  His words spilled out, one after the other, filled with the energy and urgency of surging water from a burst damn.

“I’m not sure what Adam’s up to, but he’s in danger.  The FBI’s after someone bigger, more important than Preston.  And from where I sit, everything points to Devins,” snarled Ben, the anger and hatred palpable now.  “Calvin Devins.”

Paul’s eyebrows shot up at this information as he hustled to keep Ben from dragging him.

“The FBI let Adam take the fall for Maria and Devins probably manufactured the evidence.  The FBI doesn’t care what happens to Adam.  Maybe they’re short of evidence; maybe they’re using Adam to trap Devins.  I don’t know.  I just know Adam’s in trouble and I intend to find him.”

Ben, bent on getting to the parking lot and finding the doctor’s car, missed the look on Paul’s face.  “It’s been well over three hours now, but Hoss said he was headed to Harbison Point to meet Adam.  If he didn’t find him there, he was going to Maria’s.”  Standing in front of Doc Martin’s BMW, Ben finally released the death grip he had on Paul’s forearm.  “The keys.  I’ll drive.”

Fumbling in his pocket, Paul handed Ben his car keys.  “Who was it that said being a GP was boring,” Paul muttered under his breath as he rounded the car, yanked open the door, and slid into the passenger seat next to Ben.  Gunning the engine, Ben popped the clutch.  The sports car lurched forward as the tires squealed in protest.  More gently this time, Ben released the clutch, sending the Beamer scooting through the parking lot and out onto the street.


The living room was almost pitch black.  The only light came from a torchiere, rheostat turned down low, located next to the door of Maria’s bedroom.  The lamp cast a small circle of diffuse light upward onto the ceiling around the door.  Adam sat alone, shrouded in shadows, on the sofa in the middle of the room.  He looked down at the luminescent hands of his Rolex.  Three thirty.  Devins should be here any minute.  Eyes adjusted to the darkness, he had a perfect view of the front door and the bedroom door.  Near his right hand, under a back cushion, was Rocky’s revolver.  It was the only gun other than Preston’s they’d had.  Adam had wanted Hoss to keep it, but Hoss had insisted Adam take it.  Fingering the cold metal, Adam wasn’t sure that had been such a good idea.  He didn’t know if he had the strength to lift it.  Or the speed to grab it.  His left arm rested uselessly on his left knee.  Against Hoss's wishes, he’d ditched the sling.  No sense in letting Devins know he had broken ribs.

Everyone was in position.  They all knew what they had to do.  Devins dead certainly was an option, Adam thought wryly.  But a confession is what they were after.  Under duress, Hoss had promised to keep a tight rein on Preston, make sure he didn’t gun down Devins before they got what they wanted.  At this point, though, Adam wasn’t sure who wanted Devins dead more - Hoss or Preston.  The irony made him smile.

Adam pricked up his ears at every new noise.  Finally, he heard the scrunch of tires across the gravel in the drive and the steady rumble of a car engine.  Then silence - someone cut the motor.  Shoes crunching as they stepped onto gravel, a car door slamming.  The crunching sounds moved closer.  Adam could feel his heart thundering in his chest as adrenaline pumped through his body.  The front door was unlocked.  A blast of cold air told him the front door had swung open.  Then the click as the door closed.  He could hear the light switch flicked up and down several times.

“Damn lights don’t work,” the cold voice hissed.  Adam’s skin crawled.  “Where are you, Cartwright?”  Adam could picture the bright blue eyes squinting, trying to adjust.  “You in here?”

“Over here, Devins.  On the couch.”  Adam’s voice was strong, confident.

Adam watched Devins move towards him, never taking his eyes off the DA.  Devins stopped in front of Adam, across the coffee table, about five feet away.

“You said on the phone you know who killed Maria.”  The voice grew colder, more hateful.  “I’m waiting, Cartwright.  Who?”

“Listen to me, Devins, I’m sick to death of you.”

Devins jerked his head toward the new voice.  Obviously female.  Most certainly, Maria’s.  It was coming from Maria’s bedroom.  “What kind of trick you playing on me, Cartwright?  Maria’s dead.  That can’t be her voice.”

Devins’ right hand moved up his hip and along his belt to his back, toward the gun Adam knew he had holstered there.  Adam slid the revolver from under the cushion and rested his hand on it.  Devin’s hand froze when a shadowy figure floated slowly through the bedroom door.

“My God!  Maria!”  His voice shrill, shaking, Devins almost choked on the words.

Adam took his eyes off Devins and stared at the advancing figure.  “Maria?”  His voice was no more than a hoarse whisper.  He shook his head, blinked, looked a second time.  It was Maria.  She was still alive.  Why was it so damn hot in here, so hard to see?  His breath was coming in short, ragged bursts.  Didn’t make sense.  Devins had killed her.  Devins…  He shook his head desperate to clear it.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Devin’s hand moving again.

“You’re dead, Maria!  You’re dead!  I shot you myself!”  Devins was screaming as he pulled the automatic from behind his back.

Instinctively, Adam grabbed the revolver and pushed to his feet, oblivious to the searing explosion that ripped apart his left side.

