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YOU DON'T LOVE ME ANYMORE

By CowgirlAtHeart

Summary: Adam takes it upon himself to protect a young woman who is being chased by outlaws.

Action/Adventure/Drama

Characters: Adam Cartwright


Adam Cartwright was sitting in a saloon in Lake’s Crossing. The man at the stage office had told him the Blue Bull was the best saloon in town. If that was true, Adam didn’t want to think what the other saloons must be like. The floor was filthy, the table at which Adam was sitting was sticky, and the beer was flat. The girl at the piano was playing more mistakes than correct notes.

Someone brushed past Adam’s left shoulder and laid a folded piece of paper on the table in front of him. Adam looked up and saw a brown-haired girl in a bottle green dress walking away. Unfolding the piece of paper, he read one word: “Help.”

What does that mean? Adam watched the girl as she picked up three beer glasses from the bar and brought them to a table of poker players, calling cheerfully over her shoulder to the bartender as she went. She didn’t look like she was in trouble, but she might be a good actress.

As Adam watched, the girl looked over at him for a long second. Then she looked away and went back to the bar for another beer glass. Casually, stopping to flirt with a couple men on the way, she made her way over to Adam’s table. “Another beer, mister?”

“You need help?” Adam said in an undertone.

“Desperately,” the girl said quietly, setting the beer glass down and picking up Adam’s empty one. “You’re Adam Cartwright, aren’t you?”

“How do you know that?”

“Barney said so. He’s the bartender. I’ve heard about you Cartwrights before…everyone says you’re good men. Can I talk to you somewhere?” The girl’s eyes were worried.

“Can you get away from the saloon?”

“In half an hour I can.”

“I’ll be at the hotel across the street.”

The girl nodded, smiled, and walked away with the empty beer glass, leaving Adam to watch her and wonder what kind of trouble she was in. Of course, the whole thing could be a fake. But on the other hand, maybe she was really in trouble and he could really help her. He finished his beer, left two bits on the table, and walked out the swinging saloon doors with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder.



* * * * *



The hotel was better than the saloon, although the carpet sent up puffs of dust as Adam walked across it to the front desk. The man at the desk looked like he hadn’t slept in two days.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, covering a yawn.

“I’d like a room, please.”

“You’re in luck. There’s one room left. It’s pretty torn up, though. The lady who stayed in there last night thought she saw a lizard. Made her man turn the room upside down lookin’ for it.”

“How much?”

“I’ll give it to you at fifty cents, and that’s dirt cheap considerin’ it’s got a lock on the door.”

“All right.” Adam plunked down a half dollar on the counter.

“You sign the book. I’ll get your key.” The man fumbled in a drawer while Adam wrote his name in the hotel register. “Here you go. Room 4.” He yawned again.

Adam took the key. “If you can stay awake long enough, would you do me a favor? If a young lady comes in and asks for Adam Cartwright, will you tell her where I am?”

“Sure thing,” the man said. His eyes went from half-shut to wide open. “Adam Cartwright! Like the Ponderosa Cartwrights?”

“Yes, Ponderosa Cartwrights.” Adam tried not to smile at the man’s change from lethargic to attentive. “You’ll tell her? Thanks.” He went up the rickety stairs to the second floor and walked down the creaky hallway to Room 4.

The room was a mess. The mattress was propped against a wall, with the dingy blankets trailing from it. The washstand jug was broken in a hundred pieces on the floor. A large wet spot on the floor showed that the jug hadn’t been empty when it broke. Adam shook his head and started cleaning things up.

He had just finished picking up all the broken china when there was a knock at the door. He opened it, gun in hand, and saw the girl from the saloon, wearing a dark blue shawl over her green dress. “Come in,” he said, sliding his gun back into its holster.

The girl came in, throwing a glance over her shoulder into the hallway, and shut the door behind her. “Good, nobody’s listening,” she said quietly. “I need your help.”

“Sit down,” Adam said, offering the only chair in the room. “What’s the trouble? And who are you?”

The girl sat down on the chair. Adam sat on the edge of the bed.

“I’m Audie Shepherd,” the girl said. “I’m being threatened by outlaws.”

“What?"

“The Wilson Gang is after me. See, my pa used to be in the Wilson Gang. But on the very day the Gang was going to rob a big bank in Tucson, Pa split off from the group. He didn’t want to be an outlaw anymore. Anyway, the Wilson Gang got to that bank and found somebody had robbed it already—cleaned it right out. They figured Pa did it. But he didn’t! He came home and packed up all our stuff, and we rode out for Nevada. Pa figured the Wilson Gang would be looking for him. Well, Pa died three years ago. Yesterday a man followed me home from the saloon and asked me where the money was hidden. I told him I didn’t have any money. He said the Wilson Gang knew I had it, and I’d better tell him where it was. I kept on telling him my pa didn’t steal that money, and he got real scary. He said Larry Wilson was coming to town, and he’d get the truth out of me. So, I’ve got to get out of town!” Audie twisted the fringe of her shawl around her fingers.

Adam thought for a minute. “Have you told the sheriff?”

“It won’t do any good! Have you seen the sheriff? He’s lazier than a cat sleeping in the sun! And nobody in town knows what Larry Wilson looks like, anyhow!”

“So where do you want to go? And how are you going to avoid the Wilson Gang? The first thing they’ll expect you to do is leave town.”

“I know, but what can I do? If I stay here I’m a sitting duck! I’ve got to go somewhere!”

“You don’t have any friends here to keep you safe?”

