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Escaping the Ropes

By Texas2002

 

Thank you to Mr. Dortort who created the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa and shared them. And thank you to Ms. Sullivan who gave them new life. This story is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone involved in their shows.

This story follows "Smoke Gets In Your Ice". It is for VirginiaCityGal with special thanks to Kierin, once again, for the beta-read.

 

 

Little Joe Cartwright sat up in bed sleepily and frowned at his oldest brother. "What’re you doin’?" he hissed. Geez, it wasn’t even morning yet.

Adam startled as he sat on the edge of his bed. "Nothing. Go back to sleep," he said softly.

Little Joe’s eyes fell to his brother’s right hand. "Why’ve you got that rope?" he persisted.

Hoss looked over the edge of the top bunk, his face upside down to Adam’s. "What’s the matter?" he whispered.

Adam rolled his blue eyes. "Nothing. Go back to sleep."

"He’s got rope in his hand," Joe told his middle brother. Now they were all whispering.

"Rope." Hoss came out of the top bunk and landed with amazing lightness on his bare feet. His forehead wrinkled as he eyed his longjohn-clad brother. "What’re you doing up this time of the night with rope in your hand?"

Adam moaned. "Why is it when I WANT to wake you two you’re deaf as fence posts but when I don’t –"

"Are ya sneakin’ out to be with Molly?" Hoss asked.

Adam threw him a scalding look and held out his arms. "In my underwear, Hoss?"

Hoss and Little Joe exchanged looks that insinuated they’d known their brother to do stranger things. Adam stood slowly and gave them both his strongest "big brother" look. They weren’t impressed.

"All right," he whispered. "But this has to be a triple-blood secret."

That impressed them. Hoss put his hands on his hips and leaned close while Joe took a visible gulp.

Adam bent his head down. "I’m gonna tie Pa to his bed." He gave a nod for added emphasis.

"Tie Pa…" Hoss started but Little Joe liked the idea.

"Can I help?" he asked.

Hoss shook his head in disbelief. "Why the heck are you gonna tie Pa to his bed?"

Adam leaned his head to the right and smirked. "You just wish you’d thought of it first."

"The heck I do. He’s liable to skin you alive."

Adam grinned and walked barefoot toward the living room. "Pa worked extra hard today and then he had those two drinks of whisky with Angus tonight so he’s not going to sleep as lightly as he usually does. I’m tying him to his bed and when he yells for us in the morning we’ll all be outside doing our early chores and pretend we can’t hear him."

Hoss spoke as he and Little Joe tiptoed behind their older brother. "I don’t know about this, Adam."

"Aw, c’mon," Little Joe whispered. "It’s gonna be fun pullin’ one over on Pa."

Adam stopped them by the dining table. "This is our last chance before Hop Sing gets back from San Francisco. No more talking."

Luckily Pa’s bedroom door was open so they didn’t have to contend with the squeaky hinges. The three-quarter moon washed Pa’s room with pale lavender light, revealing him sleeping on his back with his left arm stretched off the bed and his right arm over his eyes.

Little Joe pursed his lips. Even under those covers, Pa sure looked big. He hoped Adam knew what he was doing ‘cause if Pa woke up it wasn’t gonna be pretty.

Their big brother had obviously been thinking about this for a long time. What had looked like one loop of rope in his hand turned out to be four lengths. Quietly, gently, Adam lifted the covers at the foot of the bed. He put a loop around Pa’s left ankle and tied it to the lower left bedpost and then did the same with Pa’s right ankle, tying it to the right bedpost.

When he’d finished there, Adam moved with the grace of a mountain lion to the head of the bed and slowly, carefully lifted Pa’s left hand. Pa moaned and muttered something. Adam and Joe froze; Hoss backed out the doorway and hightailed it for the living room. After a moment, Adam and Joe grinned at each other in relief and Adam finished tying Pa’s left wrist, leaving him plenty of room to move around. Now all that remained was Pa’s right arm. The problem was that Adam had to lean over the bed and by the time he did that he wasn’t tall enough to reach the bedpost. He frowned and stood up then looked at Little Joe and jerked his head.

Joe’s eyes widened and he pointed to his chest questioningly. Adam nodded at the other side of the bed. He seemed to be a lot surer that Little Joe could do this than Little Joe was.

Watching Pa for any sign that that free right hand might come flying out and snatch him, Little Joe tiptoed between the bed and the wall. He got the seat of his underwear caught on the rough wall twice and thought he maybe heard it tear a little once but Adam motioned him to go on. What he couldn’t figure out was why the noise his heart made as it slammed against his chest didn’t wake Pa up.

Adam reached across the bed and handed Joe the rope length and pointed to the right post. Little Joe nodded and secured it to the post and then stretched across the bed to return the rope length to Adam. There was no way he was picking up Pa’s arm and tying the rope around Pa’s wrist – his hands were shaking too much already. He slithered his way back to the foot of the bed and by the time he was there Adam had finished.

They quietly made their way to where Hoss stood, looking at Pa and shaking his head. "I still don’t know about this," he said.

"You worry too much," Adam whispered.

 

Little Joe woke up early the next morning with Adam’s hand over his mouth. His eldest brother held his other hand to his own lips, index finger pointing up. Little Joe nodded that he understood to be quiet and crawled out of bed, pushing Hoss’ foot off his crumbled shirt on the floor. They dressed in groggy, grunting silence and then went out the side door into the chilly autumn morning.

Little Joe milked Buttercup, glad she was as easygoing as she was because he was half-asleep – which was not a good way to be around any cow. He put the pail on the porch by the front door and headed off to the chicken coop, aware his brothers were watering the stock.

He was such an old hand at gathering eggs that the chore didn’t take long. Besides, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, he was leaving some of the eggs and hoping they would hatch. He had a plan for making extra money, although he probably ought to talk to Pa about it pretty soon. Just as Joe stepped onto the porch, carrying the egg basket, Pa came out the front door all dressed with his hat on and his long coat wide open.

Pa flashed him that wide smile and said, "Mornin’, son" then continued down the porch, his spurs jingling as his boot heels hit the wooden planks. He whistled a tune Little Joe had often heard him play on the fiddle. The combined sounds caused Adam and Hoss to look over from the water trough.

"Boys," Pa greeted his two older sons as he closed the distance between them, buckling his belt. "Everything all right this morning?"

"Uh – fine," Adam stammered.

Adam and Hoss stared at each other in disbelief as Pa strolled to the barn. Little Joe ran to them but remained silent.

"You know how Pa doesn’t ever do anything without a reason?" Hoss asked as he mulled over a thought. "What’s the name of that song he was whistling?"

Adam closed his eyes slowly. "Stool of Repentance."

"Doggone if he don’t beat all," Hoss muttered.

Pa stepped out of the barn. "Could I see a little more work around here? With any luck we can finish that trap fence today."

His three sons scattered to finish their early chores and Ben shook his head slowly.

 

"It don’t make sense," Hoss said. Joe, Adam and he rode a respectful distance behind Pa as he drove the wagon on the way back home that evening. Truth told it wasn’t deference that held them back as much as the desire not to be overheard. "Ya must not have tied them knots tight enough."

Adam shifted in the saddle and frowned. Having a father who’d been a sailor and then spending years crossing the country in a wagon had taught him one thing for sure. "I know how to tie knots."

Hoss turned his attention to their youngest brother. "Maybe you didn’t hitch that one you tied strong enough."

Little Joe opened his mouth but Adam spoke before he could. "I watched him. It was a good knot."

"Yeah." Joe stuck out his chin. "Least I did more’n you did. You tucked tail and ran."

"I didn’t want to crowd Pa’s room."

Joe snorted at his brother’s excuse and got a lick on the arm from Hoss for his trouble.

Hoss looked up at a "v" of geese flying overhead. "Sure would like to get a couple of those for the smokehouse."

But Adam’s mind was on one thing and one thing only. "He won’t let us get away with this."

Hoss went so still his horse stopped and began to graze. Little Joe and Adam pulled up and the three of them formed a cluster as their horses put their heads together.

Adam leaned on his saddle horn and gave them a minute to consider.

"What d’you reckon he’ll do?" Hoss asked worriedly.

Adam didn’t much care for what he thought. "He’s not going to get to us at night."

Hoss tugged his hat brim down against the lowering sun.

"He knows we’ll be expecting something at night," Adam continued.

Hoss gave out an exasperated sigh. "Ya mean we’re gonna have to keep our eyes peeled all DAY?"

An ear-splitting whistle they had been taught all their lives to respond to brought their heads up and, far ahead, Pa motioned for them to get a move on.

"Keepin’ an eye on him is gonna be like holding a handful of frogs," Hoss muttered as he nudged his horse to move.

 

Adam dismounted and walked toward the corral to tend his horse, sure that Pa would give it a couple of days and then when Adam was least expecting something he’d pay the piper for tying Pa in bed.

The payback wouldn’t rankle so much if the joke had worked. But Pa had strolled onto the front porch this morning with a big smile on his face and whistling as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Darn him anyhow. How had he gotten untied?

The worst part was Adam knew Pa knew that Adam knew Pa knew.

Lord he was getting a headache. Adam rubbed at the back of his neck.

Pa’s gloved hand patted him on the shoulder and then stopped and tentatively squeezed slightly. "Your muscles are tied in knots," Pa said and Adam’s blue eyes shot upwards to meet Pa’s.

But did Pa give anything away? Did he even wink? No. He just patted Adam’s shoulder again and walked toward Hoss, asking him something about the wagon.

Back when Adam had been a kid, Pa and he had played jokes on each other. It had been a way to break the boredom and, even better, it hadn’t cost a penny when they hadn’t had many pennies anyhow. It had been ages since he’d pulled a joke on Pa and last night had seemed like the perfect chance. But now he was wondering, questioning his judgment -

"Ah!" Hop Sing exclaimed as he crossed the porch and met them at the end steps. "Pleased to see family again."

Pa responded with a big smile. "It’s nice to have you back, Hop Sing. Did you have a good trip?"

"Most productive." Hop Sing held up his hands to stop them as they started to join him on the porch. "Have big surprise."