“Drop it, Devins.  Or you’re a dead man.”  Was that his voice?  It sounded hollow, far away.

Devins whirled around bringing his automatic to bear on Adam.

Adam heard a shot, maybe two.  He heard screaming.  Loud at first, then fading to a high pitched whine that filled his head.  Devins started to evanesce into a fine mist.  Couldn’t let Devins get away.  He pulled the trigger, but there was no tension.  Choking.  Someone was choking, trying to get air.  God, it was him!  Everything was fading around him.  The gun he’d been holding seemed to have vanished too.  He struggled one last time to bring everything back into focus.  There was only the fine mist.  And Maria.  She’d been here tonight.  He’d seen her.  Nothing hurt anymore as he let the haze close in around him.


The silver BMW crept slowly up the street towards Maria Ayres condominium.  Dr. Martin sat on the edge of the passenger seat peering out the windshield as he tried to read the street signs that marked the intersection, “Damn eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but I think this is it.” He clicked on the map light and holding up a small slip of paper read the address that he had gotten over the phone from Mary Sue Cliburn, “2354 Sierra Avenue.  It should be right up here on the left.”

Ben turned and looked off to the left while slowly pressing down on the accelerator moving them forward, “I pray those two boys of mine haven’t gone and done anything stupid.” He muttered.

Doc Martin smiled as he dropped the piece of paper to his lap, “They’re good boys, Ben.  Have a little faith, huh?”

Ben let out a low grumble than leaning forward he hugged the steering wheel straining to read an address on one of the condos, “What was that address again?”

Paul held up the paper, “2354.” He looked up and saw the numbers marked boldly on the doorframe of the building, “Looks like this is it.”

“There’s a car in the driveway… wonder whose it is?” Ben questioned suspiciously.  He looked towards his partner, “Do you recognize it?”

Paul leaned forward and peered out the windshield then sat back as he glanced out the window next to him.  “I sure don’t, but there’s your Lincoln,” he answered as he pointed to his right, “and not to alarm you, but that looks like Buck Preston’s black hummer parked behind it.”

Ben’s body stiffened with alarm.  Buck Preston?  Could this possibly be a more dangerous situation for his boys? He had to find Adam and Hoss as quickly as possible.  Ben whipped the car in the driveway and parked next to the black Mercedes sedan.  He got out quietly and looking back noticed Paul was digging around in the glove box.

“A flashlight.” Paul stated as he pulled it out. “It’s dark up there.”  He then reached behind the driver’s seat and grabbed his black medical bag, “Now I’m ready.” He climbed out of the car.

Ben gently closed the door and started walking towards the front of the condo.

“Hey Ben, you’re not going to be too happy about who this car belongs to.” Paul called out.  Ben turned and saw that the doctor had his ray of light pointed at the license tag of the mystery car,  “Looks like it’s the District Attorney’s.” He walked up beside his old friend, “I hope you were wrong about him or else Adam and Hoss could be in real trouble.”

Ben wrinkled his brow with worry.  The sudden wave of revulsion coursed through his stomach as the flash of memories took him back to the night at the ranch that Cal Devins had come out with his news crew.  His weasley little voice rang through his head, It's a shame the family name's been tarnished by your oldest. And rest assured, Adam will pay for what he's done to that woman.  Ben could picture Devins’ cruel smile and glowing blue eyes.  The DA had wanted Adam arrested so badly he was going to do whatever it took to find him and put him away.  Ben looked down at his hands recalling how he had grabbed Devins; threatening to kill him if anything happened to his son.  He’d meant it.  Devins wasn’t on the side of truth and justice.  Ben knew it then and he knew it now.  “Let’s see if we can find my sons.” Ben mumbled as he moved towards the house.

The sound of two gun shots and a shrill scream stopped the two men in their tracks, their heads snapping towards each other as they tried to quickly assess the situation.

“That came from inside, come on!” Ben cried out taking off at break neck speed.  He burst through the door into a darkened room, “Hoss!  Adam!  Are you in here?”

“Pa!” came the sound of Hoss's voice.

“Are you all right?” Ben questioned, “Where’s Adam?”

“I don’t know!” Hoss answered, “Hang tight until I can get the rest of the lights!”

Ben turned towards Paul and snatched the flashlight.  He shined it slowly around the room like a lighthouse beam, pausing at the first body he came to.  His heart caught in his throat as he suspected the worst, but it was a large man he didn’t recognize.  The head was leaning back and there was a gag around his mouth.  Even more anxious Ben continued scanning the room searching for some sign of his eldest son.  His beacon of light found Hoss and followed him as he walked towards him.  He released a sigh of relief not even realizing that he’d been holding his breath.

From outside came the sound of a door slamming, an engine starting and car tires spinning out on loose gravel.

Paul rushed to the entranceway. “It’s Cal Devins!” Paul cried out, “Where the hell’s he going?”

Hoss barreled past his father, pushed the Doc from the doorway and rushed onto the front porch.  Soon there was a “clack” and the lights came on like a stadium. Ben turned and glanced around the room still not seeing anyone but the goon in the chair.  He now noticed the dark stain that was forming on the front of his black suit.

Hoss reentered and quickly ran across the room.  He frantically pushed the coffee table back exposing his older brother who was slumped over on the carpeted floor, “Doc come quick!” he cried out.