Audie shook her head. “The only friend I’ve got is a little old lady named Mrs. Reed. She can’t keep me safe!”

“So where do I come into all this?”

Audie’s words came out in a rush. “You don’t live here. You must be leaving town. Will you take me with you?”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “I’m taking the afternoon stage to Virginia City,” he said. “I don’t suppose there’s any way I could stop you from getting on that stage too. But you could have done that without my help.”

“No, you don’t understand! I couldn’t go by myself because I wouldn’t have anybody to keep me safe from the Wilson Gang. I need you to protect me in case they attack the stagecoach!”

Adam couldn’t help smiling. “So that’s it!” he said. “I assure you, I’m not going to stand by and watch outlaws carry you off.”

Audie’s worried face relaxed. “Thank you so much, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “I’ll be there at the stage tomorrow afternoon.” She stood up.

“Good.” Adam got up and opened the door for Audie.

She stopped in the doorway. “Oh, I forgot something,” she said.

“What?”

Audie’s face was sheepish. “I only have five dollars,” she said. “That’s not enough for the ticket, is it?”

“I’ll take care of your ticket. Don’t worry about it.”



* * * * *



Audie was so late getting to the stagecoach the next afternoon that Adam was beginning to think she had decided not to go after all. The stagecoach driver was grumbling about his schedule when Adam saw Audie coming down the street laden with heavy bundles. He jogged over to meet her and take some of the bundles from her.

“You have a guitar?” Adam was surprised to see a guitar case in Audie’s hand.

“Yes. It was my Pa’s. It was special to him.” Audie gripped the guitar case tightly. “I’m not letting that stagecoach driver put it on top of the coach. I’m keeping it right with me inside.”

“There’s not going to be much room,” Adam said. “We’ve got six people in there.”

“I’ll make it work if I have to hold it on my lap the whole time,” Audie said.

Adam shook his head. “Suit yourself! Come on, we’re late.” He hurried over to the coach and helped the driver load Audie’s luggage.

The other passengers, three men and a middle-aged woman, were waiting in the stagecoach. As Adam helped Audie in with her guitar case, one of the men groaned. “Can’t you put that thing on top? We’re squished in here already!”

“No,” Audie said. “It’s my Pa’s guitar. I’m not losing it.” She sat down by the window and put the guitar on her lap. It nearly touched the top of the stagecoach.

Adam climbed in after Audie and sat down between her and a portly man in a tweed suit. It was a tight fit. The atmosphere in the stagecoach was ovenlike.

“Everybody ready?” The stagecoach driver poked his head in the door. “Let’s go!” He shut the door and climbed up to his seat. The coach started down the road.

The woman sitting opposite Audie looked at her disapprovingly, then turned to the man next to her, who had his nose buried in a newspaper. “You meet all kinds on these stagecoaches!” she said.

“What?” the man asked, not looking up from the paper.

“Never mind.” The woman’s lips set in a thin line, and she looked out the window.

Adam turned to look at Audie. She was still wearing the bottle green dress that marked her as a saloon girl. Probably her best dress.

Audie smiled at Adam. “Thanks a lot, Mr. Cartwright,” she said.



* * * * *



After a dull, hot, dry, tiring afternoon and evening in the stagecoach, all the passengers were glad when they reached the way station where they would spend the night. Adam helped Audie take her baggage inside the crowded house, then went outside for a breath of the evening air. He sat down on the edge of the front porch and looked up at the stars.

The house door squeaked open and shut, and Audie sat down on the porch beside Adam. “I hope nobody from the Wilson Gang was around when we were leaving town,” she said. “If they were they could follow us here and surprise us in the middle of the night.”

“They could,” Adam said.

“Do you think they will?”

“Maybe, if they saw you leaving.”

Audie scooted closer to Adam. “Have you ever had to fight outlaws before?”

“Yeah, I guess I have.”

“You live on a big ranch, don’t you? The Ponderosa?”

“Yes, with my father and my two brothers.”

“It must be nice to have family still alive,” Audie said. “Ever since Pa died I had to work in that saloon. I was eighteen when I started. I hated it.” She sighed. “I guess I’ll have to work in a saloon again in Virginia City.”

“If you hate it, why don’t you do something else?” Adam said.

“Like what? I don’t know how to do anything useful except cook!”

“You could work in a restaurant,” Adam said. “Or learn to sew and work in a dress shop. My father could probably find you a good position.”

“Adam Cartwright, you’re as good as people say you are,” Audie said.

Adam smiled. “Hey, do you know how to play that guitar?”

“No…I just keep it because it was Pa’s. Do you play guitar?”

“I do.”

Audie jumped up. “Will you play something for me?”

“Sure.”

Audie ran inside and came back with the guitar. She handed it to Adam.

Adam ran his hand over the smooth finish of the wood and examined the joints and the frets. “Looks like a good instrument,” he said. Audie stood still watching him tune it.

Then Adam began to play…chords at first, then fingerpicking patterns. “My Pa knew how to do that,” Audie said. “A lot of fellers would play guitar in the saloon, but they only played chords. I like the fancy stuff better.” She sat down next to Adam on the porch.

Adam played for a while, getting the feel of the guitar. Then he started singing.

From this valley they say you are going


We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile


For they say you are taking the sunshine


That has brightened our pathway a while.

It was a song he’d sung many times at the Ponderosa. Audie sat with her chin propped in her hands listening.

“Adam, that was lovely,” she said when he’d finished. “Sing another one, please!"

So Adam did. He sang “Streets of Laredo” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” He sang cowboy songs and songs he’d learned in Boston at college.

Finally, Adam put down the guitar. “It’s time for you to get some rest,” he said. “We’ve got a long trip tomorrow!”

Audie didn’t move. She stayed gazing into the distance.

“Audie?”

She turned to him, eyes wide in a serious face. “Nobody’s played like that since Pa died,” she said. “Thank you.” She leaned in and kissed Adam on the cheek. Then she jumped up, took the guitar, and ran into the house.

Less than a minute later, as Adam was about to go inside, a man on a black horse rode up to the way station. He swung down from his horse and left it at the hitching post.

“Howdy, stranger!” the man called to Adam. “You think I can get a place to stay here?”

“It’s pretty full,” Adam said. “And you’re not a stage passenger. You’d better talk to the man inside.”

“Sure thing,” the man said, and shouldered his way past Adam into the house. He was a big man, not fat, but large-boned and muscular. He wore a plaid shirt, beige pants, and a Stetson with a hole in it.

Adam followed him in. The living room of the house was crowded. The married couple from the stagecoach were sitting on the sofa. The man in the tweed suit was snoring in a chair. Audie was in a corner of the room, putting the guitar in its case before retiring into the back room that the station master’s wife had set aside for the women.

The man in the plaid shirt was talking to the man who ran the way station. “You say you don’t have any room for me?” he said.

“You’ve got a bedroll, don’t ya?” the station master asked. “We don’t have any room in here.”

The man in the plaid shirt looked around at the stage passengers. “Guess you’re right,” he said. “Can I water my horse here?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

The man went out. Adam found an unoccupied chair in a corner and settled down to try to get some sleep. The chair was uncomfortable, and the room was noisy, but finally he dropped off.



* * * * *



Adam woke up with an uneasy feeling that something wasn’t right. His neck was stiff from sleeping in the chair. It was dark in the room except where the moon shining in through the window made a bright patch on the floor.

There was a sound from outside the window, and Adam realized what had woken him. Someone was talking outside. It was a man’s voice, speaking low; Adam couldn’t catch any words.

Then there was a scream—a woman’s scream, cut off abruptly at the end. Adam rushed for the door, nearly tripping over a pile of luggage in the middle of the floor. He ran outside, gun drawn, just in time to see a man struggling with a woman in the front yard. It was Audie.

“Let go of her!” Adam shouted, “or I’ll shoot!”

Audie struggled free and ran to Adam. She was sobbing. Her assailant put his hands up. Adam saw it was the same man with the plaid shirt who had come to the way station that evening.

“What’s going on?” the station master shouted from the doorway of the house.

“I don’t know,” Adam called back. “Keep your hands up!” he said to the man, keeping his gun trained on him. “Audie, what happened?”

“He’s one of the Wilson Gang!” Audie cried. “He asked me where my father hid the money, and I knew he must be one of the Wilson Gang, so I screamed, and he grabbed me and put his hand over my mouth!”

“Somebody get a rope!” Adam called over his shoulder. “The fellow’s an outlaw!”

“Isn’t anybody going to ask me for my side of the story?” the outlaw asked. Adam ignored him.

The station master hurried past Adam, Audie, and the outlaw to the barn and returned with a rope. At this point all the stage passengers were crowding around behind Adam to get a look at the outlaw. The man in the tweed suit helped the station master tie the outlaw’s hands behind him.

“Get in the house!” Adam commanded him. “And sit where we can keep an eye on you!” He put his gun away, and the station master and the other passengers led the outlaw into the house.

Adam turned to Audie. She was crying. Adam put his hand on her shoulder.

“Why were you outside in the middle of the night?” he asked.

“It was too hot,” Audie sobbed, “and I couldn’t sleep. So, I came out for a breath of air. That man came up and said hello, and I wasn’t worried about him because I was just on the front porch. Then he asked me where the money was, and I realized he must be one of the Wilson Gang!”

“You shouldn’t have gone out there,” Adam said. “You knew you were being chased by outlaws!”

“I didn’t think there would be an outlaw at the way station!” Audie swallowed hard. “He must have followed me from Lake’s Crossing!”

“Here.” Adam handed Audie his handkerchief. “Don’t go around by yourself again.”

She dried her eyes. “Thank you for saving me, Adam,” she said.

“Anybody would have done the same,” Adam said. “Go inside and get some sleep.”



* * * * *



The stage passengers were all tired and crabby when the stage left early the next morning. They had slept badly, and it was a hot day again. On top of that, they had to take the captured outlaw with them on the stage. The man in the tweed suit, Mr. Dollarhide, rode outside with the stage driver so there was room for the outlaw inside the stagecoach.

Adam was sandwiched between the outlaw and Audie. Audie looked like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. She kept beginning to nod off, then catching herself with a start. Realizing Audie would drop the guitar if she fell asleep, Adam took it from her and settled it on his own lap. Audie stirred, opened her eyes, and looked around in panic for the guitar. When she saw Adam had it she smiled at him.

The outlaw gave a disagreeable laugh. “Always lookin’ out for that girl, aren’t ya? Don’t you know she’s not worth your time? Her father stole fifty thousand dollars from the Tucson Bank and double-crossed the rest of us. His daughter’s no better. The little b—”

“Watch your mouth!” Adam said.

The outlaw laughed again. “Touchy, are ya? You in love with her? Ya planning to marry her or somethin’?”

Adam ignored him.

“I heard you’re Ben Cartwright’s son. What’ll your pa say when you bring that saloon girl home?” the outlaw asked.

“You’d be better off minding your own business,” Adam said.

He felt a hand on his arm and looked down. It was Audie. “Don’t mind what he says,” she said. “I’ve heard worse a heap of times.”

“I don’t relish being stuck in this stagecoach with an outlaw for the rest of the trip,” the middle-aged woman, Mrs. Harrison, said. “Couldn’t he ride outside with the driver?”

“Lina, just ignore him,” Mrs. Harrison’s husband said. His eyes were glued on the book he was reading.

The man next to Mr. Harrison, a storekeeper, laughed. “This is something to tell my wife when I get home! I rode in a stagecoach with an outlaw!”

They had been traveling about an hour. Looking out the window, Adam could see the coach was approaching a stand of thick trees.

“Whoa!” the stagecoach driver yelled. The coach slowed to a stop. The driver climbed down and stuck his head in the window.

“There’s a big tree right across the path! I need some of you men to help me get it out of here.”

“All right,” Adam said. “Better be careful! It could be an ambush.” He got out of the coach. Mr. Harrison got up to go too, but his wife objected.

“Are you going to go out there and leave me alone in this coach with that outlaw and that thief’s daughter?” she asked. “You stay right here!”

“You’ll be fine, Lina,” Mr. Harrison said.

“My father didn’t steal that money!” Audie cried. “I’m going to get out and help move the log. I don’t want to be stuck in here with that woman either!”

Adam turned to tell Audie that wouldn’t be necessary. Just then a gunshot rang out from the trees, and a bullet whistled past Adam’s ear and lodged in the door of the stagecoach.

“Ambush!” Adam shouted. “Get down!” He slammed the stagecoach door shut and crawled under the coach, crouching behind one of the wheels. The other men outside the coach—the stagecoach driver and Mr. Dollarhide—hurried to crawl under it too. Another shot came from the woods, and another bullet hit the coach.

A loud crack sounded in Adam’s ears. He turned his head to see Mr. Dollarhide holding a smoking gun. “I thought I saw him behind that tree,” Mr. Dollarhide said, pointing to a large pine not far away.

Adam peered at the tree and waited. Two seconds later a flash of black and blue appeared at the side of the tree, and another bullet hit the stagecoach.

“Save your bullets,” Adam said. “Scott, watch the other side. There might be men in those trees.”

“Sure thing,” the stagecoach driver said, taking up a position behind one of the front wheels.

Another shot sounded from the trees over on the left. “Two at least,” Mr. Dollarhide muttered. “And only three guns between us.”

Adam heard another shot from above his head. Somebody was shooting from the coach.

Adam concentrated hard on the pine tree behind which the first outlaw was hiding. He pulled the trigger of his gun just as the outlaw leaned around it to fire. Over the deafening noise of his own gun, Adam heard a screech. The man behind the tree fell to the ground. He clutched his right shoulder and struggled to get up.

There was a shot from the trees on the left, and at the same time Adam felt a searing pain in his left arm. He shouted. Mr. Dollarhide’s gun went off like a thunderclap next to him.

The outlaw on the left yelled out and ducked behind the tree. “I think I hit him,” Mr. Dollarhide said. “You all right?”

Adam looked down at the blood soaking through his sleeve. “I’m hit, but I don’t know how bad it is,” he said.

“Where’d you get hit?” Scott demanded.

“Left arm.”

Scott edged over to Adam. “I’ll take your place,” he said. “If there’s anybody on the other side, he’s stayin’ mighty quiet.”

“He’s running away!” Mr. Dollarhide shouted.

Adam looked up in time to see the outlaw on the left dashing from his original pine tree to another one not far away.

“His gun’s there next to the tree,” Scott said. “Dollarhide must have hit his gun arm.”

Unwilling to shoot after a defenseless man, and too far away to run after him, the men crouched under the stagecoach watching the outlaw go from hiding place to hiding place. The other outlaw, from what they could see of him, was slumped behind his tree.

Scott shouted across to the outlaw. “Throw your guns out here and come out!”

After a long pause, an arm lobbed a rifle around the tree, followed by a pistol. The man behind the tree staggered to his feet and emerged in front of it. He was clutching his shoulder.

“I’ve got my gun trained on you,” Mr. Harrison shouted from inside the coach, “so don’t try any funny business!”

“I surrender!” the outlaw shouted back.

The three men under the coach scrambled out. Scott and Mr. Dollarhide went to lay hands on the outlaw, not too gently. Adam leaned against the coach, putting firm pressure on his injured arm with his right hand.

“Adam, are you hurt?” Audie’s voice shrieked from above him.

“I’ll live,” Adam said.

“You got hit, didn’t you? Oh, Adam, I’m so sorry!” Audie cried. “You got injured saving me from those outlaws!”

“They might not be the same outlaws,” Adam said.

“Yes, they are, that man right there is the man who threatened me back in Lake’s Crossing!”

Adam looked at the outlaw with heightened interest. The man had his head bent down looking at his injured shoulder, so his face was hidden beneath a gray hat. He groaned as Scott examined the injury.

“You’re not that bad hurt,” Scott said. “Dollarhide, make sure he doesn’t get away while I get something to stop the bleedin’ in his shoulder.”

“What about Adam?” Audie cried. “You’re all fussing over that outlaw, and you aren’t paying the slightest attention to a man who’s on your side! I’m getting out.” She flung open the door, jumped down, and ran to Adam.

“Where are you hurt?” she demanded.

“My arm,” Adam said. Looking into Audie’s worried face, he smiled. “Don’t look like that! I’ll be all right. I’ve had a bullet wound or two before.”

“Oh, that’s horrible!” Audie said, staring at Adam’s bloody sleeve and the hand holding it tight. “You’ve got to get to a doctor, quick!”

“There’s a doctor in Virginia City,” Adam said. “Audie, do you have a clean handkerchief?”

“I’ve got some in my bag on top of the stagecoach,” Audie said. “I can climb up there!”

“No, let Scott do it,” Adam said. “Hey, Scott!” he called to the driver, who was up on top of the coach. “Will you throw down Audie’s carpetbag?”

“Which one is it?” Scott yelled back.

“It’s a red carpetbag with yellow flowers,” Audie called to him.

Scott dropped Audie’s bag with a thump on the ground. “There you are!”

Audie rummaged through the bag and pulled out a handkerchief. “Now what?”

Adam let go of his injured arm and fished his jackknife out of his right pants pocket. “Let’s see the damage.”

Audie slit Adam’s sleeve over the wound. Adam looked at it. “The bullet’s still in there,” he said.

Scott came up and pushed his way past Audie. “Here, I’ll take care of it,” he said. “You get back in the coach, young lady.”



* * * * *



After Adam’s arm and the outlaw’s shoulder were bandaged, everyone got into the stagecoach again. With a wounded, tied-up outlaw added to the passengers, the coach was so full there was no way for Audie’s guitar to fit inside.

“I guess it’ll have to go on top,” she said, mournfully surrendering it to Scott. “Take good care of it!”

Never before had Adam had such an uncomfortable stagecoach ride. His arm was like fire from the bullet wound, and he was squished between Audie and one of the outlaws on a bench that now had to hold four people. He could tell Audie was trying hard not to jostle his injured arm as the coach went along.

“I’m so sorry, Adam,” she said for the twentieth time. “If it hadn’t been for me, you would never have gotten shot.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Adam said. “If you’d stayed in that town, maybe you would have gotten shot. You’ll be safe at the Ponderosa.”

“So you’re takin’ her home with you, like I said!” the uninjured outlaw said. “Tell me, what’s she givin’ you for savin’ her? I could wager a guess or two!” He leaned over Adam and leered at Audie.

“I told you before to mind your own business,” Adam said in a level voice, looking hard at the outlaw.

The outlaw grinned unpleasantly. “Touchy, are ya?”

“Shut up, Charlie,” the injured outlaw said, and groaned. “I don’t wanna hear your big blabbing voice right in my ear. Wilson’s gonna have your hide for bungling that kidnappin’ back at the way station.”

“Wait till I tell this whole story to my wife!” the storekeeper said. “Outlaws and a holdup!”

Mrs. Harrison glared at him and turned to her husband. “I’m never setting foot on a stagecoach again. Do you hear me, Homer? Never!”



* * * * *



As the stagecoach pulled up in front of the Virginia City stage office, Adam saw Hoss and Joe standing outside the building waiting. Good, they had remembered he was going to arrive today. When the stage stopped, Adam waited for the Harrisons and the storekeeper to get out, then struggled out from between Audie and bigmouthed Charlie the outlaw. He jumped down and found his brothers beaming at him. “Hi, boys!”

Hoss and Joe’s faces changed when they saw Adam’s arm in a sling.

“What happened?” Joe asked.

“Stage holdup,” Adam said. “I took a bullet in the arm. We caught one of the men.” He turned back to the stagecoach to help Audie down with his good arm.

“Adam, are these your brothers?” Audie asked, turning towards Hoss and Joe with a smile. She was dusty and disheveled from two days of travel, but even so Adam noticed Joe’s face light up with interest.

“That’s right,” he said. “Audie, these are my brothers, Hoss and Little Joe. Hoss and Joe, this is Audie Shepherd. She’s going to be visiting us at the Ponderosa.”

“Hoss?” Audie looked at Hoss with a quizzical expression. “Horse?”

“No, ma’am, just plain Hoss,” he said, taking her small hand in his big one. “Nice to meet ya.”

“And Little Joe?” Audie said, turning to Joe.

“Just Joe, ma’am,” Joe said, eagerly shaking Audie’s hand with the dazzling smile he reserved for young ladies.

Audie was impervious to Joe’s charms. “We’ve got to get Adam to a doctor, right away!” she said. “He got shot by an outlaw while saving my life!”

“Doc Martin’s just down the street, ma’am,” Hoss said.

“Hoss, you’d better stay here and get the luggage,” Joe said. “I’ll take ol’ Adam and Miss Shepherd to Doc’s.”

“Why don’t you both stay here and get the luggage?” Adam said with a grin. “I don’t think I’m about to fall over before I get to Doc Martin’s office.”

Joe made a face at him. “Aye, aye, sir,” he said.

“And while you’re at it, why don’t you run down to the jail and tell Roy Coffee we’ve got two captured outlaws here, one of them with a bullet in his shoulder?”



* * * * *



Doc Martin took the bullet out of Adam’s arm and bandaged it back up, telling him to rest and to see him immediately if there were any signs of infection. Then he went down to the jail to tend to the injured outlaw. The Cartwrights and Audie rode back to the Ponderosa in the buckboard, and Audie regaled Hoss and Joe with the story of the outlaws and Adam’s gallant rescue.

“You mean to say some of that Wilson Gang is still out there?” Joe asked at the end of Audie’s story.

“Yes, and they’re still looking for me, I’m sure! The one that got away from the holdup probably went to tell Wilson all about it. I’m not even safe in Virginia City.”