They all looked up.

"Big surprise," Pa said and Adam heard a little worry in his voice. "What kind of big surprise?"

As if she had been waiting for the words, and she probably had, a shapely light-haired woman who looked several years younger than Pa stepped from the house and walked to stand beside a delighted Hop Sing. To Adam’s complete amazement, Smoke sat down beside her as if he were on his best Sunday behavior.

Pa forgot every bit of the manners he’d drummed into Adam since Adam had been old enough to speak. His eyes slid down the woman and then back up – and he still hadn’t taken off his hat.

Little Joe, who stood to Adam’s right, snickered and Hoss, who was on Joe’s right, grinned and looked down. Adam shot them what he hoped was a warning look but they were so amused at Pa’s unexpected behavior it glanced off them like a ricochet.

"Are you going to gawk like a school boy all day, Benjamin?" The lady’s long-fingered hands went to her hips. She tilted her head and a tendril of hair drifted onto her neck.

Pa did that nervous laugh of his, the one that - come to think of it - DID sound kind of like a schoolboy, and looked at Hop Sing pleadingly. "Do you plan to introduce me to our guest?"

The lady stepped off the porch then, her cream-colored shawl dropping low on the shoulders of her green wool dress. "And where are your manners?" she demanded.

"I – I beg your pardon?"

Had Pa just stammered? Adam had never in all his life heard Pa stammer.

She walked straight to him, stretched herself to what Adam guessed was just a little over five feet two inches in height, and somehow reached Pa’s hat and took it off his head. Then she slapped it against Pa’s right hip and Adam flinched.

Pa squinted his eyes and put his right hand under her chin, lifting her face. He gave her a hard study but she remained as calm as deep water.

Adam recognized her half a breath before his father did.

"Barbara?" Pa whispered. Then he laughed, leaned back and – to his two younger sons’ astonishment – put one arm behind her shoulders and another behind her knees and lifted her. He whirled her around and kissed first one freckled cheek and then the other.

She placed his hat on her head and it slipped down over her eyes. "How do you know you’re not kissing another man’s wife, Benjamin Cartwright?"

"If you’re married where’s your ring?"

She pushed the hat back, wrapped her arms around his neck and winked at him. "Maybe I took it off and hid it just to get you in trouble."

Pa carried her to the porch. "Now THAT I wouldn’t put past you."

"Benjamin." Her voice lowered and Pa stopped almost in mid-stride. She rolled her eyes back to Hoss and Joe – standing with their hats in their hands. "You haven’t made proper introductions."

Pa turned on his heels, still carrying her, and nodded back to his sons. "That’s what happens when you fall in love and get married." She slapped his shoulder and Pa walked toward the front door. "Come on, boys," he called.

 

"I didn’t know you had any girl cousins, Pa," Hoss said as they sat at the dining table.

Barb, as Pa called her, smiled and worked a knife gently into the meat on her dish. Hoss had noticed she cut her food into little bitty pieces. If he did that he’d never get full.

"I’m sure there’s quite a bit you don’t know about your father," she said. She gave Pa a sideways look with her blue eyes. "And for a small fee it can be kept that way."

Hoss grinned and looked down. He liked her already and he hardly even knew the lady – even though Pa had said she’d been in New Orleans back when Hoss had been a little kid; back before Pa had married Marie.

"Are WE related?" Little Joe asked, eyes wide and hopeful, his dinner forgotten in front of him.

Barb nodded. "Of course. We’re cousins, too."

"Do you like to ride horses?" Joe continued, unmindful that she had just taken a bite of food.

She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her napkin. "Yes, I enjoy horses very much."

Hoss wondered if that was why she took little bites – so she didn’t have to talk with her mouth full the way they did most of the time.

"How long can you stay?" Joe continued his verbal barrage and Adam shook his head to quiet him.

She glanced at Hop Sing. "I will be in the area quite a while which is why I had planned to stay at the boarding house in Eagle Station but when Hop –"

"The boarding house!" Pa put down his knife and fork. "You can’t stay in Eagle Station."

She straightened her back. "Are you ordering me about, Ben?"

Pa raised both hands as if she were holding a gun on him. "It never worked before."

"But that didn’t keep you from trying, did it?" Barb gave him a knowing look. Her studying eyes went from Adam to Joe and finally settled on Hoss. "Are you sure I wouldn’t be in the way?"

At first Hoss thought she was asking him but Pa answered, "Of course you’ll be in the way but we’ll manage. You can have my room and I’ll bunk with the boys."

All three of his sons leaned back in their chairs. Adam and Hoss’ looked at one another in wide-eyed consternation.

"From the loss of color in your boys’ faces," Barb observed, "your sharing a room with them is not their idea of a good time."

Pa frowned and tilted his head slightly. And, as he always did when he had a question for all three of them, he directed it to Adam. "Something wrong?"

"Uh –" Adam realized he was looking everywhere but at Pa and finally raised his eyebrows and tried to clear his face of any expression. "No."

Hop Sing spoke as he passed Hoss a bowl of rice. "Not good for lady to stay in town. Much safer here."

"Safer for me or safer for the town?" Barb teased and he smiled quickly.

"Safer for Mr. Wolf."

Pa looked from Hop Sing to Barbara. His shoulders tensed and his eyes narrowed. "What does Jack have to do with it?"

Pa’s cousin waved her left hand in a move that reminded Adam of a butterfly’s wing. "When I arrived on the stagecoach Mr. Wolf was meeting someone. He gave me a rakish look and tipped his hat and said surely there was some way he could be of SERVICE to a fine-looking woman like me." Barbara leaned her head back and laughed with the memory. "I told him as a matter of fact there was and asked him where I might find Ben Cartwright. Hop Sing overheard our conversation and stepped forward, saying he was coming to the Ponderosa and had a buckboard. But Mr. Wolf took it upon himself to take my arm and insist a woman of my BREEDING would much prefer a buggy ride. I had had enough of his innuendos. I slapped his cheek so hard his head swung back."

Though he tried not to, Pa grinned at Jack’s comeuppance and Adam knew later on he’d be explaining to Joe what an innuendo was.

"Although I have to say," Barbara added with a wispy quality to her voice, "he IS handsome in a roguish kind of way."

There was no mistaking that Pa didn’t care for the idea of Jack being anywhere near Barbara but Hoss quickly came to the rescue by changing the subject. "What brings you to Eagle Station, ma’am?"

She folded her arms on the tabletop. "I wish you would call me Barbara."

Three sets of eyes shot to Pa.

"I take it they are seeking your approval of my preference?" Barb asked in amusement.

"She IS our cousin," Joe reminded.

Pa leaned back a bit and sipped his coffee. Then he nodded and all three of his sons smiled at the same time.

"How did you do that?" Barb leaned back almost in the same way Pa had and crossed her arms in front of her waist.

"Do what?"

"How did you, of all people, manage to rear three polite, obedient, respectful sons?"

Pa gave her a deadpan look. "How do you know they’re my sons?"

Just about the time Hoss thought she had forgotten his question, she turned her attention from Pa and answered it. "I am an illustrator, Eric." They had told her how he had acquired his nickname but she was determined not to use it.

"She’s an artist," Pa said. "And she also does drawings for books and newspapers."

"What’re you gonna draw around here?" Little Joe asked as soon as she had a chance to swallow again.

Barb smiled slowly. "I understand you know the McNallys?"

Joe nodded. He knew two of them a little too well.

"Mrs. McNally’s brother owns several newspapers. One of the contracts I have is to do illustrations of this area and then the gold rush area on the American River."

Before Adam could tell her that he was writing for Mr. McNally’s paper, Hoss blurted, "You can’t go into those places, ma’am. From what Adam reads us in those papers it’s no place for a lady."

"What would you say if I told you I have gone on my own to see the Indians? That I traveled to Europe by myself? That I spent several years in Italy by myself and even went to part of Africa?"

Hoss’ eyes rounded and his mouth fell open. "I didn’t know a lady could do that."

But Adam had something else in mind – long, private talks so this fascinating cousin could tell him what it was like to be at sea, to be in a country where they didn’t speak English, to eat different food and see different buildings.

Little Joe, of course, had only one thing on his mind. The same thing that had preoccupied him for at least half a year – "Did ya meet any pirates?"

The rest of the family, including Hop Sing, moaned aloud.

Barb closed her eyes, thinking. "I met one man in Spain who claimed to be a pirate, yes."

Pa’s lips twisted to the left. "How much did he steal from you?"

His cousin smiled. "The day hasn’t dawned when a man got the better of me."

Adam believed that.

 

"This is plumb awful," Hoss confided, talking with a minimum movement of his lips as they sat at the table playing checkers later that evening. Adam and he had developed the talent back when they had been kids and needed to talk without Pa knowing.

Adam gave him a confused look and Hoss motioned toward the other end of the room where Barbara, Hop Sing, Little Joe and Pa were talking by the fireside.

"He’s gonna be in our room, Adam. Now we gotta sleep with one eye open."

Adam had tried to convince his younger brother that Pa wouldn’t get back at them at night but Hoss wasn’t in the mood for consoling. Hoss was determined to fret.

Of course that worry didn’t lead to any lost sleep. Hoss was snoring not ten minutes after he climbed into his bunk.

Adam read by candlelight for a few more minutes and then Pa came into the room, rolling his shoulders and yawning. He pulled off his belt, then sat down and tugged off his boots and socks. Pausing with his forearms on his knees, he shook his head. "I don’t know how you sleep with Hoss’ snoring but I guess you can get used to anything if you have to. I slept in my hammock on the ship while all kinds of noise went on around me." He stood, unbuttoned his pants and tugged his shirt free and over his head. "So do you want to talk about it?"

Adam wasn’t sure what Pa meant.

Pa stepped out of his pants and placed them on a wall peg before climbing to the other top bunk and sitting hunched on the edge. He rolled his eyes upward toward the ceiling warily and then looked over at Adam who was propped on his right elbow. When he could tell he wasn’t going to get a response from his eldest son he lay down on the bunk and clasped his hands behind his head. "Just tell me you aren’t in trouble."

He sounded worried. Like he didn’t know what was going on. Was it part of his plan?

"I – don’t think so."

Pa put his right hand over his eyes. "You’re twenty-one and you don’t know?"

"It’s a long story," Adam hedged.

Pa shook his head. "Aren’t they all?"

 

Life was never boring at the Ponderosa but it livened up considerably with Barbara around. And it started the next morning when, just as Adam stepped into the living room – half asleep and badly in need of a cup of coffee – Barbara and Smoke bounded in from the front door as if they’d been up for hours. Barbara held two dearly departed rabbits in her hand and she smiled from ear to ear while Smoke’s loud barking echoed off the log walls.

"Smoke shut up!" Hoss yelled from the bunkroom.

"Put ‘im out, somebody!" Joe screamed.

"He’s your responsibility," Hoss shot back.

This was followed by a thud and a grunt and then another thud. Adam judged the sounds to be pillow toss, someone falling out of bed, retaliatory pillow toss. Well, there wasn’t any need to wake Joe and Hoss now.

Pa stepped from the washbasin shoving his shirt into his pants and his smile was every bit as big as his cousin’s. "What’d you do? Beguile them with your charms?"

"Smoke caught them," she answered and the dog barked as if to back her statement.

The bark shot through Adam and caused him to shiver. Coffee, he needed coffee. He squatted down at the fire and wondered why Hop Sing was so amused at him.

"Well," Pa drawled as he walked over to the coffee pot and held out his mug for Adam to fill, "we have a rule around here. You kill it, you skin it."

Barb laid the lifeless forms at the end of the table. "Smoke knows how to use a knife?"

Pa winked. "I’m sure you do."

She shrugged and sat down, admiring the pelts. "I need to borrow a horse. I have a letter to deliver in town."

"A letter to DELIVER?" Pa asked in confusion.

"To Shelby Sterrett; do you know her?"

Adam stood as his brain began to come awake. "She runs a saloon."

Barbara considered the information. "Maurice didn’t mention that."

"Maurice?" Pa crossed the distance to her in fast strides while his face beamed. "Where’d you see Maurice?"

"New Orleans. I wanted to visit Marie and you and when I couldn’t find you I went to Jeanette’s. I told her I was coming here so she introduced me to Maurice and he asked me to deliver a letter to Miss Sterrett. He’s a most interesting man, Maurice." Her voice and eyes softened but she caught herself and snapped back to the present. "So, if I may borrow a steed I will perform my appointed duty."

"Not safe to go alone," Hop Sing opined from where he kneaded biscuit dough.

"I’ll go with you," Adam offered. It would be a good time to ask her about her travels – and an even better opportunity to get away from Pa pulling a joke on him.

"Take the carriage," Pa said and then he frowned slightly. "Although I seem to remember that neither one of you is good at keeping the other out of trouble."

"Why, Ben," Barbara batted her eyelashes, "we have always been innocents caught in the middle."

Pa believed that like he believed in mermaids.

 

"I take it," Barbara said after Adam had asked her enough questions on the drive into Eagle Station to wear out a normal person, "you are still interested in traveling?"

"Yes."

"And college?"

Adam allowed himself a nod.

"Well, at least for the present you have your writing to keep you occupied. And if your other articles are anything like the first one, you should be very proud." She laughed at Adam’s surprise. "I told you I have a contract with Julia’s brother. I couldn’t go near St. Louis and not stop in for a visit. He asked me to bring your earnings to you – remind me to give them to you when we return to the house." She pulled her coat closer and even though she was speaking to him, her eyes were constantly taking in the scenery. "So how do you like ranching?"

Adam smiled. "I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else."

Barbara wasn’t sure she believed him. "Do you like it better than New Orleans?"

"Most of the time." Though if she’d asked him that question when the snow was almost as deep as he was tall his answer might have been different.

"Do you miss the bookstores?"

Adam nodded.

"How about the alligators?"

That got a quick laugh. Barbara and he had had more than one adventure that included an alligator. "I miss them like a sore tooth."

She settled back in the buggy seat and Adam caught a faint whiff of lavender. She chuckled. "Remember the time I met you on the roof and we went to the gambling boat?"

Adam’s gloved hands tightened on the reins. "If Pa ever found out about that –"

Barbara cut him a quick look and she laughed deeply. "Surely you aren’t worried about what he might do NOW?"

He shifted on the buggy seat. "I made a lot of trips to the woodshed when we were in New Orleans."

"But you did finally get along with Marie?"

Adam slowed the team as they neared town. "Yeah. She was a good mother to me when I finally let her be."

Barbara smiled knowingly. "You sure were a stubborn little cuss."

"It’s the Cartwright in me." Adam winked at her and stopped the team. He set the brake and stepped from the carriage, glancing around the street to see how busy town was. Another wagon train had found its way along the emigrant trail and down by the livery a laughing group of men were gathered. After helping Barbara down, he hitched the team in front of Shelby’s saloon.

"Well howdy!" Shelby greeted as Adam followed a slender lady between the swinging doors. "You sure know how to pick the slow days. What can I get for you?"

"Coffee please, " Barbara answered as Adam pulled out a chair for her.

"The same," Adam said. He put his hat on the table and glanced around. Shelby wasn’t joking: there was no one else in the place. "What’s going on?" He tugged off his gloves.

"Oh, a buncha the fellas are down at the enda the street practicin’ their arm wrastlin’ for that autumn fling this weekend." Shelby set two mugs on the table and poured coffee into them.

Adam remembered his manners and quickly spoke. "Shelby, this is my cousin Barbara Cartwright. Barbara, this is Shelby Sterrett."

"Well I’ll be." Shelby grinned around her cigar. "Another Cartwright. And a lady at that. Pleased ta meet ya, Barbara."

As they shook hands, Barbara smiled in return. "The pleasure is mine. And don’t be so sure about that lady part."

Shelby laughed and, when Barbara motioned, she sat down to join them. "So whut brings anuther Cartwright ta Eagle Station?"

Adam sat down, propping his elbows on the chair arms, and reached for his coffee. He had to give Shelby one thing: her cooking left something to be desired but she made great coffee. Which probably meant she never washed the pot.

"I’m here to do drawings for a newspaper," Barbara answered. She reached into the side pocket of her coat. "And to bring you this letter from Maurice Devereaux."

"Frenchy?" Shelby’s face paled and then flushed. "Where’d ya run across him?"

"New Orleans."

"How is he?" Shelby accepted the letter Barbara handed her, turning it first one way and then another.

"It was my first time to make his acquaintance but he was a charming, gracious man."

"He can be when it’s worth his while." Shelby laughed and folded the letter in half, then stashed it in her vest pocket. "So you’re here ta do drawins, hum? What kind?"

Barbara blew on her coffee to cool it. "Some will illustrate books. Some will be paintings."

"Paintin’s," Shelby said and her eyes widened. "ANY kind of paintin’?"

Barbara grinned and leaned forward. "What do you have in mind?"

Adam looked from one woman to the other, a little concerned about where this conversation was headed.

"Somethin’ the fellas might enjoy lookin’ at. I wouldn’t put it over the bar cause they could get a free looksee from the door. Maybe over there." She motioned to the back wall.

Adam’s neck warmed. He’d peeked into one of the saloons in a prairie town along the trail years ago and had felt guilty about it for months. Not guilty enough to tell Pa, but guilty enough to blush every time he had been around a grown woman.

"Ya know," Shelby continued. "Something they could all pretend about. Maybe a big strong brute of a man wrastlin’ a bear?" Shelby suggested and Adam looked up in such surprise that he choked on his coffee.

Shelby pulled the cigar from her mouth and stared at Adam. She had read his mind so clearly he felt stripped of his clothes. "You don’t thank fer one minute I’m gonna have some paintin’ of a bare butt woman hangin’ up there fer them to slobber over like new born calves, do ya?"

Sometimes she made him feel like a kid Joe’s age. Since he couldn’t find his tongue, he shook his head and tried not to heed Barbara’s obvious amusement.

"Besides," Shelby said once she calmed down a bit, "my customers ain’t that kind." She tilted her head. "Well, most of ‘em leastways."

"I’ll make you a deal," Barbara said in as straight a voice as she could manage considering how much she was enjoying Adam’s discomfort. "I’ll swap you a painting for a pair of those pants you’re wearing."

Oh lord, what was happening? Adam leaned back and rubbed at his temple. There was no telling what the reaction at home would be when Barbara started wearing trousers.

Shelby laughed and nodded. "Ya got yerself a deal, Barbara."

Ben finished his inspection of the latest timber cut and walked back to the scrub brush and his horse. As he reached to untie the reins, he tilted his head back slightly and focused on a rider approaching at an easy canter.

"Shelby," he said as she pulled up.

"Ben. They told me at the house I’d find ya here."

"Can you stay for dinner?"

She shook her head and looked ill at ease, shifting in the saddle. "No, Ben. I thank ya fer the invite but I gotta be back in Eagle Station."

Ben knew she would get to the reason for her ride to the Ponderosa when she was ready so he suggested she get down and rest a spell. They sat in the dry, almost-white grass while the sun’s shortening rays cast an amber light on everything from deep green pine needles to chalky rock outcroppings.

"Nice place ya have here," Shelby observed. She paused to light a cigar, blew out the match, and dropped it in her vest pocket.

They sat in companionable silence for several minutes.

"Ben, I need ta ask a favor of ya." Her tone of voice indicated she didn’t particularly want to ask this favor.

"All right."

She reached in her other vest pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Yer cousin brought this here letter from Frenchy. Now I can read block letters just fine but dern his hide Frenchy wrote this one all fancy-like and I cain’t read a word of it." She looked at Ben and held out what he now realized was an envelope. "Would ya read it ta me, please?"

When he’d been a sailor he’d read a lot of men’s mail for them. He’d also written no small number of dictated letters to their wives, mothers and sweethearts. But that had been a long time ago and something in him hesitated.

"Ben," Shelby said softly, "yer the only one I can trust not ta go gabbing whatever Frenchy’s got ta say. Likely as not it ain’t nothing special. But still I don’t like the whole town knowin’ my business."

