KarenF and Randy: The Pleasure Of Their Company

With some help from Vickie B.
Caution: Although Mostly just PG for sexually suggestive situations it does become Rated R in several places toward the middle where the suggestions are carried out. Thanks especially to Vickie who supplied Scott Lancer’s voice of reason. This is a later seasons Bonanza/Lancer/Big Valley cross-over. Main characters are Joe, Candy, Griff, Jamie and Scott Lancer with brief appearances by Ben, Murdoch and Johnny. [Jamie is still a minor in this and participates in only G-rated activities] Thanks to Stephen King from whom we borrowed a little childhood incident.

Disclaimer:  We don’t own them, but if we did, this is pretty much what we’d do with them.

Word count: 45,795

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 8TH

Candy

I don’t feel bad about stealing his invitation. I guess you’d say he’s my best friend, but there are times when friendship just has to stand aside. Love and war. Isn’t that what they say – love and war? Joe Cartwright is just too damn full of himself when it comes to women. It was my eyes she was lookin’ into, not his. His eyes are the color of the scum on Miller’s pond. Mine are like looking into Lake Tahoe on a bright spring day.  That’s what she was seeing.

We’d come to San Francisco with Mr. Cartwright. He had some kinda big meetin’ with some high finance types. He wanted Joe to join in, much to Joe’s dismay. They’re full partners now but Joe’s more for keeping the ranch goin’ smooth, makin’ sure the mines and the timber interests are movin’ along. I could see his eyes glaze over as his father was tellin’ him about this meeting. Contracts, conglomerates, corporations.  Three or four days of sitting in some smoke-filled room with a bunch of rich folks and no poker bein’ played?

No, Joe wasn’t lookin’ forward to San Francisco near as much as me and Griff and ‘specially Jamie. We’d come along because Mr. Cartwright was going to pick up some horses and needed some help bringin’ them back to the Ponderosa. Leastways that’s what he said.  I think maybe we’d been working so hard he’d decided the three of us deserved a little holiday.  I figured I could see the sights befitting a mature man while Griff kept Jamie out of trouble.

Joe got himself a reprieve though. Seems the arrangements were for one representative per family.  Joe tried to look sad at missin’ the opportunity to learn more about the world of high finance but didn’t succeed too well.  And when the man running the meeting was lookin’ for someone to deliver some important papers to a bank in Sacramento, Joe jumped at the chance. I could tell he was worried they might just find an extra chair at that meeting. He wasn’t taking any chances. Sacramento wasn’t quite San Francisco but he’d be some place with poker palaces, pretty girls and a long train ride from that meeting.

Now I expect he figured it’d be him and me in Sacramento, leaving Jamie for Griff to watch over. But that damn Griff just plain disappeared. Apparently he’d told Mr. Cartwright he was off for some sightseeing without a word to Joe and me. So now we had no choice but to take Jamie along. Don’t get me wrong, Jamie’s a great kid. Just too young to go to the places Joe and I planned to go –but at that awkward age when a boy thinks he is old enough.

We saw her in the hotel dining room at dinner Wednesday night.  But I saw her first. Or rather, she saw me first.

I looked up from my pork chops and there she was, two tables over, staring at me. She smiled as our eyes met and I smiled back.  She was sitting with a tall, slim, silver-haired man.  Her eyes were an incredible blue – something between the color of cornflowers and violets. She’d had her back to me when we entered so I hadn’t seen her until she turned around ready to leave.

She walked by our table on the way out and smiled at me like a woman who wanted to get better acquainted.

It was only after she walked out the door and I heard Joe sigh that I realized he’d seen her too. I almost expected him to run after her and try to make a date. But maybe she looked too sophisticated for that ploy. Or maybe Joe was slowing down in his old age. Or maybe he’d seen the way she was looking at me and figured he’d better save his move until I wasn’t around.

So we went on with our meal, though the food had lost its flavor.  At first Jamie’s excited chatter filled the silence, but when we didn’t respond, he fell silent. And in that silence we heard everything we needed to know.

There were three men at the next table talking about her.  Sounded like they worked for her grandfather. And they were saying things trusted employees shouldn’t be saying. But that didn’t stop us from listening.

The youngest of the men called her Miss Dupre but the other two called her Savannah. They were wondering if the big party Mr. Dupre was planning would really bring him a solution to the Savannah problem or just cause him more headaches. A full house of eligible young men spending four days playing poker, pheasant hunting and courting his granddaughter.  A granddaughter who loved men just a little too much.

“And too often,” the largest of the men said laughing.

“Yeah, he’ll be lucky if she doesn’t go back to Charleston with a bastard child instead of a husband,” another added. “And likely she won’t even know whose bastard child. She isn’t one to settle for one man when there’s a house full of ‘em.”

“They’ll be lucky if half the men don’t kill the other half fighting over her,” the big man responded.

The youngest man seemed to take offense at these remarks. “Miss Dupre is our employer’s granddaughter and a lady. It wasn’t her fault those two men got killed. If all those men were foolish enough to fight duels over her . . . “ He shrugged without finishing the thought.

Shortly after that, the three men paid their bill and left. But I had a name. It gave me a place to start. Unfortunately, it meant Joe had one too.

But luck was with me. By two the next afternoon I was on my way to The Manor for a little poker, some fine food, wine and brandy and just maybe something a lot more interesting.

I fingered the gilt-edged parchment of the invitation; glad I’d stopped at the desk to ask if there were any messages.

Mr. Joseph Cartwright:
Mr. Armand Dupre requests the pleasure of your company at The Manor outside Sacramento on Thursday, February 8 through Sunday, February 11 to introduce his granddaughter Savannah Lisette Dupre to California society. A carriage will await you next to the Sacramento train station on Thursday at 2 pm should you accept this invitation. Please be prepared to spend the weekend.

And all I had to do is answer to the name of Joe Cartwright for a few days. The beauty of it was, when a man not looking for a wife goes courting a girl looking for a husband, using someone else’s name can come in real handy

.

Joe

“Did the other gentleman give you the invitation, sir?”

I stopped mid-stride, having already turned away from the hotel desk after picking up my room key. “What invitation?”

“It arrived for you this morning, while you were out. The other gentleman staying in your suite picked it up and said he’d see that you got it.”

The clerk dabbed at his brow with a handkerchief, his face flushed with concern. He ran a finger under his collar, and I saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down. He obviously knew he’d made a mistake and was afraid of the trouble I could cause him.

“Is Candy up in the suite now? I haven’t seen him since lunch, but I’m sure he’s got the invitation with him. He’ll give it to me as soon as I get to the room.” I hurried to reassure the nervous little man because I was afraid he was going to keel over from fright.

“He’s gone.” The words were little more than a high squeak, and I leaned forward to make sure I heard right.

“Gone? Where’d he go? He was supposed to meet me at two o’clock. How could he be gone?”

The clerk held out a folded piece of paper. “He left this for you. Said to make sure I gave it to you first thing. I’m sure it explains everything, sir.” He cleared his throat and dabbed at his forehead again.

I snatched the paper from the trembling fingers, maybe a little too violently. The clerk turned an interesting shade of green, so I must have looked a bit angry. Ignoring him, I read Candy’s scrawl.

Joe: I’ve accepted an invitation to a weekend party. I know you can’t leave Jamie so I’m going alone. If I don’t get back before you return to Frisco, I’ll meet you there or back home.  Candy

“That…that bastard stole my invitation!” I pounded my fist on the desk, and the clerk jumped back with a squeal of alarm. “What did it look like, anyway? Did you read it? Maybe I can head him off.”

The clerk puffed himself up, and I could see his righteous indignation had overcome his fear. “I would never read a guest’s mail, sir. That would be an invasion of privacy. Why, I could lose my job.”

He looked ready to go on, but I stopped him with my best menacing glare. “Look, I don’t want to cause trouble, but you’re the one who gave my invitation to someone else. You know I could have your job for this. I need to know what that invitation looked like, who it was from and what it was for. And I need to know now.”

He deflated so fast I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing.

“Honestly, sir, he said he’d give it to you. You were traveling together. How would I know he’d take it? It was a mistake.” He fluttered his hands in the air, and then stilled suddenly. “Wait. There’s another gentleman who received the same invitation. I have it right here.”

He turned quickly and snatched an imposing parchment envelope from a mail slot behind him. He held it out to me triumphantly. “Perhaps this will help you. They arrived at the same time, and are definitely from the same person.”

I took the envelope and examined it. This one was addressed to Francis Cartier, Suite 202. I began to rip it open, when the clerk shrieked in fear.

“No! That doesn’t belong to you. You can’t open someone else’s mail. Oh, I’m going to lose my job for sure.” He was almost weeping his fear was so great.

I took pity on the man. “I’ll take this along to Suite 202 and deliver it to Mr. Cartier. He might let me read his invitation so that I know where my friend has gone. Will that satisfy you? I don’t want you to lose your job. Not really.”

His head bobbing up and down frantically, the clerk sighed in relief. “Thank you, sir. Thank you. I believe that would do admirably. Mr. Cartier hasn’t been down to the desk in two days. I believe the doctor has been in attendance in the suite several times. I was going to deliver it to him myself as soon as my shift was over. It would be most helpful if you would take it to him.”

I did my best to look angelic. “I do like to be helpful.” I hoped my grin didn’t give away my real intentions.

I strolled away from the desk, making a show of tucking the envelope into my jacket pocket for the clerk’s benefit. But as soon as I rounded a corner and headed up the stairs I had it back out and carefully slit it open.

Mr. Francis Cartier:
Mr. Armand Dupre requests the pleasure of your company at The Manor outside Sacramento on Thursday, February 8 through Sunday, February 11 to introduce his granddaughter Savannah Lisette Dupre to California society. A carriage will await you next to the Sacramento train station on Thursday at 3 pm should you accept this invitation. Please be prepared to spend the weekend.

I swore under my breath as I continued up the second flight of stairs. So Candy thought he’d take my place at the social event of the season, hmmm. Well, he’d better think again. I wasn’t going to let him get away with stealing my name and my place at this party. That little gal didn’t want him; it was me she’d been eyeing.

I stopped before the door of Suite 202, and composed my face into a persuasive smile. I needed to work a little of the Joe Cartwright magic on Mr. Francis Cartier. I was going to that party one way or another.

A sweet little nurse in a perky white cap opened the door. I gave her my best grin and let my eyes do a little talking. My charms didn’t fail me and she dimpled prettily at me.

“I’d like to see Mr. Cartier, please. I have a message for him.” I swept my hat off and bowed as if she were royalty.

The nurse giggled and a bright blush stained her cheekbones. It made me wish I’d seen her a little sooner. The trip to Sacramento could have been a bit more entertaining right from the start if I had.

“Mr. Cartier is too indisposed to receive visitors,” she said. “But if it’s an urgent message, I can take it to him.”

I shook my head feigning regret. “I wish I could let you do that. But this message is something only I’m allowed to give to him. It’s a shame. He’ll be quite upset to miss this opportunity.” I turned as if to go.

My strategy worked. I felt a soft hand on my arm. “Wait here,” the nurse said. “If it’s that important I know Mr. Cartier will want to make an exception for you.”

I nodded and indulged myself by watching her trim waist and swaying backside as she walked away from me.  They do grow ‘em pretty in Sacramento.

She was back quickly and beckoned me to follow her into the hotel bedroom. I was ushered into a dark chamber, curtains drawn against the hot California sunlight. I let my eyes adjust to the gloom, lit only by the light of a single candle burning by the massive bed. A basin of water stood on the bedside table, along with a heap of white linen. After a moment I could see a naked man, about my age and size, lying on a white cotton sheet. He had a single towel draped discreetly over his genitals, and he twisted and turned on the bed, threatening to displace the damp cloth. An ugly red rash stained his torso and erupted in blotches on his arms and face. I saw that his hands were wrapped in cloth, tied in such a way that he couldn’t remove the fabric himself. I drew near the bed, curiosity nagging at me. What was wrong with this guy?

“Mr. Cartier? I’m Joe Cartwright from Virginia City, Nevada. I’m a guest at this hotel and heard you were ill. I thought I’d stop in to see if there was anything I could do for you.” I eyed him, trying to avoid looking at the unsightly rash.

“Cartwright? Ben Cartwright’s son?” he asked. In response to my nod, he continued. “How nice of you to stop in, Mr. Cartwright. I’m Francis Cartier, from New Orleans. I’ve heard of your father, of course. Why, I believe even now my father is in attendance at a meeting in San Francisco with your father, among others. My father has many business interests in this part of the country. I accompanied him on this trip to become acquainted with them. I’m afraid I’m not good company at the moment, however.” He gestured with one fabric-covered hand.

Obviously the man’s illness hadn’t affected his vocal cords. He went on for several minutes about his activities, his father’s business interests and his own boredom with the meeting in San Francisco. I couldn’t help myself. “Would you mind telling me what exactly is wrong with you, Mr. Cartier?” I hoped he wouldn’t find my question rude.

“Francis. Please, call me Francis.” I nodded and waited for him to continue. He waved his bound hand again. “As you can see, I’m in quite some distress. I was determined to get a feel for the real west. Not the type of thing you see in New Orleans, you know. So I signed on for a trek to the wilderness. And wilderness it was. Not a privy in sight. I asked my guide what cowboys did under those circumstances and he explained about the leaves.”

“The leaves?” I could tell my eyebrows were at my hairline, and I fought to smooth out my expression. “What leaves are you talking about, Francis?”

“Why, for wiping, of course. The guide explained that cowboys use leaves, so I did. We were in a marvelous stand of towering oaks. I’d never seen such oak trees. There were leaves aplenty in those oaks. Lots of vines and shiny green bushes full of them. Beautiful leaves. And this is the result. I’ve been in agony ever since. The rash is most painful, and I can’t keep from scratching. They’ve tied my hands so that I can’t damage myself any further.” He sighed. “The doctor says it’ll be days before I can do more than lie here. The ointments in the towel and constant application of cool water are the only things that soothe the itch. The dressing needs to be changed quite frequently. I don’t know how you cowboys stand it.”

I bit my lip. Now was not the time for a fit of laughter. Obviously, Francis Cartier wouldn’t be attending any poker games, let alone a pheasant hunt or any of the other activities planned. An idea flashed through my mind, and I almost gasped out loud. I’d be doing him a favor if I took his place. If Candy could attend as Joe Cartwright, why couldn’t I go as Francis Cartier? Savannah Lisette’s grandfather was trying to find her a husband, an entanglement I’d prefer to avoid. But this way I could still go to the party. Using an assumed name would keep me from an engagement I didn’t want.

I expressed my sympathies to Mr. Cartier, and showed myself out of the suite. My mind raced as I considered the plan. Cartier’s invitation stated that he needed to be ready for the private carriage at 3:00. I checked my pocket watch. It was 2:30 already. I could toss my dress clothes into a bag and be at the meeting point in that time.

When I got to the suite, Jamie bounced to meet me and I groaned. Jamie. How could I have forgotten Jamie? Pa would skin me alive if I left Jamie on his own in Sacramento.

“What’sa matter, Joe?” Jamie asked, his face showing his concern. “You ain’t sick are you?”

I smiled. “No, I’m fine. But I’ve been invited to a weekend party, Jamie. I need you to head back to San Francisco to Pa. Candy’s already gone on ahead to this thing and I can’t leave you here alone.”

Jamie’s face fell and then his eyes flashed with that quick redheaded anger. “I don’t want to go back to San Francisco, Joe. Pa’s going to be in those stupid meetings all day. Why can’t I just stay here ‘til you get back? I’m old enough to take care of myself. I don’t know why you all keep treating me like a kid.”

He looked like he could go on for days with his complaining, so I brushed past him, holding my hand up to stop the flow of words. “I don’t have time for this, Jamie. So get your bag together while I pack mine.  We’ll head over to the depot together.”

I left him fuming and headed for my bedroom. I started tossing my dress clothes into my carpetbag, then stopped. The bag was decorated with a handsome set of brass initials. Pa had given it to me one Christmas. JFC.

Wait.

Francis Cartier. Joseph Francis Cartwright. Francis.

It was meant to be. I pulled out my pocketknife and pried at the gleaming letter ‘J’. Two twists of the knife and the ‘J’ popped off into my hand. I tucked it into my pocket and headed for the door, collecting a protesting Jamie as I went.

******

The town square was bustling. This was Sacramento, after all. A far cry from Virginia City, much as we pride ourselves on our little boomtown. I herded Jamie across the square toward the depot. He could catch the 3:00 train to San Francisco, while I caught Francis Cartier’s ride to the party.

Across the square some young men caught my eye. All dressed in the height of fashion. And damn if Griff wasn’t in the middle of the group, laughing and talking his fool head off. Griff who usually kept his thoughts to himself, acting like he fit right in with a bunch of bantering dandies. That was a surprise all right.

Jamie spied him too. “Hey, Joe. Ain’t that Griff over there? With all those guys in swanky clothes? He must be heading for our hotel.”

I peered across the square and a thought occurred to me. Griff and Jamie weren’t too far apart in age, and for a guy who’d spent a whole year in prison, Griff could be awfully naive. They were probably trying to entice him into a poker game or something. He had a whole month’s wages in his pockets, too. I figured those swells were looking to fleece him one way or another. It would be doing him a favor if I sent Jamie over to him. Jamie could rescue him from the clutches of the gentleman and Griff could keep an eye on Jamie until Candy and I got back. It was the perfect solution. Pa would never have to know what I was up to if Jamie stayed in Sacramento with Griff.

I filled Jamie in on the new plan, and he jumped all over himself agreeing with it. He hadn’t wanted to go back to Pa, and this was his way out. I clapped him on the back and gave him a few parting words of advice. I saw an elegant carriage approaching and knew this was my ride.

“Mr. Cartier? Mr. Francis Cartier?” The coachman called out as he pulled up the finely matched pair of horses.

I gave Jamie a final wave and a gentle push in Griff’s direction. Presenting my invitation to the coachman with a flourish, I tossed my carpetbag onto the seat and climbed aboard. I was more than ready for a grand adventure.

.

Jamie

I went from being steamed to jumpin’ for joy in about two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Joe was about to put me on the train back to San Francisco ‘cause he wanted to go to a party. I knew I was old enough to stay in Sacramento by myself, but he wouldn’ listen to a word I said. Just dragged me off to the station.

I couldn’ believe my luck when we spotted Griff. He was with a bunch of swells and didn’t see us, but Joe decided I could stay with him. He tucked some money in my pocket, waved once and was gone. I waited ‘til the carriage disappeared from sight, then turned back to find Griff.

He’d disappeared. The crowd was really thick, ‘cause a train had just discharged its passengers, and I couldn’t see hide nor hair of him. No matter. I was sure he’d head for the hotel. He knew where we were staying. It was the best hotel in Sacramento, the one Pa always stayed in when he was in town. He’d of told Griff where to find us.