“You’ll be safe at the Ponderosa, ma’am,” Hoss said, “I guarantee it.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” Audie said. She scooched a little closer to Adam on the seat of the buckboard. “Adam, you have such a nice family.”



* * * * *



The Cartwrights gave Audie a Ponderosa welcome fit for royalty. Ben said he was delighted to meet Miss Shepherd, and she was certainly welcome to stay at the Ponderosa. Hop Sing cooked a delicious supper. After the meal the Cartwrights and Audie all sat around with coffee and brandy in the living room and told stories. There were stories of Ben’s young life and his three wives. There were stories of the boys growing up (these were mostly embarrassing) and stories of Adam’s college days in Boston. Audie sat wide-eyed on the settee next to Adam and drank everything in.

At length, Ben announced he was heading to bed and made his way upstairs. Adam went out to the front porch, and Audie followed him.

“This place is so beautiful,” she said. “Adam, I’ve never been in a place before that felt like it was a real home. When Pa and I were moving around, none of the places we ever stayed felt like home. Pa was on the run from those outlaws, and folks didn’t cotton to him much. Lake’s Crossing wasn’t home either. It was just a place to stay. This is a home.”

Adam leaned against one of the porch pillars. “You mean it feels permanent?”

“Yes, but not just permanent. You could be in prison for life, and it would be permanent, but it wouldn’t be home. A home’s got to have people who care about you, too. You Cartwrights all care about each other.”

“I see what you mean.” Adam sat down in a chair at the porch table, and Audie pulled up a chair next to him.

“I’ve never met a man like you, Adam,” Audie said. “The way you rescued me from those outlaws, over and over, even at the risk of your own life…that was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen! And you wouldn’t let that outlaw say bad things about me, either.”

“Don’t mention it,” Adam said. “That kind of man’s not worth remembering.”

“All right then, I’ll forget about him and just remember about you,” Audie said. “I really appreciated the way you introduced me to your family. You didn’t act like I was beneath you, the way that lady in the stagecoach did. That outlaw was so wrong when he asked what your pa would say when you brought a saloon girl home!”

“You’re thinking about that outlaw again. Don’t think about him. He’s in jail in Virginia City, and you’re here with people who want to help you.”

Audie laughed. “Sorry, Adam. You’re right.” She got up. “I should turn in. It’s been a long day. You should turn in too and get some rest for that arm!”

“I’ll take care of my arm. Don’t worry about me!”

“I only worry about you because I care about you.” Without warning, Audie leaned in and kissed Adam full on the mouth. Then she turned and was gone before astonished Adam could think of a single word to say.



* * * * *



That night Adam had a hard time getting to sleep. His arm hurt, and he was wondering what to do about Audie. The kiss had told him more plainly than words that Audie was interested in him as more than just someone who’d helped her out of a jam. The Cartwrights had better find her a job in Virginia City soon. But if the Wilson Gang was still hanging around, it would be dangerous for Audie to be in Virginia City.

When Adam finally did fall asleep, he slept lightly. He opened his eyes in the grayness of the end of the night and realized he was awake. What was that noise? It had sounded like something getting knocked over downstairs. Probably nothing, but since he was awake he might as well check.

Adam got out of bed, struggled into his pants, grabbed his gun, and felt his way quietly to the door and down the hall to the head of the stairs. In the flickering light of the fire there was a shape creeping through the living room that wasn’t a Cartwright. Nor was it Hop Sing or Audie.

Adam pointed his pistol at the shape. “Put your hands up!” he barked, “or I shoot!”

The man jumped. His hands shot up into the air.

“Stay there where I can see you!” Adam said.

A door banged in the hallway behind Adam as someone ran out of a bedroom. “Adam! What’s going on?” It was Joe, ghostly in his nightshirt.

“Burglar!” Adam said. “Joe, get a lamp. And wake Pa and Hoss.”

Joe ran off. Adam kept his gun trained on the man.

Another door banged, and Ben shouted, “What’s going on here?”

“Burglar!” Adam said.

Ben rushed to join Adam at the head of the stairs. He also had a gun. “Are there any more of you?” he demanded of the burglar. “Speak up before I count to three!”

“There’s five more outside,” the man said. “Don’t shoot me!”

Ben turned and shouted down the hall. “HOSS! JOSEPH!”

Joe returned with the lamp, Hoss, and Audie.

“Hoss, get a rope and tie that man up!” Ben said. “Adam, check the kitchen and see if anybody else is breaking in. Joe, make sure that front door is bolted!” Keeping his gun trained on the burglar, Ben went down the stairs, followed by Joe with the lamp.

Adam went past the burglar and out to the kitchen. A window in the kitchen door was swinging open. He approached it carefully, gun drawn, and closed it. Where were those other outlaws? Adam didn’t doubt for a moment that they were part of the Wilson Gang. He peered out into the dark but couldn’t see anyone outside.

Someone rushed into the kitchen. Adam turned around to see Hop Sing holding a rifle.

“Hop Sing guard kitchen! Mistah Adam go to Mistah Ben!”

Adam rushed back out in the living room. The outlaw was tied up and sitting against the front of Ben’s desk. Joe was peering out the window above the desk. Ben was interrogating the burglar. Hoss was peering out the dining room window. Audie was sitting in the blue chair with a rifle across her lap.

Adam remembered another way burglars could get into the house. “Pa! What about the window in Joe’s room?” He ran upstairs. Peering around Joe’s door, he saw he was just in time. There was a dark shape climbing in Joe’s open window.