He was pretty sure Shelby could have trusted Ruth but she was here now, stretched out beside him on the grass. No telling how long it had taken her to build up the nerve to ask him. Reading the letter was the least he could do.

"It’s from New Orleans," he started and she gave him a withering look.

"I KNOW that."

Ben grinned at her and opened it. "His handwriting is pretty good."

"Am I gonna have ta take a horsewhip ta you?" Shelby muttered.

Ben took a breath and read:

"My dearest Shelby –"

"His whut?" Shelby sat up straight.

Ben gave her a look he usually reserved for Little Joe. "Do you want me to read this or not?"

She waved her right hand. "Go on."

Ben read again:

"My dearest Shelby,

It is with great delight that I discover Barbara plans to visit Eagle Station as it affords me the opportunity to write you. I have not been sure if any of my other messages have reached you and I am hesitant to inquire with Daniel.

New Orleans is a marvelous place and, with kind thanks to Jeanette, I have made the acquaintance of many new friends and have become involved in the local politics. With the funds I receive from Daniel I have purchased an adequate, but modest, town home and enjoy many of the diversions the city has to offer."

Ben paused and looked up from the paper and as he did Shelby turned to him inquiringly. "Whut?" she asked. He cleared his throat and continued.

"Please reconsider my proposal. Perhaps time and our separation has helped you see things differently? I would be honored to have you for my wife and should count myself among the most fortunate of men.

I await your reply with an eager heart.

Maurice"

Ben folded the letter and held it out to Shelby without looking her way, the import of what he had just read stunning him into silence. It did not have the same effect on her.

"Well if I wore a dress that would sure blow it up over my head," she swore and in spite of himself Ben laughed.

She looked down at the paper she held. "He wants me ta marry him?"

Ben nodded and rested his elbows on his bent knees.

"He probably wants me ta move to New Or-leans?"

"I imagine."

Shelby puffed on her cigar until a low cloud of smoke surrounded them and Ben had to fan it away. Suddenly she pushed to her feet and dusted the back of her pants with her hat. Ben scrambled to stand and had barely accomplished the feat when she held out her right hand. "Well, I thank ya kindly fer readin’ that ta me, Ben."

Ben shook her small, gloved hand in return. "If there’s anything else I can do –"

"There ain’t. See ya in town." She put a foot in the stirrup of her saddle and grinned down at him. "Oh, ya might ask Adam why he thought I was gonna put a picture of a naked woman in my saloon. I figure there’s a story in there somewhere."

Ben watched her ride away, wondering what on earth she was talking about.

 

"You WHAT?!" Pa shouted that night after dinner. He turned and looked at the fireplace mantle, his right hand resting against it, and Adam could tell he was counting. To ten. To twenty.

Hoss hunched his shoulders and would have moved except he was sitting between Pa and his cousin and it was better to be quiet at a time like this. Little Joe, who was playing on the floor with Smoke, looked up at Adam worriedly.

Barbara continued the hand sewing she had in her lap, something that looked suspiciously like the kind of trousers Shelby wore, and sighed. "Oh, really, Ben. I thought I’d have a little fun with him."

Pa turned and pointed his left index finger at her, a move that always nailed his sons in place. "Jack Wolf is not someone you have fun with. He’s an Indian killer, he doesn’t have an ethical bone in his body, and he runs –" Pa stopped suddenly and Barbara looked up.

Pa’s lips twisted slightly and he gave Joe a concerned glance. "He runs a – hotel."

Barbara nodded. "Yes, I noticed when we were in town today. Just before he asked me to the Autumn Fling."

Pa leaned toward her, his blue eyes snapping. "Then you know it isn’t any ordinary - hotel."

"It’s a bawdy house," Joe said helpfully and Adam didn’t know who looked down faster to hide their grin, Hoss or him.

"A bawdy house," Barbara repeated as she looked at Little Joe. "And exactly what is a bawdy house?"

Adam raised his eyes to find Pa staring at him. In silent language he pleaded innocent of having said anything of the sort around his little brother. He was already in enough trouble for having brought Barbara back with a promise to go to the dance with Jack. Thank heaven she wasn’t painting a nude picture for Shelby’s saloon or the roof was liable to fall in. Even though Adam didn’t have any control over any of it, he was sure Pa was ready to feed him to the vultures as it was.

Joe sensed something wrong in the room. He pet Smoke slowly and took a shallow breath. "They have food and liquor and they play card games and dice games and – and they have painted ladies."

"Painted ladies," their cousin repeated and Adam realized she sounded like Pa when he was quizzing one of them. "What is a painted lady?"

Little Joe couldn’t look at Barbara for the world. Instead he set up a diversion of checking and loosening Smoke’s collar. "They – they wear lots of color on their lips and eyes."

"I see," Barbara’s voice didn’t hold a clue as to what she was thinking. "Anything else?"

Pa took a step forward and stood with his hands on his hips, watching Little Joe.

The twelve-year-old raised his head, making eye contact with Barbara. "They wear these really bright dresses and they sit on men’s laps. Men they don’t even know."

"Usually a woman doesn’t sit on a man’s lap unless she is married to him. Or unless it’s a little girl in her father’s lap. It sounds a bit familiar otherwise, doesn’t it?"

"Yes ma’am." Joe nodded.

"I hope when you get older you won’t let women sit in your lap when they shouldn’t."

"Oh, no, ma’am," Little Joe shook his head until his hair bounced.

Barbara returned to her sewing. "You know, Little Joe, those women who work in saloons and in hotels like Mr. Wolf’s are there to sell liquor and encourage the men to spend their money. They’ll stay with a man all night if he’s winning in a card game. But the minute he doesn’t have any money, they have to move on, have to help the business." She smiled at him as he stood and then sat down beside her. "So I hope you will never confuse that kind of attention with love."

Joe’s freckled nose wrinkled and Adam knew what he was going to say before the words came out of his mouth. "I don’t even like girls."

She smiled to herself. "You’re nearly 13."

"Yes, ma’am."

"Give it time."

He crossed his arms. "Nope."

She tapped him on the head and laughed. "Yep."

Pa closed the distance to Barbara. "I wish you wouldn’t do this."

"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Ben."

Pa bent at the waist, his face only a hand span from hers. "I don’t trust him as far as I can spit."

Mischief shot into her face. "And just how far is that?"

Pa stood straight, taken off guard. "What?"

"How far can you spit?"

He half-laughed and lifted his arms at his sides. "I don’t know."

"Let’s find out in the morning why don’t we? Then I’ll know how close to stay to you when Jack and I are dancing this weekend."

If she’d been one of his sons, Pa would have pulled her off the settee and given her bottom a swat with the flat of his hand.

But she was lucky. She wasn’t. So he didn’t.

 

"I’m tellin’ ya," Hoss said in hushed tones as Adam and he sat on the edge of Adam’s bunk later that evening, "I cain’t take it. "

"Hoss, we only did it night before last," Adam moaned, trying not to wake Little Joe.

"It don’t matter. Pa’s acting strange, you’re acting strange; the only one who ain’t acting strange around here is Little Joe and if that ain’t strange I don’t know what is."

Adam had gotten as far as taking his shirt off and he held it in front of him now, his arms propped on his thighs.

"I think we oughta confess," Hoss insisted. "I think we oughta tell Pa what Joe and you did and wipe the slate clean."

Adam slowly turned his head and narrowed his eyes. "Joe and me?"

Hoss shrugged his right shoulder. "Well, yeah. I didn’t do none of it."

"You sure as blazes didn’t stop us."

"Ssh!" Hoss put his index finger to his lips.

Adam frowned. "It was a joke, Hoss. Pa isn’t gonna peel our hides over something like that."

"Something like what?"

Adam startled and Hoss froze at the sound of Pa’s voice.

"Well?" he asked after he closed the bunkroom door behind him.

"Hi, Pa," Hoss said, forcing a nervous smile.

Pa leaned on the post of Joe’s bunk bed and studied them both. Here it came. Pa was going to rake Adam over the coals for letting Jack get near Barbara – though he didn’t know how he was supposed to prevent two adults from talking. And just wait until Pa got an eyeful of Barbara in those trousers tomorrow.

"Adam?" Pa covered his face with his hands.

Adam raised his eyes slowly. He dreaded Pa’s reprimands more than he’d ever dreaded a tanning.

"Please just answer one question?" Pa lowered his hands. He looked about as tired as Adam had ever seen.

Now Adam wasn’t worried about a dressing down – he was concerned there was some bigger problem he didn’t know about; one Pa needed help with.

"Why did you think Shelby was putting a painting of a naked woman in her saloon?"

"A what?" Hoss exclaimed and Adam shoved him, reminding him that Little Joe was asleep. Well, he had been. Or he’d been faking it. But at the mention of a naked woman his eyes flew open and he sat up on his elbows, staring at Adam.

Sweet glory. What next? Adam opened his mouth, closed it, glanced at his brothers, opened his mouth again and then groaned. "It was a misunderstanding."

"How come they’re always mis-understandings with you?" Joe blurted.

Adam ignored his youngest brother. "I took Barbara to Shelby’s so she could deliver that letter from Maurice and Shelby found out Barbara was an artist – " Adam’s mouth turned downward. "Well, they started talking about Barbara doing a painting for Shelby to hang in the saloon. Something the men could – think about and – I figured it was going to be one of those nude women but it turned out they meant –"

"Why’d you figure it was a naked lady?" Hoss interrupted.

Of COURSE he would ask.

Pa tilted his head slightly and put his tongue in his cheek. "I’d like to know that, too, Adam."

Adam’s neck went as hot as it had earlier that day in the saloon and this time he felt his cheeks flush, too. Absolutely no one could embarrass him as quickly as a member of his own family.

"Aw, Pa," Adam sighed. "Back when I was a kid, I got out of the wagon and explored a little when Inger and you went to a dry goods store. There was a saloon and I peeked inside."

"What’d you see?" Little Joe asked eagerly.

"What do you THINK I saw?" Adam retaliated, pushing to his feet. "What’s hanging on the wall of every saloon?"

Hoss and Joe exchanged confused looks and said together, "A mirror?"

It was all Pa could do to keep from laughing out loud.

Adam rolled his eyes. "It was a painting of a nude woman."

Hoss stood and leaned so close Adam could feel his breath. "You mean – not a stitch?"

"Not a stitch," Adam confirmed and his brothers went very quiet.

Pa leaned around the bunk post and raised his brows at Joe. "I think that’s all we want to know for now, Adam."

But Hoss was still shocked and acted like he hadn’t heard Pa. "Not a thing, Adam?"

"Well," Adam reconsidered, "she WAS wearing a long pearl necklace but it didn’t hide anything of interest."

It was Hoss’ turn to blush and he did a better job of it than Adam had.

"What’d she look like?" Joe prompted.

Pa held up a hand to stop Adam but not before Adam spoke.

"She had blonde hair and green eyes and she was smiling –"

Little Joe blew out a breath of exasperation. "I mean what did she LOOK like?"

Pa rolled his eyes and hid his face behind his left hand.

Adam shrugged. "She was nude, Joe. No clothes. You know."

"No," Joe shook his head. "Did you ever see a real naked lady?"

His oldest brother shot a look of chagrin at Pa. "Can you get him to be quiet, please?"

"Well have ya?" Joe continued and Hoss stopped in the middle of undressing.

Adam leaned toward Little Joe’s bunk. "Do you really think I’m going to answer that?"

Joe crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. "Ha! That means ya haven’t!"

"And just how do you come to that conclusion?" Adam challenged, expecting a logical explanation.

"Cause if you had, you woulda told me. Wendell’s seen his oldest sister naked and he told us all about –" Joe stopped so suddenly that if he’d been riding a horse he would have gone sailing over its head. Pa leaned around the bunk post again and this time only one brow rose. "I better get to sleep," Joe said quickly and ducked under the covers.

Pa rolled his eyes back to Adam as Adam walked to him. "I’m sorry about Jack, Pa. Barbara decided to talk to him and the next thing I knew –"

Pa gave him a knowing, commiserating look. "I didn’t expect you to ride herd on HER, son. I was just hoping town would be in one piece when she left."

 

They were gathering for breakfast the next morning after early chores when Barbara and Smoke came in the front door as full of energy as the morning before but this time without rabbits. She had on her coat and a blouse, as usual, but she was also wearing trousers. Not loose trousers but a pair that fit her curves. Pa paused with his hand on his chair and slid his eyes up and down her as he had the day she had arrived.

Barbara pulled off her coat and hung it by the door, then sat in the chair Hoss had the presence of mind to pull out for her. "Don’t you like them?"

"I can guarantee they’ll get attention in Eagle Station," Pa replied as he sat down.

Adam winced in his chair beside Little Joe’s. Pa might not have known he’d said the wrong thing but Adam sure did.

Barbara stopped filling her plate. "Are you saying you don’t care for my attire?"

Pa shook his head, "Barbara –"

Little Joe looked up at Adam, his expression one of concern, and Adam signaled him to keep quiet.

Pa leaned his elbows on the table and took a deep breath that meant he was fighting for patience. "There are men in Eagle Station who don’t need a lot of excuse to –"

"And the way I dress gives them that excuse?"

Pa slammed his right palm on the table with such force that the dishes, his sons, and Hop Sing jumped. "Barbara would you quit being so blasted difficult!"

His cousin put down her cutlery. "I am NOT being difficult! "

"The devil you aren’t," Pa shot back.

Hoss leaned down, burying himself in the pursuit of his breakfast. Adam was equally ill at ease. Ma and Pa had fussed but never at the table and usually behind closed doors.

Barbara leaned back, crossed her arms and raised her chin. "All right, Benjamin, the floor is yours."

Pa pulled in a deep breath. "You and I are old enough to know women and men send one another all kinds of messages other than the ones they speak. And when a woman wears a dress with a revealing bodice, or puts on a lot of make-up –"

Barbara stiffened and Pa held up his hand.

"When a woman dresses that way, or wears make up, like it or not some men get the wrong message –"

Barbara fairly exploded as she shot to her feet. She paced the floor and turned on Pa. "You and I have both traveled to places where dresses are so low cut and tight they leave nothing to the imagination. And there are other countries where the fabrics they wear are so thin you can see through them." She placed her right hand on the tabletop by Pa’s right hand.

Pa stood and looked down at her. But if he hoped to intimidate her it didn’t work. "All I am saying is there are men who misunderstand and if they see a woman who is dressed a certain way they take advantage of the situation."

"Advantage of HER, you mean." Barbara went quiet. She looked away and then back at Pa and Adam could have sworn Pa flinched slightly. "What we’re really talking about here is Jack Wolf, isn’t it?"

Adam wished she hadn’t brought that up again.

She sighed deeply and took Pa by the hand. "All right, come on then."

Pa leaned back the way Little Joe tended to when Pa had a hold of him. "Where?" he asked worriedly.

"Out back. Let’s see how far you can spit and get this over with."

Pa motioned to the table. "We’re having breakfast, Barb."

She stepped behind him and gave him a shove that got him moving. "This will only take a minute and then we can eat in peace."

The brothers grinned at each other and walked quietly behind Barbara and Pa so he wouldn’t order them back to the table.

At the back of the house, past the woodpile, she put her hands in the front pockets of her trousers and pulled her shoulders forward against the damp morning air. "Well, go on."

"Barbara," Pa protested, "I’m not in the habit of spitting."

"Hurry up. It’s too cool for horsing around."

"I am not horsing around and I’m not going to spit."

"Why? Can’t you do it?" she challenged and Adam stifled a chuckle as he leaned by the woodpile.

"You know good and well I can do it," Pa replied.

"I know you used to be able to out-spit me when we were kids but that was a long time ago," she said easily.

Pa muttered something that sounded pretty close to a curse to Adam and then, as Adam watched with half-opened mouth, Pa spit.

"Oh for heaven’s sake," Barbara moaned. "If you don’t spit any farther than that Jack and I will be dancing under your armpits. Even I can spit father than that."

And she did.

Pa looked down at her, shook his head, put his hands on his hips and spit again. This time it went much farther.

"That’s better," his cousin praised, patting him on the back. "I think I can talk Jack into that."

"I have a feeling you can talk Jack into anything you want," Pa muttered.

 

Ben still hadn’t decided whether having Barb around was a blessing or a curse. She was a blessing because she brought a woman’s touch to the place, encouraged them to sing and play games after dinner, and started conversations that caused all the boys to think a bit more about what was of value in their young lives.

She shared some of her artwork with them - though, thankfully, none of the nudes she had done in art school. She was generous with her sketchpads, pencils, watercolors, and inks and kept Little Joe completely enthralled one day when the rain came down so hard they couldn’t see the corral from the front porch. He produced a rudimentary drawing of Paint; Adam surprised everyone with a fine watercolor of the front of the house. Another evening she sketched each of them and then as the person denied it looked like him everyone else was adamant that it did.

As soon as the weather cleared she once again endeared herself to Hop Sing by asking for his assistance in building a kite from a thin paper she had on a roll. Every time Ben entered the house that day Barbara, Joe and Hop Sing were bent over the table concentrating so hard they never heard him. Two days later, when Hop Sing judged the breeze to be right, the three of them took turns flying their dragon kite and Ben watched his youngest son’s face fill with unabashed delight as he looked up at the lady who had helped make the miracle possible.

So there was a lot to be grateful for, he knew that. But then she would pull something that would make him want to beat his head against the barn wall. Like when she rode a young horse and decided, heaven knew why, that he would make a good jumper. She ran him toward the brush pile they had been stacking for two days and, as Ben watched in horror, horse and rider vaulted into the air and landed successfully.

Adam whipped off his hat. "I didn’t know he could do that," he said in disbelief.

"Neither did he," Ben stormed. "I swear I’m going to tan her."

"Pa, she’s a grown woman!"

Ben waved his hand. "I know. I know. Just let me THINK I can do it, all right?"

His eldest son grinned and quickly looked down.

And if Ben had had any idea how much of a fool he would make of himself because of Barbara he never would have attended the Autumn Fling the next day.

 

Adam stepped down from the carriage as the sound of the Fall celebration in the town hall drifted on the early afternoon breeze. He reached back to help Barbara down but another, larger hand slid in beside his and he looked over at Jack Wolf, holding his hat in his left hand and smiling like a gambler who’d just hit the jackpot.

"Well, now," Jack drawled, "aren’t you stunnin’ enough to take a man’s breath." He gave her yellow silk dress a long, admiring study.

Barbara returned his smile and stepped down with such grace that her headful of pinned-up hair never bobbed. "You’re a handsome specimen yourself, Jack."

He bowed slightly. "A woman of discriminatin’ taste." Holding out his arm, he motioned. "Shall we join the seasonal festivities?"

As they walked away, Barbara looked back over her bare shoulder. "I’ll meet you at the carriage at 6," she said to Adam.

"Oh, now," Jack replied. "Surely you trust me to deliver you safe and sound to the Ponderosa."

Barbara laughed lightly. "I certainly do not."

Jack laughed with her and they entered the town hall.

"Oh Adam! She looks beautiful!" Molly rushed over as he hitched the horses. "I thought you would never get here. Come on, I’ve saved you a piece of Mama’s pie."

Adam walked beside Molly but stopped a moment when they reached the step. What was so different about her? Sure she was wearing a fancy dress, a green one with a lower neckline than what she wore everyday. But there was something else. Her hair was up, that was part of it. It made her look a little older. And then his eyes fell to her lips. Was she wearing makeup? He’d heard of girls biting their lips to get extra color into them but this looked like it went beyond that.

"Is something wrong?" Molly asked, pausing with her dress raised a bit higher than necessary to take the step to the porch.

"You look – different."

"Silly. It’s the same old me," Molly laughed and led him inside.

But he looked at her while he enjoyed a slice of Mrs. McNally’s pie and he was sure of it – Molly had something on her lips. Maybe it was a berry stain. He hoped for her sake it wasn’t some kind of makeup because if it was she was likely to find herself bottom-side up across Angus’ lap.

"Molly –" Tess ran over and grabbed the redhead’s forearm. "Molly, he’s here."

Molly looked around the crowded room and Adam watched her jump a little with excitement. "Where?"

"By the front door," Tess said, nearly giggling. "Here he comes. I think he’s going to ask you."

One of the Wallace boys, Adam thought it was James, sauntered over and gave Molly a big smile. "Wanna dance?" he asked.

"Sure," Molly answered. And they were gone just like that.

Tess sighed and sat down beside Adam, watching the couple work their way to the dance area. Barbara and Jack swirled past, dancing as if they had always been partners and were enjoying a private joke.

"Where’s Hoss?" Adam asked.

"In that arm wrestling contest. I think it’ll get down to him and Big Dan more than likely." Tess put her hands at her sides and swung her legs. "Your cousin sure is a pretty woman, Adam. And she’s led such an exciting life. Can you imagine traveling all those places? And by yourself?" She spared him a brief glance. "Well, I mean that’s not such a thing for a man but for a woman –" She stared beyond everything in the room. "It would be so wonderful to see those places, learn their languages, try their foods, see how the stars look and how the air smells."

He’d never heard Tess talk this way before and he frowned at how much she sounded like he did at times.

She came back to the present with a nervous little laugh. "I didn’t mean to bore you. Sometimes I just get to thinking about those places and I worry that I’ll never see them." Tess flashed him a smile, stood, and walked away.

Adam put down his unfinished slice of pie and wondered if he had just heard her right. She wanted to travel, to try new things? Tess?

And there was Barbara - who had been rowdy all week at the ranch – as regal as a queen as she danced with Jack Wolf. He had learned a long time ago there was more to a woman than what showed on the surface but this was frightening.

How was a man supposed to know what a woman was really like? What if she acted shy but wasn’t? What if she acted like nothing in the world could surprise her but she had been sheltered all her life? What if she led a man to believe he was the only one for her and then dropped him like a hot coal for someone else? What if he thought she was moral and she turned out to have way too much experience? What if she pretended to love him and then, after they were married, turned into a shrew?

How on earth had Pa had the courage to get married three times?

Adam watched his father laughing as he and Angus played their fiddles and decided Pa was braver than he had ever realized.

 

Hoss didn’t win the arm wrestling contest but he came in third and he was happy enough about that, and the cake he won, to smile from ear to ear the rest of the afternoon. When he wasn’t dancing with Tess, or raptly listening to one of the readings given by Mrs. McNally or Ruth, he was recounting the arm wrestling to anyone who would listen.

Every time Adam turned around Little Joe was either running with friends, laughing in that contagious way of his that indicated mischief, or making faces as one of the older women pulled him to the middle of the floor for a dance. When Wendell’s older sister, Permilla, took him by the hand Joe looked for the world like he’d swallowed a persimmon whole. He made all kinds of excuses and protestations but in the end the determined girl, who was half a head taller than Joe anyhow, won out and he stumbled around the dance floor trying to ignore Pa’s grins.

Adam enjoyed a few dances with several young ladies but soon the music evoked memories of times past and he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. Pa was right. He was healing but nothing about it was easy. And it never would be –memories had a way of striking at the oddest times when he least expected them. Sometimes when he was in town he heard a certain rustling of a skirt and he turned half-expecting to see her. Other times he passed a vaquero and in the lilting touch to the language he could almost hear her laugh. No letters to him or to Tess. No word from Mexico. Perhaps there never would be-

Angus and the other musicians changed the music to a jig suddenly and Adam heard Pa say, "Of course you can." Surely he wasn’t talking to Mrs. McNally. Adam had seen Pa and her doing the jig on the McNallys’ front porch.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw when he opened his eyes. Jack and Barbara were dancing with complete abandon, so much so that Barbara had her beautiful silk skirt pulled above her ankles and her hair was working loose and beginning to fall onto her neck. Jack had loosened his tie – something Adam had never seen the fastidious dresser do – and had his left arm on Barbara’s shoulder, laughing as he tried to keep up with her footwork.

But that wasn’t the real surprise. The real surprise was right in front of him: Pa was cajoling Margaret and, although she was a bit self-conscious, she was looking down at Pa’s boots and her shoes and laughing in that soft way of hers.

"Now, Maggie," Pa mock-scolded, "you’ve got more spirit than that. Kick up your heels a bit."

She looked up at him and smiled and then her eyes lowered so she could look at the floor.

"Close your eyes," Pa instructed. "Just have fun with the music."

"If I close my eyes, I’ll fall," she protested, holding her skirt on either side.

Pa grinned. "If you fall, I’ll catch you. Come on. Put some kick in it. That’s it."

"Would you look at Ma?" Tess’ voice was soft in wonder and Adam turned to his right. Tess stood beside him and on her right Hoss was laughing.

"Look at Pa," Hoss motioned with his left hand. "I ain’t seen him have that much fun in a long time."

"Oh, Ben." Margaret took a deep breath as he put his right arm around her waist and whirled her in the opposite direction. "If I keep this up I’ll faint."

Pa tilted his head back and laughed, but he stopped dancing and steadied Margaret for a moment. "How about some punch?" he suggested.

"I feel like I’ve already been punched," Margaret quipped, putting her right hand in front of her stomach, and then they were out of Adam’s earshot.

"Hey, you," Shelby appeared in front of Adam. "This looks like way too much fun to pass up. Come on an’ dance with me."

Adam arched his brow at Hoss and then held his elbow out to Shelby. He was always surprised at how wearing a dress and having her hair untied transformed the woman. Somehow she didn’t look as old as she did when she was running the saloon and for the first time he wondered idly about her age.

"If you don’t want to get stomped you’d best pay attention," she warned and Adam laughed.

"Yes, ma’am."

"Since when do you ma’am me, Adam Cartwright?"

Adam looked down and grinned self-consciously.

Shelby pulled back slightly and studied his face. "That kinda smile can get a fella in a whole heapa trouble."

 

Having told Jack she needed a few moments of fresh air, alone, Barbara walked out in the late afternoon and smiled as she noticed Shelby cooling off on a bench someone had placed under a tree.

"I thought you’d be out here with a cigar." Barbara sat beside her.

"How can it be so chilly out here and so blamed hot in there?" Shelby muttered. She fussed with her skirt. "These dresses burn a girl up. I’ve half a mind to go back to the saloon and flap it in the air a while."

Barbara nodded. "By the way, the trousers are wonderful."

Her companion eyed her curiously. "What’s Ben think of ‘em?"

"He’s smart enough to keep most of his opinions to himself."

Shelby’s eyebrows rose. "Most?"

"Keeping ALL his opinions inside would kill him." Barbara scooted back. "But he’s better than most men. At least he lets me have my way."

"LET’S you?" Shelby almost choked on Barbara’s choice of verbs. "What’s Ben got to say ‘bout the way you live yer life?"

Barbara made an attempt to pin some of her hair back up but quickly abandoned the effort when it was obviously to no avail. "When my father died, he placed my inheritance in the hands of one of his junior business partners. We were sweethearts and I had every intention of marrying him."

Shelby turned sideways so she could watch Barbara. "Somethin’ happen?"

"Doesn’t it always?" Barbara gave Shelby a rueful smile. "At first, it was fine. I liked wearing the wonderful clothes, being escorted to all the social events. And he understood my love of drawing and painting." She shook her head. "But then he wanted to know where I was, who I was with, didn’t want me going anywhere without him. He decided art was not a proper pursuit for a lady. And then I had finally had enough when he became totally overbearing in regards to my monetary situation. So, I borrowed money from a friend, traveled to New Orleans and recruited Ben to help me. He agreed to handle my finances as far as the law was concerned but what he actually did was sign a paper giving me autonomy. It was just as well that my ex-intended was back in Boston: I always had a feeling Ben would have given him an upper cut he never would have forgotten."

In spite of herself, Shelby grinned. "I’ve seen Ben knock a fella out cold," she agreed. "So is that how come you never married? On account of this fella back east?"

Barbara shook her head. "I’m just not the marrying kind, Shelby. Every time I’ve fallen in love with a man no matter how different he thinks he is from other men eventually he starts talking about marriage and children and settling down and I can’t do that. There’s too much to see, too much to do. I couldn’t have taken children to some of the places I’ve been." She gave Shelby a knowing look. "Maybe I should say I WOULDN’T take children to some of the places I’ve been. And then, too, there aren’t many men who understand that I need to paint and draw."

"What yer sayin’ is sooner or later they get around ta wantin’ ta own ya." Shelby’s quiet statement brought Barbara’s eyes to her face.

"I don’t think THEY see it that way."

Shelby nodded. "But that’s whut it amounts to. They want ya to wear a dress and gussy up so they can show you off like some fine horse and then they want ya ta have kids like a brood mare. And somewheres in there ya kinda lose yerself, don’t ya?"

Barbara lowered her voice. "Not every woman, Shelby."

"But that’s what’d happen to you an’ me."

"Possibly," Barbara agreed.

Shelby took a deep breath and then stood. "Well, all the more reason to enjoy ‘em on my own terms. I think I’ll rope one of ‘em into another dance."

Barbara let her eyes drift to the sky. She always enjoyed this time of day, when the world prepared for sunset and the velvet depth of night. Sunrises were always pale pink affairs unless a storm was brewing. But sunset – sunset was rich with reds, oranges, incredible blues and breathtaking purples. During her visit to Paris she had sat in that most remarkable blue evening light and watched the exquisite old buildings transformed before her eyes into the same, ethereal color.

The aroma of tobacco smoke drifted near her and Barbara smiled. "Decide on a cigar after all?"

"I have been known to partake," Jack’s smooth voice responded. He stepped to the opposite side of the bench.

"I’m sorry." Barbara laughed. "I thought you were Shelby."

Jack held his arms out at his sides. "I must say that to my knowledge I have nevuh been mistaken for a woman." He gave her a devilish look from the tops of his eyes and then turned to look where she faced. "Admiring the day drawin’ to a close?"

Barbara nodded.

"There’s a better view when you get past these trees," Jack informed her and extended his arm to help her to her feet.

"Is this an excuse for a stroll away from the crowd?"

"Most definitely."

She put her arm through his and lifted her skirt slightly as they walked first across the dusty clearing behind the town hall and then into the low dried grass. The land gently dropped downward and Jack was right, the view was better when it was not obstructed.

"You can see for miles," he bragged as if he had had a personal hand in the creation of the scenery.

"I may come here and do some watercolors," she thought aloud.

Jack cocked an eyebrow as he looked down at her. "Watercolors?"

Barbara studied the willow trees to her right, the open land beyond, and in the distance the rolling foothills that bumped into already snow-covered mountains. She realized she had not answered Jack’s question. "Watercolors are a different kind of paint. They are more portable and I can mix them with water instead of with oil."

Jack took his cigar from his mouth and waved his right hand toward the mountains. "And you paint this kind of thing?"

"Why? Don’t you think a woman can?"

"My dear Barbara, I believe a woman can do anything she sets her mind to."

Barbara eyed him suspiciously and resumed walking, enamored with the view and the sky and the brisk early autumn air. Dimly aware Jack was beside her, she turned slightly to her left and looked up again as the clouds suddenly blazed in orange and red.

She heard Jack call out just as the sky and earth changed places and when she made sense of things again she realized she had fallen. Barbara was in cold mud and an even colder looking shallow creek ran to her left. Her silk dress quickly began to absorb the liquid in the mud and somewhere in the dim recesses of her memory she recalled screaming like a banshee as she had tumbled down the wet slope.

"Here," Jack held out his hand, "let me help you outta there."

Barbara reached up and for an instant her muddy hand was in his. But then it slipped and when it slipped, she slipped. Desperate to keep her from falling into the shallow creek, Jack grabbed for whatever he could grasp – which happened to be her left sleeve. It ripped from her shoulder but not before he managed to get her up the slope and tear half the left side of her bodice open as well.

"My lord, Barbara, you’re comin’ apart at the seams," he quipped just before his boot heel slipped in the mud and they both fell to the grassy bank.

And that was right when all hell broke loose.

 

Everyone was quieting down, fed and happy, when Angus took the stage again to tell a story from Ireland about goblins and fairies. Adam hoped he didn’t make it too frightening or they’d be up half the night with Little Joe and his nightmares. Adam had never known a kid with more imagination and more to find to have bad dreams about than his youngest brother. He could have understood if the kid had had a rough childhood but, with the exception of Ma’s death, Joe hadn’t known much in the way of hardship. Maybe that explained it. Maybe he was afraid because he knew hardship was common out here. Maybe the suspense was killing him.

Adam had settled, leaning his shoulder against the wall by the door with Pa standing beside him, and Angus had the crowd as still as a grave at night when a scream sliced the air outside. Pa was out the door before Adam had pushed upright but he wasn’t far behind Pa – and neither was Hoss.

Pa looked around like a hawk and then ran for the creek bank. Adam was right on his heels. And then he saw it but still didn’t believe it.

Jack was on top of Barbara on the ground and Barbara was pretty much coming out of her gown, although it didn’t look like it was of her own doing. There was something that didn’t make sense about the scene, something Adam’s brain was still trying to sort out, when Pa grabbed Jack up by the left arm, whirled him around, and landed a right fist on Jack’s jaw that sent Jack flying sideways into the creek.

"Ben!" Barbara screamed and tried to grab Pa but he was already down in the creek.

Jack greeted Pa with arms held straight out.

"Ben, you have this all wrong," he began but Pa never let him finish the sentence. He landed a left fist that knocked any good humor out of Jack.

Jack came back at Pa like the seasoned fighter he was. He fought dirty in more ways than one on that muddy creek bank.

"Stop it!" Barbara yelled. And when that didn’t work she turned to Adam and Hoss. "Give me your belt."

"M-ma’am?" they both stammered.

She held out her right palm. "Now! Give me your belt."

Adam was still frozen in place, amazed that Pa was brawling, but Hoss snapped out of it, pulled off his belt, and relinquished it to Barbara just as Little Joe pushed between his brothers to see what was going on.

Their cousin waded into the fray swinging Hoss’ belt like a horsewhip; all the time yelling for Pa and Jack to break it up. It wasn’t long before they both fell on their backs on the opposite bank and had their arms up to protect their heads.

"I have NEVER seen such asinine behavior in my life!" Barbara stormed as she stood in the middle of the creek, Hoss’ belt in her right hand. "If you two think for one moment that you can brawl over me like two bulls over a heifer you had better think again. I will raise welts on your hides the size of railroad ties."

Pa peeked out from behind his upraised arm and Jack squinted.

"You are the worst excuses for manhood I have EVER seen!" Barbara turned and came straight up the creek bank. She smoothed her wrinkled, muddy skirt; raised her chin as she regained her composure; returned Hoss’ belt to him; and looked up at Adam. "I would like to go home now, please."

Adam spared Pa the briefest of looks. "Yes, ma’am."

"Ya know," Adam heard Angus observe as he helped Pa up the creek bank. "The last time I saw a fella rip a lady’s dress like that they wound up married."

He could have gone all month and not said that.

 

 

The atmosphere in the bunkroom that night was as charged as the air before a lightning storm. Adam didn’t know what Hoss or Little Joe was doing but he was pretending to read a book. It was no use, of course. All three of them could hear the discussion going on in the living room. Maybe discussion wasn’t quite the right word since it seemed to be one-sided on Barbara’s part. Might as well admit it, she was chewing Pa up one side and down the other.

The door eased open and Pa stepped in. His eyes went from one son to the next and Adam wondered if Hoss and Joe shifted as uneasily as he did. Just be smart, he silently begged his brothers, stay quiet.

It was too much to hope for.

"Hi, Pa," Little Joe piped up brightly. "I sure did have fun at the Autumn Fling. Did ya know Hoss won third place in the arm wrestlin’ and he shared his cake with everybody. That was real – kind of ‘im, wasn’t it?"

Pa nodded and sat on the edge of Joe’s bed, smiling ever so slightly at the fact that Joe had used what they all referred to as a Pa word when he’d said "kind". "Yes, it was Joseph."

"And I won a whole bunch of the foot races and then I tied Wendell in the marble match. We didn’t play for keeps, though."

"I’m sure you didn’t."

"And ya know what? I learned how to arm wrestle, too. Shelby took me in the corner and she worked with me until I could do it pretty durn good."

Adam grinned in spite of himself. Pretty durn good, hum? Probably Shelby’s words verbatim.

Joe jabbered along. "And then I figured I was good enough so I asked Molly to dance with me. But that old James Wallace told me to jump off a roof. Said I was just a kid and didn’t have any business messing with a woman like Molly. Molly gave James a mean look and took my hand and we had a dance and it was a whole lot of fun. And when we finished she told James if she ever heard of him giving me any trouble she’d be sure her father found out about it. And James went white as a cloud, Pa. I’ve never seen anything like it. He said he wouldn’t do anything to hurt me and Molly said he’d –"

Joe stopped suddenly and Pa turned his head inquiringly.

"Well, Molly said he’d better not." He paused only long enough to take a deep breath before saying, "Boy wasn’t all that food good? I mean not much of it was as good as what Hop Sing cooks but Mrs. Orowitz’ desserts were real tasty. Only thing is, I sure wish Mr. McNally could’ve finished his story but I don’t think anyone was much ready to listen to it after you –"

Adam lay back on his pillow. Way to go Joe. You’ve dug the hole, now just cover yourself up and get quiet.

"After I?"

Little Joe’s voice sounded a bit sickly. "You know: after Jack and you got in that fight."

"It was a misunderstanding," Pa replied.

"How come when Adam or you gets in a fight it’s a mis-understanding?"

Joe, Joe, Adam prayed silently. Just be quiet.

"All right," Pa conceded, "it was a mistake."

"How come when Hoss or you gets in a fight it’s a mis-take?"

Adam was sure he’d heard this conversation before.

Pa remembered it, too. "And when you get in a fight you get a spanking?" He chuckled. "You think I need a spanking?"

Little Joe laughed at the thought and then quietly watched Pa.

"I have to accept responsibility," Pa said after a pause. When Little Joe asked how, Pa said, "I’ll apologize to Jack."

Hoss’ legs swung off his bunk and nearly hit Adam in the face as he sat up in surprise. "Pa," Hoss protested, "you cain’t!"

"Why not?"

"You cain’t apologize to a fella like Jack. He aint worth apologizin’ TO."

Pa’s forehead wrinkled.

"He ain’t worth the mud on your boots, Pa."

Adam couldn’t remember the last time he had heard so much concern in Hoss’ voice.

"He’s a man, son," Pa said slowly, deeply. "I jumped to conclusions, accused him unjustly, and resorted to violence. Those sound like pretty good reasons for an apology to me."

Hoss shook his head so violently it vibrated the bed. "You’re wrong, Pa. You’re gonna offer that apology in good faith but that ain’t how Jack’s gonna take it."

Adam looked down at his bare feet. Good faith. Hoss and he had had their disagreements through the years and whenever an apology was required Pa had insisted they accept the apology in good faith – meaning there would be no more mention of the incident and the one being apologized to was to accept without reservation. Much as he hated to admit it, Hoss was right. Jack Wolf couldn’t begin to understand good faith. Anytime he was gracious it was for show.

Pa stood and unbuttoned the waistband of his trousers. "I can only offer my apology, I can’t control how Jack takes it."

"I still say it’s a mistake," Hoss muttered.

"Nope," Joe quipped, "the mis-take’s why Pa has to ‘pologize."

Adam’s eyes shot to Pa and Pa looked back over his shoulder at a giggling Little Joe who was quickly pulling his quilt up over him.

"You think that’s funny, don’t you?" Pa growled playfully.

Little Joe yelped as Pa bent down and tickled his sides through the bed covers. "When I get that blanket off you, young man, you’re gonna scream for mercy," Pa promised and Little Joe’s laughter filled the room.