Ben and Paul were there in moments.  Hoss had grabbed Adam and was gently pulling him up into a sitting position, a low, pained groan coming from his older brother.  Ben knelt down opposite of Hoss and noticed the pale, pasty complexion of Adam’s face.  His black hair, damp with sweat, was clinging to his forehead.  Ben instinctively reached forward and brushed it back.  His skin felt cold and clammy, “Dammit boy, what have you done?”

Adam was slowly rolling his head back and forth, deep moans escaping his lips.  He tried to push Ben’s hand off his forehead, but Hoss restrained his arms, which didn’t take much effort.

“Now he’s really done it.” Paul grumbled as he leaned forward, “Adam, can you hear me?”  Paul reached down and checked his pulse, it was rapid and weak.  Next the doctor ripped open Adam’s shirt exposing his chest and watched his shallow breathing.  The bruise on Adam’s left side was worse than before and Paul realized that he wasn’t even wearing the cuff sling he’d supplied to try and prevent what was now probably the case…a flail chest.

“Pa …so sorry.” Adam gasped out, “Tried… to help…can’t … breathe…” A sudden wave of pain coursed through his body causing him to grimace.

“Shhhh, don’t talk son.  The doc’s here and he’s checking you out.  Everything’s going to be okay.” Ben crooned softly trying to keep his voice free of anxiety.

“Ribs…hurt… can’t… breathe...” Adam continued, “hurt… bad…”

“Hoss, didn’t you two listen to ANY of the advice that I gave you.  Where the hell is the cuff sling I put on him?!” Paul cried out frantically.

“Why can’t he breathe, Paul?  What’s wrong with him?” Ben questioned.

“I need some sort of firm pad.  Ben, can you see if you can find me a towel or some tape.  Also, look in the kitchen and see if there’s any cellophane in there.  We have to get him stabilized.”  Ben jumped up and started searching for the requested items, “I knew I should’ve never let you boys leave my office.” Paul growled in frustration.  He silently cursed himself for the current situation.  He had warned Adam to take care of himself or there were going to be serious consequences, apparently he hadn’t stressed HOW serious.  Adam needed to get to a hospital and quick.

“Ohhhh… can’t… breathe,” Adam groaned.

“Hang on, Adam.” Paul spoke soothingly, “Just try to relax.  We’re going to get you to a hospital just as soon as possible.”

Ben returned with a couple of towels and a box of Saran Wrap.  Alarm gripped his stomach as he knelt back down beside his injured son, “Paul, how serious IS it?” He shot a stare towards Paul Martin searching for answers.

“I’m almost positive he has a flail chest, maybe even a collapsed lung.  I can’t be certain until I get him to the hospital and take some x-rays.” the doc spoke quietly.  He looked up at Ben and placing a sturdy hand on his shoulder he looked him in the eyes, “Ben, please call an ambulance right away.  Time is working against us.  Your son is in very serious condition, it’s imperative that we get him to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

Ben searched the room frantically looking for a phone.

Hoss looked worriedly towards his father than back at his brother.  He couldn’t help but think back to the conversation at Doc Martin’s house when he had taken Adam there for treatment, Make sure he gets enough oxygen into his lungs to keep them clear.  Otherwise, pneumonia’s a real threat.  Now, the doc was talking about a collapsed lung.  This was all his fault, he should’ve stopped Adam, should’ve made him stop his mad search for Buck Preston and get himself well.  He was big enough; he could’ve done it.  Should’ve done it.  Now he’d let everyone down.  His father had no idea how hurt Adam had been, the Doc had tried to warn him how serious Adam’s injuries were, and now fear gripped him as he watched his brother lie on the floor helpless and in major pain. “Doc?” Hoss said quietly, “I’m sorry I didn’t do what you said.”

Paul was running his hands along Adam’s sides trying to get some sort of gauge on how serious the damage really was, “Hoss, I need you to stay with me on this.  What’s done is done.  Your brother is going to be all right.” Paul looked up and saw Hoss's anguished expression.  Tossing him a quick smile he brushed a hand on Hoss's arm, “We’ve seen him recover from much more serious injuries than this.”

Hoss returned a small smile than turned and looked back down at his brother.  Despite Doc Martin’s comment he wasn’t feeling any better.

The shrill scream caused them all to jump as it broke through the air, “Get off me you big ape!”

Hoss, realizing it was Lucy, watched his father turn and look to see where the voice was coming from.

Ben saw a young woman stand up and anxiously brush herself off. “Maria?” he whispered in shock.  He rubbed his eyes trying to figure all this out.

“Ben!” Paul called out to him, “Your son needs an ambulance!”

Ben shook his head clear, took a deep breath and continued his search for the phone.  He figured there would be one in the bedroom so he moved towards the young lady, unable to tear his eyes away from Maria’s lookalike.

“I’m Lucy.” she stated as she nervously twisted the ends of her newly dyed hair, “Her sister.”

Ben widened his eyes in surprise.  Continuing past her, he paused to look at the body on the floor.  He’d deal with that later right now his first priority was his son.