Suddenly I was free as a bird. I had money in my pocket and a city to explore. I didn’t have’ta be in a hurry to catch up with Griff, now did I? I strolled up the street, stopping to stare in the shop windows, looking at all the people hurrying by. Just like a grown man.

And then I saw her. She was the prettiest little gal on the face of this Earth. A pert little nose, green eyes and full, inviting lips. And those lips were smiling at me. Me, of all people. I smiled back and she tucked her head down and raised her parasol. I might’ve taken it for a sign she didn’t want to talk to me, ‘cept for the fact those green eyes were peeking out from under the parasol, ‘n I swear she winked. Then she sat down on a park bench and took out a lace handkerchief, which she dabbed on her forehead.

I tucked my hands in my pockets and strolled across the street, stopping just beside the bench. “Howdy, ma’am.” I tried to make my voice a little deeper than it really was. Then I flashed my teeth at her. I’d seen Joe do it a million times and it always seemed to turn the ladies’ heads.

Joe’s trademark smile seemed to work its usual magic even on my face. She smiled back and I got a little sweaty when I saw the dimples in her creamy cheeks.

“Why, hello.” Her voice was soft, demure, like a bell chiming. I gulped.

“Jamie Cartwright, at your service.” I’d always wanted to say that. It sounded so grown up. “Nice day, isn’t it?” I winced. What a stupid thing to say. It was overcast, the clouds low and threatening rain. There had to be something I could talk about besides the weather.

To my surprise, she giggled. “Yes, it is. I’m Priscilla Kane. And I’m finding it just a bit changeable here in Sacramento. Seems you never know whether the sun’s going to shine, or if you’re going to get soaked. Is it always like this?”

I plopped down beside her, my nervousness forgotten. “Are you visiting too? This is my first time here.” The words came out in a rush, and I stopped deliberately. I didn’t want her to think I was some hick kid out on the town for the first time.

It didn’t take long to find out she was visiting her aunt, and that the aunt was indisposed with some unmentionable illness. Priscilla had taken it into her head to see the city. She hadn’t realized how far she’d walked and now was feeling wilted by her journey.

When I saw her fluttering her long eyelashes at me, I knew she was trying to tell me something. But what? Then it hit me. “Oh, you’re tired. Are you thirsty? Would you like me to buy you a drink? I believe they have some nice hot tea and pastries at that shop on the corner.”

I couldn’t believe it when she said yes.

She put her dainty hand on my arm and we strolled down the street. I felt like I’d grown six inches taller. She said she was nineteen, so I told her I was eighteen. Well, I wasn’t stretching the truth much. I’d be eighteen in a few months. Ten months, but that’s not so many when you think about it. Why, when Joe was seventeen he was doing a man’s work on the Ponderosa, and a man’s playing in Virginia City. He hadn’t said so, but I’d heard the stories in town. Everyone knew about Little Joe Cartwright’s exploits. Well, it was my turn for an exploit.

Priscilla and I sipped at the tea, nibbled on the cakes and talked for an hour. The time flew by so fast, it seemed like only minutes. Then she had to go and look at a little timepiece she had pinned on her blouse. She jumped up with a squeak and turned an interesting shade of gray.

“Oh, Jamie. I’ve got to go. My aunt will be waking up and I should be there when she does.” Priscilla was all aflutter, which only made her look more beautiful to me.

“I don’t want this day to end,” I told her. “Promise me we can meet at the hotel dining room. I want to buy you dinner.”

She flushed, rosy color making her eyes seem even greener. She smiled and reached up to give me a kiss on the cheek. “I’d like that, Jamie. When?”

I named a time and she nodded. Then she turned and hustled away, her skirts swaying around her. I watched, admiring the way she looked from behind until she disappeared from view. Then I figured I’d better check in with Griff, so I headed back for the hotel.

Griff wasn’t there when I got back to the room. I wasn’t too worried. He’d probably stopped in some of the saloons along the way. He’d turn up sooner or later. In the meantime, I had other things to worry about. What did a gentleman wear to entertain a lady in a fancy restaurant? It was certain I needed a bath. Joe always started his special evenings with a bath.

Three hours later, I made my way into the hotel dining room. Priscilla would be arriving at any minute and I wanted to get a good table. I wanted everyone to see me entertaining my date. Strange that Griff hadn’t come back yet, but I knew he’d show up eventually. But then, all thoughts of Griff disappeared as I caught sight of Priscilla.

She made her way over to me, picking her way through the small crowd milling at the entrance of the hotel dining room. I waved and patted down a stray hair. I hoped I’d used enough of Joe’s bay rum for Priscilla to notice. I wanted this evening to be special.

Priscilla arrived at my side just as the maitre d’ announced that my table for two was ready. I offered my arm to her, but she hung back, her cheeks scarlet with what looked like embarrassment.

“Jamie. I’d like you to meet my aunt Agatha. She’s feeling much better and was thrilled by your offer of dinner.” She gestured at a stout woman I’d assumed was waiting for her own party to arrive.

My heart sank into my boots and my stomach lurched. “Miss Agatha? I’m…I’m delighted to meet you.” I extended my hand, belatedly remembering my manners.

“So you’re the young man who has graciously invited my sixteen-year-old niece to dinner. Charmed, I’m sure,” she replied crunching my hand in a firm grip.

“S-s-sixteen?” I stammered. “But, I thought….”

“Sixteen,” Agatha replied firmly. “And how old are you, young man? You seem young to be staying at the hotel alone.”

“I’m seventeen, ma’am. And I’m staying with my brother, and two of our ranch hands. They’re busy elsewhere this evening.” I’d decided that I wasn’t going to let this old battleaxe cow me. I motioned for the maitre d’. “Make that a table for three, please.”

He bowed from the waist and motioned for us to follow him. I allowed Priscilla and her aunt to precede me, making sure they couldn’t see the disappointment on my face. Some things just don’t turn out like you plan.

.

Griff

I’d only been to San Francisco once before.  I’d had a grand time and was looking forward to seeing it again. But then I heard Joe and Candy figuring how they could leave Jamie with me while they toured the poker palaces and the gentlemen’s clubs.  I wasn’t havin’ none of that. I enjoyed spending time with Jamie out on the ranch. He’s a good kid, smart about people and likes a good joke. But damned if I’d come all this way to be spending my time in ice cream parlors and bowling alleys, the kinds of places Ben Cartwright would allow Jamie to visit.

Before Joe could tell his father their plans, I took off. I told Mr. Cartwright I was leaving and he just nodded absently, probably not thinking it was his business how I spent my time. I’d figured to likely go through my month’s wages before the four days was up. The cash was burning a hole in my pocket, but I’d make it last as long as I could. I was going to see everything I’d missed on my first trip. But I’d never expected that would include Sacramento.

I started out touring the gaming halls. I wasn’t planning to get in on any gambling for a while. Truth be told I ain’t much of a poker player and didn’t even know how to play any of the fancier games. But watching was cheap fun. I’d only hit the second place when I struck more luck than I would have had with a queen high straight

There were four men about my age at one of the tables, laughing and drinking. I was watching the roulette wheel, trying to figure how the game was played when two of them walked over and invited me to join them. Naturally I was suspicious. Couldn’t figure what they wanted with me.

I wasn’t any less suspicious when they introduced themselves.  I could believe they were rich Brits because that’s the way they sounded and they were throwing money around on the best brandy in the house, but a Count? Didn’t seem likely.

The one they’d introduced with that title must have seen I was skeptical. He stood up and extended his hand. “I’m not really a Count. Doesn’t work that way. My father’s a Count. I’m just a Count’s son. This lot,” he swept his hand around to include his three friends, “thinks it impresses the locals to claim a title, so they keep doing it on my behalf. Please join us. I have a little proposition for you, if you’re willing.”

His proposition was a little far-fetched but after a couple of glasses – they called them snifters – of brandy, it started to make sense.

So that’s how I ended up on a train to Sacramento with three English gentlemen and the son of a Count learning to pass for a respected member of the British upper crust.

.

Scott

When I reached out for my bed partner, I found empty space. Somehow I wasn’t surprised to discover she’d slipped out of the bed while I tried to replenish my energy. Pulling the pillows behind me, I sat up against the headboard and tried to get some perspective on events of the past few days.

Murdoch had been scheduled to attend a high finance conference in San Francisco and I had been determined to be invited along for the trip, both me and Johnny. It had been simple to ask a few questions about the city, which I had never visited, and to appear wistful when Murdoch mentioned the theatres and museums. Johnny and I had been at Lancer less than a year and we were still feeling out the family bond, neither of us knowing we had a brother until our father sent for us.  I wanted to spend some time with him away from the ranch, work, and the ever-present threat of his gunfighter past.

I don’t really miss Boston and civilization that much. Still, if Murdoch thought I was longing for the niceties I left behind and allowed Johnny and me to go to the big city, far be it from me to correct his impressions. Guess I worked pretty hard to make it seem real important that I get away from the ranch for a few days.

The plan worked. Murdoch invited me to accompany him and I had maintained it would be unfair to go when Johnny couldn’t. In the end, Murdoch insisted we both go with him, even though he knew he would be the only representative allowed at the bargaining table. Johnny had been reluctant in the beginning, making sounds about not knowing “nothin’ about art and music and such.” I talked him around by assuring him that we would find lots of ways to spend our time (nod and wink) and that I really didn’t want to go alone. In the end, Johnny must have figured he needed to agree, if the trip mattered that much to me.

However, the best laid plans and all that. The day before we were to be leaving, I was driving a wagon loaded with fencing materials around a steep path when the wheel struck a buried rock the wrong way. In a matter of seconds, the wheel had snapped and the wagon and its load had tipped. No harm would have been done except that Johnny was sleeping beside me at the time and tumbled off the seat before I could grab him. Johnny hadn’t appeared hurt too badly, but did confess to his ribs “smartin’ a right bit,” which told me he’d probably badly bruised a couple, if not broken them.

Hoping against hope that plans wouldn’t have to be changed, I waited for Johnny the next morning; the morning we were leaving. Johnny’s slow descent of the stairs gave me my answer. He was way too sore to take a horseback ride, or even a buggy ride to San Francisco. Murdoch had insisted on sending for the doctor to have Johnny checked before we left. All the time we waited, I kept saying I would remain home with Johnny. But neither my father nor Johnny was willing to believe I wasn’t longing for the bright lights of a city. I’d overplayed that hand enough that I got stuck with going without Johnny when what I wanted was Johnny’s company and no chores, no potential gunslingers, just freedom to move around a city.

We’d planned to get to the hotel in time for a bath and a leisurely dinner in the famous dining room Tuesday night. Instead, due to the late start, it was after midnight when we finally arrived, trail-worn and beat, to claim our rooms and beds. The marathon meeting didn’t begin until Thursday morning, but Murdoch was taking this opportunity to meet with some other business interests on Wednesday.

I was surprised when the clerk handed me two envelopes that had been waiting for Johnny and me with the key to our room.  “A gentleman left these letters for you and your brother.” I didn’t open mine until I took them up to the room Johnny and I had been supposed to share.

Mr. Scott Lancer
Mr. Armand Dupre requests the pleasure of your company at The Manor outside Sacramento on Thursday, February 8 through Sunday, February 11 to introduce his granddaughter Savannah Lisette Dupre to California society. A carriage will await you next to the Sacramento train station on Thursday at 7 am should you accept this invitation. Please be prepared to spend the weekend.

I opened Johnny’s and found the same invitation, with a different departure time. I might have been interested, but I’d been to Sacramento frequently. This party wasn’t reason enough to leave the sights of San Francisco to go there now.

Wednesday morning, I dragged my bones out of bed and joined my father for breakfast. As we ate, Murdoch warned me that he might not see me for several days as the meetings would go on to all hours and food would probably be brought in. What a miserable picture, days stuck in a smoke-filled room with a bunch of men all determined to take the others for as much as they could. Since coming to Lancer, I had learned to appreciate the value of outdoor work and the freedom of movement denied those sitting at desks. I was glad it was him and not me. Even without Johnny, San Francisco streets had to be better than that.

As we left the dining room, I almost bumped into the most beautiful creature I had seen in a very long time. She had golden hair, piled high on her head and blue eyes guaranteed to catch any man’s attention. Tall for a woman, she looked me straight in the eye and gave a “come hither” smile the likes of which I hadn’t seen for several years, since… well, in quite a while.

Murdoch noticed the direction of my gaze and warned, “Scott, she looks a tad rich for your blood and more than a little dangerous.” Now those were words guaranteed to make me plan to pursue the acquaintance, if possible. Nothing like a little unsolicited advice to get my dander up.

After Murdoch left, I asked the desk clerk if he knew the lady’s name. “She is the granddaughter of Mr. Armand Dupre, who resides in Sacramento. She recently arrived from her home in Georgia to live with her grandfather.“

Suddenly that invitation held more interest. Perhaps I should save San Francisco for a time when I could share it with Johnny. I now had a reason to go to Sacramento — a sight I didn’t particularly want to share with him or anyone else.

I was glad I hadn’t bothered to unpack. Also glad I had the foresight to pack dress clothes even though I hadn’t been able to convince Johnny to do the same. My father would probably never miss me, but I left a scrawled note that I had accepted an invitation to a weekend party.  I caught a late afternoon train to Sacramento after making a futile attempt to find Miss Dupre in the hopes of sharing a coach with her on her return to Sacramento. I had time for a leisurely dinner before retiring early.

At five minutes to seven, I approached the train station and found a carriage waiting. “Mr. Lancer?” The liveried coachman opened the door of a fine coach with a matched team of horses and allowed me to enter. I was surprised to be the only passenger in the coach and wondered how many people would be at the party

When we arrived at The Manor, I forgot to look at my surroundings, as Savannah herself came out to greet me on the verandah. She was wearing a plain but elegant day dress that seemed cut just a tad low for a proper young lady.  I certainly did not object to the view. She greeted me with both hands out and reached up to kiss my cheek.

“Oh, I wished you were one of my grandfather’s guests when I saw you in the dining room. I was so afraid that he had invited only the stuffed shirt types considered “eligible” instead of some real men.” As she spoke, her hands wandered up and down my shirtfront and came to rest on my hips.

“No gunbelt,” she noted. “I thought that you were a rancher’s son. I assumed you carried a gun.”

I squirmed a little under the teasing motion of her hands. “I’m originally from Boston and I am not quite used to wearing a gun everywhere I go. Besides, I assumed it wouldn’t be appropriate wear for this event. I do have my gun and holster in my bag.” I replied as I gestured to the article in my hand.

She had already motioned the carriage driver away and asked permission to open my bag herself. She removed my gun and showed me the locked chest near the front entrance. “My grandfather has requested that all weapons be left here,” she informed me as she put the gun and belt inside. “He is afraid there might be some trouble otherwise.” Looking at the beautiful woman in front of me, I could see why he was concerned.

My next thought was of Johnny. He would never have stood for his gun being taken and locked away, so it was a good thing he was not there to have to deal with the indignity. It has taken us months to convince him to come to dinner without a gun on his hip. That thought led me to remember to give Johnny’s regrets. And this in turn led to a query as to why his invitation had indicated he was to be picked up an hour later than I when there was plenty of room in the carriage that had brought me here.

Miss Savannah simply smiled and suggested that all her guests deserved individual attention. She then took my free hand and pulled me along up the stairs. She opened one of the doors along the hall and gestured me in. “My room is downstairs, in case you get lost or have a question,” she informed me archly. She came in and shut the door behind her. I put my bag on the floor and turned to find she was practically on top of me.

“My grandfather insists that our guests be searched for hidden weapons too, but I thought you might not like a servant to do that,” was her comment as her lovely hands began to slide down the front of my shirt, pausing to give each of my nipples a gentle twist. She then slid her hands down my sides and spread her fingers wide as she slipped past my waist and across the crotch of my pants, highlighting my expanding manhood and making it enlarge even more.

I caught her hands, lifted them to my lips and warned, “Not a good idea unless you’re going to improve our acquaintance rapidly, and right now.”

Her smile was knowing and very teasing. “Well,” she drawled in her soft southern accent, “you are the first guest to arrive and since your brother isn’t coming, we have two hours before the next is expected. Is that enough time to improve our acquaintance?”

The way I was feeling, it was only going to take a few minutes to … well, you get the picture. So, I let go of her hands and let her choose the direction of future events. Quick fingers began to unbutton the shirt I wore; I had already taken off my jacket. She eased the shirt off my chest and arms, making sure she touched every part of my upper body. My shirt fell unnoticed to the floor.

As her nimble fingers began on my belt and trousers, I decided to take a hand. There is nothing more awkward than dropping your drawers while you have your boots on. Talk about a rude interruption to building passion. So, I used the bench to remove my boots while her hands continued to wreak havoc on my self-control.

Then it was my turn to unwrap the merchandise. I unlaced the bodice strings holding the top of her dress and, to my amazement, found nothing under the garment except creamy, white flesh and breasts to make a man drool. Our hands stayed on each other as we stumbled to the canopied bed in the center of the room. Somehow, I wound up on the bottom with Savannah leaning over me, her blond hair tumbling from its intricate knot and framing her heart-shaped face. Her eyes seemed to feast on me and the pleasure on her face made me grow impossibly harder. As I started to reach out and take control, I remembered some long ago advice from another lovely lady.

Darling, sometimes the best way to have control is to let the woman take the lead. Nothing is more exciting than a man who allows himself to be loved.

“I’m all yours.” And with those words, I reached back and gripped the rails of the brass headboard and let her have her way. Now that was a rapid way to have a massive heart attack. With sheer elation shining in her eyes, she began to nibble her way down my body. I felt her mouth and teeth on my ear, on my neck; then she began to suck my nipples and I thought I would go through the ceiling. It was all I could do to stay still and not grab. She continued down my stomach, nipping and licking, then blowing across the damp flesh.

She stroked my thighs, being very careful to avoid the one spot I craved her touch. Blowing her cool breath across my heated private area, she was driving me crazy. I could barely refrain from gripping her and I could feel my head tossing to and fro and my back arching as I tried to get closer, to feel more. She trailed her hair up across my barrel, over my stomach and nipples and finally reached close enough for me to touch my lips to hers.

“Let me touch you,” I tried to order but it came out a weak plea.

“Please.” Savannah nodded and smiled with exultation. I managed to let go of my death grip on the railings and cupped one full breast to guide it to my mouth. As I sucked gently, I moved my other hand beneath to find the warm moist center of her womanhood. I eased two fingers into the hidden area and watched her jolt, as she tried to both lean back into my fingers and keep my mouth working her luscious flesh.  I was ready to explode and could see that she was approaching the same state.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, to lower myself back on that bed and reach my arms over my head again, but the effort was rewarded when I saw the disbelieving pleasure in her eyes. “At your command, my lady,” I managed to gasp.

She slid back on me, kneeling on those gorgeous long legs of hers and taking my full length into her passion zone. I thought I would expire at that moment, but she began to work her body over mine, demanding I move with her. I heard the words, “Ride ’em, cowboy,” and fell off the top of the highest cliff I have ever experienced.  She leaned over and took my mouth as I opened it to shout, taking the sound into herself and giving back the deep groan that accompanied her completion.

I must have fallen into the “little death” that accompanies exquisite sex because that is all I remember until I turned over to find her gone.  Looking at the clock on the bureau, I saw an hour and a half had passed. It was probably nearly time for the next arrival and I wanted to be present at the introduction. So, up I got, dressed and descended the stairs to find Savannah in the drawing room. She was wearing a different dress, one cut even a bit lower than the one in which she had greeted me.

She smiled broadly, whispered, “Thanks for the acquaintance,” and ushered me into the billiard room where a gray-haired, dignified man stood waiting. “Grandfather, I would like for you to meet Scott Lancer. Scott, Armand Dupre.” I bowed, offered my hand and had it heartily shaken.

“Welcome, Mr. Lancer. I wanted to invite several people who could introduce Savannah into California society and I have heard much about your Lancer. I am so glad that you could come.”

I wondered what game was being played here. Surely Mr. Dupre was not planning on his granddaughter being viewed as an eligible young lady, not with what I had already seen. Still, it looked like enjoyable entertainment for a few days, to watch the beautiful tigress devour her escorts. I found that I wouldn’t really mind a repeat exercise myself, but I was glad that Johnny wasn’t there. My tough, hard-nosed brother is actually rather innocent in the matter of “good” women and is more than a little romantic. I couldn’t have trusted him not to fall in love with Savannah and create no end of problems. Me, I was just suffering a good case of lust and figured I could deal with it.

.

Candy

I’d been surprised to be the only passenger in the fancy buggy. If this was a big party, where were all the other guests? But about an hour into the ride we passed a carriage headed back to town without a passenger. Could be the others were arriving on a late train. Or maybe rich folks in Atlanta didn’t believe in sharing conveyances with strangers.

When we pulled up to The Manor, my curiosity about other guests vanished. She came out to the veranda to greet me wearing a blue dress that couldn’t begin to match those incredible eyes. But it did accentuate her tiny waist and show just a little more of her bosom than seemed quite proper for a lady.  The way she greeted me didn’t seem quite ladylike either although I couldn’t quite pin down why.

She took both my hands in hers and kissed me on the cheek. Although there was no one else in sight, she spoke in a throaty whisper close to my ear. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m so glad you got your invitation in time. We tried to deliver it in San Francisco but you’d already left. When I saw you at the hotel of course I didn’t know who you were or I’d have extended the invitation personally.”

I started to tell her to call me Joe, but the way her finger traced my cheek and then moved down my chest, distracted me. She was wearing an exotic scent that drove the words from my mouth. No matter, she anticipated my request.

“May I call you Joseph?” I nodded and she went on. “Joseph, when I saw you in the hotel dining room I so wished you were a man of the status my grandfather would find suitable for this party. But you looked too rugged, too manly. My grandfather insists that I meet only men of the most impeccable background. I’m thrilled such a virile man is also so well connected.”

So was I.

My gunbelt caught her attention. I got a little nervous when she ran her right index finger around the buckle. When her left hand took hold of the holster, I was more nervous still. I wasn’t worried she’d shoot me. It was the way she used her hold on the holster to pull me against her. It tested my self-control just a little more than I was comfortable with out here in the open where someone might decide to come out for a breath of air at any time.

By the time she started to unbuckle the gunbelt my breathing had become a little irregular. I restrained her hand gently with my own. “Isn’t there a more private place we could go to . . . talk?”

She laughed softly. “Of course, Joseph. But first my grandfather has a request. He’d like everyone to leave their firearms outside.”

She gestured toward an ornately carved wooden trunk tucked up against the wall near the door.  I wasn’t too happy about leaving my gun, but on close examination I found the padlock holding the trunk closed was none too sturdy. If I had a reason to be armed later, I could get through it easily enough.  Still, I saw no reason to be hasty in my cooperation. She sensed the need to act in response to my hesitation and finished unbuckling the belt herself. She coiled it and slid it into a green velvet bag before nestling it carefully next to some similar bags already in the trunk.

But she hadn’t finished her safety precautions. “Mr. Cartwright, I mean no insult, but you do look much more dangerous than the guests who preceded you. I’m sure my grandfather wouldn’t rest easy unless you were thoroughly searched.”

At first I was mildly alarmed, expecting some burly manservant to be summoned to conduct this search. But I’d underestimated her commitment to the personal comfort of her guests. With her hands running down my chest and then my thighs, she slowly convinced herself I carried no additional firepower – although had she kept up her exploration much longer, she’d have had to contend with another type of weapon.

Finally, she took my hand and led me inside.

A quarter hour later I was naked and relaxing with the scent of lavender dominating my senses. The only thing missing was a beautiful woman to scrub my back.

She’d gone to attend to her other guests. But she had left behind an unspoken promise.  And I intended to collect on it before the weekend was over.  In the meantime, this was by far the fanciest bath I’d ever indulged in and I might as well enjoy it. Servants must have brought the hot water just as I was dropped off because the tub was still steaming when she closed the bedroom door.

.

Joe

I watched Jamie until I could no longer see his red head in the crowd and then settled back into the plush seats of the carriage. It was a mighty fine vehicle, maybe the finest I’d ever ridden in. This Savannah Lisette must come from a pretty rich family. I could see why her grandfather was seeking out the finest families for a potential husband.

The ride seemed interminable even though the coachman kept the horses at a fast pace. I was anxious to flaunt my presence in Candy’s face and take him down a peg or two. And I was just as anxious to have a chance to work my charm on Miss Savannah Lisette. She wouldn’t look twice at Candy when I was through with her. He had some nerve, a man supposed to be my best friend, stealing my invitation and trying to pass himself off as Joe Cartwright. I’d show him.

The carriage drew up in front of a mansion. I sucked in a deep breath. It was imposing. Tall. Three stories tall. And waiting on the porch a most beautiful sight, Miss Savannah Lisette Dupre. Her golden hair shone in the sunlight, but my eye was drawn to those curves. The luscious swell of her bosom beneath the bodice of her gown distracted me from seeing anything else. She was perfectly proportioned, with a tiny waist leading to the gentle curve of her hips. The way her low cut bodice dipped and exposed the swell of her petal soft flesh took my breath away. I felt my body’s instinctive response and hastily used my hat to cover that portion of my anatomy. No sense in offending the girl before we’d been formally introduced.

I almost fell from the carriage in my haste to greet this picture of feminine perfection. Putting my best manners on display, I gathered her tiny hand in mine and pressed a gentle kiss to the top of it. I will confess I let my lips linger a little longer than was considered acceptable, but she didn’t pull back, or scream, or slap me. I’d had all of those things happen before, and she did none of them.

“Mr. Cartier? How lovely to meet you, sir,” she was saying. I struggled to lift my eyes from her breasts to her face, and at last succeeded.

“My pleasure, ma’am. Francis Cartier, at your service.”

She smiled prettily and made a show of reluctantly pulling her hand from my grasp. “How lovely that you’ve been able to accept my little invitation,” she purred. “I’ve been looking forward to making your acquaintance. I’m sure we’ll have the most entertaining weekend. One of our other guests is a friend of yours. At least I saw you together in the hotel dining room – Joseph Cartwright.”

My jaw tightened a little at the mention of that imposter. But I hastened to agree with her, passing “Mr. Cartwright” off as a casual acquaintance. The weekend promised to be most entertaining, all right.  And watching Candy squirm would be part if it. I made a move toward the house, but she put her hand on my chest. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Cartier. May I call you Francis?”

I nodded, waiting for her to continue. “My grandfather is most worried about the possibility of duels, or gunplay of some sort in our home.” She batted her eyelashes and looked down demurely. “For some reason, young men have a tendency toward such things when I’m around. Grandfather has insisted that all weapons be left outside.” She gestured toward a small chest on the porch. “I promise we’ll take the best possible care of your gun.”

I fingered my gunbelt for a moment. I don’t like walking into a strange situation without my weapon. But it was a genteel house party, after all, not a rowdy saloon. What harm could there be in surrendering my gun? It wasn’t like I was actually planning to shoot Candy. I made a move to unfasten the gunbelt, but her eager fingers stopped me.

“Allow me, Francis,” she murmured.

Her fingers tickled my waistband, and I flushed uncomfortably. Evidence of my ever-growing desire was next to impossible to hide, given the tight fit of my pants. Especially now I was forced to move my hat aside. Her eyes let me know she’d seen what I was trying to cover and was finding it rather amusing. If anything, her fingers lingered a bit longer than necessary as she worked to unbuckle the supple leather of the gunbelt. In fact, I swear she deliberately let those fingers drift across the fabric that clung so tightly. Of course, this only increased my level of discomfort and made the cloth even tighter.

When she insisted on searching me for concealed weapons, I groaned aloud. “Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” I tried to insist. In truth, I didn’t like to think what might happen if I let her run her hands over my body.

She brushed away my protests and I shut my eyes tightly, biting the inside of my cheek as her fingers caressed first my chest, then my waist, dipping lower to the inside of my thighs, and down to my boots. It was surprising I didn’t open a gaping wound in my mouth, because by the time she was done, I was in dire straits.

“All done, Francis,” she cooed, and I opened my eyes to find her laughing up at me. She gestured toward the door, and I swear she deliberately grazed my pants again with that motion. “Let me show you to your room.”

We traveled through a luxurious foyer, and up a sweeping staircase to the second floor. A long hallway gave evidence that the house could handle quite a few guests. She stopped in front of a door, and threw it open, preceding me inside the room.

It was enormous. A huge four-poster bed seemed lost among the carpets that swirled to the windows. I whistled appreciatively, but stopped as Savannah pressed her hand into mind.

“If you need anything at all, Mr. Cartier, please let me know. We’re at your complete disposal this weekend.” She stood closer than was socially acceptable, and I took advantage of the situation, I’ll admit.

I swept her into a gentle embrace and captured those full lips with mine. She didn’t struggle or protest and so I let the kiss linger and bloom. A surging tide of passion engulfed me and I couldn’t have lifted my head if I’d tried. Savannah finally put both hands on my chest and gently pushed me away. She sighed dreamily.

“I’d love to stay and ‘chat’ a little longer, Francis, but I do have other guests. The servants have provided hot water for your bath. You’ll find everything you need behind that screen. Join us downstairs as soon as you’re ready.” She drifted to the door, her skirts swaying gently as she walked.

At the door, she stopped and blew me a kiss, and then she slipped through, closing the door softly behind her. I let out a loud groan and collapsed onto the giant bed. Visions of the fun I could have with Savannah Lisette on that vast expanse swam through my mind, and I groaned again. I couldn’t wait to see what developed this weekend. Candy didn’t stand a chance.

.

Griff

It was turning dark when the carriage picked me up at the train station at five.  An hour into the trip it was dead black. But the combination of carriage lamps, a fairly decent road and a somewhat reckless driver had us moving at a good clip. I used the two-hour trip to go over the facts Nigel had drilled into me and to recite a few of the phrases he’d taught me. Anti-clockwise not counter-clockwise – how would I slip that into a conversation? And 14 stones made a pound. Or was it the other way? Damn, I guess I’d better avoid talking about how much stuff weighed. Cookies were biscuits. So if they had biscuits and gravy for breakfast did I call them cookies? So many things I’d forgotten to ask.

We’d only been a half hour into the train ride from Frisco to Sacramento when Nigel and his friends concluded there was no way I was going to be able to carry off a believable British accent. By that time I’d been looking forward to a few days of luxury as a Count’s son. My disappointment at their verdict must have been obvious. It was Cedric, the son of a vicar – whatever that was – who came up with another plan.

“Nigel, you tried to convince the guys in that poker game in Denver you were from Texas. Now you weren’t any better at it than Griff is at speaking the Queen’s English, but Ned here mimicked those drovers so well he might have passed for one of them if he’d been a sight filthier — and if your father hadn’t found out where we were and hauled us off.”

Nigel didn’t see his point. “But Griff doesn’t have Ned’s gift any more than do I.”

“But what if he did? Him being you I mean. What if he tells them he’s trying to master the language of the cowboys and to please correct him if he lapses into real English? Griff can speak in his primitive way, use what more civilized words and phrases he can master and everyone will think he’s trying to fit in.”

The other three looked a bit skeptical and I figured I should be insulted – I thought my English was pretty damn good. But it’s the plan we went with. Nigel’s daddy expected him to be safely tucked away at a fancy party while the big meeting was going on. Nigel wanted to punch some cows and shoot some mountain lions away from his daddy’s watchful eyes. I might have been out of luck had some other young, tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed guy come along who could fit into Nigel’s fancy clothes. But no better candidates appeared. I’m just glad Hop Sing hadn’t managed to fatten me up like he kept threatening. Nigel’s fancy duds were tailored to fit his aristocratic frame. My shoulders barely fit into them as it was.

I could see The Manor long before we pulled up next to the front veranda. Two of the three floors were ablaze with lights. It was more than twice as big as the Ponderosa ranch house, which was the only rich man’s home I’d ever been in.

As the driver set Nigel’s fancy leather bag on the porch, one of the ornate double doors opened and a young woman stepped out.  I hoped the shadows by the buggy hid the fact that my jaw dropped and wouldn’t close for what seemed like a very long time.  This had to be the hostess, Savannah Lisette Dupre.  She couldn’t be a guest. No society girl looking to meet eligible men would invite a girl who looked like her to a party. Every man’s eyes would drift to this golden-haired beauty and stay there.  It was the gold that held my eye. Although her hair was piled on top of her head, held with jeweled clips, I just knew it was soft and silky. I imagined myself slowly removing those clips; letting those curls tumble onto her bare shoulders.

I was jarred back to reality by the sound of my name — or rather Nigel’s name – spoken in the warm, honeyed drawl of a Southern belle. Of course, I’d never actually talked to a real Southern belle. But her voice was everything I’d imagined. A man in prison has a lot of time to imagine – especially about women.

I took a deep breath and walked up the few steps to join her. I’d been rehearsing in my head all the possible ways I could greet my host and hostess, but I hadn’t expected to be alone with such a woman so soon. On a rash impulse, I took her extended right hand, swept off my hat and gave a dramatic bow as I bent to kiss it.  When I straightened up to face her squarely, I grinned and said in the most exaggerated Texas drawl I could manage, “Howdy, Ma’am.”

She looked startled and then confused. “Are you Nigel Wingate, of – of London?

“Why, yes Ma’am, I most surely am. Most pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“But you don’t sound like a Londoner.”

“Jolly good.” I stopped, trying to look chagrined at my lapse, “I mean, thank you kindly ma’am. I’ve been practicing since my ship docked in Boston. I reckon I don’t want to stand out ‘round these here parts.”

She smiled at me with amusement, no hint of suspicion.  My spirits rose. I could do this.  It was going to be fun. I wasn’t even doing anything illegal. Nigel had given me permission to impersonate him. Wasn’t like I was going to rob a bank or nothing. Couldn’t be any law against attending a party under false pretenses.  And wasn’t like she’d have been any better off with the real Nigel. He’d heard in Frisco that her grandfather was trying to find her a husband. He’d made it clear he had no interest in an American wife. She was no worse off not getting a proposal from me than she woulda been not getting a proposal from him.

I thought she’d simply escort me into the house, but she had other business. “Nigel, I’m afraid a couple of boys back home were silly enough get themselves killed in duels over me.  My grandpapa has heard how the men out here get into gunfights over women, poker, horses or most anything. And they do it right in the middle of a crowd. Innocent people get hurt. He asks that all the guests leave their firearms out here.” She pointed to a fancy lock box by the door.

I wasn’t real happy about turning over the grand revolver Nigel had loaned me.  The thing was more for show than practical use I suppose — I guessed it was worth a year’s ranch hand wages.  Not that I was planning to shoot anyone but I’d been looking forward to showing it off.  Reclining nudes were carved into the ivory insets on the grip and the barrel was splendid with fancy inlays. Even the tooled holster and cartridge belt cost more than I’d pay for a saddle with a good horse under it.  I supposed the lock box was safe enough way out here, hours from town, but I’d gotten used to the feel of a rich man’s rig and hated to give it up.

She didn’t give me much choice though. She got up close to me and put her left hand on my shoulder like we was going to waltz. Her right hand drifted down my chest and belly until she got to the gunbelt. Gently, she loosened the buckle until the belt fell from my waist and dangled in her hand.  She took her left hand from my shoulder and stroked the intricate, raised-carved floral pattern, running her fingers around the engraved silver conchos. I took a moment to breathe.

“This is lovely.” She looked up at me and smiled.  “I’m so sorry you won’t be able to wear it. It did look so fine around your hips.  Makes you look like a real high-class cowboy.”  She leaned against me for a moment, her arm reaching around my waist as though to replace my confiscated gunbelt with her arm.  Then she stood on her toes and placed a soft kiss on my cheek.

And Nigel thought shooting at mountain lions would be more fun than this.

After she’d put my rig in the lock box, she had another condition to my entrance into the party. “I’m afraid my grandpapa insists that all the guests be searched for hidden firearms before they come in. I can call Jasper to conduct a quick search . . . “

She might as well have thrown a bucket of cold water on me.  I’d been searched about every week for a year in prison.  I was a free man now and wasn’t about to let this Jasper touch me. If that was the price of admission, I was gone.

But that’s not what she had in mind.

“. . . or perhaps you’d let me do it.”

Of course I would. I did in fact, have Nigel’s pocket pistol secured in an inside jacket pocket. I could have surrendered it but a search sounded like a fine idea – a reasonable safety precaution.

She started by running both hands down my back while she stood facing me – as if in an embrace. She didn’t exactly rush through the job either. Her hands moved slowly, massaging the muscles in my back in places where no firearm could have been found.  But she felt the pistol right away when as her hands came under my arms to my chest. She opened the jacket and reached into the pocket. Removing the pistol, she held it out and shook her head. “Very naughty, Mr. Wingate.” She spoke in the tone of a schoolmarm who’s caught a boy putting a frog down a schoolmate’s dress. “Do you have any more of these?”

I flashed Nigel’s most engaging smile and continued in my exaggerated cowboy speech. “My memory ain’t been too good of late ma’am. I reckon you’d just best continue your search.”

She slid the pocket pistol into a little velvet bag before adding it to the firepower already stashed in the lock box. Then she continued to search me most thoroughly and most enjoyably. She started with my boots this time – the ones with the fancy stitching and colorful leather inlays that had been custom-made for Nigel’s feet but gave me just a little too much room to wiggle my toes. She ran her hands up both my legs one at a time. I thought she might avoid being too thorough around my thighs and hips out of womanly delicacy. But while Savannah Lisette looked to be the most delicate of women, she was either quite afraid I had hidden firepower or she was curious to know just what other equipment I was carrying.

In either case, the way she touched me left me with no secrets.

By the time she took my hand and led me into the house, I was having a little trouble with my breathing and walking wasn’t all that easy. But one thing surprised me. I hadn’t been embarrassed or gone all shy or anything.  There was a freedom about being somebody else in a place where no one knew me.

It wasn’t like women made me all tongue-tied when I was on familiar ground.  I had some experience with girls.  I could talk to them pretty good mostly.  But it was hard with people watching. Like when I go to a saloon on a Saturday night with some of the hands from the ranch.  The working girls are mostly real nice with me. I know they’re just looking for customers but I think they figure I ain’t one of those boys would be rough with them.  I have mixed feelings toward such women. Mostly it seems sad that any woman has to sell her body to make a living. But since she does, would I be in the wrong being a customer who would treat her nice?

I hadn’t given in to it so far. I ain’t no saint though. There were times when the need for a woman got real bad and maybe when a girl started teasing with me, I would’ve spent my money upstairs. But if I’d gone off with one of them, the boys would have started whoopin’ and hollerin’, making fun. They were pretty sure I hadn’t been with a woman in that way before I went to prison. And they’d been egging me on to give it a try since I’d started going to town with them. I wasn’t about to tell them about any private time I’d had with a woman so to them anytime would be my first time. They’d make such a big to-do; I probably wouldn’t be able to get done what I’d paid for anyways.

And of course there were girls at the parties the Cartwrights gave.  Girls to dance with and kiss though not the sort to do with what a working girl would do. But even so, it was tough to get close to a girl with Candy and Joe watching.  The two of them were so smooth with the ladies; I’d start tripping over my words under their watchful eyes. They didn’t mean no harm but they liked to tease. And their advice just made me worry I was doing things wrong.

Jamie, he felt the same way.  A few times we’d sat out watching the folks dance, pointing out the girls we’d maybe like to talk to if Joe and Candy weren’t watching to see how we did. He had it worse than me because if he tried to hold a girl’s hand or maybe take her for a walk, he had his Pa beaming at him with that, “Isn’t that nice, Jamie has a girl” look. He might even walk over and give them a hearty Ben Cartwright greeting that would have Jamie turning ten shades of red.

But here I was. No rowdy ranch hands. No Joe and Candy watching from the sidelines. And how could I get self-conscious when I wasn’t even myself? I was introduced to one of the other guests who was on his way upstairs. He seemed a pleasant enough type. He looked and sounded like an educated gentleman but she introduced him as a rancher from the San Joaquin Valley. I was pleased with myself that my act seemed to pass muster with him as well as Savannah. I could do this.

She led me up to a bedroom off a wide hallway on the second floor. I used the walk up the staircase to drop a comment using what Nigel and Cedric told me about the Brits using the term ground floor for first floor and first floor for second and so on. I’m pretty sure I got it right –asking her what was on the second floor and then having to correct it to third floor. I figured I’d better throw things in here and there to establish my British background to cover for mistakes I was sure to make later.

After our introduction on the veranda, I didn’t think it was totally out of the question that things might become more intimate once we got to the privacy of my room. I even closed the door behind us. Just in case.

But it wasn’t to be.

“Nigel you’re the last guest to arrive. We’ll be serving dinner promptly at eight.” She glanced at the clock sitting on the walnut dresser. “You have 45 minutes to get ready if you wish to freshen up after that dusty trip.” She folded back a Chinese screen to reveal a copper tub steaming with hot water. “I had the servants bring bath water as you drove up. When you’ve dressed, you may join us in the drawing room and we’ll proceed to dinner. The drawing room is behind the double doors to the right of the staircase.”

As I tossed my bag onto the bed, she turned to leave. With boldness drawn from anonymity, I put an arm around her shoulder to hold her back. A few golden curls had escaped the upsweep, which took her hair off her neck. I twisted one around my index finger.  “Ma’am, I reckon I’ll be undressing for my bath now. Perhaps you want to make sure I haven’t managed to hide any additional armament.”

She laughed, a musical sound that said she was not offended. As though to mirror my action, she reached up and pushed a bit of my hair off my forehead.  But then she patted my cheek lightly in dismissal.  Opening the door to leave, she gave me what I took to be an encouraging smile. “I have nine other guests to entertain. It would be rude to devote too much time to ensuring that you’re harmless.  Perhaps I’ll see to that later.”

.

Scott

When I came downstairs after my morning liaison with Savannah, Mr. Dupre offered to show me the billiard room and challenged me to a game. “It’s been awhile since I played, Sir, but I will be happy to test my skills again,” I told the aristocratic old man.

The room was paneled in polished cherry and the play table was intricately carved and covered with a rich red cover, rather than the green I was accustomed to on the tables in Boston.  There was a small bar in one corner, with a generous variety of liquors displayed for almost any taste ranging from straight bourbon to aged Scotch and brandy.  An ornate fireplace filled the south wall of the room and all the space not devoted to windows on the east and north walls were lined with bookcases containing a variety of leather-bound volumes, many of which bore the appearance of being well-read. It had been a long time since I’d visited such an inviting place. An expansive archway in the west wall opened into the drawing room where I could see a large table suitable for cards. There were a few smaller tables along the sides of the drawing room set up for chess, backgammon and cribbage. Sideboards holding silver trays and chafing dishes promised there’d be no lack of food as the day wore on. I’d been promised an informal luncheon would be served after the next two guests arrived.

As we broke the rack and put the balls into play, Mr. Dupre asked me about my home at Lancer. At my confession that I had been there less than a year, he requested details about my former life in Boston. He disclosed he had never been north of Washington, D.C. and was intrigued with my stories about living on a northern ocean with its storms, seafood, and the harsh winters. I suspect I embellished life with my grandfather a bit, but I soon got him to talking about his home in New Orleans, which he had left some 15 years ago to seek his fortune in California. I was not sure how he acquired his finances, as his explanation was more than a little vague, but I had learned from Johnny about the danger of asking too many questions. As we danced the social whirls of two men meeting for the first time, I kept one ear and eye open for Savannah.

According to the clock on the mantel, it was a little after eleven o’clock when I heard a carriage arrive. As I paused in my game, I saw Savannah float across the hallway and open the front door. She disappeared from my view as she stepped out on the veranda to greet the arriving guest. The billiard room had a north-facing window, which looked out on the verandah, but I would have had to leave the game to get sight of Savannah and her guest. I admit to being curious but not so much as to let Mr. Dupre see it. But no mind, because shortly thereafter she returned to the hallway with a stocky, balding man who smiled shyly as Savannah engaged in mild flirtation. The man was wearing no gun so either he hadn’t had one, or she had relieved him of his as she had me of mine. Well, not exactly, as she had not spent enough time with him on the verandah to have searched him with the thoroughness she’d reserved for me. Perhaps I looked more dangerous – or more interesting. Turning her perfectly coiffured head, she motioned to one of the elderly female servants to approach.

“Maria, please escort Mr. Vanderlaan to his room. The French room has been prepared for him.” With a gracious smile, she said, “Mr. Vanderlaan, please make yourself at home. You are welcome to come to the drawing room at your leisure where other guests and my grandfather will be received. I am delighted that you have come.” Her smile was welcoming and full of promise and her décolletage certainly drew the eye and any man’s interest.

As she turned away, I caught her eye and we acknowledged our mutual interest, but I was restricted by her grandfather’s presence from any conversation of a personal nature. She opened the double doors connecting the drawing room to the hallway and walked toward the dining room and the kitchen further back in the house. I returned my full attention to Mr. Dupre and his tales. Absently, I wondered why she had not escorted this visitor to his room as she had me.

Over the next few hours, I kept track of the arrivals. Four new guests arrived, each greeted out on the verandah by Savannah Lisette. All were escorted into the wide hallway without any visible weaponry. I did notice that she personally escorted none of the arrivals to their rooms, as she had done for me. As we all meandered through the public rooms downstairs, the lovely lady was always available for a light flirtation, for a few minutes of private conversation, but she didn’t once stray away from the eyes of her guests or her grandfather.

Mr. Dupre also greeted each of his guests as they returned downstairs from their rooms, inviting them to enjoy the billiards, books, or to partake of the excellent buffet luncheon laid out on the sideboards. The food was abundant, and meant to be portable. It was obvious there was no set luncheon time for that day, though Mr. Dupre referred to the dinner being planned for the evening, as though to subtly caution us not to partake of too much of the splendid variety of food set out before us.

I eyed each of the other guests, trying to figure out reasons for inviting each of us. We were well dressed, some less formally than others, like me, but all wearing good quality clothing and all being well-set up men. Our ages varied some but we were all young enough to be considered “eligible” by a doting grandfather. One of the men was very surly whenever Savannah’s attention left him and one had a nervous habit of clicking his nails together throughout a conversation. All evidently had both money and education. Still, I was the only one who had received any personal “upstairs” attention, and I was feeling rather special. I knew my intentions were not pure, but I figured hers weren’t either. Nothing wrong with mutual pleasure, as far as I knew.

Promptly at four o’clock in the afternoon, a buggy arrived. Another of the guests was at the billiard table with Mr. Dupre so I had the opportunity to stand near the window on the pretext of looking through a book I had selected at random.  I noticed the man who jumped down and strode toward the waiting Savannah was dressed in slightly more workmanlike clothing, but bore himself like a man with a mission. I watched him introduce himself to his hostess, kiss her hand in a highly flirtatious manner, then stand perfectly still as she removed his gunbelt personally. Having had some of that attention myself, I could understand he was trying to keep his awareness of her attraction from being blatantly obvious to her. With noticeable reluctance, he watched his gun get locked away, but apparently forgot about it as she searched his person with the same thoroughness she had accorded me earlier.  She took his arm and after they entered the hallway, drew him up the stairs, I supposed to his room. Humm!! I wondered why he got the personal treatment.

After a short time, Savannah returned downstairs. I was prideful enough to be gratified that she hadn’t spent enough time to accord him all the attention she had lavished on me. At five, a carriage arrived and a slightly smaller, but elegantly dressed man with curly hair descended with a curious look and a wide smile. This gentleman too received Savannah’s very personal attention in removing his weapon, and I heard his pleasant high-pitched laugh as she took him to his room. That made three. Apparently something was attracting her to particular men. I wondered, but turned back to continue reading the new novel I had found on the bookcase. The other guests were all involved in a serious game of billiards, as each of them seemed to want to show off for our charming hostess.

She kept an ear cocked for the sound of the carriage or buggy, which alternated in bringing the guests because no one either used the doorknocker or was escorted in by the driver. Although the guests were arriving close to the hour, it wasn’t so perfectly timed as to allow her to respond to the door simply by watching the clock.

I figured the six o’clock guest would surely get personal attention. He stood at least 6’4, towering several inches over me, slim and graceful, and endowed with all the attributes that appeal to a female. He had wavy black hair, sparkling blue eyes (bluer than Johnny’s which is going some) and a smile to light up a room.  But my surreptitious glance out the billiard room window indicated that she merely asked for his gun, which he surrendered without question – and without the intimate search she had shared with me and those other two characters. After they entered the house, I waited for the ascent of the stairs, but I had guessed wrong. Oh, she flirted with him, laughed at a humorous remark and touched his arm in a flirtatious way. But then she called a servant to escort Mr. Delacourt to his room.

I knew we were dining at eight, so I decided to go to my room around seven to take a short nap before changing clothes. At least here, none of the gentlemen had brought personal servants, so I assumed that formal meant less so than I had often encountered in Boston. I started up the stairs, but turned at the sound of an approaching carriage. Savannah went to the front door and despite the cold of nightfall stepped outside to welcome the guest. I could tell from the amount of time the greeting took that she was being “thorough” again. I watched as an elegantly clad young man, and I do mean young, walked through the door with his hostess, his face and eyes obviously completely dazzled by the loveliness of the woman at his side.

I am not quite sure what caught my eye, as Savannah made introductions.

“Count Nigel Wingate, I would like to introduce Mr. Scott Lancer, late of Boston, Massachusetts and now one of the owners of the Lancer ranch here in California. Count Nigel is from England, on a visit to us provincials. Correct?” she asked archly.

This Nigel blushed and stammered something that sounded like “Smashing, jolly good,” in what was supposed to be an English toff’s accent. Having attended school with a couple of upper-class students from England, the words and the accent stuck me as just a bit “off”, and I wondered what kind of game the man was playing. Either he was not of the class he pretended to be or he wasn’t from England at all. Still, he had a look in his eyes that reminded me of Johnny, smitten in a way that signaled danger to his heart. Savannah was fun, but her kind of fun could break a man’s heart if he didn’t understand the game. I doubted very seriously this English pretender understood the rules she played under

I watched the attentions paid here with more concern than with the others. I didn’t want to think about this boy being as romantic and susceptible as Johnny to a woman’s attention. The others could take care of themselves, but I suspected this one needed a keeper.

.

Griff

Even as the door closed behind her I was stripping for my bath. I didn’t exactly need one. Nigel had taken us all to a public bath house just after he and his friends checked into the hotel in Sacramento.  The hotel could have provided baths, but Nigel wanted to go where the cowboys went to spruce up before prowling the saloons and bawdy houses.  Bathing with rough soap and lukewarm water in a damp room full of trail hands singing off-key might have appealed to Nigel’s sense of adventure, but I wasn’t going to turn down rose-scented hot water and fancy soap in a bottle even if it was my second bath today.

Thirty minutes later I was walking down the staircase dressed in Nigel’s second best suit – I was saving the best one just in case. I’d slicked my hair back with some rose water, thinking how lucky I was to have most of it intact. Nigel had supervised a haircut, telling the barber to make me look like him. I was lucky Nigel, unlike his friend Basil, didn’t suffer from early baldness.

I stood before the drawing room doors savoring the moment.  There was an adventure behind those doors.  I was the son of a Count entering a room full of strangers in competition for a beautiful woman.  Now maybe that woman had been just teasing me and I’d never end up with more than I’d had from her. Or maybe she really liked me. Either way it was exciting.  I wasn’t Griff King, lowly cowhand, late of Nevada state prison. I was Nigel Wingate, wealthy son of a Count, on equal footing with everyone behind that door. I might lose, but I’d have the thrill of the chase.  I could be as bold as I wanted because no one within 200 miles of here would recognize me. Nigel would be heading back to Boston and then England before the month was out. He wouldn’t care if some stranger in the colonies told tales about a Count’s son who’d made a fool of himself in Sacramento.

I had my hand on the knob when I heard a sound that turned my blood to ice.  The first few times I’d heard that sound, I’d wanted to put my fist through the source.  Eventually that same sound had come to make me feel light-hearted and right with the world. But it didn’t belong here. It would ruin everything.

There it was again. That high-pitched cross between a jaybird cackle and girlish giggle that characterized Joe Cartwright when he was amused.

I would have fled back upstairs and given up the whole venture as ill-fated, but somehow Savannah knew I was there. She opened the door and drew me inside.

“Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Count Nigel Wingate.  She introduced the nine men standing and sitting around the room but I didn’t hear any of it. As my eyes searched for Joe, they found someone else. It was just getting worse. What was Candy doing here?

I was too flustered to enter the competition to escort Savannah to dinner. I hung back, still thinking of fleeing back to my room.  Candy came toward me with his hand outstretched.

“Hello, Mr. Wingate. In case you didn’t get my name, it’s Joseph Cartwright from Virginia City.”

I was too dazed by that information to think straight or even extend my hand in response.  Candy didn’t let that stop him. He grabbed my right hand and shook it vigorously.  Then he came close and whispered in my ear. “I’ll explain later. Don’t ruin this for me.” Then he turned and joined the men crowded around Savannah.

We were trooping into the dining room before Joe acknowledged my presence. He wasn’t as friendly as Candy by a long shot. He blocked my progress until everyone else had entered the next room. Then he came close and hissed in my ear. “What the hell are you doing here? You’re supposed to be watching Jamie in Sacramento.”

My blank look must have convinced him I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You never saw him did you?”

I shook my head.

Joe pounded a fist into his palm. “Damn, Pa is gonna kill me. Who knows what kind of trouble he’s gotten into?”

I thought Jamie was actually a pretty sensible kid and told Joe so.

He seemed to take some comfort from that. “Yeah, I’d been in lots of towns worse than Sacramento by the time I was Jamie’s age. He’s got money. He’ll just stay in the hotel, enjoy the sights and be happy to see you when you get back tomorrow.”

Now I’d just been thinking of leaving but I wasn’t going to let Joe make that decision for me. “Me, you’re the one your Pa made responsible for him. You go back.”

He got his back up at that. “Hell no. That girl is sweet on me and there’s a big poker game tonight. You’ll have to go.”

“And if I say no, what then?”

“I’ll tell the Dupres you’re no more a Count than I am.”

“And just who are you? I guess you ain’t Joe Cartwright. I met him not a minute ago and he don’t look a thing like you.” I had him there. Whatever game he and Candy were running, they probably didn’t want me to expose it.

Joe clearly had more to say but the rest of the guests would be waiting.  He glared at me.  “We’ll settle this later.” With that he turned and entered the dining room with me in his wake. I was starting to think maybe I’d stay in the game for a while.

*****

Eight of the men had joined Savannah at the poker table around ten.  I’d been watching the game off and on for a couple of hours but it showed no signs of slowing down. Nigel had advanced me some money to play cards. He said something about splitting the winnings, but I’d warned him I wasn’t much of a player. I guess I saw no point in bringing that particular shortcoming to Savannah’s attention if I didn’t have to.

So I alternated watching the game and playing pool with Martin Vanderlaan, the only other guest who’d bowed out of the card game. He was a shy, stocky little man who was realistic enough to know he had no chance at the big prize for this weekend. I hadn’t gotten that realistic yet.

Even with my limited mastery of poker strategy, I could see that most of the men were playing foolish — even Joe, who prided himself on his expertise. Candy had tried to show me about “tells” – those little things that give away a player when he’s bluffing or has an exceptional hand.  I could read hers. And if I could, surely Joe and Candy could. Probably some of the other players too. But Savannah was like an excited little girl on her birthday when she won a pot. Well, maybe not a little girl. When she bent over the table to sweep the chips into her pile, the view was something no little girl would offer. Her despair when she lost was tragic to behold. So those fools weren’t calling her bluffs and might be throwing in good hands just to see her win. In fact, the only man at the table whose stack of chips were actually growing was that aristocratic looking guy – Lancer, Scott Lancer. But then I suppose Candy and I were the only ones here without money to burn. I would have advanced Candy some from the stash Nigel gave me — he was a pretty good player — but not the way he was playing tonight. That would be throwing my good money after his bad.

Around 12:30, Savannah called for a break. She told them to please start the game again at 12:45. She had some things to attend to, but she would be back. Some of the men scattered to answer the call of nature but they were all back by 12:45. A servant was present to refill glasses and keep the trays of food circulating. Still, I thought maybe the men wouldn’t continue to play without Savannah. But it looked like some of them wanted to recoup their losses so the game continued full steam.  Even Vanderlaan joined the game. Perhaps he wasn’t worried about making a fool of himself if Savannah wasn’t there.

I was leaning against the archway that separated the drawing room from the billiard room when I caught a glimpse of Savannah in the doorway that led to the dining room.  She beckoned at me silently and I tripped all over myself to respond.

She led me into the kitchen. I figured she wanted me to help carry something for her but she had other ideas.  “Nigel, the cigar smoke is getting a little thick in there. I’d love to take a little walk outside. Would you join me?”

Would I.

It was chilly outside with the feel of impending rain. I helped her on with her heavy wool cloak, but had nothing for myself. Nigel’s suit jacket was fairly light, insufficient for the temperature. But I didn’t care a lick. I wasn’t going to take a chance on her changing her mind by running somewhere to get a coat.

We walked around the garden and chatted about trivial things. I congratulated her on her skill at poker. She chided me for not getting into the game.  I told her I would sit in the next night. At that she stopped and turned to confront me. “Why Nigel, you’ve been watching us, learning our tells. I suspect you might just be a card sharp.”

I was a little surprised she knew about tells since she was so obvious about hers. I reckoned as how I might have picked up a few things I could use in tomorrow’s game.  Even in the diffused light of the cloud-obscured moon, I could see a sly smile cross her face. She started to say something, but stopped. Somehow I got the impression that perhaps her tells had served a purpose in tonight’s game.  They might be gone tomorrow.

“Would you like to see the stable?  We have a few horses that are quite nice.” She took my hand and moved purposefully toward the stable and carriage house that stood well back from the manor.

Inside she handed me a lantern and a box of matches. After I lit the lamp, she closed the stable door and hung the light on a hook where it dimly illuminated a large area with two rows of stalls. I was grateful to get inside where the body heat of twelve horses kept the space fairly warm. I’d been close to shivering in the night air.

She led me down the row of stalls. “I want to show you my favorite.” We stopped at a stall which housed an Appaloosa. “I’ll wager you never see these where you come from.”

Nigel had coached me a little about his horses back home. But mostly only about how much taller his hunters and jumpers were than the little mustang cow ponies he saw out here. But I guessed Appaloosas probably weren’t common there and if they were, Savannah wouldn’t know it. And the fact was, this was a fine gelding. And little as I knew about woman, I did know about horses. I had no trouble putting genuine admiration in my voice.

I went into the stall and ran my hands over him, admiring his muscle tone and his structure — marveling over his interesting blanket markings. And as I praised him, I noticed she got less enthusiastic. In some odd way she was jealous. She wanted to impress me, but didn’t want me to concentrate too much attention in that direction.

As I moved around the Appy and got to his head again, she tugged at my sleeve. I followed the tug out of the stall, closed the bottom portion of the dutch-door and turned to rub the horse between the ears.  She slid her body between the stall door and me. She put her arms around my neck and whispered before putting her lips to mine, “I didn’t come out here to have you charm the horses.”

My friend Joe Riley told me if I could learn to sweet talk girls like I did horses I’d do okay. Maybe he was right. But now it didn’t seem necessary. Sweet-talking the horse had been enough. When she put her lips to mine, she didn’t waste time with teasing little kisses. My lips had barely gotten familiar with the warmth of hers when they parted. Her tongue demanded I surrender my mouth to her. She was frantic in her demands. I couldn’t anticipate her. Hell, I couldn’t keep up with her.

I tried to respond with my tongue, suddenly desperate to delve into a mouth which spoke in such honeyed tones. But I had barely made the first tentative exploration, when her focus changed. She twisted around until she had me pinned with my back against the stall door. She tore at the buttons on my jacket and then the dress shirt under it. Her mouth made frenzied tracks on my exposed chest. I tried to slow her down, using both hands to lift her face toward mine again. But as I claimed her lips, her hands were at my belt, making short work of the buckle and then the buttons.  And then she had me in her hand. Lord did she think I could respond so fast? Was she planning to make love in one of the empty stalls? I needed time, teasing, anticipation.

But she knew better. Her clever hands had me fully aroused in seconds and then I was panicked that I couldn’t hold out long enough to give her the pleasure she must be seeking.

I clasped my hand over the one she had encircling me, stopping the motions that would send me over the brink long before I could reciprocate.  “Please, I can’t hold out if you do that.”

She laughed. A soft musical laugh that contrasted with the wildness of her actions. “We have time. We have lots of time.”

My breath was coming in such ragged bursts that I almost couldn’t answer. “But time won’t matter if you make me come too soon.”

She did stop for a moment then. She moved both her hands up my chest under the open shirt, but the way she pressed her body against me kept me as aroused as the stroking she had momentarily abandoned. She kissed me lightly on the lips before she spoke. “You’re so young, my sweet boy. Young men can never hold out the first time. They have so little control. But the second time. And the third. That is where I will get my pleasure. The sooner you come now, the sooner we can move to the one that will last for as long as I want it. Don’t quarrel with me. Trust me.”

I was too excited to argue, but scared too. What if this first time was all I could muster? What if I disappointed her? But she gave me no choice. She held my shirt and jacket apart as she again trailed kisses down my chest to my belly. And then I was in her mouth. My body jerked with a combination of surprise and the intensity of the feeling. Then, for all her seeming hurry, she slowed momentarily, letting me savor the feel of her mouth and tongue as she gradually made me so hard I knew I must explode. And then I was there. I warned her.  “Please I can’t stop.”  She released me from her mouth and continued the stroking with her hand. “I really don’t mind if . . .“ was all she got out. I felt like a volcano erupting. I had to grab the stall door to prevent my knees from buckling.  She held me until I had nothing left and the spasms had stopped. I was so sensitive that her touch was almost painful, yet I didn’t want her to let go.  When she finally did, she retraced her kisses up my belly and chest to my mouth.  I felt weak; sure I had nothing left with which to pleasure her.

I held her tight to me, her head resting on my shoulder as I struggled to get my breathing under control. Once I had, I started to explore her body with my hands. But I had gotten only as far as stroking her hair when she stopped me. “Not here.  Get yourself together.”

As we reached the stable door, the promised rain started, lightly at first. But by the time we reached the house, it was coming down hard.  She led me to some French doors near the back of the house.  There was a fire blazing in a small stone fireplace opposite a large four-poster bed. I was soaked and shivering in earnest by the time we got inside. I stood by the fire, trying to get warm.

Her heavy cloak had protected her from the worst of the rain so her clothes were dry. She picked up a quilt that was draped over a chair by the door and put it around my shoulders. I hugged it to me, grateful for the warmth. She didn’t seem to be in a hurry now. She unbuttoned the clothes I’d haphazardly buttoned in the stable. She made me sit down while she pulled off my boots. If my clothes hadn’t been so wet I would have insisted on keeping them on until I’d had a chance to remove some of hers but I didn’t resist. Finally everything I’d had on was laid over the chair. I kept the quilt wrapped around me, feeling conspicuous standing there naked while she’d removed only her cloak.

I finally decided it was time for me to take charge of this little adventure but my attempts to do so were foiled by the mystery of women’s clothes.  Her boots required the help of some little device to undo the buttons. And then the dress had all manner of little hooks and fastenings. When I tried to help, she laughed and pushed me away. All I could do was watch. But watch I did and she played up to it, teasing me, tossing the clothing at me to lay over the trunk at the base of the bed. I’m not experienced enough to know the names of all those garments a woman puts on under her dress, but I knew when she’d gotten down to something I could handle.

As she started to remove those final garments, I put my arms around her, pinning her arms to her sides. She laughed and lifted her face to mine. I kept one hand to the back of her neck as we kissed. I slowly pulled the pins and clips from that magnificent golden hair. It was just as I imagined with the curls tumbling down her back.  The quilt slid from my shoulders as I knelt before her. She’d removed her corset and all that was left was the loose chemise, or maybe that was a camisole, she’d worn over it. I raised the garment and exposed her breasts, first to my eyes, then to my mouth and hands. She stood still with her hands on my shoulders as I explored that new territory.  Her hands fisted in my hair when I gently rubbed my thumb around one nipple then applied my tongue to the other. I tried to hold back, to be patient and slow, but suddenly I was as frenzied as she had been out in the stable. I needed to see everything, to touch everything.

I pulled the garment over her head and tossed it aside.  My hands and tongue moved everywhere, tasting everything. And when I felt restricted by the position, I stood, picked her up and took her to the bed. I threw back the bedcovers and then we were in the bed stretched out next to each other.

I propped my head up on my left arm, watching her face as I stroked her, cupped her breasts and then moved my hand down between her legs.  I rested it there for a moment. I wasn’t going to let my inexperience spoil things for her. I couldn’t let manly pride get in the way of her pleasure.  “Show me,” I said softly. “Show me where to touch you, how to touch you.”

She did and didn’t seem to think less of me for having to ask. She guided my hand with her own until I was at just the right place. And then she seemed satisfied to let me find my own rhythm.  I was gratified with her reaction. Her breath started to come faster and her body writhed under my touch.  I could feel my own heat just beginning to rise. I was pleased to know she’d been right. What she had done earlier had just given me the control to move slowly, it hadn’t used me up.

I slowed my hand and then stopped. She protested until I moved to replace my hand with my mouth. My tongue found that sweet spot and stroked it, swirled around it. Her body moved under my touch, faster and more insistent. She moaned as her hands in my hair forced me to stay in place until finally she pushed me away and then pulled me up to lay my head on her breasts. I could feel the rapid beating of her heart. She stroked my hair as we lay silent for long moments. Finally she spoke.

“You’re not old enough to know how to do that so well. Men must learn the art of love very young in your country.”

That brought me back abruptly to the game we were playing. I’d forgotten my part. And now I rejected it.  I didn’t want to be someone else. I wanted to be the one to give her pleasure, not some Count’s son. I wanted to see her again, to be with her again, to share her bed again. I almost told her but something kept me silent. I’d wait until the weekend was over, until she had time to know me better. Then maybe she’d want me in her bed again, not Nigel Wingate — Griff King.

She moved under me, lifting my face to hers to give me a slow, sweet kiss. Then she reminded me that even this small part of the game wasn’t over. Her hand moved down to where my heat had been rising while I gave her pleasure. Just the gentlest of touches completed the process and made me hard in her hand. She giggled a little. “I told you Nigel. Now I’ll be able to take my pleasure with you at my leisure.”

She was in control again but I didn’t mind. She rolled me over on my back and straddled me.  I was a little surprised. “So soon?”

“It’s easier for a woman. But we won’t rush. I won’t let you even if you try. You won’t come until I tell you.”

I smiled at this. I had tried to slow things down from the start. She’d been the one in a frenzy. But I also knew I didn’t have enough practice at this to prevent myself from coming just because she ordered it.

She put her hands on my shoulders and braced herself as she rubbed against me.  Finally, she used her hand to guide me inside her.  For a few moments, she made only the slightest of motions, just enough to keep me hard. Her position gave me full access to her breasts and I took advantage of it. Then she started moving more rapidly until I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to keep control. She must have seen it in my face, because she stopped for a moment. She stretched out completely flat on top of me, her forearms under my head. She whispered as she kissed me. “Honey, this is so nice. Don’t spoil it for yourself worrying about how long you can last. You’ve already showed me you have other ways to please me.

She started up again. She was using my body as a plaything and I loved it. I had no sense of time. It was just pleasure. It went on and on.  I closed my eyes to keep time at bay.  Suddenly she gasped. “Now, now, oh Lord, now. She collapsed on top of me. But I didn’t have the control to come on command any more that I would have had the control to stop on her orders.  My body did what it did.

She was glistening with sweat and breathing hard. But I was still hard inside her.  She whispered in my ear, “It won’t hurt me if you keep going, I just don’t have the strength.”

I was at a loss for a moment. Then I wrapped my legs around her and rolled until she was under me. I thrust myself inside her, watching her face, not wanting to hurt her, willing her to tell me it was all right. I guess, she knew I was uncertain. She put her hands on my buttocks and pulled me into her. She did it over and over, forcing me to thrust deep into her until I came. It was so good it took everything I had to stop myself from crying.

.

Scott

I have played some strange hands of cards in my time, with friends in college, sitting around a campfire in the middle of a war, with mismatched and missing cards in a prison camp, but this time took the cake. There I was, in the middle of a pleasurable weekend at an elegant manor, with a truly beautiful woman as hostess and I was watching a bunch of men make fools of themselves.

We had an elaborate dinner, served with seven courses, four wines and time afterwards for brandy and cigars for those who indulged. I was more than a little amused at the group interaction around the table. The man named Joseph Cartwright deliberately ignored the guest named Frances Cartier, and Count Nigel … he kept his head turned from both of them.

The three tried desperately not to know each other and every response one gave revealed his awareness of the other two. I was puzzled; what were the three men up to? Several of the other guests knew each other casually too, but made no effort to hide that knowledge. Were the three in cahoots to cause the Dupres a problem? I formed the notion it might be an idea to keep an eye on them, just in case.

I almost laughed at the Count; the look he gave the intricately set table reminded me of Johnny’s the first time we attended a formal dinner at one of Murdoch’s “fancy” friends, as Johnny calls them. Like, what on earth are all these forks for? But Nigel must have been coached because he took a deep breath, watched the rest of us and acquitted himself fairly well. And what seemed to me a comical effort to cover his lack of an upper class accent with a supposed attempt to speak like a cowboy didn’t seem to rouse suspicion with the host and hostess or anyone else.

Then the poker. I had planned to rub it in to Johnny about being involved in a high-stakes poker game, but that wasn’t what it turned out to be. Instead, the other players were so interested in pleasing Miss Dupre they either kept forgetting to pay attention or they threw the pots to her. I was winning almost everything she didn’t. Between us, we were cleaning them out and nobody cared. I watched Cartwright and Cartier occasionally put their heads together for an argument – they seemed to be almost as distracted by each other as by the woman who was our exquisite prize for the weekend.

Savannah was a decent player, but not great. Yet even after the novelty of her delight at winning should have worn thin, no one was able to maintain a winning hand against her. Guess they wanted to impress her by letting her win. Me, I always figure it’s demeaning to allow anyone to win, unless there’s a really good reason. Competing with nine others for the lady’s pleasure wasn’t enough reason for me to throw away good money. So, I played to win and she knew it. I saw the sparkle in her eyes as we fought the last hand, which I finally took. As she threw down her cards in disgust, several of the men tried to commiserate with her, but she ignored them. Instead, she gave me a genuine smile and patted my cheek. I suspected she played cards better than that, and I figured I’d best be on my toes next time we played. No better way to set up a sucker than to let them win in the beginning. Her problem tonight was, none of the other men would allow her to lose.

Savannah excused herself after she lost that hand to me, saying she needed to see to her grandfather and then check on arrangements for Friday before the housekeeper retired. I pitied the housekeeper because it was well after one o’clock in the morning when she left the table. We all continued with the game for a couple of hours. With Savannah gone, even the painfully shy Vanderlaan joined us. Once they lost Savannah as a distraction, I found a few of them were actually good players, especially Cartwright and Cartier – although they seemed more intent on beating each other than winning back the money I’d taken off them earlier.

Finally, three of the other men, Masterson, Crowell and Fenwick, announced they were heading for bed. I’d noticed earlier that Nigel, who’d been playing pool with Vanderlaan, had slipped away.  But it was only when the table thinned out that Cartwright and Cartier seemed to notice his absence. Cartier looked a little perturbed but Cartwright made some remark about the kid not being able to take the late hours, which seemed to mollify him.  We remaining six played a dilatory game of stud poker that soon dwindled into idle conversation and long silences as we hoped for the return of our hostess. I needed to stretch my legs, so I moved through the house as if seeking refreshment.

I opened the door to the kitchen and halted. Savannah stood there with her hands wrapped in young Nigel’s lapels, kissing him gently. His clothes were damp and disheveled and not evenly buttoned. As I watched, he opened his dazed eyes and she turned him toward the backstairs and pushed him along. She must have finished her responsibilities for the evening quite early, as she had apparently had time to show the youngster the pleasures of her bed. Nigel’s face was so revealing; he was a man on his way to being smitten with love. I knew full well that he was also a man on a path to heartbreak.

Lord, what a mess! It was none of my business to take up with some young fool passing himself off as an English aristocrat. That kid wasn’t Johnny and I wasn’t his big brother.

Go to bed, Scott and mind your own business.

I made my way to the front staircase to follow my own advice. As I was going up the stairs, I heard Savannah bidding good night to the remaining guests.

.

Candy

I managed to win back a little of my money after Savannah left. Can’t believe I let myself get so close to going bust. Not likely Joe would lend me any money and I wanted to be in the game tomorrow.  And I’d be a lot more careful. Lancer seemed to be the only one who’d had the heart to take a pot away from Savannah instead of throwing in his hand when it got down to the two of them.  After Savannah, he was the big winner tonight. Not because he was so good, but because he didn’t mind beating her. I’d managed to win a few big hands against him after she left so I was set for tomorrow’s game.

It was my bad luck that Savannah’s grandfather had taken ill. I might have had some time alone with her but for that. She was very careful not to let the others know that she’d had her eyes on me since my arrival. She flirted with all the men, like a true Southern belle. Her attentions to me were less obvious. A touch on the arm, a little squeeze of the shoulder, a whisper in my ear.

The final five of us went up to bed about the same time after Savannah retired for the night. Joe grabbed me before I could get into my room.

“You’ve got to help me persuade Griff he should go back to Sacramento and watch out for Jamie.”

I shook my head at him. I didn’t feel any need to do that. If Joe left, I’d have a clear field with Savannah. He and Lancer were my only real competition.  Joe had to be worried about what his pa would do to him if he left Jamie alone in Sacramento. It might be strong enough to send him packing if Griff got stubborn. But he wasn’t going to let it rest.

“Look Candy, I’m the only one of the three of us at this shindig who was really invited. If I go, I’m taking both of you with me.”

So I barged into Griff’s room with him. We had to barge into a couple of empty rooms first, but we found him at the end of the hallway. He was in bed already, but that didn’t stop Joe.  He lit the little lamp on the nightstand and stood over Griff, arms crossed. “Niiiiiigel, oh Niiiiiiigel.”  Joe’s mocking high-pitched voice, although not loud, would have waked the dead in the immediate vicinity.

Griff didn’t look worried. He turned over and then just lay there, his arms behind his head and a grin on his face.

“Griff look, you have to go back to Sacramento. I’ll give you enough expense money to have a grand time. Like you said, Jamie’s a good kid. He won’t be a pest.  It’s not like you have anything going here.  You can’t play poker. You don’t have any idea how to talk to an experienced woman like Savannah. This phony Count thing is bound to get found out and you’ll get sent packing anyway. So why not help me out and leave in the morning?”

Griff held his ground. Didn’t even bother to sit up. “Guess it’s about time I learned to talk to an experienced woman. Might as well start here. I think she likes me.”

I thought Joe was going to explode at that. “Sure she likes you. You’re a likable kid. She probably likes puppies and kittens too. But I’ve got a chance for something a little more, well, interesting.”

“She kissed me.”

Joe was caught up in his tirade and almost missed that. It took him a few words to realize what Griff said. Then he looked just the slightest bit disconcerted.

“What do you mean, she kissed you?”

“She was showing me this special horse of hers in the stable. I was admiring it and she all of a sudden kissed me.”

“On the lips or on the cheek?”

Griff shook his head. “I’m not giving you any details.  And I’m not leaving. You and Candy work out which one of you is Joe Cartwright and that one go back and keep an eye on Jamie.  I need some sleep.”

With that, Griff turned away from us, pulled the blanket over his head and pretended to go to sleep.  Joe sputtered for a moment, blew out the lamp and stalked out.

I caught up with him at his door. “So what are you going to do?” I was worried that he’d carry out his threat to take us both down with him if he was forced to leave.

“Don’t know.”

“Why don’t you just send Jamie a note with whoever goes into town.  With all that fancy food they’re serving here, they probably have someone going in to get supplies.  Offer him something he won’t turn down if he’ll agree to go back to Frisco.”

Joe considered. “Like what? Pa gave him a new rifle for Christmas. Only thing that kid wants now is a revolver and no way Pa would ever let me give him one of those.”

“You could offer to be on his side next time he argues with your Pa about it.”

Joe brightened at that. “Good idea. Okay, Mr. Cartwright, you write the note and give it to Savannah in the morning.”

I was willing to do that if it would stop Joe from ruining this for me. Miss Savannah Lisette might just be impressed by a man with so much concern for his little brother.

.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7TH

Ben

“We’re holding your sons captive at a secure location. . .”

The stranger’s voice rose to override the babble that erupted. In the sudden silence, he ended with the acknowledgement that the ten men present would need proof of his words. He hefted a canvas sack onto the table with a flourish.

When the stranger followed his sinister speech by dumping the contents of the bag onto the meeting room table, the first reaction was noisy confusion. But then silence, as the other men saw what I did.  Familiar guns. Handguns last seen in their sons’ possession.  My breathing stopped when I saw that ivory handled Colt slide across the table, dislodged from the left-sided holster by the force with which it was dropped.

As each stunned man reached out and claimed his son’s weapon, I saw something else. An unclaimed gun that looked very much like Candy’s. I wasn’t as familiar with his revolver as with Joe’s and it was less distinctive, but it certainly looked to be his. Then I noticed the man next to me, Cartier, hadn’t claimed a weapon. His face fluctuated between confusion and hope. Hope that his son might have escaped the kidnappers.  I nudged him and indicated he should claim the last gun. When he brought it closer, I was sure it was Candy’s. I whispered, “We’ll sort this out later, your son could still be in danger.”

The stranger set out the terms for the return of our sons and then left.

As the door shut behind him, the room erupted with the clamor of ten panicked men figuring ways to get their hands on a million dollars in 24 hours. Even divided by ten, the sum was formidable and time was short.

I urged Cartier to give the appearance of going along even if there was no proof his son was being held. I didn’t know what it meant if Candy was with Joe but I wasn’t going to see his life endangered by having the men who held them prisoner figure he wasn’t as valuable as the others. If it came to it, I’d pay his ransom as well. Because he was just as valuable as the others.

I had something else to worry about – my youngest son. He must still be in Sacramento.  He’d be frantic with worry about Joe’s disappearance. My best hope was that he’d manage to link up with Griff. Griff’s note had said he was going to Sacramento with some new friends.  I’d rest easy if he were with Griff.

At the telegraph office I worried over what to say. I didn’t want to worry Jamie more than I had to, but I had to impress upon him the need to stay at the hotel until it was safe for Griff to bring him back to San Francisco. I finally settled on:

Jamie:  Have ransom demand for Joe. Candy may be with him.  Imperative you stay hotel. Will send Griff. Raising money. Joe will be fine. Notify when Griff arrives.

I also sent telegrams to Griff at every hotel in Sacramento telling him to get to the Regency and stay with Jamie until the ransom situation was resolved.

I had to believe Jamie would be all right. I needed the rest of the day and all of my concentration to raise $200,000.

.

Jamie

Priscilla Kane. I said it over and over again. Priscilla. Priscilla Kane. I couldn’t stop grinning because the words sounded so beautiful. I floated to the hotel dining room in a cloud; Priscilla’s face the only thing I could see. I don’t even remember what I ordered when the waitress arrived at the table because I couldn’t concentrate on anything but when I could see Priscilla again.

And then a pair of hands went over my eyes, and her voice whispered in my ear. “Surprise!”

I jumped up, almost knocking over my chair, and let out a whoop that turned the heads of everyone in the room. I knew my red face matched my hair and I made sure I whispered this time. “Priscilla? What are you doing here?”

“Aunt Agatha’s resting, and I decided I needed a little fresh air. So here I am.” She dimpled up at me, and my head swam dizzily.

Suddenly I remembered I had manners, even if I’d temporarily misplaced them. “Have you eaten? Want some breakfast?” I held a chair for her, all the while working to be as smooth as Joe always seemed to be around women. He’d have remembered to ask a lady to take a seat first thing.

Thoughts of Joe disappeared when Priscilla smiled again. “Of course I’ve eaten, silly. It’s late. It’s almost ten o’clock, Jamie. Why haven’t you eaten already?”

I felt that awful heat creeping up my face and neck again, and I gulped from my glass of milk in hopes of cooling off. “Couldn’t sleep,” I mumbled as soon as I’d swallowed, hoping she wouldn’t ask why.

“Why?”

Trapped now, I decided to confess. “I kept thinkin’ about you. It made sleeping the last thing I wanted to do.”

Now it was her turn to blush, and she did it prettily. “You say the sweetest things, Jamie Cartwright.” Those cute little dimples flashed at me again.

I was saved from finding the perfect thing to say by the arrival of my breakfast. We spent a few minutes deciding that Priscilla would have a cup of hot chocolate while I ate, and then we were alone again. A man could get to like the kind of service a first-rate hotel provided. Lots of attention when you needed it, nobody to bother you when you wanted privacy. If I weren’t careful, it’d go right to my head.

Priscilla’n me were chatting happily when I heard a man’s voice calling out my name. I looked up in surprise. As far as I knew, no one besides Pa and Joe and the other fellas knew I was here.

But sure enough. “Jamie Cartwright! Telegram for Mr. Jamie Cartwright!” The man called again. And he followed it up with, “Telegram for Mr. Griff King. Mr. Griff King.”

I waved my arm to flag him down, figuring I’d take both telegrams, even though I still hadn’t seen Griff. But boy, was I surprised when a bunch a’swells got to him first. One of them flashed some money and took one of the telegrams. I couldn’t figure why he’d want my telegram, but I couldn’t let that happen. So I told Priscilla I’d be right back, and went to grab the telegram man. It was then I saw the fella who’d taken the telegram was one of the fancy-dressed men I’d seen Griff with at the train station. This was getting stranger every minute.

“I’m Jamie Cartwright,” I announced in my most grown-up voice. I fished in my pocket for a coin. “I’m traveling with Griff King. I’ll take both telegrams.”

The man handed over a telegram and scooted out of there, clearly not wanting to get involved in any kind of fight. I guess he figured he’d done his job by delivering them. So I squared my shoulders and faced down the swell. He had three other men sitting at the table with him. The same men I’d seen with Griff, still looking just as fancy, even at this hour of the morning.

“That telegram is for the man I’m traveling with,” I announced, holding out my hand. “I’ll take it, if you don’t mind.”

I was more’n a little surprised when he didn’t put up a fight. He handed over the cable without even stopping to think about it.

“You know Griff?” he asked.

“He works for my father,” I said with a nod, pleased I wasn’t going to have to fight for the message. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday at the train station, though. You fellas wouldn’t happen to know where is he, do you? He’s supposed to be here with me.”

They kind of squirmed in their seats a little, and I saw ‘em look at each other when they thought I wasn’t looking at them. But the one man seemed to be the ringleader and he spoke up readily enough.

“Griff is doing a small favor for me. He’s attending a house party in the country. He’ll be back several days from now. I’m sure he’ll get in touch with you then.”

This was getting even stranger. Was everyone at a party? How come I couldn’t go, I wondered grumpily. But then I caught a glimpse of Priscilla and knew that I’d rather be right where I was, fancy house party or not.

I slit open the telegram and couldn’t help but suck in a gasp of surprise.

Jamie:  Have ransom demand for Joe. Candy may be with him.  Imperative you stay hotel. Will send Griff. Raising money. Joe will be fine. Notify me when Griff arrives.

Joe was in trouble, and if he was, then so was Candy. I stared at the second telegram, the one addressed to Mr. Griff King. Griff was with them. They were all together, all being held for ransom. And I was alone in Sacramento with no way to get help to them.

I read Griff’s telegram. Pa had asked him to find me at the hotel and stay with me, repeating that he was going to get together a ransom for Joe and Candy and that we were to stay put. But Griff was gone, most likely to the same place as Joe. I was on my own.

I looked up to find the swells standing silent, staring at me. “Is there something wrong?” the leader asked. He seemed genuinely concerned.

I silently handed over the telegrams and he read them quickly, his eyes widening as he did so. “Your father was attending a meeting in San Francisco?” he asked. He named the hotel where Pa was staying. “Attending a financial meeting where only one representative from each family was allowed in the room?”

I nodded in response to each of his questions, my head still swimming in confusion. And then I received yet another shock. “My father is there also. It must be part of the same plot.” He stuck out his hand. “Allow me to introduce myself. Nigel Wingate, at your service.”

Under other circumstances I would have grinned at his posh accent, but now I was too concerned for Joe, Candy and Griff to feel like laughing. Nigel was still talking.

“I feel responsible for your friend getting caught up in this wicked scheme. It’s all due to me that he’s in attendance at this party. I’m at your complete disposal, sir. I’ll do whatever you’d like in order to rescue your brother and your friends.” He gestured at the window, where sheets of rain poured down. Sometime during the course of the morning the clouds had opened up and were drenching Sacramento. “Our hunting trip was canceled due to the inclement weather. What would you like us to do?”

I stared at them in shock. I didn’t know what inclement weather was, but I figured it had something to do with rain. But that was the least of my problems. I was the kid brother, the tag-along, the one who got ordered around and told what to do. I was the one who couldn’t even wear a gun yet, even though I’d been begging Pa for two years to let me. And now these swells were looking to me to lead a rescue party.

And then it happened. I felt myself grow about two inches taller, and I puffed out my chest and squared my shoulders like a man. I would rescue them. No way would I sit in the hotel and wait for Pa to come find his little boy. I was the one on the spot. I’d go get Joe, Candy and Griff out of trouble. It sounded simple when I thought of it like that. Me. Jamie Cartwright. I was man enough to carry it off. I just knew it.

I said goodbye to Priscilla, simply explaining that my brother was in trouble. I hated to see her go but I felt more than a little proud that she left with disappointment written all over her face.

A beautiful girl was disappointed over not being able to spend time with me.

But I couldn’t dwell on that. I had important things to do. I sighed once and then turned back to Nigel and his friends. We decided to head up to my room to make plans, and I dropped some money on the table to cover my half-eaten breakfast.

Nigel knew where the party was being held. He’d been invited after all. Some fancy house called “the Manor”. Sounded pretty la-di-da. He and his friends seemed to be pretty excited about riding with a posse, as they kept calling it. A posse. I almost laughed, and would have, if I hadn’t been so worried about the guys. Me, leading a posse. Joe would have busted a gut laughing, and Pa would have just snorted and forbidden me to leave my room.

Once we’d figured out where the men were being held prisoner, we needed to come up with a plan to free them. We decided we needed to ride out there and spy out the lay of the land a bit.

And then the talk turned to weapons. I flushed a bit when they started asking how many guns to bring and what kind. I came up with some story about leaving my gun behind in San Francisco. I told them that I’d been visiting a girl in Sacramento and her family didn’t approve of guns, being city folks and all. Boy, those guys sure were gullible, because they believed every word I was saying.

I told them I’d have to buy a gun for the rescue mission and they all wanted to come buy guns too. They had their hunting rifles apparently, but no handguns. Nigel had handed over his personal weapon to Griff, and the others hadn’t bought guns ‘cause they were here on a pleasure trip. They asked my advice on the best kind to get. I couldn’t help a secret laugh over that too. Grown men asking my advice on the best kind of gun to buy. Of course, I had my opinions on that, having dreamed for years about the kind of gun I wanted to buy, but still. . . .

That’s why we ended up at the gunsmith’s shop an hour or so later. And that’s how I got my first handgun. I bought it myself, with Nigel, Cedric, Ned and Basil, yes, I said Basil, hanging over my shoulder and asking my advice on their own selections. I chose a Colt just like the one Joe had given Griff. It was the only model I’d had any practice with. My pa had been generous about teaching me to shoot a rifle but Griff was the only one who’d thought I was old enough to be thinking about a sidearm. I’d watched Candy teaching Griff and then practiced with him on the sly.  Nigel and the gang quickly followed suit. I wanted a rifle too, but I’d used up all my money on the revolver. My new friend Nigel bought a second rifle and offered to loan it to me. I couldn’t believe my luck.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped to wire Pa. I didn’t want him worrying about me, and I certainly didn’t want him aware that I was planning on a rescue mission.

Pa: Safe at hotel. Griff’s friends here too. Don’t worry. Save Joe Candy.  Jamie

I figured I wasn’t lying. I was safe at the hotel, and Griff’s friends were with me. I did say ‘Save Joe Candy’, but that could have meant I hoped he would save them. I just didn’t want Pa worried about me too. He had enough on his mind, I was sure.

After buying some supplies, the next step was to find some horses. We needed enough for all of us, plus a few extra to bring the boys home. They’d gone off in carriages, and it would be too far to walk. I took a quick tour of the livery stable with my posse at my heels. I found some good horses for us, and added three for Candy, Griff and Joe. Nigel paid the rental fee. At the last minute I asked the stableman for at least a couple of those to be wagon-broke horses. If there were other men to be rescued, we might need to use a wagon or carriage.

And that’s how I found myself on the road to the Manor, with a posse of Brits at my back and the rain pouring down drenching my face, blinding my eyes. But I was going to rescue my brother and my friends if it was the last thing I ever did.

.

Joe

I wandered through the first floor of the Manor. It seemed to me there were men everywhere. Lounging in chairs, hunched around the poker table, handling pool cues. But no sign of the one person I wanted to see. Savannah Lisette was apparently still sleeping. Since we’d been up ‘til four in the morning, it didn’t surprise me. A woman needed her beauty sleep after all. Of course, I’d only rolled out of bed a little bit or so ago myself, but that was different.

Thunder rolled and lightning split the sky as a torrent of rain spilled from the darkness above. It was obvious we weren’t going to be doing any pheasant hunting today. Not that I’d ever cared about shooting at the birds anyway, but I’d been looking forward to demonstrating my skill with a gun for our hostess.

My stomach growled and I remembered that I’d missed both breakfast and lunch, assuming those meals had been served with most of the guests tucked in their beds. I strolled in the direction of the enormous dining room, remembering the sumptuous buffet set up the evening before. Maybe I’d get lucky and find something left over from lunch.

I was more than lucky. Savannah Lisette and her grandfather were the best of hosts. Another buffet was set up, the table practically groaning under the weight of all the food. I guess the servants kept busy refilling the platters as soon as someone took a spoonful. It didn’t take me long to fill up a heaping plate.

I glanced around in search of coffee. I hadn’t had any yet, and still felt bleary-eyed, even though the ornate clock on the dining room mantelpiece told me it was afternoon. I found a pot on the sideboard, but it was empty. Coffee had obviously been the beverage of choice today, and knowing the amount of alcohol consumed the night before, I wasn’t surprised. Some of my fellow guests must have quite a headache today. Strange the servants hadn’t refilled the pot.

I figured there must be more in the kitchen. I was sure Savannah wouldn’t mind if I helped myself. I pushed my way through a swing-hinged door and found myself in a large kitchen. No sign of any of the household staff, though. Where were they all? Maybe they’d been allowed to take a break for a couple of hours before dinner.

I prowled around for a minute, skirting a large table, which must have been where the help ate their meals. I finally found what I was looking for. A large pot of coffee stood on the stove top, the aroma setting my mouth to watering. I set my plate down on the table and opened cabinets and cupboards until I found a cup. I’d just finished pouring the coffee when I heard a soft voice behind me.

“Why, Francis, what are you doing in the kitchen?”

I swung around to see Savannah Lisette, wearing only a silk nightgown and matching robe tightly belted at the waist, with her hair lying loose around her shoulders. She smiled at me, but my eyes were riveted to the opening of her robe, where far too much of her beautiful skin was revealed to my starving eyes.

I gestured with the cup. “Breakfast. Or should I say lunch. I’m sorry if I’m intruding.” I would have said more, but a sudden spear of lightning lit the sky, followed by a concussive roar of thunder that shook the room.

Savannah paled and quivered a little, her robe gaping open as she stared wild-eyed out the window. “I do so hate lightning,” she murmured, raking her fingers through her hair. Her figure was silhouetted in the light, the thin fabric leaving nothing to my imagination.

The coffee cup hung from my fingers, and I’m afraid my mouth gaped open. Before I could say anything a stream of hot coffee poured from the cup, down the front of my pants and onto my boots. I yelped and was forced to remove my eyes from the banquet they’d been devouring.

Savannah’s laugh echoed in the kitchen, and before I knew what was happening she was dabbing at the stain with a large towel.  When I tried to take it from her and finish up the job, she just shook her head and continued her work, only now the towel was moving slow. Too slow.

Where my pants were at first only wet, they were now too tight and the swelling was something I couldn’t hide from a woman whose hands were performing such an intimate task. I swear her fingers lingered longest on that particular patch of wet cloth, pressing, patting, gently swirling in delicious slow strokes over my steadily growing shaft. I groaned.

“Savannah. You’ve got to stop, or I won’t be able to control myself much longer,” I gasped out trying to force the towel from her hands, trying to stop her fingers from touching me so intimately.

She laughed again, a mere whisper of sound, and I stared in fascination as her robe parted even more when she leaned toward me. “Who says I want you to control yourself,” she said, her lips brushing against my ear, her words a mere breath of air against the sensitive skin. I groaned again.

I had seen the men clustering around her last night. I’d seen how she responded to each and every one of them. The smiles, the glances, the casual comments she’d made. But it seemed to me that every time she’d looked at me, or talked to me, it had been with special emphasis. It was me she’d wanted all along, and now she was practically begging me to act on her own desires.

I reached for her, parting her silken robe, and brushing gentle fingers on the skin beneath. She moaned, her lips parted, her eyes dark with passion. She leaned into my touch, and I freed her beautiful breasts from the cloth that imprisoned them. With one swift motion I cupped them in my hands and let my thumbs play with her nipples, delighting as they rapidly hardened. I captured one in my mouth and allowed my tongue free rein.

Savannah moaned again, and her fingers worked at the fastening of my pants. I pulled her to the table, leaning her back against the wood, exposing the slender column of her throat to the ravages of my lips. She threw her head back, never caring that her robe lost its hold on her body and slipped back, leaving her with only one thin layer of silk to protect her from me. I bent to pull even that barrier aside, but she stopped me with a quick touch.

“Not here.” She glanced around, and I thought I caught a flicker of motion from the doorway as a servant scuttled from the room. She beckoned with a teasing finger. “Follow me.”

I let her lead me from the kitchen, through a door that led to a covered veranda. Another streak of lightning lit the sky, and Savannah jumped a little, still nervous. I tightened my hold on her fingers and she smiled warmly at me, setting my heart beating a rapid tattoo in my chest.

And then we were standing in front of a pair of French doors, one of which she swung wide. “My room,” she said. She danced through the door, twirling in delight as I followed at her heels. My eyes fastened on a huge four-poster bed, and Savannah giggled when she saw what I was looking at.

She headed straight for the bed, and propped herself against a mound of pillows, looking up at me with those laughing eyes, her robe still trailing half off her shoulders and both breasts free from the nightdress underneath. She patted the bed in invitation, and I needed no more urging to join her.

I stopped only long enough to get my boots off and then I pushed her gently back against the pillows, straddling her while my hands roamed free. The fragile barrier of silk didn’t last long under my onslaught, but she gave as good as she got, because my pants soon followed.

Now a gentleman doesn’t talk about a lady when the deed is done, but I’ll say this for Savannah Lisette Dupre. The time in her bed was the most pleasurable I’ve ever spent. And I’ve spent time in a lot of beds. Not that I’m bragging.

She made my body sing in a way it’s never done before. And when our passion was depleted, and she was lying, gasping in my arms, she told me she’d never experienced anything like me before either. We lay cuddled together in a heap of satin sheets and fell asleep to the pounding of the rain.

As I drifted off to gentle oblivion one thought streaked through my mind. Candy didn’t stand a chance. And as for poor Griff, he wasn’t even in the running.

.

Jamie

I didn’t think I’d ever be warm and dry again. I kept the campfire low, even though Nigel and his buddies were shaking like leaves in a high wind. Despite the fancy sheepskin coats and oilskin slickers they’d bought, they kept demanding that I build a bonfire. But we couldn’t take the chance that someone from the house might be riding by and see it.  Besides we didn’t have shelter enough to protect a big fire. I pretended the cold and the rain didn’t bother me, to shame them other fellas and make them stop their whining.

I couldn’t believe that the Brits were letting me boss them around. I’d picked the campsite, built the fire, and cooked up a mess of beans and bacon we’d brought with us. And then Nigel pulled out a package of tea and these fancy little cake things. Can you believe that? Tea and cake in front of a campfire. I will say they were mighty good though. Really made the beans and bacon taste better.

And they kept looking to me for the plan too. At first I was a little scared, because I’d always had Joe or Pa to tell me what to do and when to do it. But knowing that it was up to me to save my brother and my friends made all the difference. A man’s gotta do what he has to, and this was something I had to do.

The rain finally died down and I figured we’d better sneak closer to the house. We had to find out where the prisoners were being held if we wanted to have any hope of rescuing them. With a bit of food in their bellies, and their clothes a little dryer, Nigel and his friends were ready to go. They trailed along behind me making more noise than a freight train. It was on the tip of my tongue to send them back to the camp, I was so afraid we’d be discovered. But then we were almost on top of the house. The thought of those dandies stumbling around in the dark made my hair stand on end, and I decided to let well enough alone.

I made sure they were tucked behind some bushes, and we all peeked out at the house. Every window blazed with light and the soft sounds of some music trickled out to us. I felt a tingle of doubt quivering at the base of my spine. It all looked so peaceful, so normal. Where would they hold prisoners in a place like this? Maybe Nigel had the wrong house. I checked with him to make sure, but he acted like I’d offended him and insisted that this was the place described by a couple of shopkeepers and the hotel desk clerk.

And then I saw them. Two men paced the length of the long veranda that stretched across the front of the house, both carrying rifles held at the ready. We ducked back behind the bushes when they got closer to us, and I know I was holding my breath. It seemed to take forever, but finally the guards headed away from us and rounded the corner of the veranda. We crouched in the dark for a long time. The guards made the circuit around the veranda many more times until finally the music stopped and the lights went out in the downstairs room. I didn’t have a way to tell, since the heavy clouds hid the moon, but I figured it was around three in the morning.

Through a combination of hand signals and whispers I told Nigel and his friends to stay put. I reluctantly unbuckled my new gunbelt and handed it to Nigel. I sure wanted to keep wearing it, but if I got caught, I’d better look like Joe’s harmless kid brother, not someone out to ruin their ransom plans.  Then I tiptoed across the wet grass to the shadows of the veranda. I wanted to peek in some of the windows to see if I could get a clue where the kidnappers would hold their prisoners. But there was no way I’d be able to look in those windows close to the ground. Once on the veranda I’d have no cover and I’d never make it back across the lawn in time if a guard showed up. I stepped back to consider my options and saw a trellis laced with winter-dead vines.

I just knew luck was with me, because if I climbed that trellis I could get to the verandah roof and look in the windows up there. I figured the guards would only patrol the lower level, expecting any threat to come from the ground. The upper story should be safer.

It didn’t take me long to shinny up the trellis. Heck, I’d climbed things a lot scarier’n that back home. The roof was slippery after the cold rain, and I had to pick my way pretty carefully. If I slipped I’d crash down hard and the guards would come running.

I headed for the closest window, crouching down on my knees to peek in. And almost lost my footing, I was so scared by what I saw. It was Candy, lying face down on a huge bed. He was naked from what I could see and a pretty lady was rubbing some kind of oil on his back.

I wanted to rush in and save him. The kidnappers had hurt him. Hurt him so bad he needed doctoring. They must want their captives alive, though, because they’d allowed him a nurse to tend his wounds. If Candy was hurt, how bad off were Griff and Joe? I swallowed hard. I had to think like a man. One friend wounded, two still missing. How was I ever going to get them out of there?

I pushed the desperate thoughts away and crept to the next window. I had to find Joe. Once I found him, he’d help me get Candy out. My luck held. When I peeked in the next window, there was Joe. He was getting undressed, already stripped down to his underwear. I’ll admit I was a little confused. He didn’t seem upset, and why wasn’t he trying to escape? Maybe he was working on a plan to get Candy out, or maybe Candy was hurt so bad he couldn’t be moved. Joe wouldn’t leave without him, that’s for sure.

My fingers were shaking with cold as I rapped on Joe’s window. The look on his face was almost funny, and any other time I might have laughed. He seemed so shocked to have a visitor trying to get in through his second floor bedroom window.

“Let me in Joe,” I whispered as loudly as I dared, when I saw his face peer out at me. “It’s me. Jamie.”

“Jamie?” I cringed he said it so loudly.

“Shh!” I held my finger to my lips, frantically trying to convey the idea he needed to be quiet. “Just let me in.”

Joe quickly unlatched the window and slid it upward, reaching to haul me in. He wasn’t all that gentle and I banged against the windowsill.

“Jamie! What the hell are you doing here?” His face was white with fury. “And why are you climbing in a window instead of coming in the front door?”

I ignored his tirade and raced to the door, putting my ear up against the wood to see if anyone was listening to Joe’s ranting. I didn’t hear anything, so I figured no one had heard him, so I crossed back to him. “Shut up, Joe.” I’m not usually so blunt with my big brother, but I had to shut his fool mouth.

Well, he didn’t shut it, but he did stop talking. In fact, his mouth was kinda hangin’ open when I told him to shut up. “It’s okay, Joe. We’re here to rescue you.”

I don’t know what it is about Joe, but when he’s at a loss for words, I swear he looks like a fish out of water gasping for air. He opened and shut his mouth a couple of times, but no words came out. Instead, it seemed like he was choking or something. I thumped him on the back a couple of times, thinking that might help him. But he just brushed me off like I was a fly.

“Rescue me?” The words were almost a squeak when he finally got them out. “Rescue me from what?”

“The kidnappers of course.” I said it slow, because he didn’t seem to understand me. I thought maybe he’d been hit on the head, because he was acting pretty dazed. I grabbed his arm and shoved him toward a chair. “Sit down, Joe. You must have been hurt too. Let me help you.”

He shook me off, the confusion turning to anger in a flash. Joe’s temper was like lightning. It rattled up out of nowhere sometimes. “Kidnappers? That’s a pretty story to cover up you sneaking in here to crash this party, Jamie.”

I tugged at his arm. “C’mon, Joe. They’ll hear you. Keep it down.” I didn’t understand why he was talking so loud. He’d have the guards in on us in seconds. “I’m not trying to crash any party. I’m here to save you from those kidnappers.”

Joe looked torn, and I knew he didn’t know whether to laugh or yell some more.  He settled on laughter. Long and loud. “It sounds good, Jamie. But I just don’t believe you. You’re playing some kid trick because you’re angry that I abandoned you at the hotel and Griff never showed up. So you got bored or scared. Well, I’m sorry Griff didn’t stay with you, but I can’t believe you’d go to these lengths to interfere with my plans. Now you just skedaddle back to Sacramento and leave us grownups to our party. I’ll send Griff back with you, okay?”

He grabbed my arm and steered me toward the window. I think he would have put me out then and there, but I shook him off. Now I was the one getting angry. “This isn’t a trick, Joe. And I’m not some kid you can just shoo away. Candy’s hurt, and you’ve obviously been hit on the head ‘cause you’re not making any sense. You’ve got to help me come up with a plan to get Candy and Griff out of here too. Pa sent a telegram telling me all about the kidnapping. He’s working to get together the ransom.” I folded my arms across my chest and almost dared him to touch me again.

He was going to yell again, I could tell. “Pa’s getting a ransom together? I can’t believe this. It’s obviously some kind of joke. Someone’s playing a game and you’re getting suckered.” And then my words musta sunk in because he stopped. “Candy’s hurt? What makes you think Candy’s hurt?”

I told him about the nurse and how she was tending to Candy’s back. Joe’s face clouded up and he didn’t even stop to ask questions. I figured he was pretty worried about Candy, because he threw open the window and practically dove through it head first. Didn’t even stop to get dressed, and it was freezing out there. At the time it sure seemed that Joe was so worried about Candy that he didn’t even care if he got hurt himself. I soon found out differently.

I followed him out the window.

.

Joe

I threw myself out that window so fast I almost slid down the wet roof. I couldn’t believe it. Candy alone with Savannah. In his room. She wasn’t interested in Candy. She was happy with me. Me, Joe Cartwright. No, make that Francis Cartier. There had to be some other explanation. Maybe Candy really was sick. Damn. He’d better be.

Jamie followed me so I put out an arm to hold him back from Candy’s window. I had an idea what Candy was up to and wanted to see for myself. But Jamie was too young for what I suspected was going on in that room.

When I looked into Candy’s window my fears were confirmed. A nurse putting medicine on poor Candy’s hurt back? Yeah right. Candy was lying naked on the bed, a bottle of some kind of oil on the bedside table. Savannah was sitting astride him, her head thrown back in abandon, Candy’s hands roaming her body as she rode him like a wild mustang. I bit back the cry of anger, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the scene.

Savannah. Her beautiful breasts cupped in another man’s hands — Candy’s hands.  His long fingers, dark against her pale skin, toyed with her nipples. Her eyes were closed as she moaned with pleasure.  I couldn’t actually hear her through the heavy glass but the sounds had been etched in my mind that afternoon. They were the sounds she’d made when we were together, when she told me no one had ever given her such pleasure.  As Candy pulled her close and fastened his mouth on one of those silken mounds it was alI I could do to keep from slamming my fist through the window.

Jamie’s anxious questions stopped me. “Is he okay, Joe? Or is he worse? Why won’t you let me see? He’s not dying, is he?”

“Oh, he’s a dead man, all right,” I snarled. “Just give me a couple of seconds alone with him, and there won’t be any mistaking it.”

My teeth were chattering and a shudder ran through me, but I desperately needed to see what was happening. Some part of me wanted the pain and anger of the sight so that I could better plot revenge against my so-called friend. But my body betrayed me.  I was shaking so violently with the cold I had no choice but to allow Jamie to tug me back inside my room. I felt him wrap a blanket around my bare shoulders, but I couldn’t comprehend his anxious questions. His mouth was moving but my brain didn’t register the sounds he was making.

I was too enraged at Candy to listen…how could he seduce a woman who so clearly had chosen me. And Savannah . . . Savannah who had writhed in my arms earlier was now in the embrace of another man. How could she seduce my best friend?

I tried to make excuses. I hadn’t told Candy about my afternoon with Savannah. She didn’t know Candy and I were friends. But it didn’t help. I was consumed with rage, and all the sane, logical explanations flew out the window with the sight of the couple entwined on the bed still fresh in my mind.

Jamie was still going on with his cockamamie story about a kidnapping. He’d claimed Pa was gathering a ransom and it was somehow mixed up with some telegram he’d gotten. I’d tried to send him on his way. Back out the window he came in. I didn’t want the kid strolling through the rooms downstairs because he’d never keep all our names straight and would give us away for sure. There was no way I believed his ridiculous yarn, yet it bothered me all the same.

My first thought had been he was trying to get back at me for abandoning him in Sacramento. But that didn’t make sense; he’d wanted to stay there, begged to stay in fact. So then I figured something had frightened him and he’d come up with this elaborate story as a way to save face while convincing me to go back with him. But if he’d gotten scared it would have been a lot easier for him to hop a train back to Frisco than to ride through a torrential downpour on a bitterly cold night, climb on a slippery porch roof and find me in a strange house.  And he’d seemed so convinced his story was true. Jamie had been known to lie sometimes when backed in a corner, but he’d never been good at it. Pa and I both could both see through him easy enough.

So if Jamie was convinced what he was telling me was true, then there was another explanation. Someone was playing a joke on him. A nasty, mean-spirited joke. Someone who knew about the house party and figured it would be a perfect way of scaring the hell out of my little brother.

It took my mind torturous minutes to come up with that explanation because I kept seeing Candy and Savannah tangled in passion in the next room. I convinced myself I could hear the sounds of their lovemaking in spite of the thick walls. The squeak of the bed frame, the rustle of the sheets, the moans and small cries. I rubbed my head frantically to drive out the image.

“Joe? Joe!” Jamie’s voice was strident. “Where’s Griff, Joe? Is he hurt too? Is Griff okay?” He was tugging on my arm, demanding my attention. Blearily I focused on his face.

“Griff’s fine, Jamie. In fact, I think I’ll take you along to see him. He’ll tell you this is no kidnapping.”

I shrugged out of the blanket and stalked to the door, Jamie trailing at my heels. As we headed down the hallway, I heard his shocked murmur.

“The door wasn’t locked? I figured you’d be locked in your rooms. Did you pick the lock, Joe? That’s amazing. You’ve been plotting to escape all along, haven’t you?”

I put up with his muttering because it didn’t seem to need an answer from me. Which was good because all I could focus on was the pair in the next room. Of course the door wasn’t locked. This was a house party not a prison.

Griff’s room was at the far end of the hall and by the time we got there, I’d schooled my face and my thoughts into some kind of order. I wasn’t about to let Griff see I’d been rattled by Candy and Savannah’s little dalliance.

.

Griff

It had been a disappointing day ‘til almost the end. Savannah’s grandfather must have taken a turn for the worse because I didn’t see her until just before dinner.  Of course, I’d only been up for a few hours before we were called into the dining room – those late hours and soft beds could really spoil a working man. I didn’t get a chance to see her alone after dinner either. She spent a few hours at the poker table, then moved to the piano. Soon the game was abandoned as everyone gathered around her there.

Some of the men tried to sing along but I just stood back watching, wishing we could sneak off together like we had the night before. I’d tried to approach her a few times, hoping she’d make that suggestion. She hadn’t, but she’d touched me in a way that said maybe later. So I’d wait. After a few songs, Benson slid next to her on the bench. They played a couple of duets, then she asked if he could play a waltz. He could and did. She got up, held up her arms and before I could even react, Joe was waltzing her around the room.

I had my turn. I was far from the most polished dancer there, but I could waltz. My mother taught me when I was ten. A couple of years before he died, my father gave my mother a music box that played a waltz. He often waltzed her around the house — sitting room to kitchen and on pleasant evenings, out onto the porch.  Those were the happiest times I remember, listening to my parents laugh together. She told me she wanted me to be able to make another woman as happy as my father made her. So she’d taught me to waltz.

Of course, waltzing with Savannah wasn’t much like waltzing with my mother.  But in a different way, it made me just as happy. And what she whispered in my ear made me happier still.  Perhaps I’d like to take a walk with her tomorrow morning if I’d get up a little early.

With those words in my ear, I found myself heading off for bed before any of the others. So I was none to happy to have Joe barging into my room for the second night in a row.

But I woke up fast enough when I saw he had Jamie with him.  The first thing I thought was something was wrong with Mr. Cartwright. It had to be something bad to bring Jamie way out here. Then Jamie was spilling out some kind of story about kidnapping, ransom, armed guards, a British posse and rescuing us. He was treating Joe like he was soft in the head, making him sit down and shushing him every time he tried to interrupt. Finally Joe shrugged and let Jamie tell his story.

I made him go back to the moment he last saw Joe at the train station and go step by step from there. I had to urge him through a few slow spots when he was dwelling too much on the virtues of a Miss Priscilla Kane.

The gist of it was he’d gotten a telegram from San Francisco that he said was from his father, but which Joe insisted must have been a nasty joke. But he’d sent a telegram back to Mr. Cartwright and just before he’d left to come to the Manor, he’d gotten one back in answer. If the first telegram had been from anyone but Mr. Cartwright, surely he would have sent something that showed confusion, not appreciation that Jamie was safe. And if Nigel and his friends had come along they’d apparently believed in the reality of the whole thing. Of course, Joe and I knew we hadn’t been kidnapped and we hadn’t been lured here to be held prisoner, so there had to be another explanation.

In the end, I was the one who had to figure it out. Joe seemed too distracted to think logically. Someone had found out Joe was at this party out in the country. Knowing Mr. Cartwright wouldn’t be able to reach him, a ransom demand was sent. Simple as that. I assured Jamie the reason Joe and I didn’t have our guns was that genteel people didn’t wear guns to a party. They were within easy reach in a lockbox on the verandah if we needed them. I also assured him I’d seen plenty of horses in the stable in the event we had to leave for some reason. And the armed guards he’d seen – well there were probably some lowlifes in town who knew about the party through the merchants and such. Rich people often hired a little protection.

So all we had to do was send Jamie back with Nigel to Sacramento with instructions to send a telegram to Mr. Cartwright letting him know Joe was safe and not to send the ransom.  Then I could get back to sleep so I’d be strong and rested for my meeting with Savannah the next morning. Joe’d probably have hell to pay when we got back, but that was his look-out. I could have told him he was the one wasting his time here, that he might as well cut his losses by going back with Jamie, but he was too cocksure of his charm to listen. Let him find out for himself when she kept turning him down.

I’d actually climbed back into bed to signal them they should leave when Jamie dropped his bombshell.  There was one last thing that troubled him. If we weren’t being held prisoner, how had Candy gotten hurt?

.

Jamie

It was raining again. Boy, I was tired of rain. It made climbing down the trellis kinda tricky, but I managed. I didn’t understand why Joe and Griff thought it best I go out the way I got in. I didn’t want the guards to think I was one of those lowlifes trying to rob the rich party guests. But they seemed to think I’d cause trouble if their host found out how I’d gotten in.

My mind was racing frantically. I had to get back to Nigel and his friends and we ought to get to Sacramento as fast as we could. Pa had to know Joe was safe and not to send the ransom. I tried to concentrate on climbing down the trellis, but my thoughts were back with Griff and Joe.

Griff sure had been upset when he found out Candy was with the nurse. He looked like all the fun had been sucked outta him. He’d seemed pretty happy right up until then. He’d even figured out what we needed to do to stop Pa from sending the ransom. But once he heard about Candy, a light went out in his face and he got all quiet-like.

I’d been wondering why Joe had been angry with Candy when he saw the nurse in with him. Joe was Candy’s best friend, and he should have been concerned, not hopping mad. Then I heard him tell Griff that Candy had been exaggerating his injuries in order to get the nurse’s undivided attention. That was just a fancy way of saying that Candy was faking it so the nurse would spend some time with him.

I figured the nurse was a guest at the party, and Joe had been trying to charm her too. Candy had found a way to get her to look at him and Joe was madder’n a wet hen. Those two. Always competing over some pretty girl. I wondered if they’d ever get past doing that.

I started across the lawn still thinking on how the guys had reacted. Griff hadn’t been too relieved by Joe’s explanation about Candy. I spent a moment wondering why he still looked so upset, but then maybe he didn’t believe Joe. Maybe he figured Candy was really hurt more than Joe let on.

Griff would be able to check on Candy soon enough. Joe was most likely right about Candy’s little plot. In spite of all their fussing, those two were close. Real close. If Joe thought Candy needed a doctor, nothing would stand in his way. He’d have been on a horse faster’n I could spit.

A hand snaked out of the bushes and grabbed me and it was all I could do to keep from screaming at the top of my lungs. I spotted Nigel’s pale face peering at me, and I clapped both hands over my mouth in case some sound squeaked out. When I was under control, I hissed at him. “Why’d you do that? I almost died of fright.”

“Sorry, old chap.” Nigel’s voice sounded more English than ever. But something was wrong. I could see it on his face.

“What?” I kept my voice to a bare whisper, and he leaned in to speak in my ear.

“It’s not good, chum. Let’s move back to where we can talk. We’re all in a pickle if we stay here.”

The churning was back in my belly. It’d stopped once I’d seen Joe and Griff and been reassured about Candy. Now my stomach burned as if it were on fire. We snuck back to where I felt the guards wouldn’t see or hear us, the rest of my posse joining us to crouch in the shadows. I grabbed my gunbelt from where it was slung on Nigel’s shoulder. It looked like I wouldn’t need it now, but that didn’t stop me from liking the grown-up feeling of wearing it.

“It’s okay,” I began. “I’ve seen Joe. There’s been a mistake.” I hurried to fill them in on everything, right down to the joker who was trying to extort money from Pa on false pretenses. I swiped the rain from my face, but it was useless. The water just poured from the sky.

I expected them to look relieved or to laugh — something. But they didn’t. In fact, Nigel exchanged a worried glance with Basil as he grabbed my arm.

“I’m afraid Joe’s wrong,” he said. “We overheard something you should know about.”

Now it was my turn to listen, my heart sinking as I heard what Nigel had to say. They’d hidden in the stable to keep warm when the rain started up again and overheard two of the guards talking. They’d been laughing and making fun of the party guests. How stupid the dupes were, not even knowing they were being held for ransom because they were so busy panting after the beautiful Savannah Lisette.

The guards had been busy removing all the horses while they talked, taking them to a third man down the road. One had asked the other, “What if one of them fools tries to leave before the ransom’s been paid?”

The first guard had glanced around to see if anyone was listening, and then apparently feeling safe, had said, “We’re here to make sure that he don’t get far. Ain’t no one gonna leave if the money doesn’t get paid. Why d’ya think we’re getting gunmen’s wages, ya fool?”

I swallowed and started back toward the house. I had to warn Joe, Griff and Candy. I needed to get them out of there.

And the rain took that moment to slow up.

Before I could cross the lawn, it stopped completely. The sun was barely poking its way to the horizon but the clouds had cleared enough to make it too light for my purposes. I couldn’t cross the lawn without being seen. And I couldn’t head back to Sacramento to warn Pa not to send the ransom because now it looked like it would be needed. There was nothing for me to do but keep watch.

.

Candy

I never figured that little favor I did for Joe would give Savannah an excuse come knocking on my door in the small hours of the morning.  He’d be mad as hell if he found out, though I saw no need to tell him. It’s one thing to brag if a woman decides to go to a dance with me instead of him, but it wouldn’t be right to talk about more intimate conquests.

When Griff refused to be bullied into going back to Sacramento to watch Jamie, Joe decided to send a note telling him to go back to Frisco by way of whoever from the household went to town to pick up supplies. Of course, since everyone thought I was Joe Cartwright, I had to write the note. So it was me she brought the response to. I was just stripping for bed when she knocked. I figured it was Joe again. I was getting ready to tell him he shouldn’t have come to this party if he was going to spend all his time worrying about Jamie. So I just flung the door open without asking who it was. There was Savannah, wrapped in a lovely silk robe that covered her entire body to her ankles but still left little to the imagination.  And there was me in my long johns, which covered less than half my body. They left little to the imagination after she started kissing me.

She didn’t start the kissing right away of course. She sort of eased into it. First she told me that when her manservant inquired at the Regency to give Jamie my message, the clerk told him Jamie had left that morning on the train. So Joe’s worries were over. At least on that score. I could only hope her appearance at my door would give him a whole new set.

While she was talking, I tried to find something to put on. I didn’t have a robe so I had to settle on my trousers. That’s when she started the kissing part.

She put a restraining hand on my forearm. “No need for formality here, Joseph.”

I dropped the trousers as she used her grip on my forearm to pull me to her.  That first kiss was long and sweet and as I said, left my long johns hiding nothing. But she wasn’t in any hurry. She said how she’d noticed me rubbing my neck at the poker game and wondered if she could massage it for me. She had a bottle of perfumed oil in the pocket of her robe for just that purpose.

I’m not sure when she left. I’d fallen asleep around first light with Savannah in my arms and waked to find her gone.  So I’d gone back to sleep, savoring the feel of her in my dreams.  I’m not one to sleep late but it was close to noon when I whistled my way downstairs.

.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8TH

Griff

I can’t believe I was so gullible — thinking she had some special interest in me.  At first I wanted to think maybe Candy had taken ill and Savannah was tending to him. Not that I wished anything bad to happen to Candy, I just didn’t want it to be what Jamie’s words and Joe’s surly expression suggested. But Joe made it clear she was with Candy for the same reason she’d been with me the night before. At least he made it as clear as he could without saying it straight out in front of Jamie. And he’d made some mention of the time he’d spent with her that afternoon and how he was sure she liked him better.  I remembered she hadn’t appeared until after the lightning storm. And I thought she’d been tending to her grandfather.

I didn’t see any purpose telling Joe I’d been with her.  Why let him know she’d made a fool of me too. She was just looking for a rich husband. They’d invited ten men who all fit that bill – or so they thought. Candy and I were wild cards they hadn’t anticipated. Joe probably thought it was all between him and Candy. But I knew better. If she’d bothered with an inexperienced kid like me, she was probably working her way through them all.

So I didn’t bother to get up early to meet her for that walk.  I wish now I’d gone back with Jamie. If he hadn’t been with Nigel, I probably would have. But I didn’t want Nigel and his friends knowing I was too unsophisticated to avoid being played for a fool by a woman. Besides, it seemed someone was taking advantage of this party to extort money from Mr. Cartwright and maybe from the families of the other guests. It was likely that person had a connection here – one of the employees or maybe a tradesman. Now that my mind would be off Savannah, maybe I could spot them. Looked like Joe and Candy would still be too distracted to be of any use.

Scott

Somehow I’d lost the knack of sleeping away the day. The war’s starting time cured part of that, and Murdoch’s morning banging coupled with Teresa’s impromptu entrances remedied any tendency for lying abed or lingering over dressing. The first time I woke, I heard the rain and knew all outdoor plans for the day would be postponed if not canceled. I dozed for awhile, fantasizing about Savannah returning to my room for a repeat performance. I thought we had been that good together. I decided it was futile to continue that dream, not to mention uncomfortable. So, I got up, pulled the servants’ cord for warm water and waited.

An elderly, shuffling man brought my water, wished me a soft ‘good mornin’ and told me breakfast was available in the dining room. To my inquiry about my host and hostess, he mumbled something about a stomach upset for Mr. Dupre and that Miss Savannah would be available downstairs shortly. His slight emphasis on downstairs made my lips twitch.

I forswore riding clothes as my window observations told me I wasn’t going outdoors for pleasure. I might have to get wet when there’s work to be done, but I don’t do it by choice. Today would be an indoor day.

Downstairs, a buffet was laid out in the dining room, with bacon, ham, sausages, fried chicken plus kippers, for the English Count I assumed. There was an over-abundance of food along with piping hot coffee and the makings for hot tea, another continental habit. Another elderly servant moved around the public rooms.

Helping myself to breakfast, I decided to get a book to read, as I was the only one around at the moment. Returning to my food with my book, I saw Count Nigel was picking his way down the food display, showing no interest in the kippers. He barely glanced at me when I bade him “Good morning”. He looked most unhappy, but experience with Johnny and others had taught me some people couldn’t be civil before the third cup of coffee, so I ignored him to eat and read.

Before I finished my repast, others began drifting in for breakfast, some in boisterous good spirits and others quiet or sullen depending on their natures. Vanderlaan was noticeable by the fact that he still couldn’t string two words together without blushing and stammering. Young Nigel had eaten very little and had bolted when he heard others arriving. Obviously a little perturbed about something.

I reported my information about our host’s being under the weather and we all seemed to be waiting for our “mistress of ceremonies” for further direction. Neither Cartwright nor Cartier had made an appearance yet and I was willing to bet one or both were sleeping off an “overdose” of Miss Dupre. I confess to more than a tinge of envy.

Wandering into the game room I discovered Nigel sitting at the chessboard, fingering the ivory pieces. It was an exquisite set with the alternating pieces of black and white carved into intricate horses, castles and pawns. But I was willing to bet he wasn’t aware of the beauty of the work at all. Whatever he was seeing made his mouth turn down and his eyes look so unhappy I just couldn’t ignore such blatant misery.

I took the seat opposite and asked, “Would you like a game?”

He jerked, startled, then tried his ‘proper accent’, “No thanks, old chap. Not right now.”

I looked at him in some disgust. “Lay off the phony accent, if you please. You’re no more an English aristocrat than I’m an Indian. I’m not sure what your game is, but you don’t have to pretend with me. Unless you’re planning some real trouble, that is, Count Nigel.”

He gave me a measuring look and I saw his shoulders relax a trifle. “I’m here as a favor to the real Nigel. Wish I’d never got caught up in all this.” His voice was filled with gloom.

I briefly debated being off-hand and casual, but opted to treat him like I would Johnny. Straightforward. “If you’re eating your heart out over your encounter with the lady . . . .”

He interrupted me in a tone that bordered on panic. “She told you? She complained . . . “ His voice trailed off.

I hastened to reassure him. “I happened to walk into the kitchen when she was kissing you on the back stairs. She surely didn’t look like woman with a complaint. But it was clear to me what you’d been about. I thought perhaps you might welcome a little advice.”

His eyes bore into mine and his lips tightened. He thought it was none of my business – that was for sure. He was most likely right too, but being the fool I am, I continued.

“If you’re like most folks, you’ve got some bad memories you hide somewhere. You’ve got a lot of good ones too. A woman like Savannah, she can fit into either place or maybe both. Depends on you, not her.”

He glared at me but at least he hadn’t punched me out yet or left the table. “I read in a diary book once about this king telling some fancy governess why he had lots of wives. He said a man is like a bee that goes from flower to flower to flower gathering nectar. He claimed a woman is like a flower, but the flower doesn’t go from bee to bee to bee. Well, a woman like Savannah does go from bee to bee to bee. She’s not planning on marrying any of them or even falling in love. She’s looking to give and receive pleasure. She doesn’t want to hurt a man, just to enjoy him. We men think we’re allowed to sample lots of women, but a woman is only supposed to have one man.”

“Now you can waste your energy being mad ’cause she doesn’t act like you think a ‘nice woman’ ought to act, or you can remember the pleasure you had and not forget the lesson that goes with it. I’m willing to bet she made no promises to you; she sure didn’t to me Thursday morning.”

He looked at me in surprise — I could have been offended at his poor opinion of me — then said wonderingly, “I guess I was right, she’s just going through all of us. Joe saw Candy with her last night and he pretty much said straight out that he was with her yesterday afternoon. At least as straight out as he could be with his kid brother in the room.”

His head dropped to his hands, as I demanded “Who’s Candy?” And then realizing what else he’d said, “Are you Cartwright’s kid brother?”

For a minute he covered his eyes, then he peered between his fingers, a sheepish grin on his face. “Damn, guess I better start at the beginning.” He filled me in on how he came to be there and about the two men whom he worked with, one pretending to be Joseph Cartwright and really the ranch foreman and the other actually Joe Cartwright, but pretending to be Frances Cartier. His name was Griff King. He also worked for the Cartwrights but he’d met Nigel in San Francisco. Nigel wanted to hunt mountain lions and punch cows. By the time he finished that part of his story I had a headache.

But he wasn’t done. He filled me in on the tale brought to them by Joe’s young brother. He thought we should watch for someone in the household who was in cahoots with the extortionists.

At the end of the convoluted tale, I asked, “What meeting is Cartwright Sr. attending?” He told me it was some fancy financier thing in San Francisco, then confirmed that his ‘supposed” English father was apparently at the same meeting. I knew Murdoch was there, so that made three sons with fathers at the same meeting. I wondered about the Cartier father, but Griff wasn’t sure about that.

Now I was curious. Hell, I was more than curious. Two from the same group was coincidence; three was more than coincidence. If the total went up to four or more, I was going to be downright suspicious. The tale brought by Cartwright’s young brother was taking on substance.

I suggested Griff find his friend Joe to see if he knew whether the father of the man he’d replaced was at the same meeting. Griff seemed a little reluctant and I realized he wasn’t ready to talk to his friend again just yet. He offered to check with Vanderlaan while I talked to Joe/Francis. We were just pushing back our chairs to go on our separate missions when we saw Savannah sauntering toward us. As rising in the presence of a lady was de rigueur we were standing when she reached us.

She put her hand on Griff’s arm in a possessive gesture. “I missed you this morning.” Her voice was silky with a touch of petulance as though to show Griff how disappointed she was to miss their assignation. Griff looked at me as though for help. When I had none to offer, he stammered out some excuse about the rain making it too unpleasant for a walk outside, retreating to the cover of his exaggerated Texas accent as he did so. She looked over at me as though in wonderment that a young man could be so naïve as to believe she’d really been interested in walking. She turned to the window and swept her left hand in a gesture indicating the sun breaking through the clouds.

“It appears the two of you have become great friends. Perhaps you would both join me for a walk.”

Her right hand retained its possessive grip on Griff’s forearm. She reached out her left and captured my elbow.  Looking at Griff, she said sweetly, “Mr. Lancer has been out here long enough to educate you concerning some of the more interesting customs of the Wild West tempered by the skills of a sophisticated man from Boston.” She turned to me. “There are always things to be learned from a healthy visitor with a continental education.”

I could see young Griff had not the slightest idea of the implication of her words. He was undoubtedly taking them at face value. I took the lady’s hand and pressed the palm to my lips. “If you would allow us to finish our breakfast,” I nodded toward Griff’s untouched plate and my unfinished coffee, “perhaps I could convince Count Wingate of the pleasures of the excursion you suggest.”

She nodded in understanding, then leaned over to plant a delicate kiss on my left cheek.  Perhaps believing he needed more encouragement, her parting from Griff was marked with a soft kiss on the lips. And then she was gone, making her way to the kitchen, stopping briefly to greet each man in the drawing room with some gesture of affection, a slight squeeze of the shoulder, a pat on the arm, a seductive smile.

Griff sat down, momentarily diverted from his intention to speak to Vanderlaan. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll talk to Joe and Vanderlaan. You go walk with her.”

“Do you really think walking was what she had in mind?”

He smiled a little sourly. “I was trying to be discreet. I’m sure the walk would have ended in her bedroom for one of us.  I think knowing she was with my two closest friends only yesterday has taken the edge off my appetite. You go ahead. I don’t mind, honest.”

I didn’t in fact believe he was being honest. He might not be ready to respond to an invitation himself, but he was equally unready to see me walk off with the prize.  Suspecting he might be immune to shock at this point, I decided to enlighten him.

“She wasn’t inviting me for a walk, