By D. G. Fisher


Chapter 36
Everyone was gathered around the table in the meeting room of the regional office when Adam entered.  The four men were surprised when he came and took a seat at the foot of the table instead of the head.  He smiled.

“I’m not conducting this meeting today.  Thea is.  She wants to go over some conclusions she has come to after going over her notes from the physical examination she did on the children’s bodies.”

He had no sooner finished speaking than the woman in question came in.  The men stood and Adam came to hold the chair at the head of the table for her.  Then he went back to the foot.

Thea had not brought any notes or paper of any kind with her; she just clasped her hands together and let them rest on the table.  She looked at each man for a moment then began to speak.

“When I read the report about the deaths of the Albrecht children I was bothered by some glaring physical discrepancies from what I had written down when I examined the bodies myself.  So I arranged to see them again, but this time I did a more thorough examination, and you all need to know these facts.”  She paused for a moment and looked at her husband then smiled.

“One fact we know for sure is that Karen was seven years old, but when I examined the body identified as her I found it to be of a much older female.  The body had signs of adolescent development, which tells me the female in question was at the earliest eleven years old, not seven.  It is possible for this to occur in a child of seven, but judging by the pictures I have seen of Karen I very much doubt this was the case.”

She glanced at Adam again and noted his surprised expression as she continued.  “Now as for Timothy I understand that the picture of him was very recent and as you can see he had some front teeth missing.  The body I examined did not.”  The men were watching her intently now and she started to feel just a little uncomfortable, but kept going.

“The most glaring error involves the body identified as the five-year-old.  I can’t understand why anyone would think this child was David - the body was female.  Please understand that this can be difficult to determine when so much of the flesh is burnt away, but I feel reasonably certain my conclusion is correct even without an autopsy.”

The four deputies were shocked by this revelation and their expressions showed it.  Adam’s expression, however, had become unreadable; Thea’s uneasiness increased.

“Now the last child, little Grace, was small for her age according to the statement the Nanny gave.  This body was very badly burnt and impossible to identify by any recognizable features.  But judging by the measurements I took of the limbs and the torso and the true facts we know about her it is plain to see that the last body was of a child taller than Grace, by at least three or four inches.”

Thea paused again and surveyed the faces around the table.  Every single man was staring with narrowed eyes, almost as though they didn’t believe her.  She continued anyway.

“A few other things about the report bothered me too, things that didn’t involve the bodies.  I was wondering why the nanny was fully dressed, why she had no signs of smoke suffocation, and why she did not show a single burn or any other injury you would expect her to have after narrowly escaping a building that burned so quickly and hotly that the entire structure was destroyed.”

“I also want to know why almost the entire staff was out that night, just how firm their alibi’s really are, and why the Nanny didn’t make any attempt to take any of the children with her when she escaped.”

She looked at Adam again and his expression was still unreadable, but he nodded for her to continue.

“I have worked in two hospitals and have seen many more around the world and a fact that is not known by the general public is that bodies do disappear and for many different reasons.  Some have been cremated in error, some are misidentified, some are never claimed, and some are stolen.  I had heard a lot of gossip about bodies going missing when Adam and I were in San Francisco no more than two weeks before the fire occurred.”

“Now when I put the discrepancies in the physical characteristics of the bodies, the suspicious actions of the nanny, the absence of the rest of the staff, and the father’s reputation, I’ve come to the conclusion that dead bodies were substituted for the live children and I believe the person responsible for this is the nanny.”

“I also think that the staff cooperated with Simon in the arson because it seems clear to me that one person could not have done this alone.  Maybe they all cooperated or maybe only a few did, but I am certain that the Albrecht children did not die in that fire.  Where they are now I don’t know, but if I were investigating this case I would check to see if anyone saw the Nanny leaving town with four boys.  It’s much easier to disguise a female child as a male than it would be the other way around.”

She fell silent then and swallowed nervously, wondering if they felt she had stepped over the line and was interfering in their investigation.

Adam cleared his throat and the deputies turned to him.  Thea could see that some unspoken communication was going on among the five men.  Then her husband said, “Well gentlemen?” and she was astounded when they all stood and began to applaud.

She smiled in relief and then blushed when she saw the pride, approval, and love in her husband’s expression.  The admiring looks she was receiving from the deputies made her turn even redder.

The applause ended when the men laughed briefly at her embarrassment and they all sat down again, still amused.

“Hey Adam,” Nate said, “Too bad she can’t work with us full-time.”

Dylan and gave her one of his charming, dimpled smiles, “I’m impressed.”

John was shaking his head and looking a little stunned.  Then he turned to say something to Thea but stopped and just shook his head again as he grinned.

Mike was sitting on Adam’s left and everyone watched as he stood, walked up to Thea, and held out his right hand.  She took it and they shook hands, “You’ve got more brains than most of the men I know,” he said and turned to the rest of the men.  “Present company included, of course!” making them all laugh.

He smiled at Thea then went back to his chair as Adam stood.  “I want you four to go over Thea’s conclusions while I walk her home,” he said.  “Be prepared to go over every point when I get back.”

“Yes sir!” Nate said and the others just nodded as Thea tucked her hand in the crook of her husband’s elbow and the four men watched the two of them leave.

They glanced at each other and sat there quietly for a moment until John finally said something that broke them up – “Lucky bastard!”


The couple didn’t speak on the walk home, they simply strolled along and when they reached the house Adam drew her over to the swing.  He put one arm around her, set the swing in motion, and then said, “Why did it take you so long to tell me?”

Thea sighed.  “I knew that’s the first thing you were going to ask.”

He chuckled softly.  “Well?”

“Now, don’t get angry, but I have to admit I have been struggling with this for a while.  When I knew the children hadn’t died in that fire I couldn’t help but think they were safer where they are.  Then I realized if the father was tried and convicted for their murder and the children showed up he would be set free.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought he couldn’t be tried for attempting to murder them due to double jeopardy.  So I knew he had to be convicted for the right crime - attempted murder.”

Adam had been nodding his head while she spoke and now looked down at her with a serious expression.  “You are absolutely correct, love.  That man must be charged and convicted of the right crime so he never is free to try it again.  In my book, attempting to murder his own children is just the same as actually murdering them.”

“Mine too.”

He sighed.  “I understand how you felt about them, but Thea don’t ever hold anything back from me again.  That’s something I just cannot tolerate.  No matter what you think the consequences may be you just have to trust that I’ll take care of it to the best of my ability.  Worrying about such things is my job not yours.”

Thea nodded against his shoulder.  “I’m sorry.  But aren’t you glad I’m not perfect?  Perfect people are impossible to live with.”

Adam chuckled.  “Nice try, but you’re still in trouble woman.  Swear you won’t ever withhold information like that from me again.  God Theadora, why can’t you learn to trust me?”

“Because I’m stupid?”

“No, you’ve never been stupid a day in your life,” he said exasperated.

“Because I’m…pig-headed?”

“You’re getting closer.”

“Because I’m…stubborn?”

“And closer yet.”

“Because I’m…too independent?”

“Bull’s eye!  We are in a partnership here - you have your job and I have mine.  Swear to me you will never do that again.”

“I swear,” she said with her head down.

He turned toward her and nudged her face up with a hand under her chin.  “Thea don’t ever forget how much I love you.  And I was incredibly proud of you today.  But you know as well as I do there can only be one person in charge.  It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it – and that’s me.”

“I know.  Just remember it’s hard for me to curb that independence.  I never would have survived the process of becoming a doctor without it.”

“Thea, it’s appropriate for you to be like that in some situations, just not this one.  I know you can tell the difference.”

She nodded and he put his arm around her shoulders again as they continued to swing.

“Aren’t you going back now?”

“No, they can wait.”  He tightened his hold on her, drawing her closer as he sighed.

Thea looked up at him quickly and her gaze sharpened as she sat up straight.

“Whoa, wait a minute!  You don’t actually think I would ever leave you over something like this, do you?”

Adam let his head fall back.  “Well, I have to admit that thought has crossed my mind.”

“Now you’re being stupid,” she said with some heat.  He looked down at her in surprise.

“You listen to me now.  If I didn’t want to be in this marriage I wouldn’t be.  I knew what you were like when we got married and I’m in this for the duration, mister, because I want to be.  Dear Lord, I would never leave you!”

He stared at her for a moment then slowly smiled.  “Never, huh?”

Thea reached up and cupped his face in her hands and drew his head down until they were actually nose-to-nose.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Never,” she said in a tone of voice he had never heard from her before – a voice that echoed what he had always suspected – the core of steel that was her will.

She let go of his head and sat back again.  “Besides,” she continued, “questioning my love for you like that is an insult to me as your wife.  Don’t ever question it again.”

Adam started to laugh, “Very clever, using the same words I said to Alex against me!  Touché’”  She grinned.  “Wait a minute.  You weren’t there, so who told you?”

Thea gave him a wry look, “Now who do you think told me?”

Adam shook his head, “I swear Joe is the worst gossip I’ve ever known.”

They swung silently for a while, each lost in their own thoughts.  Then Adam broke the silence by sighing with contentment.

“Those sweet children did not die in that fire,” he said quietly.

“No, they did not,” Thea answered him firmly and smiled.  She knew that fact had lifted a terrible burden from his heart.  “But that doesn’t make any difference to your plans for their father, does it?”

“Oh no,” he said in a frigidly furious voice that made her shiver.  “Don’t you worry about that monster.  I’ll get him.”

Thea nodded and when she looked up at him she saw that faraway look in his eyes again.  She knew that coldly calculating part of his mind was taking all the information he had and weaving it into a net that would trap Simon eventually.

She shivered again and just continued to swing while watching the shadows lengthen – patiently waiting for Adam to come back.



Chapter 37

Annalise was busily sweeping up wood shavings on the side of the front porch next to his office when Adam quietly came around the other side of the house.  She didn’t hear him approaching and when he said her name she jumped, badly startled and lost her grip on the broom handle.  It clattered loudly when it hit the floor.

She turned around slowly and hung her head, looking up at her father through her lashes, knowing what was coming.

Adam looked down at her with a frown and a sigh of exasperation.  “Inside, young lady.  Go get Alexander then I want both of you to go to the kitchen and wait there for me.”  He had a hard time holding onto his stern expression when she sidled past him and disappeared through the front door.

After pausing to think for a few moments, he made up his mind how he would handle this situation and followed her inside.  When he walked into the kitchen both children were sitting in chairs at the table while Thea was busy at the sink.  He stopped and quietly said, “Both of you – front and center.”  They hurried to come and stand in front of him.

Adam crossed his arms and looked down at his two older children narrowly.  He shook his head.  “I am sick and tired of this disobedience from you two.  How many times have I told you Alexander, that your mother and your sister are not your servants?  When you make a mess I expect you to clean it up.  And as for you Annalise, didn’t I warn you what would happen if I caught you doing it again?”

The little girl nodded her head and Adam could see her lower lip start to tremble as it pouched out.  He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling at her pout, and then continued.  “Since you two have decided to cooperate in disobeying me, you will continue to do so in your punishment.  Annalise, if I catch you cleaning up after Alexander again, you will both be punished, and if I see that you’ve left a mess anywhere Alexander, you will again both be punished.”

Alexander looked up at his father, shocked.  “But that’s not fair, Pa!”

“It isn’t?  You two decided to disobey me in this together, so now you will share in the punishment together.  Do you understand why?”

Annalise quickly nodded, but Alex paused, staring at his father with a faint hint of defiance creeping into his expression.

“Do not start with me Alexander,” Adam said quietly.  “You will not win.”  He continued to stare coolly into his son’s eyes, so much like his own, until Alex hung his head and said a reluctant “Yes sir.”

“You also need to be warned, Alex, that your mother will not be cleaning up after you either.  She will also report to me if you leave a mess lying around for any length of time.  Do not wait until right before I come home.  Understand?”

Both children were looking at the floor now as they nodded.

“Good, now go to your rooms and stay there until I come for you.”

Turning away from him quickly they both sped from the kitchen as fast as they could without actually running.  Adam stayed where he was and listened to them scamper up the stairs.  Then he heard Annalise shut her room door quietly while Alex banged his shut in a temper.

Adam sighed and looked at his wife who still had her back to him.  But he could tell from the way she was shaking that she was laughing.  “And so the dance begins…” she managed to choke out before turning toward him.  She was still smiling when she said, “Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes, please,” he said as he sat down in the chair at the head of the table.  Thea poured it for him then came to set it in front of him before sitting down in the chair to his right.

“I told you things had been too quiet for too long.  The lull before the storm is over,” she chuckled and her husband gave her a sour look.  “That was very clever of you, appealing to his protective nature.  I expect he will think twice before doing something that will get his sister in trouble.”

“That’s what I’m hoping.  That boy is just like me in that physical punishment doesn’t mean anything to him.  It’s forgotten as soon as it’s over.”

Thea’s expression became serious.  “I know, and that’s what’s so difficult.  He has Joe’s careless nature and your thick hide.”

He shot her a dark look out of the corner of his eye then reluctantly nodded.  “I know you’re right and I can’t think of a worse combination as far as discipline goes.”

She nodded her head and put her hand on his right forearm.  “But cheer up!  You’re not in this alone like your father was.  You have me and I can also be a force to be reckoned with.”

“So you agree with me on this sharing of the punishment?”

“Yes I do, but even if I didn’t I never would have said anything in front of them.  That’s the worst thing parents can do – argue in front of their children.  Especially about discipline issues.”

Adam looked at her smiling face and finally smiled back.  “I am so thankful you’re not an overprotective mother.”

“Me?  No, never.  I’ve always believed a parent’s job is to prepare their child for the outside world, not to make them happy.”

He thought about that for a moment then nodded.  “I like the way you put that.  It’s true too.”

She gave his forearm a squeeze and stood.  “Just remember, I’m behind you in whatever you think is best.  All I ask is that you listen to me if I have a differing opinion,” she said as she moved over to the sink again.  “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“No, it’s not,” he answered her as he stood and started for the stairs.

“Good luck and remember, only thirteen more years to go!”

Adam groaned, “Thea, that is just not funny.”

She listened to him go up the stairs and she could tell that he went to Annalise’s room first, aware that he’d never had to give his daughter a spanking before.

“Oh, you poor man…” she said to herself, “it’s only going to get much, much worse before it gets any better.”  Then she turned her thoughts toward dinner and preparing herself for the irritable mood he would no doubt be in for the rest of the day.


All four deputies and Joe were seated around the large table in the meeting room early one morning when Adam strolled in.  The deputies looked at his wide smile and started to laugh while Joe looked on, puzzled.

“Looks like Thea sent him off in a good mood again this morning,” Nate told him.  Joe just stared at him for a moment then turned bright red.

Adam laughed at him.  “Get your mind out of the gutter, Joe, that’s not what they’re talking about,” he said as his deputies laughed harder.

“Then what are they talking about?”

“Well...let me ask you a question first.  Have you ever seen Thea and I having a fight?”

Joe thought about that for a bit then shook his head.  “No, can’t say that I have.”

The deputies had quieted down now and were looking at their boss in anticipation.  “We don’t fight like other people do.  If you ever hear us being sarcastic to each other, we’re fighting, and it usually starts first thing in the morning when Thea wakes up in a bad mood,” he said then chuckled.  “We have a lot of work to do this morning, so if you’ll excuse us Joe, we better get started.”

“Come on, boss, it’s not fair to leave us hanging like that.  Tell us about it,” Nate pleaded.

Adam gave him a narrow look.  “If I do will you all promise to stay focused for the rest of the day?”  He couldn’t help but smile at their eager nods.  “God I see that expression on my kids faces when they want me to read them a story.”

All he got in response to that was grins and John saying, “Yeah, tell us a story.”  Adam rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Alright then.  It all started when I made the mistake of saying ‘Good morning.’  To which she replied ‘If you say so.’”

He looked around at the wide smiles they were all sporting.  “Then I asked her if she got up on the wrong side of her web.”

John snorted,  “What did she say to that?”

Adam shook his head at their eager expressions, “She said, ‘As a matter of fact I did and was immediately dubbed Queen of the Witches.’  So I asked her if the judging had been done by popular vote or purely on natural talent.”

He was laughing himself now – John was rolling in his chair.  “She said, ‘Natural talent, of course.’”  He paused for a few moments then Nate gasped out, “What did you say next?”

“I told her she was almost as funny as Joe, sorry Joe, and for some reason she seemed to take offense at that.”

“Hey!” Joe said while still shaking with laughter.

“Sorry again Joe, but she said I had no call to be getting nasty.  I almost lost it right there, I wanted to laugh so much.  So I told her it wasn’t even six o’clock yet and she’d already gotten in three good shots at me.  Then she asked me if I was going to be sitting around the house all day telling her what time it was.”

“Oh God,” Dylan gasped out with his head down on the table as he laughed helplessly.

“I guess she had had enough of my irritating presence because she told me, as my Queen, to get the hell out and not come back until I had a civil tongue in my head.”

Mike was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, “Don’t take this the wrong way, boss, but I love that woman.”

“What did you do then?” John managed to ask.

“What do you think I did?  I said ‘Yes, your Majesty’ and got the hell out of there!”  At that, Joe fell out of his chair and the rest cracked up again.

Adam was the first to settle down.  “I love the way that woman’s mind works, even though it’s still a complete mystery to me.  I was laughing so hard I couldn’t think.”

“Hey Adam,” Nate said, “do you remember the first tiff Jerry had with her?”

“I’ll never forget it.  He was trying to goad her into an argument and she told him she refused to have a battle of the wits with an unarmed person.  He practically worshipped her after that.”

When his audience has settled down he gave Joe a pointed look.  “We have a lot to go over today, Joe so if you don’t mind, I’d like to get started.  We leave for San Francisco tomorrow.”

Instantly Joe’s expression sobered.  “You’re going after Albrecht then?”  Adam nodded.

“Just one question before I go…did Thea win?”

“Definitely,” Adam grinned.  “We’re about 50/50 on that score, but if I don’t stop laughing so hard she’s going to pull way ahead.”

Joe gave him a smart-aleck grin.  “I never thought I’d see the day when a woman could beat you like that.”

His older brother just shook his head, “You should know by now that Thea is a very special woman.  And I know what you’re thinking - don’t go over to the house.  She’ll leave you on the floor bleeding from open wounds.”  Then he closed the door in his younger brother’s outraged face.



Chapter 38

All five men boarded the private car early the next morning and when they reached San Francisco a coach was waiting to take them to the hotel.  Adam always kept a private suite available that had three bedrooms as well as a sitting room.  He took over the sitting room to use as an office.

After stopping to eat in the restaurant downstairs they all scattered.  Adam went to seek out some of his informants, to see what rumors were circulating on the streets.  Dylan went to the site of the fire to poke around and speak to the neighbors.  John went back to the train station to show pictures of the nanny and the children to everyone he could, hoping someone would recognize them while Mike was doing the same thing on the docks, in case she had left by ship.  Nate had been assigned the stagecoach companies.

By late afternoon the four deputies were tired, but felt like they had left no stone unturned.  They each made their way back to the hotel and had just gathered in the sitting room when Adam returned.  He looked around at their tired faces and grinned.

“Well, what have you got?” he asked as he leaned back against the front of the table he was using as a desk.

Dylan spoke first.  “There’s no doubt in my mind that some sort of flammable was used in that fire.  I can’t tell you what it was because the site has been rained on several times in the last couple of weeks.  But that kind of destruction also had to involve incendiary devices.”  He paused to stretch.  “I talked to every neighbor I could and they all agreed that they heard a muffled explosion around the time the first flames were seen.  So it’s pretty clear that Albrecht wanted to make sure that nothing would be left standing.  In my opinion the explosion occurred at the sub-level, in the cellar.”

His boss was nodding, listening to him closely Dylan grinned.  “Now I also talked to those in service in the surrounding houses and picked up a little bit of information that is especially damning.  A housekeeper told me she had seen some men delivering a wagonload of barrels to the Albrecht residence about two weeks before the fire.  Then she told me they were making deliveries in the neighborhood this afternoon.  I found them and asked them what was in the barrels.  They told me grain alcohol, but not to say I had heard it from them – they’d deny it if questioned by the police.  I guess Albrecht has them badly intimidated.”

Adam grinned, “I’m not very concerned about that – a reward will be offered soon and believe me, that does wonders for loosening tongues.”

Dylan laughed.  “I guess someone delayed the reward offer so we could complete our investigation first.”

“Yes, someone must have,” Adam answered him and turned to Mike.  “Any luck?” he asked and Mike shook his head no.  So did John, but when he turned to Nate the tall man smiled and nodded.  “Got her,” he said quietly as his fellow deputies turned to stare at him intently.

“This woman is very smart,” he continued.  “She picked one of the smallest companies and was not alone – a man went with her and they split the children up so each one had two ‘boys’.”  He chuckled, thinking how on target Thea’s assessment of the nanny had been.

“Come on, spill it Nate!  Where did they go?”  Mike said impatiently.

“You’ll never believe this.  They went to San Francisco.  Of course that was after a two-day stopover in San Mateo.”