“Are you okay?” Ronnie asked rushing to Lucy’s side.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She stated as she pulled her fingers from her hair.  She felt a warm, stickiness on her hand, “Oh Shit!” she commented quietly as she stared at it.

“What is it?” Ronnie asked taking her hand and turning it towards him.  It was blood!   He grabbed her shoulders and turning her towards him he inspected for any wounds, “Where are you hurt?”

She paused a moment trying to decide if she could feel any pain.  “I don’t think I am.” she finally stated.  She looked at her hand again, than a moan came from the large man lying on his back on the floor. “It’s Preston!” she exclaimed as they both knelt down beside him. “HE’s been shot!”

Ronnie helped him sit up and Preston grasped his arm, “Damn, what the hell happened?” he grumbled as he looked at his bloodied arm.

“You got shot, ya big dummy.” Lucy stated.

Preston tried to get a better look at his injury, “Yeah, trying to save your sorry ass.”

“Preston, you are such a jerk.  You can’t even be nice for two seconds so I can thank you!” Lucy yelled at him.

Ronnie tore a hole in the sleeve of the jacket and found the wound.

“Hey!” Preston cried out, “I paid two hundred dollars for this suit and you’re ruinin’ it!”

Ronnie exchanged glances with Lucy and they both rolled their eyes.  He continued to tear the jacket sleeve and finding an extra towel wrapped it around the bloodied arm.

Lucy stood up and scanned the room.  She moved slowly towards the easy chair and leaning against it watched as the doctor worked on Adam.  Adam looked awful with his white complexion and bruised face.  Sweat was beading up on his forehead and she watched him struggle to speak and breathe.  Her eyes locked with Hoss's who smiled in an effort to reassure her.  What had they all done?  They had planned to catch Devins and … looking around the room she realized he wasn’t there.  “Where’s Devins!” she cried out.

“He’s gone.” Hoss responded.

“Gone?!” Lucy exclaimed, “He can’t be gone!  He has to pay for what he’s done.” She turned and looked at Ronnie, “We have to go find him and make him pay!”

“The ambulance is on its way!” Ben called out from the bedroom.  He moved up behind Ronnie who had just finished bandaging Buck’s arm, “Why don’t you let that murderer die.” Ben seethed. The comment was so angry and heartless.

“You got it all wrong, Cartwright.” Buck replied sarcastically.

“We’ll let the courts decide that.” Ben answered.

Lucy tried to catch the eyes of anyone in the room to help her but no one was paying attention, “All right.” she stated as she grabbed her purse, “I’ll do it myself.” She headed for the front door.

“Lucy!” Ronnie cried out, “Where are you going?”

Lucy stopped and spun around towards Ronnie, “I’m going after Devins.  He can’t have gotten far.  Are you coming?”

Ronnie looked at Preston who was shaking his head, “You better go with her so she doesn’t hurt herself.”  Buck said.

Ronnie stood up and walked towards her as she exited out the front door.  When he reached her she was lighting up a cigarette and about to head down the stairs.  He rested his hand on her arm, “Don’t do this Luce, let the police handle it.”

She yanked her arm back narrowing her eyes at him, “The police?  He’s already getting away!  By the time we call them he’ll be long gone.  He’s a snake, Ronnie.  The deadliest, slipperiest kind there is and he’s going to slither into some sewer never to be seen again.  I can’t let that happen.”

Ronnie grabbed her arm again and held her from going down the stairs, “Let the police handle it before you get yourself killed.” His tone changed to one of quiet concern. “We were lucky this time.”

Lucy locked eyes with Ronnie then her gaze slowly shifted to the open door of the condo.  She could see the doc, Ben and Hoss all hovering over Adam, the cold reality of the situation settling in.  She took a drag off her cigarette and looked at the ground, thinking about the course of events. “Oh god, he can’t die,” she quietly said.

Ronnie stepped towards her and took her other arm. “He isn’t going to die.  Doc Martin is a great doctor and Adam… he’s a fighter.”

The sound of the wailing ambulance siren caused them both to turn.

Lucy looked at Ronnie, a small smile tugging at her lips. “You better be right or there’ll be hell to pay,” she answered.


Adam felt cold.  No, he felt hot.  The lights were hurting his eyes, all the noises around him deafening.  He saw Maria’s face and tried to call out to her, but the face melted into Lucy’s.  He started to call out to her, but she turned and walked away.  He heard the confession, “You’re dead, Maria!  You’re dead!  I shot you myself!”.  Turning, he faced Cal Devins, who was laughing and pointing a gun at him.  Adam looked down, feeling the gun in his own hand.  He tried to fire it, but it wouldn’t.  Cal Devins just kept laughing, then there was the sound of two gunshots and he was at a graveyard.  There were many people there.  No faces, just people standing around crying and staring.  Rushing forward through the crowd he desperately parted them, but the masses seemed to be getting bigger and bigger.  Finally he reached the front of them and almost fell into a deep opening in the ground.  Steadying himself, he looked down into the open hole that had no bottom.  The sound of crying caused him to turn to his right where he observed his father, Hoss and Joe standing beside the open grave.  He called out to them but he had no voice.  He turned back to see whose name was on the grave but it was blurred.  He tried calling out to his father and brothers again, but they turned and walked away.  He kept trying to call out to them.