“Hands up, or I shoot!” Adam shouted, aiming his gun at the burglar.

Quick as lightning, the burglar raised his gun and fired at Adam. Adam felt a bullet whiz past his ear as he fired back and heard a crash as the burglar’s bullet hit something breakable…probably the washstand pitcher. Adam’s aim had been better. The burglar slumped to the floor, groaning loudly. He dropped his gun.

Someone pounded up the stairs and ran into Joe’s room. It was Hoss with a rifle.

“What’s goin’ on in here? Adam, you all right?”

“This man climbed in through the window!” Adam said. “Hoss, get a lamp!”

Hoss ran out. Adam stood over the burglar with his gun until Hoss arrived with the lamp. The burglar was a strongly-built man of about forty. He was bleeding through his shirt to the right of his collarbone.

“Wilson’s gonna kill you for this,” he snarled at Hoss and Adam.

Adam picked up the burglar’s gun and flung it towards the door. “He’ll have to get in here first,” he said.

A woman’s voice shrieked behind Adam. It was Audie. “Adam, Adam, are you hurt?”

Adam turned towards her voice, and Audie flung both arms around his neck, sending a stabbing pain through his injured arm as she jostled it. Adam grimaced.

“I’m all right.” With his good arm he detached Audie. At that moment a bullet crashed through the top of Joe’s window.

“Get down!” Adam shouted, and he, Hoss, and Audie crouched low to the floor.

A voice shouted from outside. “Cartwright, you’d better send that girl out here! The house is surrounded!” Another bullet hit a picture on the wall and shattered it.

Adam crept closer to the window but stayed underneath it. “Wilson!” he shouted. “The girl’s father never got that money! Someone else stole it!”

“Liar!” the man shouted back. “Send out the girl! We won’t do anything to her! We just want to ask her some questions!”

“She doesn’t know anything about that money!” Adam shouted. He peered out the corner of the window. The gloom outside was beginning to lighten before the sunrise, and he could just make out a man standing in the middle of the yard.

“Hoss, give me your rifle,” Adam said. Hoss crept over and put his rifle into Adam’s hand, then went back to monitoring the injured outlaw. Adam mounted the rifle to his shoulder. It would be tricky aiming and firing the rifle with only one working arm, but Adam didn’t think he would actually have to fire it. The rifle was cold against his bare skin. “Blow out the lamp,” he told Hoss quietly.

The lamp went out, and Adam could see Wilson better. It was still too dark to threaten him with the rifle, but in a few minutes, it wouldn’t be too dark. If they could only stall until then!

“That girl’s lyin’ to you!” Wilson shouted. “Her father was a piece of double-crossin’ scum, and his daughter’s no better!”

Ben’s voice came from a downstairs window. “You’ll never get that girl!” he shouted. “What do you think you’re going to do? Stand around in the yard until the ranch hands come up here to do their chores?”

“We won’t have to,” Wilson shouted back. “We’ve got one of your men right here. If that girl doesn’t come out here in three minutes, he dies! Abel, bring him out! I’m gonna count three minutes. One…two…three…”

Two men stepped out into the yard from the porch. The first man Adam recognized as the Cartwrights’ foreman, Hank Meyers. The second man seemed to be holding a gun against Hank’s back.

“Eight…nine…ten…” Wilson was still counting.

Audie shrieked. “They can’t kill an innocent man because of me! I’m going to have to go out there!”

“You stay right here,” Hoss said to her. “We’ve got three minutes to figure out what to do.”

“Wilson, don’t do it,” Ben shouted from downstairs.

“I’m doing it. Twenty-four…twenty-five…twenty-six…”

Audie gave a gasp and ran from the room before either Adam or Hoss could stop her. Adam grimly kept his eyes fastened on Wilson in the yard. It was getting lighter every minute, and Pa and Joe wouldn’t let Audie get out of the house. His opinion was confirmed when he heard a yell from Joe downstairs, followed by high-pitched shrieks from Audie and a loud command from Ben. “Joseph, don’t let her get out!”

It was getting lighter every minute.

“Mr. Cartwright!” Hank yelled from the yard. “Mr. Cartwright, do you hear them? They’re going to shoot me!”

“Hank, we’re not going to let them shoot you!” Ben shouted back.

“Then bring out that girl!” Wilson shouted.

Finally, Adam had Wilson clearly in his sights. “Wilson!” he shouted. “I’ve got a rifle on you. Drop your gun!”

Wilson hesitated. Then he dropped his gun and put his hands in the air.

“Let go of Hank, or I shoot!” Adam shouted.

“Abel, let go of him!” Wilson said. Abel let go, and Hank grabbed Abel’s gun and pointed it at Wilson.

“Men!” Wilson yelled. “Drop your guns and get out here!”

Two more men came forward from the corners of the house with their hands up. Hank pushed them into line next to Wilson.

Ben Cartwright strode into the yard with his own gun. “Hank, get some ropes,” he said. “We’re going to have quite a story for Sheriff Coffee!”



* * * * *



The outlaws were tied up and locked in the bunkhouse, with the injured outlaw bandaged up, and the Cartwrights could finally breathe peacefully and take stock of their surroundings. Adam came inside and found Joe comforting Audie with a cup of coffee while Hoss made his way upstairs in his plaid nightshirt. Ben stood in front of the fire with a burgundy robe over his nightshirt, drinking his own coffee.

When Audie saw Adam, she jumped up and ran to him. “Oh, Adam, how can I ever thank you enough for saving my life?” She was wearing a brown robe of Joe’s, and her hair was disheveled around her shoulders.

“You’d better thank Joe and my pa for not letting you run out there to the Wilson gang,” Adam said.

“I did, but I hadn’t thanked you yet.”

Adam noticed Audie’s gaze linger on his chest, bare except where the sling on his injured arm covered it. Embarrassed, he edged away towards the stairs.

“You’re welcome.”

“Oh, Adam, aren’t you going to stay and have coffee with us?”

“I’m pretty tired after yesterday. I think I’ll catch a few more winks of sleep.” Adam hurried up the stairs, leaving Audie at the foot of the stairway.



* * * * *



It was broad daylight by the time Adam woke up again. Someone was knocking on his door.

“Who is it?” Adam called sleepily.

“Joe.” The door opened and Joe came in, dressed in his work clothes. “Hey Adam, did you tell Audie you were gonna marry her?”

“What?” Adam sat up straight in bed. “Did she tell you that?”

Joe giggled and sat down in Adam’s chair. “You must have said something that gave her the idea, older brother, because she’s been going on and on about how you rescued her from those outlaws and brought her here to be your wife!”

“Wife!”

“Hey, Adam, she’s pretty cute…you could do worse!”

Adam got out of bed and began to get dressed as quickly as he could. “I never said anything like that to her. She’s making up the whole thing.”

“It’s like Hoss and I told you about Abigail Jones…you’re just plain irresistible to women!” Joe said, starting to giggle again.

“It isn’t funny!” Adam said. “I’m going to go knock some sense into that girl’s head, right now!” He headed downstairs, followed by still-giggling Joe.

Audie was sitting by herself on the settee in the living room, trying to get music out of her guitar. She looked up, and her face brightened when she saw Adam. “Adam! Did you get good rest?”

“Yes. Audie, I need to talk to you. Joe, would you mind?”

“Sure, older brother,” Joe said with a smirk, and went out the front door.

Adam sat down in the blue chair opposite Audie.

“Audie, now that the Wilson Gang is rounded up, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be safe in Virginia City. The sooner we find you a job there, the sooner you can start your new life here.”

Audie’s face fell. “What’s the matter, Adam? Why are you trying to send me away?”

“This is for your future!” Adam said. “You said yourself you’d like to find a job away from that saloon in Lake’s Crossing.”

“But that was before!” Audie protested. “I don’t need a job now. I have a home here, with you!”

“Audie, listen to me,” Adam said. “The Ponderosa isn’t your home.”

“Oh, I see!” Audie cried, putting the guitar aside and getting to her feet. “You don’t love me anymore! You’re going to send me away!” Angry tears stood in her eyes.

Adam sighed. “I never said I loved you. I was just trying to help you, that’s all!”

“But you risked your own life to save me! And what about when that outlaw was laughing at you for wanting to marry me? You told him to shut up! And you sang me love songs on your guitar!” Audie cried. “You mean to say you did all those things just because you were sorry for me?” She began to cry.

Adam sat in the blue chair, unsure of what to do. Audie cried stormily.

“I’m sorry,” Adam said. “I helped you because you needed help. Believe me, Audie, it hurts me that I disappointed you!”

Audie continued crying. Adam pulled a blue bandanna from his pocket and handed it to her. She wiped her eyes and tried to pull herself together.

“I guess it’s my own fault for being so silly and romantic,” she sobbed. “Everyone said the Cartwrights were so different from everyone else. I was sick of those men at the saloon. They’d never offer to marry a girl…no, sir! I thought you would be different.”

“If I were planning to marry anyone, I would ask her straight out,” Adam said. “You shouldn’t pin your hopes on marrying someone who hasn’t said a word about it!”

Audie blew her nose on the bandanna. “I’m sorry, Adam,” she said. “I’ve made myself a real fool.”

“Don’t apologize,” Adam said. “You’re a wonderful girl, Audie. You deserve to have a good life and a chance to meet good people. That’s why I’m going to help you find that job in Virginia City.”

Audie summoned a trembly smile. “All right, Adam,” she said. “I’ll get my things packed, and we can go.”

She got up and went upstairs. Adam stayed in the living room, staring at the fireplace. Why did trying to help Audie have to end up hurting her?



* * * * *



A few weeks later, Adam and Joe were in Virginia City early in the morning getting some supplies at the general store.

“Hey, Adam, why don’t we stop at Daisy’s place and get a cup of coffee before we go back?” Joe asked.

Daisy was a woman who ran a small restaurant in town, and an old friend of Joe’s. She had hired Audie to work for her, waiting tables and washing dishes.

“All right,” Adam said. The boys dismounted, left their horses at the hitching post, and went into the restaurant.

Daisy’s restaurant was clean and cheery, with red checked tablecloths on the tables. Adam and Joe sat down at a table, and less than a minute later Daisy hurried over to take their orders.

“Coffee for both of you? I’ll be right back,” Daisy said. She hurried to the kitchen and came back with two steaming cups.

“Hey, Daisy, where’s Audie today?” Joe asked. “She’s still working for you, right?”

Daisy motioned with her head towards a table in the corner. “Look over there!”

Adam looked and saw a young man sitting on one side of the table with Audie sitting across from him. The young man was holding both of Audie’s hands in his.

“That’s Peter Palmer. He came in three weeks ago, saw Audie, and fell head over heels for her!” Daisy sighed happily. “Don’t they look happy?”

“Adam, you sure missed your opportunity!” Joe said, laughing. “They look happy, all right.”

Adam felt a smile spreading over his face as he watched the young couple. “Very happy.”


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