The other deputies stared at him blankly for a moment before starting to laugh.  Adam just smiled as he shook his head.  “You were right Nate, this woman is smart.”  He picked up the woman’s picture.  “Smart, but she overlooked one important detail.  I think she was so intent on no one recognizing the children she forgot to disguise herself – this face people remember.”

His men were lounging back in their chairs still smiling when he said, “Well, I think we’ve done a good day’s work, so you’re all free to do whatever you want this evening.”  He smiled when every sign of tiredness seemed to vanish like magic.  They were all rushing for the door when Adam’s voice stopped them and they turned around to eye their boss suspiciously.  He bit back a smile.

“Just one more thing…all I ask is that you don’t end up in jail.  Alright?”

“Whatever you want, boss!” Nate said and the others nodded as he opened the door.  They were all gone in the blink of an eye and the door banged shut behind them.  Adam smiled to himself – they had all forgotten to ask him about his afternoon, but then his expression fell.  He couldn’t believe that not one single bit of information had been found out about this mysterious woman.  And he was sure that his informants had tried their best.  They were puzzled too.

He sighed, the silence in the room seemed to ring in his ears pleasantly as he stood and moved toward the smallest bedroom that only had one bed.  The deputies would be doubling up in the other two.  He walked in, closed the door behind him, turned the lamp down until the light was only dim, then stretched out on the bed.  “No wife, children, deputies, friends, or relatives,” he said to himself.  “God, how long has it been since I’ve had any time alone?”  Sighing with pleasure, he stacked his hands behind his head, completely relaxed, and for once didn’t think about much of anything at all.


Adam was sound asleep when the other men staggered to their rooms about three o’clock in the morning, so he had no idea what time they got in.  But he was sure they would all be feeling more than a little bit rough.  Resisting the wicked urge to wake them all at five o’clock, he waited until six to leave the room and go have breakfast with Wes and Dulcy.  They had just returned the evening before from a short trip they had taken to visit her family.

He took one look at Dulcy’s pale, slightly green face and recognized morning sickness.  He was about to ask when the baby was due, but stopped.  Somehow he was pretty sure Wes didn’t know about it yet, so he said nothing.  Although he did have a hard time holding back pleased smiles.

Taking pity on his deputies, he didn’t return to the suite until about eight, but when he did he banged on their doors to wake them up.  The chorus of groans he heard in response made him laugh.

When he still hadn’t heard any movement in either room ten minutes later he banged on the doors again.  The groans were louder this time and he heard the distinct thumping sound of someone falling out of bed.  More sounds of movement began in both bedrooms, so he left to go to the kitchen and have someone bring plenty of strong, hot coffee up to the suite.

He didn’t make it back as quickly as he wanted to because daytime employees had reported for work and he was stopped many times by people asking about his family.  But when he did, he was pleased to see all four men awake and dressed, although looking like “the dearly departed.”

“Good morning,” he said loudly as he strode into the room and slammed the door shut behind him.  They all flinched.  He chuckled, “And you four pitiful specimens have the nerve to laugh at me when I choose not to drink.”

Nate groaned and slid down in his chair as he carefully cradled his head in his hands.  “Boss please, have mercy,” he croaked then flinched again when someone knocked on the sitting room door.

Instead of calling out “Come in,” as he normally would, Adam decided he had tortured his deputies enough and went to open the door instead.  A member of the kitchen staff wheeled a cart in that had pots of coffee, pitchers of ice water, and a rack of dry toast.  “Thank you, Dale,” he said quietly and the young man took one look at the seemingly animated corpses scattered around the room and smiled.  “Glad to see you again Mr. Cartwright, ” he almost whispered then left the room as quietly as he could.

Adam filled four large mugs only half way with the hot coffee and handed one to Nate first.  The young man’s hands shook so badly he was thankful for his boss’s foresight.  After delivering the other three, Adam came back to sit on the table and watch with amusement as his deputies came back to a reasonable semblance of life.  After each one had come up to the cart for a refill, he hopped down from the table and poured them tall glasses of the ice water.  He delivered one to each man saying, “Trust me drink this too.”

He went back to the table and leaned against the front edge to wait some more.  Nate was the first to seemingly recover enough to sit straight up.  When he finally looked directly at Adam, the older man just shook his head.  “Son, your eyes look like bacon baseballs.”  Nate had to smile at that, in spite of how miserable he felt.

The other walking dead finally came to carefully sit in the chairs that were grouped in front of the table.  Adam looked them over and decided he had given them enough time to recover.

“Alright, we need to start thinking about what our next step should be.  I put the word out to my informants through Wes before we came here asking for any information on the nanny.  To my surprise they haven’t been able to turn up a single fact about her.  We have absolutely nothing to go by – nothing about her family, previous employment, or even where she came from.  What do you think that is saying about her?”

His four deputies tried to sit up straighter and concentrate on this challenge.  The minutes ticked by and Adam was about to answer his own question when Dylan looked up.  “She’s hiding something.”

Adam smiled at him.  “Of course…but what is she hiding?  It seems to me she’s hiding her identity.  But why?  The quickest way to get yourself fired is to lie to your employer.  That says to me that she wasn’t particularly worried about losing her job.  Again, why?”

John answered him, “She must not have needed the money.”  His boss was nodding in agreement when Mike spoke up.

“Adam, do you have her picture there?  I’d like to take another look at it.”  When Adam pulled the picture from a file Mike stood a little unsteadily then came to stand next to him.

“See,” he said to his boss, “how many nanny’s do you think can afford the expensive jewelry and clothing she has on.”

The other deputies came to look, too.  Then they exchanged knowing glances.

“Hmmm…” Nate said, “Do you think she was really Albrecht’s mistress?”

Adam and John shook their heads.  “That would make sense except for the elaborate scheme to save the children.  I just can’t see a mistress doing that.”

Nate frowned, “Why?”

“It just doesn’t,” John said.  “I can’t tell you exactly why, it just doesn’t seem to add up for me.”

All four men looked at Adam for his assessment.

“I agree and disagree,” Adam said.  “John, I think you mean what woman would be the mistress of a man who was planning on leaving his children to be killed in a fire.  And if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have saved them.  But on the other hand she could have become his mistress before she knew about his plans and just stayed for their sakes.  So I don’t think that’s a valid point.”  He paused to look at John, “However, I don’t think she was his mistress for another reason.  A man like Albrecht would not have a mistress that he knew nothing about.”

“Also,” he continued, “I don’t think he’s lying about not knowing anything about her.  It seems obvious to me that what she was hiding she was hiding from him.  Not from the other staff or from anyone else.  That fact alone says to me that her identity would have made him suspicious.”

The deputies went back to their chairs while Adam stared at the young woman’s image for a few moments.  “Now let’s put these facts together:  she wore expensive jewelry and clothing; she was not Albrecht’s mistress; she was hiding her identity from him; and she had the help of someone who was in a position to procure the bodies.  What do you think this adds up to?”

Nate grinned, “Of course, she’s a member of the upper class!”

“Right!” Adam said.  “And that is why we haven’t been able to find her.  We’ve been looking in the wrong places.”

The other deputies nodded in agreement and were smiling.

“What bothers me is how she got involved in this to begin with,” Dylan offered.  “I mean this whole thing is deliberate on her part.  First getting the job and then concocting this elaborate plan to save the children.  She had to have had some sort of previous, but distant connection with Albrecht to know about it without him knowing her.”

Adam was nodding and his eyes narrowed as he stared over their heads at the wall.  “Excellent point and that brings up some interesting questions.  And the most important one is why did Albrecht have to hire a new nanny?  Does anyone remember anything about that from the reports?  Was an explanation ever given?”

“If I remember correctly, I think they said the former nanny just took off.  They assumed she had eloped with another member of the house staff,” John answered.  “But no names were given.”

“I think you’re right,” Adam said then looked at Nate and Dylan.  “I want you two to go back to that neighborhood and talk to the staff in the surrounding houses.  Find out everything you can about those two people, particularly if anyone knows their families.”  He turned to John and Mike.  “You can say I have a suspicious nature, but I want you two to go to the morgue and go through the records for the last six months looking for unidentified bodies.  Write down the particulars on each one that could be this man and this woman.”

“What are you going to do today?” Nate asked as he hauled himself to his feet with a faint groan.

Adam smiled his half-smile and raised one brow, “I think it’s time for our dear friend Simon to receive a visit from me.”

The other men glanced at each other.  “By yourself?” John said anxiously and his boss chuckled as they all began moving toward the door.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to rattle his cage.  I just want to get a look at him – to get a better idea of just who this man is.”  They were standing in the hallway now.  “You four go ahead, I need to have Wes put the word out for information to my informants in service.  It’s no wonder nothing came up with the other group,” Adam said laughingly and turned away from them and toward the offices.

His deputies stood there watching him walk away for a few moments then they reluctantly turned toward the stairs.  “I know he can take care of himself, but I still don’t like him going to see Albrecht by himself,” John said worriedly.

“He’ll be fine,” Nate said, but his tone sounded like he was trying to convince himself.  Then he suddenly stopped and the other three men almost ran into each other.  “He’s going to tear my head off, but I just have a bad feeling about this.”  He paused to think for a moment.

“Oh well, I never used my head very much anyway,” he said cheerfully, “I’m going to follow him.”  Without looking back at the other three he nodded emphatically and took off down the stairs.

His friends remained standing in the hall, each one feeling both relieved and guilty – relieved that Adam would have unseen backup and guilty that Nate would be facing Adam’s wrath alone if he got caught.  Then they went down the stairs, out of the hotel, and hurried off to complete their assignments.



Chapter 39

Adam was standing on the sidewalk in front of a large, brownstone row house.  He was watching a second floor window without tipping his head back, only his eyes were raised.  Someone was in that window, watching him too.  Even though all he could see was a man’s silhouette, he knew it was Albrecht.

“Take a good look,” he thought.  “By the time this is over you will come to loathe the sight of me.”  He smiled to himself, then went up the steps and knocked on the door.  It immediately opened to reveal a tall man dressed in traditional butler’s livery.  Adam wanted to roll his eyes at the pretension.

“May I help you?”  The butler said in a deep, rumbling voice then his eyes widened when he saw the badge pinned to Adam’s suit coat.

“Would you please inform Mr. Albrecht I am here to see him?”

“Yes, sir.  Please come in,” the butler said and stepped back to let him enter.

He closed the door and turned to say, “May I take your hat?”

“No, thank you,” Adam said as he removed it.

“May I have your card, sir?”  The butler then seemed surprised when Adam took one from his breast pocket and handed it over.  He almost laughed at the butler’s assumption that he wouldn’t have one.  But he kept his _expression suitably serious.

“Please wait here, sir.” The butler intoned and walked off down the hallway at a stately pace.  Adam took the opportunity to look around.

The entry hall in this house was very similar to the one in the gray stone mansion he used to live in.  He shook his head at all the wasted space even while acknowledging the beautiful craftsmanship of the construction.  But he still preferred his own house that was truly a home.

He was admiring a beautiful painting of a seascape when the butler returned.

“This way sir,” he said and seemed to be twice as nervous as he had been when he saw the badge.  Adam followed the man at the same stately pace until they reached a pair of pocket doors.  The butler pushed them apart saying, “Please be seated, sir.  Mr. Albrecht will be with you in a moment.”

Adam gave the man an appraising sideways glance then moved into the room and sat down.  As soon as the butler pulled the doors shut, he stood and began to survey the room slowly.  He knew Albrecht would be keeping him waiting for some time.

Everything in the room seemed expensive and tasteful, yet he got the impression that something was not quite right.  He had been in many homes owned by true aristocrats and this place seemed like a poor imitation.  Shaking his head, he continued to look around.

Almost an hour later he heard footsteps coming so he hastily sat down in the nearest chair.  The doors opened and Simon Albrecht strode in, a harried look on his face.  Adam stood.

The other man hurried toward him, but his visitor quickly took stock of Simon’s physical characteristics.  The man was slightly more than average height with a large frame.  He no doubt had been muscular at one time, but now was rather soft and becoming fat.  He was almost bald on top and what hair he had left was a non-descript brown.  His facial features were crude and the only outstanding thing about him was his eyes.  They were cold and dark gray as they looked disdainfully at his unwelcome guest.  The man opened his mouth, but Adam deliberately cut him off by speaking first.

“Please accept my apology for disturbing you at such a time, but I only have a few days in the city and we would like to get this investigation concluded as soon as possible.”

That neatly stole Albrecht’s momentum and the man stopped in mid-stride as he arranged his features in a suitably sorrowful expression.

“Yes, all this has been extremely difficult for me.  Do you have children Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam nodded, “Yes,” he said and tamped down his fury at this man.

“Then you must have some idea what it would feel like to lose them.”

“Yes, I think I do,” he responded softly while desperately holding on to his neutral _expression.  “I only need a few points clarified before the investigation can be closed.”

“Please, be seated,” Albrecht said as he lowered himself into a large, overstuffed chair.

Ignoring the invitation Adam remained standing.  “There are a few small holes in the information we have gathered and we hope you will be able to help us.  I believe your entire staff, except for the nanny had the night off.  Did this happen frequently?”

“Yes it did.  I am often away and saw no reason to keep the house fully staffed in the evening.  The nanny was perfectly capable of caring for my children by herself,” he paused for effect.  “They were quite young.”

Adam nodded, “Yes, I know.  How long was the current nanny in your employ?”

“I believe about four months.”

“I see, not very long then.”


“Did she produce any references when you hired her?”

“I did not hire her myself.  My housekeeper takes care of such things.”

“Ah…I understand.  The reports say you were out of town that night, but are not very clear as to where.”

“I was visiting a friend.”

“And this friend’s name would be?”

Albrecht shifted in his chair and cleared his throat.  “Considering that we are both men of the world I’m sure you can understand if I would rather not give you a name if doing so would tarnish the reputation of a lady.  She is a widow and I have been seriously considering marriage.”  He arranged his features in that sorrowful _expression again.  “I had felt it was time for my children to have a mother again.”

Adam turned away as he clenched his teeth, but quickly re-gained control.  “I just have one more question,” he said as he turned back to hit him hard with what he knew would be unexpected.  “What do you think happened that night?”

The other man blinked and Adam could almost see him sorting through possible scenarios as the seconds ticked by.  Then Albrecht put on an _expression of righteous anger.  “The only thing I can surmise is that the fire was possibly set by someone bent on revenge.”

“Revenge?  For what?”

“A man of my wealth and position has to expect he will make enemies in the business world.  I have been threatened before.”

“You have?  Did you report any of these threats to the police?”

“No.  I had no proof, just my word against theirs.”

“I see…” Adam said while mentally acknowledging the other man’s shrewdness in proposing an unknown party to have set the fire.  “Well I believe I have everything I need now and I apologize again for disturbing you.”

Albrecht quickly stood.  “Then I may assume that this investigation will be finished soon?”

Adam smiled his half smile while intently looking the man in the eye.  “Yes, very soon.”

They had gone through the pocket doors and the butler was there, waiting to see the visitor out.

“Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions,” Adam said and the two men shook hands.

“You are welcome,” Albrecht said and retreated back into the drawing room.

“I’ll have to scrub this hand thoroughly when I get back to the hotel,” Adam said under his breath as he followed the butler to the front door.

“I beg your pardon, sir.  Did you say something to me?” the butler asked as he opened the door.

“No,” Adam simply answered and strode through.  The door immediately shut behind him.  Smiling, he could have sworn he heard the butler heave a sigh of relief.

He took his time going down the front steps and when he was standing on the sidewalk he stopped to put his hat back on.  Albrecht was at the second floor window again.

“Feeling a little nervous Simon?” he said and smiled a satisfied smile as he walked away in the Hotel’s direction.

He reached the first corner and was about to step around a street lamp and down into the street when he heard someone shout his name from behind – and then the pounding of galloping hooves.  His instincts told him to turn and look, but instead he jumped up, grabbed the metal arm of the street lamp that stretched out over the road and swung himself up.

When he looked down he saw a wagon streak past and looked right into the startled eyes of the man driving.  One of the back wheels almost clipped the lamppost.  Adam watched from his perch as the wagon continued to speed down the side street then turned onto another and was gone.  He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly to steady himself and slow his thudding heart.  Then he looked down again when he heard someone on the ground laughing.

“Nate!  What the hell are you doing here?” he said as he swung himself down and landed in front of his friend.  Numerous people on the street were staring at this odd display, especially a short, stocky young man in a badly fitting suit.  Adam ignored them.

“God!  The look on that man’s face was priceless!” the other man sputtered out as he continued to laugh.  “I swear, when he saw you swing up there his mouth opened so wide I thought his jaw was going to just fall right off!”

“I’m sure it was hilarious,” Adam said tightly.  “What are you doing here?”

“Well boss, remember how you’ve always told us to trust our instincts?  I had a bad feeling about your going to see Albrecht by yourself so I followed you.  It’s a good thing you had me watching your back or we’d be scraping you up with a shovel right now.”

Adam stared at him darkly for a moment his lips in a grim line.  Then he relaxed.  “Alright, you’ve got me on that one, but I can’t have you four ignoring my direction.”  The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, but his eyes were still hooded and annoyed.  “The next time your instincts are screaming something to you, please tell me beforehand.”

Glad that he still had a head on his shoulders, Nate quickly agreed.  “Sure boss, whatever you say.”

His expression turning skeptical Adam said, “Why is it I get more tense instead of less whenever I hear those words coming out of your mouth?”

“Beats me!”  Nate said and gave his friend a wide-eyed, innocent look.

“Knock it off, that's just as bad,” Adam was laughing reluctantly now as they both crossed the side street and started the long walk back to the hotel.


The two men didn’t make it back until close to six o’clock.  The other deputies were gathered in the sitting room, anxiously waiting, but they all relaxed when Adam and Nate walked in.  Three pairs of eyes were staring at Nate’s face, and when he gave them a quick wink they knew all was well.

“Well?” Mike said.  “What’s Albrecht like?”

“Not quite as intelligent as I thought,” Adam said as he went into his room to take off his suit coat and vest.  When he came back he half sat on the front edge of the table to face his men.  “Alright, you go first Dylan.”

“Piece of cake,” the handsome young man chortled.  “Former nanny’s name is Katherine Bell.  Her family lives locally and I went to see them.  They haven’t heard a word from Kate since the night she disappeared, and according to her sister she was not romantically involved with anyone.  Now, the man who supposedly eloped with her was a gardener by the name of Ambrose Harte.  I went to talk to his family and guess who should happen to open the door.”

“He was there!” John’s voice almost squeaked.

“Yep.  Claim’s he doesn’t know anything about Kate disappearing and I couldn’t shake his story.  He told me he left his job for a better one, but was reluctant to give me any details.  In fact, the entire family seemed to not want to say anything at all.  I caught a lot of significant looks passing back and forth and I’m sure if we go back tomorrow, or even right now he’ll be long gone.”

“I’m sure,” Adam said.  “Is that everything?”  The young man nodded.

“Very nice work,” Adam continued, “even though you had to do it by yourself.”

Nate ducked his head, but smiled to himself wondering when Adam would tell the others about his close call.

Adam turned to Mike and John with an expectant expression.

“Well,” Mike said, “I guess we don’t need to tell you about the unidentified men now.”  He grinned at his boss.  “But we found four unidentified adult female bodies in the records.”

“Dylan, did you remember to get a description of Kate?” Adam asked.

“One better,” Dylan said and pulled a small picture from his pocket and leaned forward to hand it to his boss.  “She was about five foot seven.”

Adam took a quick look at it and held it out to Mike who looked at the picture briefly, then quickly flipped through his notes.  “This must be her,” he said as he quickly went over the description he had copied down.  “Nasty, the cause of death is listed as strangulation, but nothing about how or where the body was found.”

“The police report will have that information.  One of you can go down there tomorrow morning while I’m visiting the orphanage,” Adam said as he moved around the table to sit down behind it.  “Well, it is six-thirty and I think we are finished for the day.”

“Aren’t you going to tell them what happened?” Nate was grinning.

“You thought it was so funny, you tell them,” his boss answered with a sour look.

Nate turned to the other three men.  “Our fearless leader here almost got trampled by a runaway wagon practically right in front of Albrecht’s house.”

Adam broke in, “That’s why I said he’s not as intelligent as I thought.  That was a clumsy attempt and hastily planned.  He might as well have slapped me in the face with his glove.”  Adam smiled, “I believe the battle lines have now been drawn.  And you can be sure he’ll be trying again,” he finished as he leaned back in his chair.

“Yeah, but what actually happened?” Dylan insisted.

Adam eyed him irritably, “The wagon came at me from behind as I was just about to cross a side street.  Nate warned me, so I swung up onto a street lamp to get out of the way.  Alright?”

Mike and Dylan managed to keep their expressions neutral, but Nate was laughing without restraint.  “I swear you all would have just died…” he sputtered.

John, however, was not amused.  “Don’t you think that’s a poor choice of words Nate?” he said without a trace of his usual bashfulness as he frowned at his friend.

Nate stopped laughing.  “You’re right Johnny,” he said but continued to grin as he turned to Adam.  “Sorry, boss.”

“Considering the fact that you probably saved my life,” Adam answered, “I guess you can be let off the hook… this time.”  He grinned back and everyone relaxed.

“If you are so positive that Albrecht is going to try again, you shouldn’t be staying by yourself,” Nate insisted.  “So come with us.  There’s safety in numbers, right?”

“Sure,” Adam said mockingly, “there’s safety in numbers until you all fall into the same hole.”

Nate grinned.  “You’re never going to let us forget that are you?”

Adam slowly shook his head, never taking his eyes off Nate’s face.  “Nope.”

“Come on, come with us Adam,” John pleaded and the other two deputies joined in, urging him to go out and have some fun.

He looked around at their eager faces and sighed, “All right, I will go with you on one condition.  Do not try to drag me into one of those ‘houses’ again.”

Four voices rose in protest, but he shook his head.  “Did you really think I was going to sit in the parlor among the ‘demi monde’ and wait for you?  God, if Thea had heard even a whisper about me just being in a place like that there’d be hell to pay – and I will hand you four over to her mercy without a moment's hesitation.”  He smiled, “Any of you willing to take that risk?’

All four men vigorously shook their heads.  “Good, then we understand each other,” Adam said and went back into his bedroom for his suit coat.

The four deputies quickly put their heads together and decided where they wanted to take their boss on this rare occasion.  Usually he refused to go along.

When Adam came back out the four were waiting by the door.  He looked at their faces, each one grinning in anticipation.  “Why do I have the feeling I’m going to regret this?” he said as he shrugged into his coat.  The other men just glanced at each other, smiled, and dragged him out the door.

The cab pulled up in front of a large, flat building that had the raw appearance of having just been built.  Adam was the last to climb out and when he did he burst out laughing.  “What the hell is this?”  He said as his friends started laughing too.

The building had been constructed to look like a circus tent and was imaginatively named “The Three Rings.”  Adam was still laughing as the other men started pushing him toward the door.

The inside was a cross between a saloon and what you would expect to see in the circus.  Sawdust was thick on the floor, circus-like acts were performing on a stage across one end of the room, and trapeze-like swings suspended from the ceiling held young women in acrobatic costumes who lazily swung back and forth.

The five men found an empty table in a dim corner and Adam automatically took the seat where his back would be up against the wall, yet was still closest to the door.  An attractive young woman dressed in a ringmaster’s costume appeared in front of their table to take their orders.  When she moved off, the four deputies watched her intently then turned to see their boss’s reaction.  They were surprised to see he was surveying the room with narrowed eyes and hadn’t even given her a second glace.  He seemed especially interested in the acrobatic dog act that was currently performing on stage.

Other performers wove in and out among the tables, some with well-trained small animals, some juggling various items, some doing floor acrobatics, and one woman who definitely qualified as a contortionist.  John stared at her with his mouth open until Mike reached out and pushed it closed.

One man came to stop in front of their table, did a handstand, then lowered himself until his head almost touched the floor, then raised himself again.  He did this five times, bowed when they applauded then moved on to the next table.  John turned to Adam.  “Can you do that?” he asked.

“Sure,” his boss replied, shrugged out of his suit coat, and proceeded to prove his claim, except he did ten “push-ups” instead of five.  When he flipped himself back up his deputies applauded, as well as people at the surrounding tables.  His friends were delighted that he seemed to be having a good time and looked relaxed for the first time since they had started this maddening investigating.

The contortionist stopped in front of them, used Adam’s knee to step up on the table, and proceeded to twist herself into a human pretzel.  She winked at him, untwisted herself, and slid into his lap.  After twining her arms around his neck, she pulled his head down to whisper in his ear.  Adam shook his head.  She whispered again.  He whispered something back and her eyes opened wide with what looked like fear.  Slipping quickly from his lap she stood and hurried off.

The other men roared with laughter.  “What did you say?” Nate asked.

Adam smiled his half smile while shooting a dark look at his friend.  “None of your business,” was all he would say, and even though they continued to harass him, he refused to answer.

In between being entertained by the acts the five men spent most of the evening talking about past cases, past blunders, and the first time Adam had taken Thea out to dinner when she somehow managed to set the table on fire.

“Come on!  You never told us about that,” Mike said while the others were still having a good time laughing at Adam’s embarrassment.

“She did a lot of things like that while we were courting.”

“What else?”  Dylan demanded.

“Poked me in the eye with her sunshade.  That wouldn’t have been so bad, but we were walking down by the river and when I jerked away I slid backward down the bank and into the water.”

His deputies were laughing so hard they looked like they were in pain.

“You would have thought I’d have learned my lesson from those first two times, but no – I took her fishing.”  He looked around at their incredulous faces.  “Yes, gentlemen I took her fishing and ended up having to cut the hook out of my ear myself.”

John’s head was down on the table as he gasped for air, Nate had slid halfway out of his chair, and Dylan’s face was bright red.  Mike was making a funny, almost squealing noise as he shook his head and tried to speak.  “And you married her anyway?”

“Yep.  I knew she’d settle down eventually.”  He smiled that special smile.  “See, I went after her single-mindedly and I think that would be enough to make anyone nervous.  So these things were really my fault because her hands were shaking all the time.  Thank God she got over that,” he laughed along with his friends as he pulled his pocket watch out to check the time.

“What time is it?” Nate asked.

“Midnight,” Adam answered as he stood.  “I’ll go out and flag down a cab,” he said, picked up his coat and left.

He had taken about ten steps away from the entrance when he sensed someone coming at him from behind.  Instinctively, he dove to the left, tucked his shoulder in and rolled to his feet.  Turning, he saw a heavily muscled man skid to a stop, then turn to come at him again.  Adam’s eyes fastened on the knife his assailant was holding in his right hand.

“Oh for God’s sake,” he said in furious exasperation and just waited for the man to come in reach.  When he did, Adam stepped to the side at the last second, grabbed the man’s forearm in both hands then slammed it down across his raised knee.

The man’s scream almost drowned out the sickening snapping sound of the bone breaking.  He dropped the knife and fell to his knees as he cradled his broken arm against his chest.  Adam kicked the knife away, stepped up to the man and grabbed him by the hair to yank his head back.  His eyes, full of cold rage locked with his attacker’s.  “Don’t ever pull a knife on me.  I hate knives,” he ground out through clenched teeth then looked up as he heard people running toward them.  He let go of the man’s hair and straightened up.

“What happened?” Nate almost shouted.  “Adam, are you hurt?”

“He came at me with a knife, and no I am not hurt,” his boss said and seemed to be making a conscious effort to calm down as he was still shaking with suppressed fury.

“You broke his arm?” John asked as his eyes moved to Adam’s holster.  “Why didn’t you use your gun?”

“Because if I had, he would be dead right now,” Adam answered tightly while eyeing John with annoyance.  “And I wanted him alive so he can tell us who his employer is.”

“Oh,” John said as he nodded his head.

“Nate, flag down a cab and go to the police station.  Have them send the wagon down here and make sure they know a doctor will be needed.”

“Yes sir,” Nate took off and was quickly gone.

Adam leaned over the man still kneeling on the ground.  “Who sent you?”

The man looked up at him with wary eyes, but didn’t speak.  Adam leaned further down.  “Look, we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but you will tell me what I want to know.  Who…sent…you?”  When their eyes locked again the man flinched then looked down as he mumbled something.

Adam yanked his head back again.  “What?”

The man on his knees winced with pain.  “Albrecht alright?  Albrecht sent me!” he cried out then groaned as Adam let him go and nodded with satisfaction.

“Well boys, now we at least have something to haul Albrecht in for.  I wish it wasn’t too late to get a warrant so we could pick him up tonight.”

The three deputies nodded and stared at the man on the ground with hostile eyes.  No one noticed the short, stocky young man who was near the entrance and listening to their conversation intently.  When Adam turned away to glance down the street he slipped back inside to wait until he could safely leave.

The wagon soon came and by the time they finished at the police station and reached the hotel it was almost three o’clock.  The deputies went to bed, but Adam didn’t even try.  He knew he wasn’t going to be sleeping again until Albrecht was safely behind bars.


Simon Albrecht was not in a good mood; he was having a bad day.  Both attempts to remove that thorn in his side had failed, but he was determined that he would not end up taking his own life like his former business acquaintance had.  Cartwright had to die – it was the only way to keep him from tearing Simon’s life apart, layer-by-layer, until he uncovered the truth for the world to see.  He shook his head thinking about how hard it was to find competent help these days.  And where did that tall blonde come from?  His informant at the hotel had told him Adam Cartwright was coming alone.

He reached the street and the shorter of the two coachmen who were waiting jumped down and opened the door for him.  Albrecht was half way in when he saw someone sitting on one of the seats.  He turned his head to say something to the man behind him and was punched in the side of the head.  Then he was pushed inside, landing in the seated man’s lap.

Shaking his head to try and clear it, he looked up and realized the man was dead and he tried to scramble back, but the false coachman landed on top of him.  Then he felt a cool, sharp blade at his throat and he found himself making a whimpering sound - it shocked him.

“Listen to me very carefully,” a hoarse voice whispered and he shivered with revulsion at the warm breath sliding past his ear.  “If anything else happens to Adam Cartwright I promise you I will hunt you down and gut you like a fresh kill.”  He felt the knife blade start to cut into his skin slightly.  “Do you believe me?” the voice continued.

“Yes!” Albrecht managed to choke out.

“Good.  Now just so you know I mean business, I’m going to leave you with a souvenir of our little chat.”  The knife blade left his throat and he felt a terrible white-hot pain as it smoothly slid into and up his cheek.  He started to scream, but a hard, gloved hand covered his mouth.

“Remember, Simon,” the voice hissed in his ear and suddenly his attacker was gone, slamming the coach door shut.

Albrecht reached for his handkerchief and tried to staunch the blood dripping from his cheek.  When he realized his attacker was truly gone, then he began screaming.


At five o’clock the next morning Adam was sitting at the table, going over the reports again when someone began knocking on the sitting room door.  When he heard Wes calling his name he hurried over to let the big man in.

“What is it Wes?” Adam said, the taste of fear in his mouth as he automatically thought something had happened to his family.

“You’re not going to believe this, someone attacked Albrecht last night,” Wes said as he moved into the room and dropped into one of the chairs in front of the table.  Adam came to lean against it.

“What happened?”

“Albrecht was coming out of one of his ‘houses’ on Peachtree and when he got to his coach his attacker pushed him inside, held a knife to his throat, then carved up his cheek.”

“Cut his face?”

“Laid it wide open.”

Adam looked at him blankly for a moment.  “Did this person say anything?”

Wes nodded.  “Whomever it was said that if anything else happened to you Albrecht would be hunted down and gutted.”

“What time did this happen?”

“About one o’clock.”

“Good.  All five of us were at the police station then.”  He shook his head.

“What did he mean by ‘anything else’?

“Oh.  I was almost run over yesterday afternoon and almost knifed last night.”

“So you had a very busy day,” Wes smiled.

“You could say that,” he grinned back at his friend.  “But at least we have proof that it wasn’t one of us.”

“Yes, thank God,” Wes sounded relieved.  “Oh,” he continued, “I forgot to tell you – Albrecht’s attacker also killed the two coachmen.”

“Damn, I guess that means the man was serious.  He will come back and kill Simon.”

“That’s what it looks like.  But who could it be?  I can’t think of anyone you’re friends with who would do something like that.”

Adam shook his head, “I don’t either.  The only people I know who could kill like that would definitely not be interested in keeping me alive.  This just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yeah…it sure doesn’t,” the big man agreed and stood.  “Well, I just thought you would want to know as soon as possible.”  He started toward the door.  Adam followed.

“Thanks Wes,” he said while clapping his huge friend on the back and the man stepped out into the hallway, but turned back.  “You be careful.  This case is the most dangerous you’ve had to deal with so far.  Jackson was stupid.  Albrecht isn’t.”

“I know.  I’ll be careful Wes.”

The other man nodded, hesitated then grabbed him by the shoulders to pull him into a bone-crushing hug.  Then he let go, turned, and sped off down the hallway.  Adam smiled – Wes had never done anything like that before.  He thought again about how thankful he was that the huge man had accepted his offer to help him go straight as he closed the door and moved back to the table.

An hour later he was just about to wake his deputies when he heard a slight sound at the door.  When he turned his head he saw a white square lying on the floor.  He ran to the door, pulled it open, and heard footsteps racing away to his left so he took off after them.  Rounding the first corner, he almost ran into a plain, elderly-looking woman.  He slid to a stop.

"Pardon me, but did you see anyone go by here?” he asked.

She looked at him with startled blue eyes.  “No, I heard someone go by, but didn’t see them.  I just came out of my room,” she said in a high tremulous voice.

“Thank you and sorry again,” he said and took off, but didn’t see or hear anything else.  He walked back to the suite and had just turned the corner when the room door the woman had been standing in front of opened silently.  A heavily muscled man of average height came out, went to the corner, and poked his head out only far enough to watch Adam go into the sitting room.  As soon as he saw the door shut he stepped out into that hallway, quickly walked down its length, and hurried down the stairs.

Adam was opening the envelope.  He pulled out a heavy card and quickly read the message that was written in bold, black letters.  “I’ve taken care of this one.  Be more careful in the future.  Hunter.”



Chapter 40

By the middle of that afternoon Adam was at the point of screaming with frustration.  No matter which way he turned, the process of obtaining the warrant to arrest Albrecht was being stalled, either by incompetence or by the right people not being available.  He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he was filled with a sense of urgency, that time was running out.  Having long ago learned to trust his instincts, he sent Mike, John, and Dylan to watch the brownstone – the three men would take turns watching and reporting in while he and Nate cooled their heels waiting outside various official offices at the courthouse.

They had finally reached the last step – obtaining a judge’s signature – and Adam was pacing impatiently outside.  Both men turned when Dylan rushed in.  He must have run the whole way to the courthouse and up the five flights of stairs because he had to take a moment and bend over with his hands braced on his knees to try and catch his breath.  Adam was trying to be patient, but was not succeeding very well so his deputy tried his best to speak.

“Albrecht…visitor…” Dylan gasped, “followed….reporter….activity at house…”  He breathed deeply a few times, then finished in a rush, “Wethinkhe’sgoingtorun.”  He waited for his boss to explode.  He didn’t.  Adam merely turned around, knocked on the judge’s office door and opened it at the same time.  The door shut and his two deputies could hear his deep voice speaking low, but forcefully.  Strangely, no answering voice was heard, and seconds later Adam came out with the warrant in his hand.

“Let’s go,” he said and was already on his way down the stairs by the time Dylan and Nate managed to catch up to him.  The coach was waiting for them outside and the three men piled in after Adam shouted, “Albrecht’s house,” to the driver.  When they pulled up in front of the brownstone John was standing there alone.  He ran up to open the coach door.

“Albrecht’s gone,” John was saying as Adam jumped out.  He nodded at John in passing, ran up the steps to the front door, and pounded on it.  The butler opened it and Adam just brushed past him.  He was back and running down the steps in a few moments.

“David!” he called up to the driver, “get us to the docks as fast as you can!”  Then he practically threw John into the coach and dove in after him.  The coach took off at top speed.

They were just entering the street that was parallel with the waterfront when the driver spotted Mike and managed to pull the horses up and stopped.  Mike didn’t stop for explanations; he just climbed up next to the driver and started to give him directions to the right dock.

When the coach skidded to a stop Adam was the first one out and his four deputies winced when they heard his shout of fury.  The ship was already on its way and their boss was at the very edge of the dock staring intently and seething with hatred.  Albrecht was standing at the rail, directly across from them and waving mockingly.  Adam didn’t move a muscle as his deputies came to stand two on either side of him.  He just continued to stare at the man while waves of rage they could all almost feel washed over them.  A voice speaking behind them broke the silence.

“Mr. Cartwright?  I have Mr. Albrecht’s statement about the investigation.  Would you care to counter with your own?”

Adam stiffened and slowly turned around.  When the short, stocky young man standing there saw his expression his blue eyes widened and he took a step back.

“That’s him, the reporter I told you about,” Dylan said tightly.

The next thing the young man knew Adam had moved forward, grabbed him by the front of his suit coat, and lifted him off the dock.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY TO HIM?” Adam growled in a harsh voice, his face right in the smaller man’s.

“Hey!” the reporter instinctively protested but then began to shake with fear as he looked into the other man’s hostile eyes.  He tried to swallow the lump in his throat and answer, but all that came out was a whine.  Adam gave him a shake.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” he barked.

The young man desperately tried to think – what had he said?  “I asked him if he thought there was any truth to the rumors that he was going to be arrested soon!”  He blurted out, hoping that answering the question would appease the furious man.

Adam closed his eyes for a moment and just stood there, still holding the reporter off the dock.  As the seconds ticked by, his deputies glanced at each other, unsure of what to do, but were quick to move aside when Adam turned, strode to the edge of the dock, and threw the young man over.  His shriek of surprise seemed to last an unbelievably long time and they were all watching when he hit the water.  He disappeared in a huge splash, then bobbed to the surface and started toward the nearest ladder.

“Oh good, the imbecile can swim,” Adam said calmly as his deputies turned to look at him in disbelief.  “When he gets up here, use the coach to take him to the station and have him put in holding.”

Nate cleared his throat.  “Uh…on what charge?”

“Obstruction of justice – he tipped that bastard off,” his boss answered then turned and walked away.


Hours later Adam returned to the hotel after finally making the visit to the orphanage he had intended to make in the morning.  His deputies were assembled in the sitting room, all wearing long faces.  They were badly disappointed that Albrecht had gotten away and were feeling as though they had failed.

Adam strode in and sat on the table while taking in their expressions.  He got right to the point.

“Albrecht’s escape is not your fault.  You did everything you could to bring that monster down and YOU are not responsible.  I am.”

Four voices started to protest his statement.  He raised a hand to silence them.

“It is my responsibility and I’ll tell you why.  I could have managed it – there are many ways to bring someone in without a warrant.  But I did everything by the book because I was concerned that he would get off through a mistake in procedure.  Bad choice on my part.”

“But we have to go by the book!” Dylan argued.

Adam chuckled, “You don’t understand.”  He shook his head, “Most people are not aware that the law is fluid and constantly changing.  Don’t you realize that almost every time a judge writes a decision the law has been changed?  The law is only just interpreted and is never clear-cut or black and white.  In fact, a good trial lawyer can convince a jury that black is white!”

John spoke up, “He’s absolutely right.”

“Of course I’m right,” Adam chuckled and his deputies smiled at his arrogant attitude, which they all admired as one of his best qualities.

Mike sighed, “Well, I guess this investigation is over and we’ll be going home.”

Adam hopped off the table and moved around it to sit in the desk chair.  “We will be going home tomorrow, but this investigation is far from over.”  His friends glanced at each other then turned back to him for the explanation they knew was coming.

He leaned his elbows on the table and leaned forward.  “You mark my words, gentlemen, that man is going to come back and when he does we’ll be ready for him.  He won’t get away again.”  He grinned at their varied expressions; John already believed, Mike was dubious, Nate plainly did not agree, and Dylan was keeping his opinion to himself.
“Meanwhile,” he continued, “I want you four to clear out of here, I’m sick of looking at you.”

All four smiled and when John opened his mouth, Adam cut him off.  “No, I’m not going with you again.  I’ll be having dinner with Wes, Dulcy, and Charlie.  But I’m warning you.  If you all can’t get up in time in the morning I’m leaving you here and you can find your own way home!”

A chorus of “Yes sir’s” was his answer as they quickly moved toward the door.  Nate was the last and he paused with the door open.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes, very sure.” Adam answered and Nate gave him a wide smile saying, “Be careful yourself.”

“Yes mother,” his boss said sarcastically and he laughed as he hurried after the other three.

Adam sighed and leaned back in his chair, looking forward to going home and thinking about what he had found at the orphanage.  He had to decide just how much he was going to tell Thea.


When he returned from dinner with his friends Adam was surprised to see a tall man about to knock on the sitting room door.

“May I help you?” he called down the hall and the man jumped a bit as he turned.  Adam’s brows rose when he recognized the man as Albrecht’s butler.

The man calmly waited and when Adam reached him he said, “May we speak privately, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Of course,” was the answer and the two men went into the sitting room.  Adam sat down behind the table and the butler took the chair directly opposite.

“First let me introduce myself.  My name is Charles Atwood and I have worked for Mr. Albrecht for close to a year and I must say that was a year too long.  I had no idea what type of man he was at first.  None of us really did until young Katherine disappeared.”

Adam nodded to him encouragingly.

“The rest of the staff who played a part in this evil farce and I have decided you deserve to know exactly what happened now that that heartless bastard is gone.  We are aware of how hard you worked to put him behind bars where he belongs.”

He paused to gauge Adam’s reaction.  He could see none so he took that as a good sign and continued.  “When Katherine overheard a conversation that revealed the plans Albrecht was making to murder his children she immediately went to her best friend for help, the woman who eventually became the next nanny.”  Adam was about to ask him for the woman’s name, but was interrupted.

“I must make clear to you that none of us knew the nanny’s real name.  Katherine only ever referred to her by a nickname – Fairy.  We know absolutely nothing about her and we preferred to keep it that way.  She came up with the plan and the house staff agreed to cooperate.  Unfortunately, Katherine told someone she shouldn’t have and disappeared a few days later.  I believe, but have no proof, that the man responsible is the gardener, Ambrose Harte.”