 

Adam had no idea what the mood would be at the breakfast table the next morning and, if he hadn’t been so hungry and if Pa didn’t always insist they eat their meals, he might have skipped the gathering. But, as it turned out, both Barbara and Pa were smiling and there was no mention of Pa’s fight with Jack. The only reminders were the discoloration on Pa’s cheek and jaw and when Barbara mentioned that she didn’t think she could salvage her dress. Barbara’s news spurred Joe to excitedly ask if they could use the silk to make kites like Hop Sing had shown them. Barbara thought that was a great idea and as soon as Joe finished his morning chores the two of them huddled in the tool shed with Hop Sing, busy on another flying creation.

Pa rode off toward town, turning down Adam and Hoss’ offers to go with him by suggesting if they didn’t have enough to keep them busy he could always find more chores. They quickly assured him they had a full day but spent all the time he was gone talking about how they thought Pa’s apology to Jack was going.

And, of course, the mention of Pa apologizing to Jack started Hoss worrying again about Pa getting back at them for tying him in bed.

"I’m gonna tell ‘im," Hoss announced right after lunch as they slowly rode, pushing cattle to lower grazing.

"Tell him what?" Adam asked suspiciously.

"I’m gonna tell ‘im the whole thing from start to finish."

Adam didn’t like the sound of that. Hoss wasn’t good at explaining. Somehow he always started in the middle and only remembered to go back to the beginning when he was almost to the end. Depending on Pa’s mood, the result was not always the best. This explanation had to be clear and understandable. This was not a job for Hoss. This was his responsibility.

"I’ll tell him." Adam directed his horse slightly to the left to keep a cow from drifting into the trees.

"Ya will?" There was no mistaking the relief in his younger brother’s voice. "When?"

"I’ll tell him as soon as we get back."

"You’ll feel a lot better for it," Hoss assured. "Wiping the slate clean and all."

Adam gave him a stunned look. He wasn’t doing this for himself; he was doing it to get Hoss off his back. Sometimes Hoss was thicker than river mud.

 

Ben hitched his horse in front of Shelby’s saloon and paused a moment, wondering if he ought to go inside for a bit of liquid fortification before facing Jack. But whiskey didn’t bury memories and it sure as blazes didn’t give you strength so he set his hat instead and strode up the sidewalk.

As luck would have it – and Ben couldn’t decide whether it was good or bad – Jack stepped out of the Orowitz’ store just as Ben approached it. The dapper dresser turned to face Ben, clipping off the end of a cigar, and Ben took some small satisfaction in noting that Jack’s face was more bruised than his was.

"Jack," Ben gave a short nod.

"Ben," Jack nodded back.

"I spoke with Barbara and I realize I jumped to the wrong conclusions. I apologize for hitting you." There. That hadn’t gagged him too much. Ben pulled off his glove and held out his right hand.

Jack looked down at his cigar a moment and then pulled off his glove and put his right hand in Ben’s. As he shook, he squeezed hard and Ben squeezed right back, determined if any bones broke they would be Jack’s. Jack gave in first and smiled thinly at Ben.

He pulled his glove back on, trying not to wince, and then touched the brim of his hat. "My regards to your lovely cousin."

Ben gave another short nod and watched Jack slowly walk away like a strutting rooster.

"Now why in tarnation did ya do a thang like that?" Shelby stepped from the darkness of the store to stand at Ben’s side, frowning as Jack strolled toward the hotel.

"I needed to apologize," Ben answered.

"Whut fer? He ain’t worth his feed."

Ben shook his head at her remark and motioned. "Buy you a coffee?"

They walked side by side to Shelby’s place but once they were inside and she stepped behind the bar she asked, "Sure ya don’t want somethin’ stronger?"

"Want, yes. Need, no."

That got a grin. She brought two mugs to the table and sat down across from Ben. After a few sips she said, "Well, ain’t ya curious?"

Ben glanced around to be sure she wasn’t speaking to anyone else but it was so early in the morning there was no one else around. "Curious?" he finally asked.

Shelby eased back in her chair and squinted at him through her cigar smoke. "How come they didn’t make more like you?"

He laughed and held out his hands. "Shelby, what are you talking about?" He grinned and his blue eyes cleared of problems.

She twisted her lips to the left a moment and then turned her cigar. "Ain’t you just a might curious about whut I decided?"

Ben leaned forward until his forearms were on the tabletop. "Decided?"

"About Frenchy’s letter."

"Oh," he said slowly. "I hadn’t given it another thought. It’s your business. Not something I would discuss with anyone."

Shelby’s brows rose. "Not even Barbara?" she asked in surprise.

Ben laughed again. "Especially not Barbara." He could tell Shelby expected an explanation. "Barbara’s a – different kind of woman. Her father left her money so she didn’t have to get married when he died. And now she has her art and it supports her. She isn’t much on the idea of having children and she sure doesn’t want to be tied down." He gave an easy shrug. "Unless she falls in love with a man who is willing to accept her the way she is, I don’t see her getting married."

"How about for the companionship?"

Shelby’s quiet question stirred unbidden memories of Marie warm beside him at night. He looked down into the coffee; it was the color of her eyes. "I suppose that’s a need we each answer in our own way."

"Ya gotta figure out what yer willin’ to give up fer love, don’t ya?" Shelby asked, her voice a little lighter.

Ben gave her a brief smile. "And how much you can bring to it."

She nodded and they sat several minutes in silence.

"I ain’t goin’ to New Or-leans," she announced.

"I didn’t think you would."

Shelby leaned on the tabletop then and her eyes challenged Ben. "And just why did ya figure that?"

"Because we need you here," Ben said as if that explained it all, hoping it did. He raised his coffee mug in a toast. "To friends."

Shelby took her cigar from her mouth and tapped her coffee mug against Ben’s. "Ta friends."

 

The late afternoon fog was almost on the ground when Adam walked toward the barn. It created moisture everywhere - dripping from pine needles, the roof of the house, the corral fence – it had even gathered on his hat brim and clothing. His breath appeared before him while his hands felt chilled in his gloves.

"Good to see you boys are back," Pa said as Adam entered the barn. "It’s getting dark earlier every day."

Adam pulled off his gloves and then his hat. "Things go okay with Jack?"

Pa smiled ruefully. "As good as they every go with Jack." He poured feed into the trough and the horse blew a gentle thank you before lowering its head.

Adam sat on the tack box and sighed deeply. He ran his left hand through his hair to take the flatness out of it and then leaned forward, rolling his hat in his hands. "It was me, Pa."

Pa thought a minute and leaned on a rake. "You?" he repeated.

Adam nodded. "I thought it was a funny idea but Hoss is about to drive me crazy worrying over it."

"He is."

Adam nodded again. "You know how he is, Pa: he’s skiddish about keeping things from you."

"And you’re not?"

Adam shrugged. "Well, not something like this. I mean it was just a joke. But Hoss is convinced you’re going to clobber us."

"Clobber you."

Adam looked up and smiled lopsidedly. "His word, not mine."

"Clobber," Pa repeated, trying it out.

Abigail and John Adams made noises up in the hayloft that indicated a mouse was about to breathe it’s last.

"Pa?" Adam straightened his back.

"Um?"

"Would you tell me how you did it?"

Pa glanced around a bit and then shook his head. "Did what?"

"How you got untied."

"Untied," Pa repeated. He gave Adam such a blank look you could have written on it.

"Did I leave a loose end?"

Pa leaned the rake against one of the stalls and walked closer, propping his right boot on a grain sack. "Son, I haven’t understood a thing you’ve said since you came in here and it isn’t getting any better."

Here it was. This was the way Pa was going to get back at him. Pretend it hadn’t happened. Time to pay the piper. Adam sighed in exasperation and Pa leaned his forearm on his thigh.

"Why don’t you start at the beginning?" Pa suggested.

Adam closed his eyes. "You know the beginning, Pa."

"All I know is you did it but Hoss is afraid I’m going to clobber all of you. And somehow I got untied."

Adam shrugged. "That’s all there is to it."

"I got untied?"

Adam nodded.

"When?"

"The morning after I tied you in bed."

Pa went still. "You tied me in bed."

"Well, Joe tied your right hand but I did all the rest." Adam was studying the barn floor as if he expected it to enlighten him.

Pa considered the new information. "And what did Hoss do?"

"Worry mainly."

"He didn’t tie any of the knots?"

"He was too afraid." Adam pulled a piece of hay from the nearby bale and toyed with it.

"And when did you do this?"

"Nighttime."

"I mean when? How long ago?"

Adam looked up. Was it possible Pa wasn’t teasing him? How could that be?

"The night before Hop Sing came back from San Francisco."

"Adam, I never woke up tied in my bed."

"You had to, "Adam pleaded. "I tied those knots myself, Pa."

Pa sat on the feed sacks and a slow smile eased his lips. "You say Joe and you tied me to the bed. Hoss didn’t. But Hoss got worried and he’s been after you to tell me." Pa’s eyes were full of mischief as he turned toward Adam. "And Little Joe?"

Why was he asking about Little Joe?

"Has he been worried?" Pa prompted Adam to think.

Adam chewed absentmindedly on the piece of hay and shook his head. "No."

"Hoss wouldn’t be asking you to tell me if he’d untied me during the night. You know YOU didn’t do it. Who does that leave?"

Adam’s eyes narrowed. "That little –"

Pa held up his left palm. "Let me handle this."

 

"Adam! This ain’t funny!! You better untie me!" Joe’s yells from the bunkroom the next morning could be heard through the house and out to the front porch. "Somebody help!" Once again Smoke broke into barks.

Gathered on the porch, Barbara, Hoss, Hop Sing, Adam and Pa laughed as Joe’s yells became louder and more determined.

"Adam! I’m gonna pee on my bed if you don’t get in here!"

Adam and Hoss looked down, nearly choking.

"Oh, Ben," Barbara finally relented. "You have to untie him. A full bladder is no laughing matter."

Her unintentional rhyme sent the three Cartwrights into gales of laughter and Pa repeated it, putting it to music.

"All right," Pa waved his right hand toward the bunkhouse, "go rescue him." He walked toward the end of the porch.

"Hey, Pa," Hoss called and Pa turned to face him. "Only one problem: he thinks Adam did it."

Pa set his hat and grinned at Adam for all he was worth. "That’s not MY problem."

And that’s when Adam knew he’d been had.

 

The end