Ben jolted forward in his chair, the sound of his son’s voice awakening him.  He rubbed his eyes then, turning, placed a comforting hand on his oldest son’s shoulder.  Adam was crying out for him and his brothers - the first words he’d heard him utter in the three long days that he’d been sitting by his bedside, “Adam?” he asked quietly.

Adam, moaning and rolling his head back and forth, kept repeating his father and brothers’ names.

“Adam, can you hear me?” his father said, giving his shoulder a gentle shake. “Wake up.”

Adam stopped mumbling and slowly opened his eyes, squinting from the brightness of the lights.  Turning his head he looked into his father’s face.  It took him a moment to adjust to his surroundings. “Pa?” he whispered hoarsely, “Where?” his throat was dry, which caused him to gag.

Ben moved towards the side table and poured a glass of water.  Leaning closer to Adam he gently lifted his head and helped him sip it.  Adam hungrily took it before relaxing back onto his pillow.  Ben returned the cup then, leaning closer to Adam, began to stroke his dampened forehead,  “You’re at Virginia City Medicial Center.  Do you remember anything?”

Adam searched the room trying to recall the course of events that had gotten him to his current situation.  He swallowed several times, desperate to recreate his last memories.  He closed his eyes, concentrating deeper. “I remember… Maria’s condo.  Waiting for… Devins.”  Adam’s eyes flew open with realization.  He reached toward his father trying to grab him by the shirt, but he was too weak. “What happened… to Devins?”

His father stared hard at Adam’s forehead, his stroking motion slowing, then picking back up, “Shhh, you don’t need to worry about Cal Devins, he’s been taken care of by the Virginia City Police,” Ben lied.

“Lucy?” Adam asked worriedly, “What about Lucy?”

Ben smiled down at his son, “Lucy’s fine.  Everyone’s fine.  You just don’t worry about them and you get some rest.”  Ben smiled with a deep loving warmth, tears glistening in his eyes. “You gave us quite a scare son,” Ben said quietly, “We thought we were going to lose you.” Ben felt his throat tighten.  He fought back the tears that were threatening to spill forth.

“Sorry Pa.” Adam responded, still short of breath, “What… happened?”

Ben lowered his head, “Well, as it was told to me, your fractured ribs turned into a flail chest somewhere between the time you left Doc Martin’s house and your confrontation with Devins.  You were having so much trouble breathing that they had to intubate you, that’s why your throat feels so raw.” Ben raised his head back up to Adam and smiled as he stroked his hair, “But you’re all right now.  Paul says you’ll be out of here in no time, and so will your brother.”

“Joe.  How’s he?” Adam questioned.

Ben smiled, “He’s fine.  Flirting with all the nurses and enjoying being pampered.”

Adam started to laugh but ended up grabbing his ribs, “Ooh, that hurts.”

“And they probably will for some time.  I ought to take a strap to you for putting yourself into such a dangerous situation!” Ben lectured.

Adam held up his hand and nodded his head at his father, “I know, I know.  I had to do it.”

“Had to do it!” Ben exclaimed. “Sometimes I just don’t understand you boys.”

“We take after… our father.” Adam replied with a smile.

Ben couldn’t help but smile back and he clasped Adam’s hand in his giving it a tight, caring squeeze.

The sound of the hospital room door opening caused Ben to turn.  He saw Hoss pushing Joe as they wheeled in.

“Adam!” Hoss called out happily, “You’re awake!” he pushed the wheel chair up beside Adam’s bed.

“Hey older brother.” Joe said quietly, “How are you feeling?”

“Better than… you look.” Adam joked.

“Then you must be feeling great,” Little Joe teased back, “Because I know I look damn good!”

Hoss gave Joe’s hair a playful tousle that obviously annoyed him as he brushed his older brother’s big hand off his head.

“Pa’s been …filling me in.” Adam stated.

“Yeah.” Hoss said, “Sorry you missed the funeral.”

“Funeral?” Adam questioned.

“Maria’s.” Hoss replied. “Everyone was there… politicians, friends, Hollywood people… it was quite a happening.”

Adam settled back in the bed the words hitting him like a ton of bricks.  He didn’t want to think about that right now.

Hoss chuckled, “I have to tell you this story about Lucy though, cause everyone’s talking about it.”

Adam, pleased that Hoss was changing the subject, perked back up.

“You remember Bob Beat that high and mighty reporter that Devins was always toting around with him?”  Hoss asked.

“Yeah?” they all asked with interest.

“Well, he kept houndin' Lucy about trying to get an interview.  Of course he had absolutely no respect or timin' and he kept getting' in her face with that microphone.  Well, finally she agreed to give him his interview and when he asked her the first question she popped him square in the nose!”  Hoss burst out laughing, “She musta hit him hard ‘cause he’s got this huge bandage on his nose and both his eyes are black and blue!”

Ben and Joe started laughing and Adam tried to chime in despite his tender ribs.

“Adam, you’re gonna to have to watch a copy of that tape, it was hysterical,” Hoss said wiping the tears from his eyes from laughing so hard.

The group regained their composure as the room grew silent.