“No proof at all?”

“No, but I did become suspicious of the man suddenly showing an intense interest in her after they had worked together for years.”

“I see…please continue.”

“When the news of Katherine’s disappearance became known, her friend appeared at the house a few days later when Albrecht was away.  She told us she had come to take Katherine’s place as the nanny because we could not be sure another would cooperate.  So the plan continued.”

“When did Albrecht ask for your help?”

“He didn’t.  We approached him and in effect extorted him.”

“Very clever, he would naturally not be suspicious of what he would see as greed,” Adam said.

“Correct.  That was part of the plan from the beginning.  The rest, I’m sure you have surmised.  We all helped in setting the house on fire and substituting the dead bodies for the live children.”  He paused again, seemingly choosing his next words with care.  “I also must tell you that I have no idea where the children were taken.  We thought it best that only she should know since she could disappear without a trace and we could not.”

Adam was watching Charles carefully as he said, “That doesn’t matter – I know where the children are.”  He decided the other man’s surprise and concern were genuine.

“Don’t worry, they will be moved and placed under protective custody tomorrow.”

Charles sighed in relief.  “Good.  I’ve always worried about them.”  He stood.  “I’ve told you everything I know, Mr. Cartwright, so I believe I will be on my way.”

Adam stood and came around the table to shake his hand.  “I appreciate your taking the time to come see me and confirm what I had surmised.”

Nodding, Charles turned toward the door, but Adam had not let go of his hand and now tightened his grip.  “I just have two questions before you go.”  The other man waited silently, not resisting at all.

“I can see you are an intelligent man.  Do you really expect me to believe that you know absolutely nothing about this young woman we’ve been trying to find?”

Charles smiled.  “Perhaps I am also intelligent enough to make sure I did not learn anything about her.”

“Very well said,” Adam chuckled as he let go of the man’s hand.

The two moved toward the door and Adam pulled it open.

Charles stopped before stepping out into the hallway.  “And the other question?”

Adam looked at him narrowly.  “You must know Albrecht reasonably well by now.  Do you think he will return to San Francisco eventually?”

“Oh yes, yes he will return although I can’t specifically say to San Francisco.  He will return and you can be sure the first place he will show up is wherever you may be.”

Smiling wolfishly Adam said, “Good.  I’m glad you agree with me and quite frankly I’m looking forward to seeing him again.”

The other man looked at that smile and had to smile himself.  “I didn’t think anyone would ever be able to bring that man down, but I now believe if anyone can, it will be you.  But I will still wish you good luck.”

“Thank you, and the same to you.”

Charles gave Adam one last smile, shook his head, then stepped out in the hall and walked away.

Adam closed the door then moved into his bedroom to begin packing.  His deputies may have thought he was joking, but he was serious.  He was anxious to get home to his wife and children and would leave the four of them behind if necessary.


When someone came to take him out of the holding cell late that evening the reporter – Brett Bierce – had hoped he was going to be released.  But he realized that was unlikely as he was being led further into the warren of rooms and cells.

They stopped in front of a door that had a square window set too high up for Brett to look in.  The jailer knocked and a deep voice said, “Come in.”  Unhooking a ring of keys from his belt the jailer unlocked the door and opened it.  The reporter took one step into the room, but when he saw who was waiting for him he tried to back up.  The jailer gave him a hard shove and Brett stumbled up against the table that was sitting in the center of the room.

“Sit down, Brett,” Adam said quietly and the young man quickly dropped into the chair on the opposite end of the table.  He nervously clasped his hands together on the tabletop and stared at Adam with wary eyes.  The tall, dark man was sitting in a chair set at an angle to the table and his casual posture belied the intensity of his gaze.

Adam was taking stock of the young man and considering what action he should take.  Coming quickly to a decision, he leaned forward and pinned Brett with a cold stare.  “You will no doubt be relieved to hear that I have decided to not press charges against you for Obstruction of Justice,” he said, watching the young man relax somewhat.

“But you need to know that if you ever tip-off a suspect again, or interfere with an investigation in any way I will press charges and seek the highest penalty possible.  Do you understand?”

Brett nodded quickly, his mouth gone dry and his heart thudding in his chest.

“Good,” Adam stood and came around to lean over Brett with his hands braced on the table.  “I’m letting you off this time because you are young, inexperienced, and obviously stupid.”  He leaned even further down to speak low into Brett’s ear.  “Never get in my way again.”

He straightened up, moved to the door, and knocked.  When the jailer unlocked and opened the door, “Release him.” was all he said and then was gone.

Brett suddenly found he could breathe again.  The jailer came in and took him by the arm to escort him out.  As they walked through the halls, the reporter vowed to himself that he would find out everything he could about Adam Cartwright.  The man was not only frightening, he was fascinating, and Brett could smell a story of epic proportions just waiting to be told.  That is, if he could somehow manage to get the information he needed while staying out of Adam’s way.  Brett thought about how furious Adam was going to be when he became nationally known, when the details of his life were printed in serial form.  He smiled in anticipation as he left the police station and headed for his office to work on the story proposal he would turn in to his editor in the morning.



Chapter 41

The first of May had finally arrived and Dante would be leaving to go on tour in a few days. The ranch house was packed full of friends and family gathered together for his going-away party.  Impromptu performances by members of Dante’s opera company rang out now and again to the amusement of everyone.  Especially when those who should have known better joined in.

In the middle of the celebrations Adam went up the steps to stand on the landing.  He stood there quietly for a moment as everyone fell silent and turned in his direction.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he said in a voice that carried easily across the room.  “Although we are all sorry to see Dante leave us, we also have a reason to rejoice tonight.  I have been given the honor of announcing the engagement between my brother Hoss and Dante’s sister, Dorathea.”

The room erupted with excited voices and people rushed to congratulate the couple.  Hoss was actually blushing a bit, but Dora was smiling her happiest smile and leaning her head against Hoss’s shoulder.

Adam had been watching Dante carefully as he made this announcement and frowned with concern when the man’s eyes narrowed and his face tightened.  He hurried down the steps to stand next to Hoss, hoping there wouldn’t be a confrontation.

The crowd around the couple parted as Dante made his way toward them and they all fell silent again when he stepped right in front of Hoss.  The two men’s eyes were on the same level and Hoss’s narrowed too.  They stood there for a moment until Dante startled everyone by throwing his arms around Hoss and shouting, “Thank You God!  My prayers have been answered - she’s no longer my responsibility!”  He stepped back, grabbed Hoss’s hand and shook it vigorously saying, “Thank you, Hoss!  Thank you!” as the crowd erupted with laughter.

Thea came to hug and kiss both of them then went to stand in front of Adam as she slowly surveyed the room looking for Joe.  She spotted him slipping out the front door.  Adam leaned down to whisper something in her ear.   Thea nodded her head in agreement, worked her way through the crowd and went out.  Shivering slightly, she quickly walked toward the barn and went in, thankful to be out of the chilly wind.  She stood there looking around until she heard a rustling sound coming from the second stall on her right.

Moving quietly down the aisle she hesitated a second then stepped into the stall opening.  She stood there for a few seconds before he noticed.

“Thea,” Joe sighed, “Please just go away, I want to be alone.”

She said nothing, didn’t acknowledge what he had said in any way, and just came across the length of the stall to stand next to where he was sitting on a bale of hay.  He looked up at her and was surprised to see that her eyes were wide and dark with pain – and the pain was for him.

He turned his head away from her; he couldn’t stand to look at her sympathetic face without losing control.  But Thea would not have it.  She put a gentle but firm hand on his right cheek and began to turn his head back toward her.  He reached up to push her hand away, but let it fall when he felt and saw a tear splash on the back of his hand.  That did him in and he couldn’t hold it back anymore.

Thea pulled him to her and cradled his head in her arms against her breast and cried with him as he wrapped his arms around her waist.  She put her head down to rest her cheek on the top of his head and kept murmuring choked words of sorrow and comfort as she held him tightly. 

Neither of them noticed when Adam stepped into the stall opening and stood there for a second.  He put his head down and a hand to his chest when he felt his heart clench in pain for his brother.  Then he quietly moved away and left the barn.

Eventually Joe felt completely drained and hollow, but gave a small snort of laughter when Thea let go of him, tipped his face up, and began to dry his face with a handkerchief.  He turned red with embarrassment and she tightened her grip on his chin.

“Don’t you do that, don’t you ever be embarrassed about anything with me,” she said firmly.  “I love you, Joe.”

He shook his head, “I can’t for the life of me figure out why,” he said in a muffled voice as he pressed his hot face against her again.

She hugged his head tightly saying, “Because you’re my brother now and you’re an idiot.”

He shook with nearly silent laughter for a bit, then pulled away as he moved over on the bale and tugged on her hand so she would sit next to him.  When she did, he put an arm around her shoulders.

“You feel like this is all your fault, don’t you?”

Thea nodded then laid her head against his shoulder.  “She is my cousin and Adam brought them here for me.”

“It’s not your fault, Thea.  I did this to myself with my arrogant attitude.”  She lifted her head and leaned back to look him in the face.

“It’s true, I never thought for one minute that any woman would prefer Hoss over me.  Isn’t that stupid?  Why shouldn’t she care more for Hoss?  He’s a better man than I’ll ever be.”  He smiled down into her solemn face.

“It doesn’t have to be that way, Joe,” she said softly.  “You have three wonderful examples of the best that men can be.  Now it’s up to you whether or not you use your whole potential instead of getting by on just your looks.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so.  That’s always been your problem.  You’ve never really had to work at most things, especially relationships with women.  But it’s time to grow up now Joe.  If you ever want to have what Adam and I have it’s going to take some real work and effort on your part.”

He nodded as he rubbed his face with his free hand and yawned.

“And the first thing you have to learn is to stop judging women by their looks alone.  That’s the quickest way to get your heart stomped on.  I find that most women who believe they are beautiful have a tendency to be pretty selfish.  Remember that.”

“You mean they’re like me.”  That made her smile.


Joe gave a startled look then laughed fully this time.  He stood with a hand out to help her up.

She put her hand in his and looked up into his face with a serious expression.  “Time to be a man, Joe, and go congratulate your brother?” she asked softly.

His face tightened with determination and he nodded as he tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow.  “Will you help me?”

“I’ll be with you every step of the way,” she said and gave his arm a firm squeeze.

He sighed deeply then smiled down at her again.  “Then let’s go.”

They left the barn, hurried across the yard, and went in the front door together.



Chapter 42

Adam moved quickly down the board sidewalk heading for his office.  He walked along with a half-smile; his family was well, the organization of the new office was shaping up, and it just happened to be a beautiful spring day.

When he reached the building he turned down the side street and went up the short flight of stairs that led to the private entrance to his office.  He unlocked the door and started to push it open when he sensed movement in the room.  Quickly, he stepped to the side and flattened himself against the outside wall and drew his weapon.

Almost immediately he heard his father’s voice saying his name from inside the room.

He sighed deeply and his brow furrowed in irritation as he stepped in, still holding his gun, but keeping his arm straight with the weapon pointing to the floor.  Always a professional, he surveyed the room with just his eyes before turning his attention to the people.

Ben, Joe, and Hoss were standing in a group behind one of his leather wingback chairs, and all three were looking at him anxiously.  Then he turned his gaze to a petite, blonde woman who gave him an uncertain smile.  He smiled back as he nodded to her, leaned back against the front of his desk, and looked at his father for an explanation as he holstered his weapon.

The three men glanced at each other, looked at Adam who was still watching them expectantly, and then at each other again.

Joe figured it out.  “He doesn’t remember,” he said low to Ben and Hoss so the woman in the chair couldn’t hear.  Adam’s brows rose as he watched their expressions.

The other men glanced at each other again then Hoss came around the chair to take Adam’s arm and lead him out into the hallway.

Those still in the office listened to Hoss speaking for a bit then heard Adam loudly say “What?”

Hoss must have been explaining because he spoke for a while.  Then there was silence in the hallway for a moment that was eventually broken by Adam’s deep laughter, which was quickly muffled.

Laura looked at Hoss nervously when he came into the room alone, not sure what Adam’s absence meant.  The big man was quick to reassure her.

“Adam wants us to wait ‘bout five minutes and then go to the meetin’ room.  He said Joe knows where it is.”

The younger man nodded.

“He also said to give the keys to his office back to Marie and if you ever take ‘em again he’s gonna tan your hide.  Pa, we ain’t supposed to be in here.  Adam said no one is without him.”

“Joseph!” Ben said while glaring at his youngest son.  “I don’t care if you get yourself into trouble with Adam, but don’t drag Hoss and I into it too.”

“Come on, Pa.  He knows we wouldn’t mess with anything in here.”

“That is not the point.  This is a federal government office and no doubt what we’ve done is against the regulations.  You could cause Adam and Marie to receive a reprimand.”

“I never thought of that,” Joe turned red with embarrassment.

“Of course not, if you had actually thought at all you wouldn’t have done something this stupid,” Ben said in exasperation.

Joe just nodded and glanced at Laura out of the corner of his eye.  The woman was sitting back in the chair now, looking very tired, confused, and worried.

“What does all this mean?  Is Adam willing to help?” she said, looking at Hoss with a frown.  The big man nodded.

“He’s getting’ his deputies together.”

“I think the five minutes is up,” Ben said.  “Joseph, go give the keys back to Marie and meet us in the hall.”

Still embarrassed, Joe hurried from the room.

Ben offered Laura his hand to help her up saying, “Don’t worry, if anyone can find Will, it’s Adam.”

“He seems to have changed a great deal,” she said, still uneasy about asking her former fiancé for help.

“Yes he has, and no he hasn’t,” Ben said cryptically and the three left the office, making sure the door was locked behind them.


All four of Adam’s deputies had been right where he expected them to be, already in the meeting room.  As usual, the four were going over paperwork and good naturedly arguing about something.  But when Adam came in they all sat up and gave him their full attention.

“We don’t have much time, so I’ll make a long story short.  Seemingly, I was engaged to a woman named Laura who dumped me to marry my cousin, Will Cartwright.  She showed up at my father’s ranch earlier today looking for help because Will has disappeared.”  He resisted the urge to chuckle as his deputies looked at him as though he was demented.

“But here’s the interesting part.  I don’t have a single memory of her and can barely remember my cousin.”

The four men seated around the table glanced at each other and grinned, realizing Adam was highly amused by this situation.

“Now, my father and brothers are bringing her down and that should be in a few minutes.  From what I understand the couple was on their way here by train for a surprise visit, but had a long stopover in Bentwood Junction.  Then according to Laura, Will was arrested by a deputy sheriff and accused of trying to pass counterfeit bills.  Does any of this sound familiar to you?  I could swear I heard something similar to this before.”

Three of his deputies shook their heads, but Mike nodded.

“I’ve been hearing some rumors about high quality counterfeit in connection with that area.  Bentwood is about forty miles east of here, isn’t it?”

His boss nodded.  “But the story gets a little strange after Will was arrested.  They claim he was already released and have no idea where he went.  She asked to see the sheriff, but they told her he was out of town.”

Adam watched their reactions carefully and saw what he expected.  Dylan smiled wryly, John shook his head, Mike rolled his eyes, and Nate gave his boss a shrewd look.

“So you’re all thinking the same thing I am, they’re trying to pull a jailhouse shuffle.”

All four men nodded and Adam was about to speak again when they heard a knock at the door.  He hurried over to open it for Ben to escort the woman into the room.  He met his father’s eyes as the two passed and nodded toward the empty chair at the head of the table.

Ben led her over and held the chair for her to be seated.  The deputies had all stood when she came in and now resumed their seats.  Adam then motioned for his father and brothers to join the others then moved to stand at the foot of the table.

“Laura, these are my deputies; Nate, Mike, John, and Dylan.”  Each man made eye contact with her and each man nodded when his name was spoken.

“Now,” he continued, “please tell us everything that happened from the moment you arrived in Bentwood.  Don’t leave out a single detail.”

Laura looked down the table at this man who seemed so different from the man she had known then opened her mouth, but was at a loss as to what to say.  “I don’t know where to start,” she said staring.

Smiling, Adam answered, “Usually the best place to start is at the beginning.  What time did the train arrive?”

She blinked and gathered her scattered wits together.  “About nine o’clock in the morning.  We arrived on schedule and had a two-hour wait to board the next train.”

Adam had slowly moved to stand to the side of the table, directly behind his father.  “What did you do then?” he continued to prompt her as he moved slowly until he was standing behind her.

“We went to a restaurant called The Toll House.”

Adam nodded at his second-in-command, indicating he should take over.

“And then?” Nate said.  She turned her eyes to the tall, blond man and seemed to relax somewhat.

“We had breakfast, Will paid, and we left to go back to the train station to wait.”  Nate just looked at her with his brows raised, so she continued.

“We had only been at the station for about fifteen minutes when the cashier from the restaurant and a deputy sheriff came in to arrest Will.  When he asked on what charge the deputy said for passing counterfeit currency.  Will didn’t even get a chance to argue.  Another deputy came in they dragged him away.  I started to follow, but Will told me to get on the train and come here for help – but I couldn’t do it, not right then because the train was delayed about two hours.  I went to the sheriff’s office and they told me Will had already been released and they had no idea where he had gone.”

She paused as her lower lip began to tremble and looked down at the table until she had herself under control again.

Nate looked at his boss who nodded again.

“I think you’re leaving out some details,” he said.  “Were you near Will when he received his change at the restaurant?”

“Yes, I was standing right beside him.”

“Did his manner or expression seem odd or different to you right then?”

Laura closed her eyes for a moment to think.  “Well, I believe he did give the cashier an odd look right before we left.”

Adam and Nate exchanged a quick glance before the deputy continued.

“After you left the Toll House did he do or say anything else that was different in any way from what you would usually expect?”

“Yes,” she said promptly, “he handed the bills he received in change to me and said to hang on to hem.”

“Do you have them with you and may we see them?” Nate asked, his expression brightening.  Counterfeit currency was one of his areas of expertise.

“Yes, I do,” she opened her reticule and handed him one five-dollar and four one-dollar bills.

Nate held the five-dollar bill up to the light first then rubbed it between his thumb and index finger before handing it to Adam, who had come silently to look over his shoulder.

Adam pulled a jeweler’s loupe out of a vest pocket and went over the bank note thoroughly.  Then he handed both to Nate.

The blonde man stood and laid the bill flat on the table.  He bent down and put the loupe to his eye.  When he had finished examining both sides he stood and whistled.

“Beautiful work, don’t you think?” he said as he handed the loupe back to his boss.

“Some of the best I’ve ever seen.  Does it look like Nick’s work to you too?”

Nate nodded and sat down as he handed the one-dollar bills back to Laura.  “These are genuine,” he said then fell silent as Adam walked down to the end of the table.  He had heard everything he needed to be reasonably sure about what had happened.  Everyone looked at him expectantly.

“Well, Laura, it looks like Will just fell into this by accident.  I think he recognized something was wrong with that five because of the way it felt.  That’s the hardest thing for a counterfeiter to fake.  The engraving is almost perfect, but the weight and the texture of the paper is off.”  He paused to laugh.  “These people have a great set-up.  Hundreds of people move through Bentwood Junction every week, and I believe many of them leave with at least one counterfeit bill mixed in with the genuine.  And from what you have told me I think they panicked when Will gave the cashier that odd look so they arrested him.  Not a particularly intelligent thing to do, they should have just let him go.”

Joe spoke up, “But how could they just let him go?”

“Look Joe, if they had let him go Will might have gone to someone to see if the bill was counterfeit.  On the other hand, he might not have.  Either way, it would be impossible for anyone to prove he got the bill at the Toll House.  All they would have had to do then is shut down operations for a while until it was reasonably safe again.  Arresting him and holding him illegally has now opened up a whole can of worms they really don’t want anyone taking a close look at.  Bad mistake.”  His four deputies nodded in agreement.

“Who’s this Nick you mentioned?” Dylan asked.

“Nicholas Teyssier,” Adam and Nate said together then Nate went on to explain.  “One of the best forgers and engravers in the business, but I don’t see how it could be him since he died about five years ago.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Adam answered, “who knows how many sets of plates he made?”

Laura impatiently interrupted.  “But where is Will?” she almost wailed.

Adam shook his head at her.  “He’s there, right in that jail in Bentwood Junction.  Believe me, I’ve seen this before.  The sheriff probably is out of town and they don’t know what to do with him so they’re keeping him until the sheriff gets back.  What a bunch of idiots!”

The four deputies chuckled and Laura went red in the face.  “How can you laugh when Will’s life is in danger like this?” she snapped then dropped her eyes when Adam gave her a chiding look.

“His life is not in danger, at least not yet.  Besides, he’ll be out of that jail by noon tomorrow.”

Her head snapped up, “How?”

He laughed again, “Simple, we’re going to go get him.”

Her mouth fell open.  “But how can you do that?  He’s under arrest, what if they refuse to turn him over to you?”

All of the men in the room, except Adam, laughed at that.

“Laura, I am a Federal Marshal of a special division of the Marshal’s office.  That means any state, territory, possession, or protectorate of the United States is my jurisdiction.  They can’t tell me ‘no’.”

“But what if they still do?” she persisted stubbornly.

Adam smiled a smile she had never seen on his face before – it made her turn cold.

“Then we’ll go in and take him,” he said quietly and she finally believed him.

“Hoss?  Joe?” he said turning his attention away from her.  “I’d appreciate it if you would come along tomorrow to help make a show of strength.”

His brothers nodded eagerly.

“Good, consider yourselves sworn in,” he said.  “If you will all excuse me for a moment I need to discuss something with Marie.”  He quickly left the room.

The other deputies, Hoss, and Joe stood to come and cluster around Nate who was holding the counterfeit bill up to the light again.  Ben came to sit down in the now empty chair to her right.

“Don’t worry, Laura, Adam knows what he is doing.”

“What happened, Ben?  Why is he so different now?” she asked.

“Are you thinking he became this way because of what happened between you two?  No, that’s not the reason.”  Ben chuckled then took a deep breath and tried to be brief.  “About seven years ago Adam left to go to Chicago to help an old friend from college.  This man’s name was Allan but he was no friend at all.  He was being threatened with death by some vicious criminals he owed a lot of money to, so he brought Adam back with him to take his place.”

She gasped, but didn’t speak as he continued.

“Allan hired someone to kill Adam and planned to put his identification on him and dump the body somewhere.  Unfortunately for him the people he was trying to avoid caught up with him before they managed to kill my son.  He was barely holding on to life when a doctor in the morgue examined him and realized he was alive.  He died on the table right in front of her, but she managed to bring him back.  The she spend the next six months helping him to heal.  But Adam had no idea who he was; he couldn’t remember anything about his past except his first name.  We didn’t see him again for six years until Joe happened to run across him in San Francisco.  Adam’s only been living in Virginia City for less than a year now.”

Laura was openly staring at Ben now, a mixture of horror, awe, and fascination showing on her face.  He was about to continue his explanation when his eldest son returned.

“Everything has been arranged for tomorrow so I think it’s time to go home.  You are still coming to dinner aren’t you?”

The deputies nodded, but Ben, Hoss, and Joe hesitated.

Adam laughed at them.  “Thea, Dora, Cassie and Barbara have been cooking all day.  If you three don’t show up I’m warning you now – don’t come to me for protection.”

Everyone except Laura laughed at that then Ben gave his son a questioning look.  Adam just winked at him and went to hold the door open.  “Let’s move it out, folks.”

“We’re not going back to the ranch?” Laura questioned Ben in surprise.

“No, we’re going to Adam’s home, it’s very close to this office.”

They paused in the front hall where Adam offered Marie his arm.  She tucked her hand under his elbow and said good night to the large young man who had been hired to lock up and guard the offices overnight.

The group spilled out of the building and good-natured chatter flew back and forth as they made their way across and down the street to Adam’s house.

They all hung back when they arrived to let Adam and Marie go in first.  Laura looked up at the unusual house with her mouth hanging open.  Ben noticed her staring and chuckled.  “If you think this place is something, you should have seen the house he had in San Francisco,” Ben said as they came through the door and into the hall.

Adam helped Marie out of her coat and hung it up for her as the black woman hurried down the hall to the kitchen.  She was greeted by an outburst of female voices and laughter.

Ben helped Laura as the deputies, Hoss, and Joe stood around still talking, deeply engrossed in their own conversations.  That’s when she noticed Adam quietly making his way to an open door on the right of the hall that had a wooden gate blocking the lower half.  The sound of children’s laughter reached her ears even though they were still standing just inside the front entrance.

He stopped at the side of the door and quickly poked his head around the edge to take a look.  When he turned around he was shaking his head and motioned for his father to come over.  Laura still had her hand on Ben’s arm so she came with him.

When they reached the door Adam nodded for her to look in.  She saw a young, black-haired boy on the floor with three babies sitting in front of him.  The boy was making hideous faces and the babies were laughing so hard at him they’d occasionally start to fall over backward.  But a young, black-haired girl sat behind them and was busy keeping them upright.

Laura gave Ben a puzzled look after he had taken his peek into the room.  He was chuckling, but was going to explain when Adam stepped into the doorway.  All five children noticed him at once and the twins yelled, “Pa’s home!” at the top of their voices.  They quickly scrambled up and dashed over to the door while the babies called out in their own way as they came crawling at top speed.

Adam bent over and picked the twins up when they reached the gate.  He gave each one a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead before setting them down in the hall.  They immediately scurried over to latch onto their grandfather’s legs while laughing up into his face.  Ben went down on one knee to put his arms around them and looked up at Laura.

“Laura, this is my granddaughter Annalise and my grandson Alexander.”  The children turned to smile at her and she was shocked when she realized there was no doubt they were Adam’s.  Ben laughed and nodded when he saw her expression, then the twins shrieked with laughter when he stood with one under each arm and headed toward the kitchen.

She turned to see Adam still standing in front of the gate.  The three babies had pulled themselves up and were standing clutching the wooden bars of the gate in their little hands.  One just stared up at him with a sweet smile; another was babbling what sounded like “Pa!” over and over again, while the third was bouncing up and down on his little feet and grinning.

Adam laughed again, crouched down and unlatched the gate to carefully swing it open.  The three babies quickly fell on him then laughed as he wrapped his arms around them and stood.  They waved their arms and kicked their legs as he kissed each little face then Hoss and Joe came to carefully take their namesakes.

Turning to Laura, Adam held the remaining baby out to her saying, “This is Benjamin.”

She quickly took the baby from him and cuddled him close while Adam watched her carefully.  When she finally looked up again he caught a brief flash of yearning in her eyes.

“This one is yours too?” she said, looking a little dazed.

“Laura…all of them are mine,” he answered and smiled at her expression.  “Joe took Matthew, Hoss took Thomas, and you met Annalise and Alexander before my father carried them off.”

She hesitated before speaking.  “So you’re married?”

He held up his left hand to show her his wedding ring.  “More than six years now,” he said and took the baby back.  He nodded toward the kitchen as he shifted Benjamin to his shoulder and they started moving in that direction.  Something hilarious must be happening, judging by the laugher they could hear spilling out the doorway.

Adam chuckled.  “I have a feeling more than cooking has been going on in there today.”

“What?” She said, completely overwhelmed at this point.

He shook his head with a grin.  “You’ll see,” was all he said and motioned for her to go in first.  Laura took three steps into the room and stopped to stare, trying to take everything in.

She spotted Hoss and a tall woman with wavy chestnut hair to her right.  Hoss was holding the baby he had taken from Adam while the woman was making the child giggle by tickling him.

Joe was seated at the foot of the table with Matthew in his lap.  The deputies where gathered around that end and the four men were having a lively discussion.  Then she noticed a petite strawberry-blonde sitting in a chair at the side of the table, but her head was resting on her folded arms and she seemed to be asleep.

The twins went running past then and a huge black dog followed them as they headed for Hoss.  She heard Adam laughing behind her and when she turned in his direction she saw Ben standing there too.

Adam was still laughing helplessly and couldn’t answer his father immediately when he asked, “What is going on with these women?”

“Don’t you see it Pa?” he finally managed to say.  “They’re drunk.”

“What?” Ben said shocked.

His eldest son nodded.  “Considering they’ve been cooking Italian food today, I imagine you will find Chianti instead of tea in those cups.”

Ben looked around the room and when he turned back to Adam he was smiling.  “Well, I guess they do need a chance to let their hair down occasionally.”

Adam nodded, still chuckling and held Benjamin out to him.  “Would you mind?  I think Cassie needs to go to her room.”

The older man took his namesake and settled the baby on his shoulder.  Laura tugged on his sleeve and he leaned down so he could hear her.  “Which one is Adam’s wife?”

“You can’t see Thea, she’s on the other side of the room by the stove with Marie.”

Adam had helped Cassie up and was passing them on the way to the back stairs.  He heard what Laura said and stopped to yell, “Theadora!”  Only Laura jumped, everyone else was used to his bellows.

People moved out of the way and soon Laura found herself watching a short, black-haired woman coming toward them.  Her heart-shaped face was flushed a becoming pink and her almond-shaped hazel eyes sparkled as she looked up at her husband. She reached up with both hands and pulled Adam’s head down to kiss him.  Laura was shocked when she saw the scorching look he gave his wife.

“Hoss!  Dora!” he called over his shoulder, “Give me that child and you two take Cassie up to her room – she’s had too much ‘tea’.”  The two quickly came and took charge of the young woman while Adam tucked the baby in the crook of one arm while putting the other around his wife.

“Thea, this is Laura my cousin Will’s wife.”

Thea turned her beautiful, intelligent eyes to Laura and gave the other woman her usual wide smile.  Taking her hand, Thea tugged her forward and said, “I’m so glad to meet you, but you look so tired.  And it’s no wonder, I know we can be a bit much for some people.”  She looked up at her husband then and nodded.  Adam immediately whistled his loudest piercing whistle.  All conversation stopped.

“All right people, let’s keep it down to a dull roar, we’re giving Laura a headache,” he called out.  Everyone laughed then continued their conversations, but in much softer tones.  Thea smiled at the blonde woman again and pulled her by the hand over to the table to an empty chair.  “Sit down, I’ll get you some coffee.  You look like you need it.”

Laura thankfully sat down and closed her eyes, feeling as though her nerves had been stretched to the breaking point.  Her hostess was back in a moment with the coffee and she murmured a faint, “Thank you.”  Thea patted her on the shoulder then turned to Joe, who was sitting in the chair at the foot of the table, with a pointed look.  The young man instantly stood, handed over Matthew and went to find another place to sit.

When Thea was seated she smiled at the other woman, but Laura seemed to be avoiding making eye contact.  “Relax,” she said quietly, “I know you and Adam were engaged years ago.  Joe told me the whole story.”

“Does everyone always do what you tell them to do?” Laura blurted out without thinking.

Thea narrowed her eyes into a wicked look.  “Only if they know what’s good for them.”

That startled a quick laugh out of Laura and her hostess smiled with satisfaction.  Mission accomplished – making her guest feel more comfortable.

Matthew decided he had been ignored long enough and claimed his mother’s attention by reaching up and pressing both of his small hands across her lips.  She chuckled and lifted the child to hold him standing up in her lap.  They both leaned forward until their foreheads met and Matthew chortled with glee.

“You don’t like not being the center of attention do you?” she said and the baby burbled in response as he bobbed up and down in her lap.

“He’s a beautiful child,” the other woman said wistfully and Thea immediately held him out to the other woman.  Laura instinctively took the child and sat him in her lap.  The two stared at each other blankly as Thea stood, gently stroked the boy’s hair back from his forehead, and said “This is Matthew.  I’ll be right back.”

“Matthew,” Laura said softly and he grinned at her showing two small white teeth in the front.  She shifted her hold on the child to one arm and turned her head to the left to look for Thea.  She spotted the black-haired woman on the other side of the room just walking up to Adam.

Thea put a hand on his shoulder and he leaned down so she could whisper in his ear.  He straightened abruptly, thrust the child into her arms and turned away to dash up the back stairs.  When she turned back Laura could see she was laughing and continued to laugh as she sat down again.  She turned the baby in her lap to face the other woman.  “And this is Thomas.”

“How old is he?” Laura asked as she reached out to touch his cheek with the tips of her fingers.

“Six months.”

“And Matthew?”

“Six months, and so is Benjamin – they’re triplets and were just born on Halloween.”

Laura blinked in surprise, but at the same time wondered why she was – it was obvious they were all the same age.

“The twins turned five on New Year’s Day.” Thea continued as she wrapped her arms around Thomas and leaned down to kiss him on top of his head.

“I’ve never seen eyes that color before,” the blonde-haired woman said, staring at him intently.

“He has my grandmother’s eyes,” Thea responded then nodded toward Matthew.  “Now Matthew has his father’s eyes and Benjamin’s are exactly like his grandfather’s.

Laura nodded, she had noticed.  “Why did Adam rush off like that?” she said, wanting to change the subject.

“Well, he sent Dora and Hoss to take Cassie up to her room, but it’s been a while since they did.”  She grinned, “I just reminded him that it’s not a good idea to leave the two of them alone for very long, even though they are engaged.”

The other woman’s eyes opened wide.  “You mean Hoss…” she couldn’t seem to finish that thought.

“On no, Hoss is a gentleman.  Dora, my cousin, is the problem.  She’s been after that poor man ever since she first laid eyes on him.”  Thea paused to chuckle and kiss her son again.  “After all, a man can only take so much.  I think we all will be relieved when they get married in two months.”  She glanced toward the stairs and put a hand over her mouth when she saw Hoss and Dora enter the room with red faces and downcast eyes.

Laura leaned forward to look too, just as Adam followed them through the doorway.  He gave his wife a dark look from across the room and shook his head.

Thea still had her hand covering her mouth, but shook with muffled laughter.  That made him grin and he started toward her, only pausing for a second to give Hoss a quick, disgruntled glance as he passed.

When he reached them, Thea was still trying to stop laughing and only nodded when he said, “Thank you for reminding me.”

“I guess you made it in time then?”

“Yes,” he said shortly.

“Just barely?”

“No,” Adam shook his head again, “but I will be so glad when those two are married and I can stop being Hoss’s bodyguard.”  Thea laughed again and Laura couldn’t help but smile at that image too.

Adam chuckled briefly – it was hard not to respond to Thea’s laugh – and observed, “Matthew is down for the count and Thomas looks like he’s ready for bed too.”

Laura hadn’t noticed the child had fallen asleep in her arms and she reluctantly held him out to his father.

Thea stood and followed her husband, but paused to ask Barbara to look after the food in the oven and their newest guest.

The blond-haired woman was watching the couple as they stopped to collect Benjamin first, and then the twins who began to protest against bedtime.  Adam only had to give them a stern look to make them stop complaining and hurry toward the stairs.

Sighing, Laura leaned back in her chair, and couldn’t help but compare the Adam she used to know to the man he had become.  The change in him was not only startling it was fascinating.  Then her thoughts naturally turned to comparing him to Will.

Her high hopes for her marriage had not been realized, and the past year had been the worst.  No matter what she did or how she tried to please her husband, he just kept becoming more critical, colder, and remote.  And she had no idea why.

A hand settling on her shoulder made her jump in her chair.  She turned to her left and found herself looking into a pair of lovely blue eyes, heavily lashed in gold and warmed by a faint touch of green.  The woman smiled at Laura, making her already high cheekbones stand out even more.

“Anytime I see that look on a woman’s face it means some idiot male is making her life miserable,” she said as she reached up to tuck a stray strand of honey-blonde hair back into the chignon that nestled at the nape of her neck.  Her over bright, only slightly inebriated eyes shone with sympathy for the other woman.

“Husband trouble?” she asked and Laura nodded reluctantly, not wanting to admit it.

Barbara patted her hand.  “Don’t you worry, dear.  There’s never been one born yet that didn’t get his long johns in a twist about one little thing or another.”

“No truer words have ever been spoken,” a voice said to Laura’s right.  She turned to see Marie sitting in the chair Thea had just left.  The black woman smiled her sweet, sweet smile.  “It doesn’t matter who or what they are child.  Tall or short, fat or thin, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they all act like children sometimes.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Barbara chuckled and stood.  “Well here comes the happy couple so we better start getting this show on the road.”  All three women looked across the room to see Adam and Thea coming down the stairs.

Thea hurried over to them as Adam went to inform their guests it was time to take their seats.  Laura sighed – she could tell it was going to be a long evening.


The clock in the hall struck twelve times and Laura gave up trying to sleep.  Throwing back the covers, she was about to light the lamp when the sound of a door closing down the hall reached her hears.  She hurried over to open her door a crack and saw Adam’s broad back clad in a red shirt moving away from her toward the front stairs.

Laura retreated to the bed to sit there for a while in the dark, thinking.  Coming to a decision, she pushed her feet into slippers and shrugged into a robe before following him.  Thea had taken her on a brief tour of the house after dinner so she knew where Adam’s office was.  She assumed that was where he was going.

By the time she was standing in front of his closed office door her hands and feet felt icy and her nerves were almost screaming.  She took a deep breath and knocked softly.  There was a pause, then Adam’s voice quietly said, “Come in.”

Adam stood as he watched her walk into the room and he gestured to two overstuffed chairs in front of his desk that sat with their backs up against the back of a large sofa that faced a fireplace.

“Can’t sleep?  Are you worried about Will?” he asked as she sank into the first of the two chairs.

She looked at him mutely, her eyes huge in her pale face.

“Trust me.  He is in that jail and I promise you’ll have him back tomorrow,” Adam continued as he sat down behind his desk again.  She did not respond and only continued to silently stare at him.

His eyes narrowed.  “What is it?”

“I think I married the wrong man,” she blurted out.

“What?” he said genuinely surprised.

“I think I married the wrong man.  If I knew then what I know now, I never would have gone with Will…”

Adam held up a hand to stop her flow of words.  “Laura,” he said quietly, “stop.  I don’t want to hear it.”

“But it’s the truth!  I must have been insane to choose him over you…”

“Stop,” Adam said then sighed.  “I didn’t want to tell you this, but you leave me no choice.”  He paused and shook his head.  “Laura, I don’t remember you.”

She stared back at him stunned.  “You don’t?”

“I don’t have one single memory of you.  But don’t take that personally, I didn’t remember Pa, or Hoss, or Joe for six years either.”

Her face turned red with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry if that hurt you, but you and everyone else need to understand one thing – nothing and no one will ever get in between me and my wife.  I will not tolerate it.  Thea is my best friend, my wife, and the mother of my children.  I not only love her I respect her and she is now the heart of this family.  I don’t think we could survive without her.”  He smiled then said, “Isn’t that right, Theadora?”

“Actually, I think it’s getting pretty deep in here,” Thea’s voice came from behind the back of the large sofa where she must have been the whole time.

Adam laughed and Laura gasped as she stood to flee the room, but stopped when Thea said, “Freeze woman, don’t you take one more step,” in a hard voice.

Thea stood and came around the end of the sofa, never taking her eyes off Laura.  “Adam, would you please go to bed now?  We need to have a little chat in private.”

“Well, you did use the magic word, so I can’t refuse you.  Just promise me one thing – don’t hurt her, she is still family.”

“Believe me, if I had wanted to hurt her she’d be toothless and bald on the floor right now.”  She glanced at Adam then turned her gaze back to the woman standing with her head down and her hands covering her face.

“No,” Thea continued, “I actually feel some sympathy for her.  After all, she married a Cartwright and that’s enough to severely confuse any woman and make her do foolish things.”

Laura dropped her hands and looked up at Thea astonished as Adam chuckled.

“Alright, on that note I think I will take my leave.  Good night, ladies.”  Adam was still chuckling as he left the room.

Thea moved forward to settle in the chair closest to her as the other woman watched her warily.  She pulled her feet up under herself to sit partly sideways and leaned one elbow on the arm of the chair.  Nodding toward the other chair she said, “Sit, we need to talk.”

 Laura reluctantly came to sit down stiffly; ready to take off running if necessary.

Smiling at the other woman’s obvious fear Thea said, “First of all, I am duty bound to say if you ever try anything like that with my husband again I will be forced to hurt you.”

The other woman’s posture stiffened even more.

“Now,” Thea continued, “I want to also say that taking up with another man won’t solve your problem, it will only make things much, much worse.”  She paused to let that sink in.  “So tell me everything.”

“Everything?” Laura echoed, not understanding.

“Yes, everything from the first moment you realized something was seriously wrong with your marriage.”

And so Laura did, surprised that everything came pouring out so easily to this woman she barely knew and was actually afraid of.  But when she was finished unburdening herself she was sitting back in the chair, emotionally drained.

Thea’s expression had been impassive at first, but the longer she listened the angrier she became.  Somehow her expression managed to combine both that anger at Will and her sympathy for Laura.  She remained silent for a few moments, thinking as she reached into a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which she absently handed to the other woman.

Laura wiped her face dry and sat up, not sure what would happen now.  She glanced at Thea then looked quickly away, not wanting to break the silence.

“Well,” Thea finally said as she turned her head to look at Laura,  “it’s crystal clear to me what a large part of your problem is.”

“What?” Laura said eagerly, turning in her chair to face Thea.

“You married a Cartwright and as wonderful as they are they still have this one little flaw they all share without exception.”  She paused and turned to look at Laura.  “Woman, they will walk all over you if you give them the chance.”

“What!” Laura’s mouth dropped open.

“It’s true.  I know you thought you were doing the right thing, being a good little obedient wife, but that’s the worse thing you can do with a Cartwright.”  She shook her head, “Dear Lord, you might as well have been wearing a sign that said ‘Doormat – please wipe your feet on me’.”

Laura continued to stare at Thea in disbelief for a while, but the more she thought about it, the more she could see that the other woman was right.  Her eyes narrowed, her face turned red, and her fists clenched in her lap.

“Damn him!” she almost shouted, making Thea burst out laughing.

“Good girl!” she finally said.  “That’s the first step.  Now, listen to me carefully because this is what you are going to do tomorrow when Adam brings that man back to you…”



Chapter 43

The seven men dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office in Bentwood Junction close to eleven o’clock the next morning.  They had made good time and were glad to get down and stretch their legs for a bit.

“Is everybody displaying a badge?” Adam said as he surveyed the group.  He sighed, “Joe, where is yours?”

Joe moved his jacket aside to show the badge pinned to a vest.  “Either put that on your jacket or take the jacket off.  Your choice.”  Adam said, a little irritated.

His youngest brother quickly moved the badge to his jacket.  “Where’s yours?” he shot back with a smart-aleck grin.

“I don’t want to display mine yet,” was Adam’s curt reply as his deputies and Hoss grinned.  They knew he always had a good reason for everything he did.

“Ready?  Now I want you all to line up behind me and try to keep a straight face.  No smiling and for God’s sake, no matter what you hear don’t laugh!”

They all nodded as Adam turned to the door.  He gave them one more glance, this one over his shoulder to check their expressions.  Then he turned the knob, pushed the door open forcefully, and strode through with the rest right behind him.

A stocky, dark-haired young man wearing a deputy sheriff’s badge looked up, badly startled by the sudden appearance of the seven men.

Adam walked up to the counter and started speaking first.  “I’m here to take custody of a prisoner – his name is Will Cartwright.”

The deputy just stared at him blankly for a second then seemed to find his voice.  “We don’t …” he started to say, but Adam cut him off.

“You don’t want to be lying to a federal marshal son, so stop right there.  Now go in the back and bring him out.”

“But…” the young man’s voice almost squeaked.  Adam briefly clenched his teeth to keep from laughing.

“I told you not to lie to me.  Either bring him out right now or we will go back and get him.”

At this point the deputy was looking around frantically for help, but realized he was on his own.  He tried another tactic.

“The sheriff is out of town right now and I can’t release anyone without his authorization,” he looked at Adam hoping he would buy that excuse.

Adam gave him a menacing smile as he pulled some folded papers from a pocket inside his suit coat.  “Nice try, but here is all the authorization you need.”  He dropped the papers on the counter and the deputy finally stood and came toward him reluctantly.  The young man reached out, staying away from the counter to pick up the papers.  When he looked at them his mouth dropped open again as he looked first at Adam and then at the six men backing him up.

He jumped when Adam abruptly pulled out the wallet that held his badge and his identification, opened it, and dropped it on the counter too.  The solid gold badge made a heavy thudding sound when it hit the wood, unnerving the deputy even more.

“So what’s it going to be son?” Adam said in a quiet, but hard voice.  “Are you going to be sensible and cooperate or do we have to go bring him out ourselves?”  He bared his teeth in what could possibly be considered a smile.

That broke the deputy’s resistance.  He grabbed the ring of keys from his desk and hurried through the door that led to the cells in the back. 

They could all hear two voices then, one plainly the deputy urging the prisoner to get moving and a deeper voice asking questions.

Adam glanced over his shoulder at his men and shook his head.  But he turned quickly back and everyone wiped the smiles off their faces as they heard footsteps approaching.

Will came through the door first and he almost stopped walking when he saw the men waiting for him.  The deputy was behind Will so it was safe for Adam to shake his head and put a finger to his lips.  Will got the message quickly and just kept going.

Turning his head to look back at his men again, Adam made an impatient gesture.  Dylan and Hoss instantly moved forward to each take one of Will’s arms in a firm grip.

“What are you waiting for?  Take the prisoner outside,” Adam said irritably so Will was led outside by the two men with the other four following closely.

Adam turned back to the deputy and picked up the badge wallet and tucked it away.  “When the sheriff gets back in town you can tell him you had no choice and that federal warrant will back up your story.  You can also tell him that if he wants to take issue with me about this he can find me in Virginia City at the regional office.”

He paused to see if this was sinking into the badly intimidated deputy’s brain.  “And I have a bit of advice for the genius who thought this little scheme up – you can’t pull off a jailhouse shuffle with only one jail.  It just doesn’t work.”  The other man’s face turned red so Adam knew he was the one behind this mistake.

He began to turn away and the deputy had just started to relax a little, but then Adam turned quickly back, startling the young man again.  “One other thing you can tell your boss,” he said in almost a whisper as he leaned across the counter, getting right into the other man’s face.  “You picked the wrong man to pull this on.  And because of that I will be watching all of you in this quaint little town.  So it might be a good idea to either go straight or close up shop and move on.  And if I hear even the faintest rumor that you have been holding anyone illegally again I’m going to come back and shut you down myself.”  He kept staring intently at the other man who was staring back in horrified fascination.

“Understand?” Adam barked and the deputy nodded quickly and almost couldn’t seem to stop.  “Good,” he said shortly then turned and strode out the door.

The deputy stayed at the counter, nervously waiting and trying to be prepared for the tall, dark man in black to come back and threaten him some more.  He didn’t move away from the counter or relax for almost half-an-hour, but when he did he hurried off to report to the others what had happened.


The eight men had ridden away quickly to the west and Adam kept up the fast pace until they were far enough away from the town to be out of sight.  Raising a hand to signal they should stop, he stopped his own horse and turned around to face them.

“Here is where we start riding to the east again,” he said and they all stared back at him surprised.

“You don’t think they’re just going to let us ride away with Will, do you?  That deputy must have regained his wits by now and I’m sure the other idiots he’s working with are scrambling to come after us.  No, we’re going to skirt the town and keep going east until we reach Unionville.  Then we’ll be catching a train back to Virginia City.”

Not waiting for any discussion or questions he urged his horse forward and the rest fell into line.

They reached Unionville quickly and after they dismounted Adam went into the depot and came back with a small, wizened man who lead them toward a box car that had bales of hay stacked around the inside walls.  The men watered their horses as the little man went to get some help after a quick conversation with Adam.  He came back with four huge men who were hauling a ramp that was normally used to load cattle.

The horses were loaded into the car without too much trouble and Adam was the last to lead his up and in.  The horses fell to munching the hay on one end of the car while the men went to sit on the bales on the other end.

Will sat down with a deep sigh and looked around him with a dazed expression.  He turned to Adam.  “What the hell was that and where the hell have you been?” he said shaking his head.

Adam looked back at his cousin impassively then yawned.  “Sorry, I was up way too late last night,” he said and yawned again.  “Both of those explanations are long and they can wait until we get to Virginia City.”  He turned and stretched out across three bales, tipped his hat over his eyes, folded his arms and crossed his ankles.  “Keep it down, boys,” was all he said and seemed to immediately fall asleep.

The rest of the men moved as far away from him as they could and sat down.  Will looked at Hoss saying, “Well, how did you get me out of there?”

“We didn’t,” Hoss answered him quietly.  “That was all Adam’s doin’.”

“Alright, but how?”

“He’s a federal marshal now,” Joe answered him with a grin.  “I wish you could have seen it Will, he almost made that deputy wet himself.”

“I’m completely confused.  When did he come home?  Where has he been?  Who are these other men, and how the hell did he end up being a federal marshal?”

Joe introduced the deputies then quickly told his cousin about Adam leaving with Allan, how he had been beaten and stabbed to death, and saved by Thea.  Then Nate took over, filling him in on Adam’s time with Pinkerton, taking the last name of Eden, marrying Thea, and the moves to Chicago, then San Francisco.  The other deputies threw in a few anecdotes about working with the man.

Then Joe told him how he actually just stumbled across Adam while walking down the street, the time they spent with the family in San Francisco, and how they had all been pulled into the shutting down of Jackson’s organization.  Will laughed when Joe described the kidnapping and how Adam had neatly turned the tables on his enemy.

Hoss took over then telling about the happenings during the family’s visit to the ranch and everything that had happened since they moved to Virginia City.  Will was shaking his head in wonder when Hoss finished.

“That has to be the strangest story I think I’ve ever heard,” he said.

“If you think it’s strange hearing about it, you ought to try living it.” Adam said from the other side of the car and they all jumped a little.

He flicked the hat off his face and sat up to twist his back to loosen the muscles.  “Is story time over?  We should be pulling in soon,” he said and stood to go over and pull the door open a crack.  Staring out at the familiar countryside he said, “Yep, and in a few minutes I would think.”

Will came over to stand next to him.  “Thank you for getting me out of there,” he said low.

“Don’t thank me and don’t thank my deputies either,” Adam said giving his cousin a cool look.  “We were just doing our jobs,” he said brusquely and turned his gaze back to watching out the door.

His cousin stared at him in surprise for a moment then turned back to the other men who were looking just as puzzled.  Hoss shrugged his shoulders and Joe shook his head.  They had no idea why Adam was treating Will with barely concealed hostility.  None of them believed it could possibly be because of Laura.  Adam was happily married, deeply in love with his wife, and didn’t even remember the woman – It just didn’t make any sense.

“We’re about to pull in Will, so either sit down or grab onto something,” Adam said in a neutral tone of voice.  His cousin quickly sat back down.

As soon as the train came to a stop Adam pulled the door open further and jumped down, no doubt to go find another ramp for the horses.

The other men just sat there and waited for him to come back, which he did fairly quickly.  Adam jumped up, grabbed the door and pulled himself in.  Then he dragged the door back the whole way and motioned for the others to come and collect their horses as the ramp was being put in place.

He had been the last one into the car and he was the last one out of the car, as usual making sure everyone else had been taken care of first.

They all swung up into the saddle and in a few minutes they had reached the front of the house.  Nate pulled up beside Adam.  “Why don’t you, Hoss, Joe, and Will go ahead on in.  We’ll take care of the horses.”

His boss turned to him and smiled.  “Thank you,” he said and they all dismounted.  Each deputy then led two horses around to the barn at the back of the house.

Adam had already opened the gate and started up the walk while Will was still on the front sidewalk staring up at the house.  Then the front door opened and Thea came running across the porch and down the steps to throw herself into her husband’s arms.  He laughed and swung her around before setting her back down.

Will turned to Hoss.  “You mean to tell me that little woman is Thea?  The doctor-surgeon-wife you were telling me about?

Hoss nodded and grinned at his cousin, “Yep, couldn’t tell just by lookin’ at her, could you?”  He turned back to the house when they heard the door open again.  This time Dora came rushing out.

“Here comes mine,” Hoss said and chuckled at Will’s expression as the beautiful, tall woman almost knocked Hoss over when she ran up to throw her arms around him.

Will frowned then; expecting Laura to come hurrying out, too, but was surprised when she didn’t.  Instead, Ben came out to greet Will as Adam and Hoss went in with their ladies. 

Ben shook Will’s hand and the younger man nodded when asked if he was all right.  The two started up the steps and went in, closely followed by Joe.

They were moving down the hall toward the kitchen when Will was distracted by Adam’s deep voice mingled with children’s voices.  He turned toward the door with the gate and walked over to look in.

Adam was sitting cross-legged on the floor and almost buried under his children while Thea sat in a chair laughing at their antics.  She seemed to sense Will standing there because she quickly turned her head toward the door then gestured for him to come in.  He stepped over the gate and came toward them.

Thea stood and held her right hand out to the man when he reached her.  Will automatically took her hand in his and shook hands without thinking.  She looked up at the tall man carefully and he could have sworn for a second that she was sizing him up.  But that look vanished as quickly as it had come and he found himself staring down into a truly lovely face and exotic hazel eyes.

Thea smiled saying, “Welcome, cousin.”

Adam had put a finger to his lips and the twins had plopped down to sit one on either side of him while the babies had managed to cram themselves into his lap.  The children had remained quiet while their father closely watched the brief exchange between his wife and his cousin.

He grinned when he saw Will shake her hand, knowing that was what Thea had intended.  She wanted to establish herself in his mind as more than just another woman and his cousin’s wife.  But he quickly assumed a neutral expression when the two turned toward him then.

“Will,” he said with quiet pride, “this is my daughter Annalise and my son Alexander.”  The twins looked up at the tall man and gave him small smiles, responding to the coolness in their father’s tone.

Adam looked down at the babies in his lap.  “And these are my sons Benjamin, Matthew, and Thomas,” he said, indicating who was who by dropping a quick kiss on the top of each little head after saying each name.

Will looked down at the three grinning boys in surprise.  “Triplets?” he asked, envy plain in his voice.

“Yes they are,” Adam answered.  “Annalise and Alexander are twins,“ he added as his two older children looked up at Will proudly.  “Kids, this is my cousin, Will Cartwright,” he added. 

Thea gave the two a look that plainly said to remember their manners, so they got to their feet then Alexander bowed and Annalise curtsied as they said, “Pleased to meet you,” in unison.

Will nodded to the two children with a wide smile and quietly said, “You’re a very lucky man, Adam.”

“Yes, I know and I try to remember that,” Adam responded and narrowed his eyes, watching Will’s expression closely.  He saw that same flash of yearning cross his cousin’s face that he had seen on Laura’s the afternoon before.  He mentally nodded – his assessment of the situation and the problems between the two people had been correct, at least so far.

Thea had seen the look too, and her heart softened toward the tall man just a touch.  Adam’s, however, had not.  He was still just as furious with his cousin right then as he had been early in the morning when Thea had filled him in on what Laura had told her.

They all heard the deputies coming in the back door and the sound level in the kitchen increase.  Then Marie came to look in and ask if anyone wanted coffee and some of the apple pies she had just taken out of the oven.

Thea laughed and hurried to link arms with the other woman.  “Thank you Marie, I swear I don’t think I gave those pies another thought after I put them in.”  The two turned and moved off toward the kitchen.

Adam looked at the twins and nodded toward Will, so they scampered up to him and each took one of his hands in both of theirs to tug him out of the room and down the hall.

All three babies had their heads tipped back to look up at their father.  “Well boys,” he said seriously, as though they could understand, “what’ll it be?  Stay here or go eat pie?“

“Pie!” Benjamin crowed and Adam started to laugh as Thomas clapped his hands.  Matthew just continued to stare up at his father.  “Sorry son, majority rules and you’ll just have to grin and bear it.”  He looked up to see Joe and Hoss come into the room.

“Thea sent us,” Joe said and came forward to collect Matthew.  Adam handed Thomas over to Hoss and stood after shifting Benjamin to his shoulder.

The three men walked into the kitchen and Adam gave Benjamin to his grandfather.  Then he moved over toward the sink where Thea was standing washing dishes.  He reached into a drawer, pulled out a dishtowel and began drying them.  She gave him a bright smile and he leaned down to speak low in her ear.  “What do you think now that you’ve met Will?  Is it going to work?”

Thea nodded and the two exchanged a conspiratorial look then continued working quietly while listening to the conversations going on at the table behind them.

Will was puzzled.  When he had entered the kitchen with the twins Laura had smiled at him and asked if he was all right.  After he nodded, she came over to hug him, but then moved quickly away to let Hoss introduce him to Dora, Marie, and Cassie.  After that he looked around for his wife and spotted her sitting next to Joe, trying to help the young man feed some apple pie to Matthew with a spoon as he sat in Joe’s lap.  The two of them were laughing because it was plain to see the baby had more of it on him than in him.  Will frowned and came around the table so sit in the empty chair next to her.

Laura turned to her husband and smiled at him as she asked if he wanted pie and coffee.  He nodded and she rose to get it for him.  He watched as she moved toward the sink and stood there chatting with Thea and Adam.  The two had finished the first batch of dishes and Adam was sitting on the counter with Thea standing in between his knees and facing the table.  He had his arms around his wife and she was holding on to his forearms with both hands as she leaned back against him.  Laura quickly cut a piece of pie, placed it on a plate, poured Will’s coffee and collected a fork, spoon, and napkin.  Then she hurried back to the table to set them in front of her husband.

He expected her to sit down next to him again, but she continued on to walk around the table and began collecting empty dishes, which she carried over to the sink.  “Break’s over,” he heard Adam say with a laugh, so Thea stepped up to the dishpan and he hopped down from the counter.

“I’ll dry,” Laura said, taking the dishtowel off of Adam, so he just leaned against the counter and the three talked quietly.  Will’s eyes narrowed in ill temper as he watched his wife laughing and having a good time without him.

Finally his temper got the better of him when the dishes were finished and Laura stayed, leaning back against the counter next to Adam with Thea standing in front of her husband.

Will abruptly pushed his chair back, stalked around the table and came up to the three of them.  Without a word he grabbed Laura by the arm and dragged her behind him as he came back around the table.  He pushed her down into the chair next to his and sat down again, his face tight with his anger.

No one except Adam and Thea had paid attention and the couple glanced at each other before turning their eyes back to Will.

Laura sat there with her lips pressed into a thin line and her eyes flashing with anger.  “What is the matter with you?  You just embarrassed us both,” she hissed.

Will’s eyes opened wide in surprise at the tone she was taking with him and his face turned red.  “The least you can do is keep me company since you’re completely useless at every other wifely duty,” he said angrily so his voice was a little too loud.

All the other conversations at the table stopped and everyone turned to look at him.  His face turned even redder with embarrassment.

Thea’s back stiffened and her eyes narrowed to mere slits.  She turned and sped away so quickly Adam didn’t even have a chance to make a grab for her.  Will was looking down at the table and trying to get his temper under control so he didn’t see her coming.  No one did, so they were shocked when she stopped behind him and slapped him in the back of the head as hard as she could.  Adam winced at the sound the blow made and thought, “Now it’s going to get nasty,” as he hurried after his wife. 

Will stood and turned to look down at Thea, astonished by her daring to hit him.  She glared up at him with her hands on her hips and her face a mask of righteous fury.  “I’m warning you, if I ever hear you say something that awful to her again I will climb up there and strangle you!” she shouted.

The tall man put his hand to the back of his head and grimaced with pain, a lump was already starting to form.  Thea was a strong woman and had clocked him a good one.

Adam had reached them by then and pulled Thea back by the shoulders and stepped in front of her.  Will looked at him in amazement.  “Are you going to let her get away with that?”

“Yes I am, you deserved it,” Adam said calmly while struggling to keep Thea behind him and prevent her from attacking Will again.  He gave Hoss a pointed look and the big man came to put his arms around his sister-in-law and gently pull her away.  “Calm down,” he whispered in her ear, “Adam doesn’t need to be worryin’ about what you’re gonna do right now.”  That seemed to get through to her so she stopped struggling, but still stood there in Hoss’s arms, practically vibrating with rage.

Will put his hand to the back of his head again and this time his fingers came away with a smear of blood.  Thea’s blow must have split the skin.  He stared down at the blood on his hand and said, “I can’t believe that bitch hit me!”

The room became deathly quiet – everyone froze and held their breath, knowing what was coming as Adam’s face went dark with fury.

“What did you say?” he said in an ominously quiet voice.

Will was still looking at the blood on his hand and hadn’t noticed the change in Adam’s expression or heard the menacing tone to his voice.  “I said I can’t believe that bi…”  He never got a chance to finish.

Adam grabbed the taller man by the front of his shirt, dragged him away from the table, and toward the back door.  “Hey!” Will protested and tried to loosen the other man’s grip, but couldn’t and that both surprised and unnerved him.   The inner back door had been left open since the day was only a little cool, but sunny.  Adam didn’t bother opening the screen door; he just threw Will right through it.  Then he kicked the frame open before hurrying down the stairs his cousin had just rolled down.

The tall man had landed on his back on the ground at the bottom of the steps and he lay there stunned for a moment before turning over.  He had just gotten his feet under him and was about to straighten up when Adam reached down, grabbed his right arm and twisted it up behind his back.  Clamping his other hand on the back of his cousin’s neck, Adam pushed him toward the barn.  The sliding door was partway open so he shoved Will through, stepped in, and pulled the door shut behind them.

Will had stumbled into a slatted stall wall and was lying on his back again.  Adam came to stand over him.

“Never say anything like that about my wife again Will.  The next time I won’t be so nice,” he said quietly.

His cousin stared up at him, stunned, but beginning to feel his anger flare to life again.  He made a grab for the other man’s legs to pull him down, but Adam simply stepped back and continued to look down at Will with contempt.

“You coward,” he said calmly.  “You ignorant, selfish, bastard,” he added.

“What are you talking about?” Will said, genuinely not understanding why Adam was calling him names.

“Right there is the problem with you, Will.  You have absolutely no idea why I am so furious - and it’s not just because you referred to my wife as a bitch.”

“No, I don’t understand!” his cousin said and used the stall wall to pull himself to his feet.  “What the hell is the matter with you?”

“What’s the matter with me?  You that’s what’s the matter with me, you make me sick.  Who do you think you are, treating Laura that way?”

“Oh, so that’s it,” Will said, “you’re trying to break us up so you can have her back.”

Adam rolled his eyes in disgust, “Sure, that makes sense.  I want to mess up my marriage, the best thing that ever happened to me and run the risk of losing my children all for a woman I don’t even remember.”

Will looked at him in surprise.

“That’s right, I have absolutely no memories of Laura and barely remember you.  The only interest I have in your wife is as a female member of this family who needs protection, and right now she needs protection from you.”


“Yes, you.  I’ve seen this before, Will, over and over again.  That little display of physical strength you showed your wife is just the beginning.  Your self-pitying anger is going keep increasing.  You’ve been blaming her for something that is not her fault for years now and you are getting dangerously close to becoming a wife beater.  Is that what you want?”

“You’re wrong,” Will said stubbornly.

“No, I am not,” Adam answered him firmly.

“How can you think I would ever hurt Laura, I love her.”

“Yeah, that’s what all wife beaters say.  They say that before they do it, while they do it, and after they do it.”

“No….no,” Will shook his head vigorously.  “That’s impossible, I would never do something so disgusting.”

Adam sighed deeply and shook his head.

“What?” the other man said impatiently.

“I’m sighing because you’re refusing to be sensible and forcing me to beat the crap out of you now.  In my experience, it’s the only way to get through to men like you.”

Will smiled down at his cousin.  “Do you really think you can take me in a fair fight?”

“I know I can.”  Adam’s confident attitude wiped the smile off the other man’s face.

“So what’s it going to be, Will?” he continued as he cracked his knuckles and rolled his shoulders.  “Are you going to stand up, be a man, and face this problem of yours honestly?  Or are you going to keep hiding your head in the sand?  Make up your mind, I don’t have all day and I’d like to get your beating over with while we still have some daylight left.”

That last comment made the other man’s temper snap, just as it had been intended to do.  Will rushed Adam with a roar and the two crashed through one of the large shuttered windows that faced the house.

The two men rolled across the barnyard until Adam managed to pull one foot up and flip his cousin over his head.  Will hit the ground hard as Adam rolled to his feet and just stood there waiting.  Neither of them noticed the rest of the family spilling out the door.

“Finished already?” he said to the man on the ground and Will felt another wave of fury break over him as he scrambled to his feet.  He rushed his cousin again, but this time Adam didn’t just stay there waiting.  He stepped to the side at the last second and Will kept going, unable to stop so he stumbled into the fence with a loud thud.  He quickly turned and took a powerful, stiff-knuckled blow to the side of his neck.  He went down like a ton of bricks, almost unconscious.

Adam went down on one knee next to his head.  “Ready to admit it yet?” he asked.  Will shook his head then closed his eyes against the dizziness.

“Too bad,” Adam said as he hauled the other man to his feet and let go before backing away.  He watched his cousin sway for a few seconds then regain his focus.

Will came at him quickly, but not in a rush this time and started swinging wildly.  Adam easily evaded the uncontrolled punches for a while, not making any attempt to hit the other man – he was waiting for Will to tire.

The other men, Dora, Thea, and Laura were watching this odd display from the back stairs while the children were still inside with Marie and Cassie.  Laura lifted one hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp and started to go down the steps.  She only got down one more before Thea grabbed her from behind with one strong arm around the other woman’s neck.

“Stay out of it, Adam knows what he’s doing.”

Laura struggled for a moment, but then gave up – she was no match for Thea’s still burning anger.  The rest of the family heard what Thea said and relaxed now that they knew this was more than just a fight.  Adam must be up to something again.

Adam was still watching Will closely as he backed away and saw the first signs that the man was running out of energy.  That’s when he connected with his first real punch that snapped Will’s head back and made him stagger.  But he still kept coming so he gave Will a powerful blow to the gut that doubled him over.

“Admit it,” Adam said as his cousin straightened up painfully but shook his head.  “Alright, be stupid,” he said and lashed out with a right cross.  Will staggered to the side.

“Come on, give it up and I’ll stop.”

“No, you’re wrong,” the other man persisted.

“God you’re stubborn…”

Will shook his head and seemed to regain his wits.  He dug his heels in and came after his cousin more slowly this time.  He circled a few times then tried to connect an uppercut.  Adam leaned back and shifted to the side then staggered Will again with a left cross that had all his weight and power behind it.

The other man almost went down.

“Say it, Will.  Say it!”

“NO!  Damn it!  I’m not like that!”  He was bent over and wiping away the blood that was running down his chin.

“Coward,” Adam said softly, “poor, pitiful you.”

Will’s face turned beet red and he rushed his cousin, slamming his shoulder into his opponent’s midsection.  Adam staggered back a few steps, then kneed the other man in the stomach while bringing both fists down on the back of his neck – he went down again.

Will rolled onto his back, breathing heavy and shaking his head.

“God, Will, you can’t even fight worth a damn anymore,” Adam said.  “Get up, you gutless wonder.  I’m not finished with you yet.”  That had the affect Adam had wanted – Will staggered to his feet and tried to lunge at him, but was barely able to stand.

Adam sighed and just shoved his cousin instead of punching him this time.  Will almost went over once more.

“Admit it,” Adam shouted into his dazed face.


Adam shoved him again and this time Will did go down, hitting the ground hard.  He went down on one knee next to the man again and pulled him up by the front of his shirt until they were almost nose-to-nose.

“Stop being such an idiot, admit it and I’ll leave you alone.”

Will just stared back with dazed eyes so Adam shook him, hard.  “Say it!” he insisted.

His cousin’s eyes finally seemed to see him.  “Come on, Will.  A real man doesn’t deny the truth, a real man stands up and faces it.”  That finally broke the other man’s resistance and the painful knowledge of what he had been doing for years filled his eyes.  He put his hands over his face and cried out, “You’re right, oh my God, you’re right!”

Adam sighed with relief and put his arms around Will as the other man shook with pain.  “Damn, Will, did you have to be so stubborn?” he said low then raised his head to look at Laura.  He motioned for her to come to them so Thea let her go and the woman ran up then dropped to her knees next to her husband.  Adam let go as she slipped her arms around Will.

He stood stiffly and walked over to Thea, leaving the couple alone to say what they needed to say in private.  Putting his arms around his wife he sighed.

“Happy everything worked out?” Thea asked and he shook his head.  “No, I was just thinking that I’m getting too old for this foolishness,” he said and smiled as his wife laughed and squeezed him tightly.

“What the hell was that all about?”  Ben asked his eldest son.

“Let’s go back inside and I’ll explain it to you,” he answered his father, then groaned slightly as he stretched his back before putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders.  They followed the rest back inside.

Thea stopped Adam partway into the kitchen and gently took his hands to lift them up get a close look - she shook her head, “You’re going to need a couple stitches this time, come on.”  She held him by the wrist and started tugging him out of the kitchen and toward her office.

Adam jerked his head to the side, telling his father to follow without the others noticing.  Ben did.

When the three entered the examining room Thea let go and Adam automatically sat down in the chair next to a small, draped suture table.  She went into her office to retrieve her bag and Ben sat down on the only other available seat – the examining table.

When Thea came back in she smiled at Ben feeling comfortable enough in her presence now to do something like hop up on the table without a second thought.  She put her bag down on a tiled counter and pulled the drape off the table.  A tray of instruments for suturing was waiting and she glanced at her father-in-law who was watching with interest.

“I learned a long time ago to have a suture set ready at all times.  I think I’ve put more stitches in him than a quilt!”

Ben smiled as he saw Adam grin and shake his head.

“So, what happened out there?” he asked his eldest son.

“Well,” Adam said as Thea turned back to open a cupboard door and take down a large bottle filled with a clear liquid.  “Thea and Laura had a long talk last night, don’t ask why…” he paused to chuckle, “and from everything she said I could see that Will was getting closer and closer to the point of actually beating his wife.”


“Yes, Will.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“I know, it’s always hard to believe, but I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times and you’d be surprised at how many men you know who are guilty of it.”

“In this town?”

“Yep.  It always starts the same way, with self-pitying anger, then little things until it grows to the point where they finally start using their fists.”  He turned back to Thea when she cleared her throat – she was ready, so he laid his left arm on the table, palm down.  She began to clean his knuckles.

“I have to tell you that the only way I know of to deal with men who have fallen so low is to force them to admit what they’ve been doing.”

“I see,” Ben said.  “Are you absolutely sure about this?”

“Yes,” Adam gave his father a sideways, slightly irritated glance.  “If I hadn’t been sure Pa, I never would have provoked him into attacking me.”

Thea broke in, “And I’m sure you are aware that your son here definitely has a natural talent for provoking people.”

Adam grinned as his father chuckled.

His expression turning serious, Adam turned his attention to his wife who had finished with his left hand and had begun on his right.

“Speaking of provoking people, what the hell did you think you were doing by hitting Will in the back of the head like that?”

“I’m sorry, but I just lost my temper,” Thea answered him then picked up a pair of long tweezers from the tray.  “Hold still, you have a tiny bone chip here I have to get out before I can finish.”

“Don’t try to change the subject.”

“I’m not, you DO have a bone chip in here.  I’m trying to get it out without having to cut.”


She looked up at him impatiently, “All right!  I promise I won’t go around hitting people anymore.  Happy now?”

Adam nodded and she turned her attention back to her task.  When he turned his head to look at his father he saw that Ben was definitely amused.

“Ah, there you are,” Thea said and pulled out the small chip.  Two more stitches and she was almost finished.  She carefully swabbed the open abrasions and stitches with her usual carbolic acid and water mixture then dried his hands with a clean, linen cloth.

“I better go see what kind of shape Will is in,” she said as she stood, and quickly left the room.

Both men watched her go and Ben spoke first.  “That was smart.”

“What?” Adam asked, even though he knew what his father was referring to.

“Taking her to task for hitting Will while she was concentrating on you,” Ben chuckled.  “You get less of an argument out of her then, don’t you?”

Adam nodded.  “Yep,” he said and laughed.  “I’m not stupid, I’ll use any advantage I can get.  It’s hard to handle her sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” his father said and a look of understanding passed between them as they both stood and headed back to the kitchen.

When they entered, Will and Laura were just coming in through the back door.  Will looked at Adam, chagrined.

“I’ll fix that door for you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Adam answered then smiled at his cousin.

Startled, Will blinked at him and relaxed as he tried to smile back, but winced at the pain in his jaw.

Thea came forward, took Will by the wrist and started to pull him out of the kitchen saying, “Come on, I need to look you over and make sure you’re all right.”

Will followed reluctantly.  “You’re not going to hit me again are you?”

She paused and her eyes narrowed.  “Not if you watch that mouth of yours.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said meekly and the two left.  Laura started to follow, but stopped when Adam stepped in front of her.

“Stay here, Thea won’t appreciate your presence when she’s working.”

Laura looked up at him with a red face, embarrassed that he now knew everything about her marital problems.  Then Adam smiled down at her.  She found herself smiling back.

“Thank you,” she said quietly and he just nodded.

“You might as well sit down, Thea is very thorough when she examines someone.”

While Laura found a seat at the table Adam went to sit next to Joe and held out his arms for Benjamin.  His younger brother handed the baby over without protest.

He settled his son in his lap and the child looked up at him with a delighted grin, but when Adam rested one hand on the table Benjamin’s eyes opened wide.  He turned his head to look at his father’s face then reached out to place one small hand on the back of Adam’s hand.

“Pa!” the child said.  Everyone at the table interrupted their conversations to turn and listen.

“What?” his father asked him.

“Boo-boo!” Benjamin said seriously.

Adam smiled.  So did everyone else.

“That’s right, your mother had to put some stitches in my hand.”

Benjamin glanced back at his father’s face again then patted his wrist.

“Owie!” he said in a sorrowful tone and everyone chuckled while Adam lifted his son and gave him a hug.

“That’s alright, Benny, it doesn’t hurt all that much.”

The baby leaned back to look at his father’s face.  Reassured by his expression the child grinned then laid his head back down on Adam’s hard chest and yawned.

Will came back at that moment and everyone watched as he came to sit in the empty chair next to Adam.  He cleared his throat then looked around the table.

“I want to apologize to all of you for my behavior.  I’m sorry for being so thoughtless and rude.”  He swept his eyes around the table again and was surprised to only see smiles and nods in return.

When everyone resumed their conversations he relaxed, beginning to understand that they were used to this sort of thing.  He was right.

Will turned to Adam, embarrassed, “I don’t really know what to say to you - besides ‘Thank you’.”

Adam looked back at his cousin impassively for a few moments, “You’re welcome, but understand this…admitting you have a problem is only the beginning.  You have to learn how to control your temper and stop placing blame where it doesn’t belong.”  He paused to rub Benjamin’s back when the child moved restlessly.

The other man dropped his eyes and stared down at his hands while he thought that over.  Raising his head he forced himself to look Adam in the eye.  “Will you help me?” he asked in a low voice.

Taking his time, Adam stared back at his cousin, assessing his sincerity.  Then he smiled.

“Of course.”

Will relaxed, relieved that he wouldn’t be facing this problem alone.  His gaze dropped and he looked at Benjamin with a pained look.  “May I hold him?”


Adam carefully handed the child to his cousin while watching him closely.  The other man took Benjamin in his arms, treating him as though he was fragile.  When the baby was snuggled up against his chest Will sighed with regret then dropped a quick kiss on the top of the boy’s head.

Adam leaned toward him.  “There’s one more thing we need to get straight between us before all is forgiven and forgotten,” he said low enough so no one else could hear.  His cousin stiffened.

“I expect to hear you apologize to Thea for calling her a bitch.”

Will nodded.  “I know and I’m sorry for calling her something she isn’t.”

“Oh no, my wife is a bitch and I’m proud of her for it.”  His cousin just stared back, shocked.  Adam smiled at his expression.

“Thea doesn’t take any crap off of anyone…except me,” he paused to pat his astonished cousin on the shoulder.  “You would do well to remember that.”

Will was still staring at him, not believing what he was hearing.  But when Adam raised his eyebrows and gave him a cocky grin he started to laugh.

Thea came back to the kitchen then and she paused in the doorway to smile at the scene before her.  If not for the state Adam’s hands were in and Will’s battered face anyone looking on would have thought they were all the best of friends and had been for years.

She moved to stand behind her husband and slipped her arms around him as she leaned down to whisper in his ear.  “I really am sorry for what I did and I meant it when I promised not to put you in that position again.”

Adam quickly looked up at her over his shoulder, pleased that she understood the true reason for his anger.  He took one of her hands, tugged her over and to the side before pulling her into his lap.  She smiled up into his face.

“I’m glad you understand.  I don’t need to be worrying about what you are going to do during a confrontation, Theadora.  Being distracted can cause me to make a mistake and possibly get killed in a really dangerous situation.  Remember that.”

Thea nodded, her expression both serious and contrite.  She leaned close to whisper, “I promise.”  He hugged her tightly.  “Thank you.”

They stayed that way for a few moments until the clock chimed the hour.

“Four o’clock!”  Thea exclaimed and jumped up from her husband’s lap.  “I haven’t even started dinner yet.  Who is staying?” she asked the room at large.

A chorus of voices saying “me!” made her laugh and the other ladies rose to help.  They all gathered around her to receive orders then scattered.

Benjamin stirred in Will’s arms at the commotion and leaned back to take a look at the person who was holding him.  He looked up into Will’s battered face and his wide eyes filled with tears.  “Ooo owie!” he cried then turned to hold his arms out to his father.

Everyone else, including Will, laughed, but Adam just shook his head and took his son back into his arms to hold him close and comfort him.



Chapter 44

Later that evening Adam had escaped to his office, seeking a little peace and quiet.  But no more than a half hour later he heard a knock at the door.  He sighed then called out, “Come in!”

His eyebrows rose when his father, brothers, and Will trooped in.  They remained silent and just stood in a row in front of his desk for a few moments.  Adam let them stand there silently, his expression neutral, and waited for one of them to speak first.

“We’ve been talkin’ and were wonderin’ if you would answer some questions,” Hoss said cautiously, not knowing what kind of mood his older brother was in.

Adam took the time to look at each face and then grinned.  He stood and waved the men over to the furniture grouped in front of the fireplace.  When everyone else was seated he moved over to a wingback chair and sat down.  Placing one ankle on the opposite knee, he smiled and said, “Alright, what do you want to know?”

Joe, of course, was first.  “Charlie told me about you snapping that knife blade off the handle when that man was trying to kidnap Alexander.  How did you do that?”

Laughing softly Adam shook his head.  “First let me tell you that a lot of what I do are tricks and a perfect example is that knife.  I picked it up and looked at it first.  I could see that it was a cheap knife and not very well taken care of.  The tang was very narrow and rusting.  Thea could have done it.  But I used that to my advantage to un-nerve that man.  Luckily, it worked.”

His youngest brother was nodding and smiled, now that his curiosity was satisfied.  Will spoke up next.

“Joe told me about the papers you handed to that deputy and he said it was a federal warrant.  Do I really have a warrant out against me?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that.  Answer a question for me Will.  How are you now?”

“Sore as hell.”

“Alright, now you don’t have to worry about that warrant.  The warrant was to bring you in for questioning.  You’ve been questioned by a federal agent and the terms of that warrant have been fulfilled rendering it null and void now.”

Will smiled and shook his head.  “That’s all you needed to get me out of there?”

“Well, it helped, but what got you out of there was the fine art of intimidation.”

“Ah…I see.”

Adam nodded, “Things went very smoothly.  We were lucky.”

“Could you teach me how to do that?” Joe asked with a grin.

“No, Joe.  You have to have the right attitude to intimidate someone.  It also helps to have the reputation of being able to do what you are implying you will do if they don’t cooperate.  Everything I was throwing at that deputy was to keep him off balance and you six backing me up had him seriously worried about his physical safety.  He folded, that’s all there was to it.”  Then Adam laughed.  “I am so thankful you were actually there, Will.  I was reasonably certain you were, but it would have been horribly embarrassing if you hadn’t been!”  He smiled when the others laughed, and then he looked at Joe.

“That comment you made to Will about me almost making the deputy wet himself was funny, Joe.  I almost laughed out loud.”

“Hey, I thought you were sleeping!”

“No, I wasn’t asleep.”

“But didn’t you say you were going to…”

Adam gave him a look that said he was being dense.  “Did I?  No, you all just assumed that.”  He chuckled, “Have you forgotten already?  I just told you that a lot of the things I do are tricks, things that I use to my advantage.”

Will broke in, “Just like those things you said to make my temper snap?”

“Correct.  Rage will tire you out more quickly than actual physical activity.  I played you like a fiddle, Will - it was necessary.  For me to get through to you, you had to be both physically and mentally exhausted.”  He noticed his father giving him a suddenly sharp look, but he didn’t respond to it.

“Dang Adam!” Hoss said, looking at his brother almost as though he didn’t know him.  “How did you learn all that?”

“The hard way, by making mistakes and getting my butt kicked.  Plus I never missed an opportunity to listen to the older Pinkerton agents and marshals.  Their experiences were fascinating and I learned twice as much from them.”

Hoss thought that over for a moment.  “Is that how you got to be successful so quick like?”

“Pretty much.  Some of my employees were experts in finance.  Unfortunately, they usually went to prison for swindles and embezzling.  But I listened to their advice on legitimate business deals.  I learned a lot from them too.”

“But how did you get started?”

“Oh, you mean start up money?”


Adam quickly glanced at his father then grinned.  “Bounty hunting.”

“What!”  Hoss wasn’t the only one who was shocked.

“You heard me,” Adam laughed, “bounty hunting.”

The other men were silent for a while.  “How long did you do that?” Joe asked.

“Actually only once, but Nate and I carted in a whole gang, so the rewards added up nicely.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Ben said while shaking his head.

“Well, I wanted a lot of money in a short amount of time and that was the best way to get it.”

“Yeah, but how?” Hoss asked.

“We went down south, became members of the gang, knocked them all out with doctored whisky, loaded them into a locked boxcar and shipped them back up north.  It was childishly simple, and Nate thought I was completely insane, but it worked.  That’s how I met Pinkerton and started working for him.  I had to share the rewards after that, but the information and resources provided by the agency made it worthwhile.”  He paused and yawned.  “And that’s when we met up with Jerry, Mike, and John.  None of them had any family, and I only had Thea at that point so we naturally fell in together.”

They all fell silent then, thinking about what they had heard until the clock over the fireplace chimed ten times.  Hoss, Will and Joe stood, said “Good night,” and filed out of the room.  Ben, however, stayed.

Adam stayed in his chair, looking at his father with narrowed eyes, remembering the sharp look he had received from him earlier.  “OK, Pa, now what do you want to know.”

Ben just stared at him for a bit before responding.  “It’s all about power, isn’t it?”

His eldest son’s face tightened and his eyes darkened and his father realized he was looking at a face he hadn’t really ever seen before.

“Correct.  That is what all this has been about.  I have been at someone else’s mercy twice in my life now and that’s two times too many.”  Adam was staring intently into his father’s eyes.

 He continued.  “What are the elements of power, Pa?  Money of course, physical and mental strength certainly, knowledge, and position or influence.”  He raised a hand with his thumb folded in.  “These four elements are what constitutes power.  I have pursued them and made them my own.”

He paused for a moment.  “Believe this - I will never be in someone else’s power again.  Never.  I will kill before I’ll ever let that happen.”

Ben cleared his throat so he could speak.  “That’s why you became a marshal too, isn’t it?  To protect other’s from being in that position.”

“Yes.  No one is going to get away with doing that to me, my family, my friends, or even anyone that I know.”  He shook his head, “No, never again.  I will do whatever I have to and use whatever or whomever necessary to prevent that.”

“That’s a heavy load, son.”

Adam’s expression finally began to clear and he gave his father a half smile as he laughed ruefully.  “I know.  Believe me, I know.”

They both stood and moved toward the door, but Adam stopped in front of his desk.  “Go on up to bed.  I’ll be working for a while.”

Ben stopped to look back at him when he reached the door.  All he could think of to say was, “Good night.”  He started through the door but Adam’s voice stopped him.

“Pa?  I didn’t ask for this burden, but it belongs to me now and I will continue to do my best with it.  Good night.”

When the door closed behind his father he went to his desk and sat down.  He had just turned his thoughts to the problem of Bentwood Junction when the door opened again.  He smiled when Thea came in.

She looked as though she was already asleep as she came up to him, cupped his face in her hands, kissed him, then tottered off toward the sofa to lay down.

As usual, she was asleep in seconds and as usual, he came over to tuck an afghan around her.  She murmured softly and he smiled again as he smoothed her hair back from her face.  “Thea, sometimes I wonder if you’re ever aware you married a nut,” he said softly then had to laugh when she opened one eye.  “That’s ok, so did you.”



Chapter 45

Adam quickly came through the front door of the Sage Brush and hurried up to his father and brothers.  He started speaking even before he reached them.

“Have you seen Thea?” he asked urgently.

Ben felt his heart clench painfully in his chest with instinctual fear for his daughter-in-law.  “No,” he answered his son while Hoss and Joe shook their heads.

“Has anyone seen her?” he said loudly.  Everyone else in the room turned to look at him, but no one had.

“Damn it!” he said and turned toward the door when his four deputies rushed in.


John, Mike, and Dylan reluctantly shook their heads as Nate said, “No one in town has seen her since Matt did early this morning.  He said she went to make some house calls, was driving the buggy, and headed south.”

Adam’s eyes darkened with fury, “I specifically told her not to do that,” he ground out through clenched teeth then he abruptly turned and stalked out the door.  His family and friends hurried to follow.

When they came out the door they saw him swing up into the saddle and take off at top speed heading south.

Nate looked at Ben.  “Do you think we should start organizing a search party?  I know Adam believes he will find her by himself, but you never know.”

The older man nodded, “Let’s get as many men together as we can.  That’s a lot of open country to cover.”  The younger men scattered, but Ben stayed where he was.  He went cold when he thought of what could have happened to her traveling around the countryside by herself.  “Dear God,” he breathed and started down the board sidewalk toward Roy’s office.


Adam knew, deep down that something was very wrong – this was not like Thea at all.  She was never late and always kept him informed as to where she was going and when she would return.  But lately he could tell something was bothering her deeply and he knew she would not discuss it until she was ready.

His fury had ebbed and now all he felt was sheer terror.  He pulled his horse to a stop and sat there for a moment thinking about which direction he should take when he felt an urge to continue heading south on the main road.  Trusting in his gut instinct he urged the horse forward and continued down the road at a breakneck pace.

He almost missed seeing the buggy, he was moving so fast, but he caught a glimpse of something square and solid black in the dark shade of a stand of trees beside the road.  His heart rose in his throat and he turned the horse in that direction, jumped from the saddle, and ran the last yards to the buggy.  Thea was not in the front seat and when he looked in the back seat he gasped and closed his eyes choking out, “Oh my God!”

Quickly shrugging out of his coat, he carefully wrapped Thea’s limp body with it and went back to lead his horse to the buggy and tie it to the rail in the back.  He didn’t want to move her to the front seat so he went to get the blanket he knew was in the boot.  He spread it over his wife and pulled the one edge through the gap between the seat and the back.  Then he tied the corners together tightly under the seat to keep her body as motionless as possible.  Then he climbed in, picked up the reins, and urged the horse to go as fast as possible.

When they reached the south end of town he kept the buggy speeding down the street and when he approached the other end he saw a group of men gathered in front of the Sage Brush.  He spotted Matt and yelled his name as he pulled up in front of the office the young doctor shared with Thea.  Matt came running as Adam jumped down, untied the blanket, and gathered his wife into his arms.  He entered the office with the doctor right behind him and the two men went into the treatment room with Thea and shut the door.

Adam’s family and friends had come running and now stood in the front room and looked at each other with bleak expressions.  They heard the two men speaking in the other room, but couldn’t understand what they were saying.

The men they had gathered to form a search party were standing on the board sidewalk in front of the office and as time went on more and more people came to join the group.

Thea’s father-in-law was anxiously pacing but he came to an abrupt stop and flinched when they all heard her scream in agony.  He put his head down and a hand over his eyes as he tried to calm down.  At least they now knew she was alive.

Some time later they heard Adam speaking, then Thea’s voice answering him.  But they still couldn’t understand what was being said.  They heard the two voices go on until they plainly heard Thea, as she shouted “NO!”  Then Matt raised his own voice to order Adam from the room.  The door opened and he came out.

Ben could see that his son was shaking so badly he almost staggered as he walked toward them.  At first his father thought it was in reaction to Thea’s scream, but then he realized the younger man was shaking with fury.

Adam stopped where he was for a moment and took several deep breaths, as he seemed to calm down somewhat.

“What happened?” Ben said quietly, not wanting to feed his son’s rage by showing his own anger.

“She was attacked,” Adam said as he moved to Thea’s desk and leaned a hip on the side and folded his arms.

Ben flinched again, “Did he…?"

“He tried to, but she laughed at him.  So he beat her until he thought she was dead,” he said and put his hands over his face for a moment as the rest of the men in the room gasped in shock.  Then their expressions hardened.

“Who did it?” Nate said in a voice that none of them had ever heard from him before.

Adam dropped his hands from his face and turned to his friend.  “She refuses to tell me.  She says I’ll go find him and kill him if she does.”  He shook his head as he looked down at her desk.

Hoss cleared his throat, “How is she?”

“She has a broken nose, three cracked ribs, a concussion, and she had a dislocated shoulder.  You have to put something like that right as quickly as possible so we had to.  That’s why she screamed,” he stopped and clenched his jaw.  “And that’s not even the worst of it.  The bastard crushed her hands,” he choked out and looked at his father, his face etched with pain.

“Her hands, Pa!  They’re such a mess she may not even be able to use them at all again, let alone perform surgery,” he said in anguish and bent over to cover his face with his hands again.

His friends and family looked away then, unable to stand watching his stark agony, so no one saw him straighten up and flip open a leather-bound book that was on the top of Thea’s desk.  He quickly ran his eyes down the rows until he found the last entry.  “Gretchen Mueller,” he read and his fury burst back into full life again.

Matt came out of the treatment room then and the men all turned toward him.  “She’s still in a lot of pain, but holding her own right now,” he said in answer to their unspoken questions.

He glanced around the room and said, “Where’s Adam?”

The other men instinctively looked toward the spot where Adam had just been, then glanced around until Matt spotted him through the office window.  The other men turned their eyes in that direction to see Adam entering the saloon while the group that had been standing outside followed.

“Oh God,” Matt said and stepped up to Thea’s desk and saw the open appointment book.  He turned to Hoss.

“You better go after him, I think he’s figured out who did it.”

Nate opened the door and started running after his best friend.  The rest of the men, except Matt, hurried after him.

Adam burst through the front door of the saloon and made a beeline toward a tall, stout, middle-aged man with dark blonde hair.  Without saying a word he came up behind Abraham Mueller, grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked backward.  The man was still sitting in the chair as it crashed to the floor on its back.

He looked up, stunned, as Adam grabbed his arm and pulled it up so he could get a close look at his hand.  The man’s knuckles were badly split and black bruises had already formed all over.

The man on the floor shifted, trying to get up when something metal fell out of his pocket and landed at Adam’s feet.  He looked down to see the pink diamond ring he had given Thea for Christmas.  Adam’s eyes went wide with pure hatred and he reached down to haul the man to his feet then kneed him in the groin. Abraham crumpled to the floor only to be hauled upright again.

Grabbing the groaning man by his throat, Adam pulled him forward until they were almost nose-to-nose.  “Do you realize how easy it would be for me to just squeeze a little harder and you would never take another breath?” he said in the coldest voice anyone there had ever heard.  Then Nate and the other men rushed in, but had to fight their way through the crowd standing by the door.

“I asked you a question!” he roared in the other man’s face.  Abe nodded as best he could and stared back at Adam with terror in his eyes.

“But that would be too easy and quick.”  He let go of Abe’s neck, shoved him up against the wall and began to beat on him with every bit of strength and skill he possessed.

He had already inflicted some major damage on his wife’s attacker before his friends and family finally managed to break through the crowd and rushed to get a hold on him and drag him away.

“Let me go, damn it!  I’m going to kill that son-of-a…” he shouted as the seven men struggled to keep a hold on him.  He kept managing to knock them down so finally they had to drag him to the floor and sit on him to hold him in one place.  But Adam’s fury had not cooled at all and his body was still tensed, ready for any opportunity to go after the other man again.

Ben stepped back from the pile of men on the floor and turned to look at Abraham.  The man was curled up on the floor by the wall and lay there groaning, his face covered with blood.  He stared at the man with cold black eyes then turned away.  He looked at the six men still holding Adam down and nodded toward the table they usually gathered around, then he bent down to pick up the ring.

As soon as the weight was off him Adam began to struggle wildly to pull free.  Hal and Larry hurried to help.  They dragged him over and shoved him down into a chair behind the table and up against the wall.  He immediately sprang back up, but was pushed back down again.  He kept struggling for a while, but eventually seemed to get himself under control as he suddenly relaxed.

They cautiously took their hands off him, but still leaned over him, ready to pile on top of him again if necessary.  Adam looked away and raised his hands in a “back off,” gesture.  Then they finally relaxed.

Roy came through the door then and Ben hurried up to him to explain as Adam slowly tensed again.  He watched closely as men hauled Abraham to his feet.  Roy took him by the arm and started leading him out of the saloon.

Adam’s eyes, seething with hatred, followed Abe as they passed the table, but then he looked away and put his head down.  No one was prepared when he suddenly jumped up on the table, ran across it, and leapt onto Abe’s back.

Roy was knocked aside as the two men crashed to the floor and Adam only had the chance to turn the other man over and punch him in the face a few times before he was dragged away again.

“Get him out of here!” Ben shouted and Hoss put his arm around Adam’s neck and began to haul him out the door and across the street to the doctor’s office.  The deputies and his family followed so they were there to prevent breaking free again.

Nate put a hand on either side of his friend’s head and forced him to make eye contact.  “Stop it, Adam or I’ll be forced to cuff you and I don’t want to do that!”

That finally got through to him.  He stopped struggling and just stood there quietly until Hoss let him go.  Adam immediately turned, walked the rest of the way to the office, and went inside.

The seven men just stood in the street for a bit, staring at each other and feeling drained as well as deeply shaken.  They had never seen Adam like that before and each man knew he would have killed Abe if they hadn’t stopped him.

Nate took a deep breath then blew it out as he looked around the group.  “Hoss, Mike, I want you to stay by the office front door and make sure he doesn’t get away again.”  The two men nodded and went inside to stand on either side of the door. 

“Dylan,” Nate continued, “you and John guard the back door, we have to assume that in his furious state we won’t be able to trust Adam to act rationally.”  They turned and quietly went in.

He turned to Adam’s father and other brother next, “Mr. Cartwright?  Joe?  Would you two go in and see if Thea is conscious?  We need to have her identify Mueller as her attacker as quickly as possible.”  Ben looked in the tall man’s blue eyes for a moment, his expression plainly saying he didn’t want that man anywhere near his daughter-in-law again.  Then he nodded and went to do as Nate asked.

Joe started to follow him, but Nate stopped him with a hand on his arm.  “If she is, I need you to go back to the saloon and tell Roy to bring that monster here.”  Joe steadily looked the other man in the eye and nodded before he turned away.

He was back in a moment, but didn’t say anything as he went past and headed for the Sage Brush.  Nate winced at Joe’s expression understanding that the younger man had just seen what condition Thea was in and was sickened by it.

Matt and Ben were in a corner of the office, deeply involved in a hushed conversation as the Deputy Marshal went in, then paused to mentally brace himself before going into the treatment room.  He had assumed that Adam would be with his wife and he was.  Nate hesitated in the doorway, watching Adam gently bathing Thea’s face with a soft cloth and cold water.

“Come on in, Nate,” he said without looking up from his task.  “I’ve regained most of my sanity now so it’s safe.”  The corners of Adam’s mouth actually turned up a little when he glanced at his deputy.

“I imagine you’ve already sent someone to Roy, asking him to bring that bastard here so Thea can identify him.”

Nate nodded his head and looked down at Thea.  He stifled a gasp when he saw how bruised and battered her face was and said, “I thought she was conscious?”

“I am,” Thea said and opened her swollen eyes as far as she could.  Nate couldn’t even see them through the narrow slits, which was all she could manage.

“Nate?” she said in a muffled voice and tried to turn her head, but winced.

He stepped closer to the table to lean over her, “Yes it’s me, Thea.”

“Oh, there you are,” she said then gasped when he brushed one of her hands with his hip.

“God, I’m sorry!”

She actually tried to give him a reassuring smile, but her lips were so badly split and bruised she couldn’t.  He looked down at the hand he had brushed and blanched.  It was a raw, scraped, swollen mess.  He took the time then to catalogue the injuries he could see and turned even paler when he saw finger marks around her throat and wrists.

Adam was watching him and smoothed Thea’s hair back from her forehead as he said, “Nate’s going to be the lead on this Thea and he has to see what was done to you.”

“I know,” she said and closed her eyes.

Adam came around to shut the door and then gently moved the blanket aside.  Nate took one look and had to close his eyes and swallow hard to resist the urge to vomit.  Then he clenched his jaw and opened his eyes again to note each abrasion, finger mark, cut, and bruise.  He nodded to Adam and he covered her quickly.

“She must have fought him like a wildcat,” Nate said.

Adam nodded, “That’s my girl,” he said and they both heard Thea clear her throat.

“I suppose the beating would have been less severe if I had let him rape me,” Thea said in her hoarse, muffled voice.  “But I’d rather die first.”

“What I don’t understand is why?  Why did he do this?  Just because he’s vicious and insane?” Nate asked.

“Yes and no,” Thea answered him and tried to open her eyes again, “he is vicious, but he’s not insane.  He knew exactly what he was doing.”  She stopped and coughed a little so Adam brought some water to her.  He carefully put a hand to the back of her head and helped her take a drink.  “This seems familiar,” she said then continued with her explanation.  “When I arrived his wife was having a miscarriage and there is no doubt whatsoever that it was the result of a beating.  I actually saw a boot imprint on her abdomen.  Seemingly he likes to keep the fun going by stomping when he gets tired of punching.  That’s what he did to my hands.”

Nate was turning a little green at this point and Adam actually gave him a small smile.  “I know this is hard, but you have to hear it all.”

His deputy nodded as Adam helped his wife take another drink.  “He came back just as I finished with Gretchen and was making her as comfortable as I could,” Thea went on.  “One look at my face and he realized I knew what he had done.  So he tried to kill me and make it look like a random attack by someone demented.”

She sighed then and fell silent, letting her eyes close.

Adam came around the table to open the door and the two men stepped out.  Hoss said his older brother’s name and came over to hand him a package.  “Marie, Dora, and Cassandra brought some clothes for Thea a little while ago.  They wanted to see her, but I sent them home.”

“Thank you,” Adam said and put a hand on his older brother’s shoulder to give it a hard squeeze.  He started to turn away, but stopped and turned back.  “I’m sorry I lost control like that.  Did I hurt you?”

Hoss’s face lit up, happy that Adam was himself again.  “Only my reputation for bein’ smart,” he said with a grin.  “You pulled a dirty trick on us jumpin’ up on the table and runnin’ across it like that.”

Adam looked up at Hoss, “I lost my mind.  All I could see was what he did to her and I just could not stop myself, so thank you for stopping me.”

The big man just looked back at him for a moment with solemn blue eyes.  “Everyone needs someone to stop them from doin’ somethin’ stupid now and again, even you.”

His older brother grinned at him and softly said, “You do understand, don’t you?”

Hoss nodded, “I kept thinkin’ about how I’d feel if it was Dora.”

Their eyes met in perfect understanding and Hoss reached out to pull Adam into a brief, hard hug.  Then he let go and turned quickly to take his position next to the door again.  Adam went back into the treatment room to carefully help Thea into the long-sleeved, loose robe the women in his house had brought.

He had just finished when he heard the front door open, Roy’s voice, and the sound of hurrying feet.  Sighing, he looked at his wife.  “Are you sure you want to do this?

“Yes,” she said calmly.  “But I don’t want him in here, I’ll go out there.”  She slowly sat up and swung her legs over the side of the table.  “You can help me down, but that’s it.  I have to do this by myself.”

She gasped when her feet met the floor and she leaned back against him for a minute.  Then she walked slowly, and painfully through the door with her husband following closely behind.  When they saw her coming almost every man in the room instinctually took a step forward to come help her, but Adam waved them back.  “She wants to do this herself.”

Thea didn’t stop until she was standing right in front of her attacker and she looked up at him through the narrow slits the swelling would allow.  She turned her head from side to side taking a good look at him then shocked them all by spitting in his face and saying, “That’s him.”

She took a few steps back as the man glared down at her, “Lying bitch!”

Thea actually managed a rusty laugh as he tried to lunge toward her, but he was being held firmly by Hoss and Dylan.  Then Ben came to step in between them.  “I believe that’s all you need to lock him up Roy,” Adam said as his father turned around and put his hands on Thea’s shoulders and gently began to guide her back to the treatment room.  But she resisted as much as she could saying “Wait!”

“Adam, rip the cover off of one of those composition books behind you and bring it to me,” she said and he quickly did as she asked.  When he brought it to her she leaned forward and opened her mouth as much as she could.  It took a second for him to understand what she was doing, but then he did, so he carefully placed a corner of the square in her mouth.  She bit down on it as hard as she could then let go.

He looked down at her with admiration as he asked, “Where?”

“His left shoulder,” she said and turned in Ben’s arms to look at her attacker again.

“Let’s have a look at his left shoulder Hoss,” Adam said and the two men holding Mueller tightened their grip as Adam unbuttoned the man’s shirt and shoved it aside.  He held the cardboard up to the teeth marks on Abe’s left shoulder and they matched perfectly.  “Roy?” Adam said as he stepped back and handed him the cardboard.  Roy compared them too, and then looked at Adam.

“Perfect match,” the Sheriff said.

“I marked him on purpose so there’d be no doubt,” Thea said in a surprisingly strong, but hoarse voice, even though her knees had started to shake.

“Help me up to him, Pa,” she asked and Ben reluctantly did so.  Looking up at Mueller again she said, “You thought I was dead, but I wasn’t.  You thought you destroyed my hands, but you haven’t.”  She raised her devastated hands and slowly began to clench them into fists as she whimpered from the pain.  “See?” she choked out against the agony and let her fingers relax.

“You deserve to hang for what you’ve done and if I had my way I’d be the one on the scaffold to pull the lever,” she spat out at him and suddenly went limp in Ben’s arms.  He swung her up and carried her into the treatment room where Matt was already waiting for them.  He had known that Thea would be passing out from the pain eventually.

“You’ll definitely be going to prison, Mueller.” Adam said from where he was leaning back against the front of Thea’s desk with his arms crossed.

“Nate, charge him with manslaughter, attempted murder, attempted rape, assault, and grand larceny,” Adam said and Nate nodded.

“I understand the attempted murder, attempted rape, and assault charges, but not the manslaughter and grand larceny.” Roy said.

“Oh he killed someone today, it just wasn’t Thea.  He beat his wife so badly she miscarried.  Thea saw a boot print on the woman’s abdomen – that’s why he tried to kill her.  The grand larceny is for stealing her ring, it’s worth more than five hundred dollars.”

Hoss instinctively squeezed the man’s arm harder and Mueller groaned in pain.  “I know how you feel Hoss, but you better ease up or you’ll break his arm,” Adam said and Hoss did so, but his jaw was still clenched and his normally mild blue eyes sparked with rage.

“Roy, I want him locked up in one of your cells and you keep the keys with you at all times.  I don’t want any access to him because if I do, I can’t guarantee you he won’t be dead by morning.”

The Sheriff nodded and motioned for Hoss and Dylan to follow him out the door and they did, dragging the badly beaten man between them.

“Mike, John, let’s go get started on the paperwork,” Nate said and opened the office door.  The other two deputies went out and Nate was about to follow when he heard Adam say, “Make sure you do it right.”

Nate looked back at him and gave him a wide smile.  “Yes, boss,” was all he said and left.

Adam stood and went behind Thea’s desk to wearily drop into her chair.  He leaned back, stretched his legs out in front of him, and stared at the ceiling with his hands lying limply in his lap.  For a while he went over every event of the day, then his thoughts turned to what could happen if Mueller filed charges against him for assault.  Not only could he lose his badge, he could possibly do some jail time himself.

He searched his heart, looking for any feelings of regret and found none.  “Damn it,” he said softly to himself, “I’m not sorry, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”  He smiled remembering the satisfying feeling of his fist crushing Mueller’s nose.  Shaking his head at himself, he stood up and started for the treatment room where Thea was arguing with Matt because she wanted to go home and he wanted her to stay at least one night for observation.  Pa was staying out of the argument.

Taking a deep breath Adam opened the door and went in to settle the question.