“Hoss?” Adam finally spoke up, “What about…Devins and Preston?”

Hoss exchanged a questioning glance at his father who shook his head.  Adam caught the interchange, fear gripping his heart.

“Hoss?” Adam asked more intently.

“Well, Preston’s in jail where he belongs and Devins…” Hoss started.

“I told you Adam, the police are handling him.” Ben chimed in, “Now just lay back and relax so you can go home.  Hop Sing’s been asking about you every day!”

Adam gave his father an angry glare, “Don’t lie… WHAT happened?” Adam watched as Hoss's eyes turned towards the floor and his father turned and looked at Hoss, “Tell me.”  Adam was obviously getting very upset with his family.

There was a long pause before anyone spoke.  It was Joe who finally broke the silence, “You might as well tell him Pa, it’s all over the news anyway.”

Ben let out a deep breath, rubbed his hands together and looked at the floor.

“Devins escaped that night at Maria’s and nobody’s seen him since.” Hoss answered.

Adam’s eyes grew angry as he listened to his brother.

“They found his abandoned Mercedes down by the waterfront, stripped and without any trace of him.” Hoss finished.

Suddenly the room felt smaller, Adam felt his airway constricting.  He swore vengeance on Maria’s killer and he had failed.  They all had and now Cal Devins was still out there and NOT paying for the crime he had admitted to committing.  He took several deep breaths to relax himself before speaking, “When do I…get out of here?” he seethed out through gritted teeth.

“Let it go son.” Ben said placing his hand on Adam’s arm, “Everyone’s all right, the FBI has the information to put him away for life once they find him…”

“Maria’s still dead.” Adam stated, his eyes narrowing, “he has to pay.”

The trio of Cartwrights exchanged concerned glances.  Hoss let out a long sigh, “By the way, Lucy stopped by here the other day.”

Adam took in his brother’s words but his facial expression didn’t change.

“She didn’t stay long, but she said that when you felt up to it you should give her a call.” Hoss said, “Actually she said it was important that you call her right away.”

Adam nodded his head. “I’ll do that.”  He closed his eyes, “I’m tired…I need rest.”

Ben turned and looked to Joe and Hoss.  They knew when their brother got into one of his moods that there would be no talking to him.

“Son, we’ll be back later to check on you,” Ben said quietly patting Adam’s arm, “and I’ll find the doctor to see about when you can come home.”

Adam didn’t respond as they all left the room.  All he could think about was how Cal Devins had escaped and that he had failed Maria.


Adam watched as rows of Ponderosa Pines flashed by the tinted windows of his Jaguar.  The coolness of the car window felt good against his forehead as he leaned against it.  Hoss was driving him out to meet Lucy at the graveyard where Maria was buried.  A task Adam had been avoiding.  When he had finally arrived home to the ranch he contacted Lucy immediately.  He was feeling much better and despite Doc Martin’s continuous lectures about taking care of himself he was determined to hunt down Cal Devins.  He knew Lucy would feel the same way.  It had been almost a week since Maria’s death and in spite of the fact that the trail was going to be cold he was inflexible in making Maria’s killer pay.

Adam stared out at the gray gloominess.  It amazed him how the tone of the sky could reflect a person’s mood.  The weatherman had called for scattered thunderstorms, maybe for once he was actually going to be right.  It had rained every day since he’d gotten out of the hospital.

They pulled into the gated graveyard and slowed the car searching for the headstone.  Maria’s headstone.  It wasn’t long before Hoss spotted it and pulling the car off to the side of the paved road he turned off the engine.  Turning he looked at Adam who was staring down in his lap.

“You want me to go with ya?” Hoss asked, as he rested his hand gently on Adam’s shoulder.

Adam turned and looked at his younger brother’s hand on his shoulder than continued his gaze up to his brother’s concerned face.  Shaking his head he turned back and looked out the window towards the gravesite, “No,” Adam let out a quiet sigh, “this is something I need to do myself.” He reached over and opened the car door and climbed out.  He could feel the dampness of the air cling to his face.  He shot a glance back towards his brother before moving slowly forward towards the grave.

Hoss got out of the car and, leaning on the roof, watched his brother as he made his way down the path.  His heart felt heavy and he wished there were more he could do for him.

Adam approached the plot of dirt that marked Maria’s grave.  It had a beautiful granite stone engraved with her name on it.  Many of the flowers from the funeral were still piled high.  He stood and just stared down at them trying to recall her face.  The vision of her in his arms the night he’d found her flashed through his mind.  His heart tightened, the pain overwhelming him as he turned his head away.  Clenching his right fist he was forcing back the tears that wanted to come.  He turned around, wanting to leave, but stopped when he saw Lucy walking toward him.  He used the back of his hand to wipe each eye that was damp from the rain and his tears.  Running his hand through his raven hair he took a deep breath and forced himself to stand up straight.  As Lucy approached him he couldn’t help but notice her simple outfit: jeans, t-shirt and a jean jacket.  Her hair was still the color of Maria’s and for a split second he lost himself in the idea that it was Maria.

Lucy’s pace slowed and she smiled as she approached him, “You look much better,” she called out to him.

Adam smiled and nodded at her, “From what I hear I wasn’t looking so good the other day.”

“Nope,” she responded, “You pretty much looked like shit.” She smiled and they both laughed quietly.

“Ah Lucy, I can always count on you to tell me like it is,” Adam replied.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she answered smugly.

“You look good,” he stated quietly.


There was a long, awkward pause, then Adam turned back around and looked down at Maria’s grave. “It’s nice out here, you picked a good spot for her,” he spoke somberly.

Lucy took a step towards him, “Adam, there’s something I need to tell you,” she started, “Well, actually something I need to show you.” She started walking away from the gravesite and towards the woods on the edge of the graveyard.

Adam turned towards her, shot a sidewise glance at his younger brother who was standing behind the car, then turned and followed Lucy.  He easily caught up with several long strides.  She was pulling out a cigarette and lighting it.

“Those things are going to kill you,” Adam stated.

She took a long drag, “Look who’s talkin’ ‘bout living dangerously!” She smiled as she blew out a puff of smoke, “How those ribs doin’ anyway?”

Adam looked down and gave his bandaged ribs a gentle pat, “Doc says I’m just about as good as new!”

She smiled at him, “That’s good to hear.”

“I heard what you did to Bob Beat the other day,” Adam said.

Lucy smiled. “That guy is SUCH a jerk!” She looked down at the ground and kicked a pebble. “It was so worth it.” They both chuckled.

“I see the dye is still in your hair.  You going to keep it that way or let it grow back to its original color?” Adam asked her.

“What are you talking about, this IS my original color,” she responded with a laugh, as she flipped it back off of her shoulder.

Adam flashed her a crooked smile as he nodded his head. “Well, it looks good.” He paused to stare at her. “You remind me so much of Maria,” he stated flatly, and shifted his gaze to the ground.

Lucy looked at him.  She knew how much he loved her sister and knew that for Adam to say that was certainly a compliment. “I know it took a lot for you to come here today,” she dropped the cigarette and squashed it out with her sandal, “but you’ll be glad you did.”

Adam lifted his head and looked at her, his eyes scanning the forest of trees behind her. “I know.  It’s been something that I’ve been needing to do.” His eyes moved back to lock with Lucy’s and a small smile crossed his lips. “I’m glad that I’m here with you.  You know… I loved your sister very much,” he finished quietly.

Lucy smiled, “I know you do.” She put her hand on his right shoulder. “And she knows, too.”  She started walking again as she lit up another cigarette, “Listen…”

Adam held up his hand to halt her. “I know what you’re going to say, so there isn’t any need to say it.”

“You do?” Lucy asked, as she stopped to pull the cigarette from her mouth. “What’s that?”

“You’re going to tell me that Cal Devins got away,” Adam finished as he looked at her, “But I already knew that.  My brother told me at the hospital.”

“Oh,” she stated quietly.

“As mad as that makes me, I honestly am more concerned about how it’s affecting you,” Adam responded.

“Me?” she asked.

“Well, that was your price, remember?” he replied.

“I did say that, didn’t I?” she responded, “You know, he deserves to pay for what he’s done, but he’s on the run and always will be,” she replied, “and as it turned out, they didn’t even need my testimony.  Apparently the memos and paperwork were enough… of course, that’s IF they find him and can bring him in.”

“We’ll find him,” Adam stated confidently. “Sooner or later a snake like him is going to get caught.”

“We?” she asked him. “Who do you mean by we?”

“I’m not giving up,” Adam replied firmly. “He needs to pay for Maria’s death.” He turned and looked at Lucy. “I figured you to be right there helping me.”

“Well, I will be,” she answered with a smile. “Sort of.”

“What do you mean?” Adam asked.

“Ronnie and me have decided to open a private investigation firm.  I’m going to be the PI and Ronnie’s going to be my loyal sidekick since he’s got all them computer smarts.” She stated, “Don’t you think we’d make a great team?”

Adam chuckled. “Look out Virginia City,” he smiled. His tone turned serious. “Yes, I think you guys would make a GREAT team.”

Lucy blushed.  Dropping her cigarette to the ground, she mashed it out. “Well, here’s what I wanted to show you.”

Adam looked at the small park on the outskirts of the graveyard.  There was a fountain and lush green grass and several park benches surrounding it.  It was a real peaceful oasis. “That’s very nice.”

“It’s been dedicated in her honor,” Lucy stated.

Adam felt his heart tighten, tears welling up in his eyes. “I should’ve told her,” he said angrily. “That night that I was with her I should have told her.” He dropped his head, trying desperately to not let the flood of emotions come pouring forth.  Not now.  Not in a public place.

“You still can,” Lucy replied lovingly. “That’s what I was trying to tell you.”

“No, it’s too late.” He raised his gaze to lock eyes with Lucy. “She’s dead, Lucy.  Dead!  And I didn’t save her, I didn’t help her, I didn’t tell her the way I felt!” he cried out. “It’s too late for everything!” Adam turned and started to leave.

“Maria was right about you.  You ARE the most stubborn, pig headed, sorriest listener I ever met!” she exclaimed, going after him. “If you’ll stop I’ll show you what I really brought you out here for!” She was smiling.

Adam stopped and slowly turned back towards Lucy. “What are you talking about?”

Lucy shook her head and rolling her eyes let out a small laugh. “Look!” she stepped back.

Adam looked at the park again, he didn’t get her meaning.  Giving his shoulders a questioning shrug he shifted his gaze back to Lucy. “What,” he stated with irritation.

“Look!” she demanded.

Adam looked once again at the park, scanning it quickly for some indication of what she was talking about.  His patience was wearing thin with her games and he started to tell her when a blur caught his eye.  He focused on a person wearing a large hat, sunglasses and a trench coat standing up beside one of the marble benches. Adam recognized the movement and as she stripped off the hat and sunglasses he felt his heart catch in his throat, “Maria?!” he shot a questioning glance to Lucy who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “But how?” Adam asked.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself,” Lucy responded as she gently pushed him toward her sister. “I’ll check on you later, if you don’t see Agent Franklin first.” She laughed and walked back in the direction they had come.

Maria stood waiting for him to walk to her.  Adam wasn’t sure what to do, he was so stunned at the sight of her.  He moved slowly, not taking his eyes off her for a single moment.

“Hello, Adam,” she said in her sweet, quiet voice.

“Maria,” was all he could manage to say.

She leaned over and ran her fingers through the water in the fountain. “I guess you’re just a little surprised to see me.”

“A little?” he said with a slight tone of exasperation. “I thought you were dead.”

“On paper I am,” she looked up at him. “Literally I’m not.”

Adam shook his head, feeling overwhelmed by his emotions.  Seeking out a bench he sat himself down gingerly. “So what does this mean?”

She wiped her hand on her shirt and sat down beside him, “I’m under the Witness Protection Program, Adam.  Until they find Cal Devins I’m in serious danger.”

“But Lucy said they had all they needed to convict him with the memos and other paperwork, why do they still need you?” Adam questioned.

“Because I’m the only one who is connected with the whole story.  I worked with both Buck and Cal and the FBI wants them both taken down.  Without me as a witness they don’t feel that just the paperwork can seal the case,” she replied.

Adam stared solemnly at the ground. “So my brother was shot for nothing,” he seethed.

Maria turned to him and gently touched his arm. “Oh no, Adam.  What your brother did was expose the whole operation TO the FBI.  Without Joe’s discovery they would’ve never known what was going on!” she exclaimed. “Your brother is actually a hero.”

“Please don’t tell him that, we’ll never hear the end of it.”

They both laughed.

“Adam, I don’t have much time, but I asked Lucy to bring you here so that I could…” she retracted her hand and looked to the ground, “tell you how sorry I was.”

Adam turned and looked at her. “Oh Maria, I’m so sorry too.  I should’ve…”

She turned and held her hand to his mouth silencing him.  The passion between the two lovers burned deep in their stare and Adam gently pulled her hand down and pressed a deep, emotion filled kiss on her lips.  When they finally released, she took him in her arms and embraced him. “Oh Adam Cartwright, I love you so much.”

Adam held her as tightly as was comfortable with his free arm.  He wasn’t sure if it was his heart or his ribs that hurt him more but he didn’t care. “I love you too, Maria. I always have.”

The sound of someone clearing their throat caused the pair to separate.  Adam saw Agent Franklin standing behind Maria.  Adam looked into Maria’s eyes. “You don’t have to go.  I can protect you.  We can find a way.”

Maria smiled and ran her fingers along his lips before tenderly kissing him one last time. “I wish it could’ve been different.  Maybe…” she dropped her eyes and took his hand in hers, “maybe one day this will all be over and we will find our way back to each other.” She held his hand up to her cheek and kissed it.

Adam held his hand to her face feeling the dampness of a tear.  Taking his thumb he wiped it away and leaned forward toward her. “Please stay,” he whispered to her. “I love you…”

She took a deep breath and quickly stood up.  Grabbing her hat and glasses she watched him as he pushed himself up. “Goodbye, Adam,” she was backing away from him.  “You and Lucy take care of each other.” She blew him a kiss, turned and left.

Adam watched her disappear into the woods.  He stood there, stunned.  She was here for a moment and now she was gone…his anger for Preston and Devins leaving with her.  He turned and walked slowly back to the car.  When he arrived he saw Hoss, who had been leaning against the hood of the car, drop his arms and move toward him.

“You all right big brother?”  Hoss asked with concern.

Adam shot one last look toward Maria’s grave, then turned back to Hoss and nodded his head.

“Lucy left,” Hoss stated. “She said to be sure to tell you to call her.  Sounded like she figured you might have something to talk about.”

Adam smiled. “I bet she did.”

Hoss wrinkled his brow with confusion.

Shaking his head Adam chuckled. “Don’t ask.”

Seeing his brother smile again brightened Hoss's mood.  Leaning forward, he opened the car door. “Your chariot awaits.”

Adam lowered himself in and watched his brother carefully close the door.  Gazing out the window, he scanned the graveyard for one last look.  In the grove of trees by the park he saw a figure and then it was gone.  He smiled and turned to his brother as Hoss climbed in the car.

Hoss placed the key in the ignition and started the engine.  Putting the car in first gear he turned towards his brother. “Home, Adam?” he asked.



August 2001

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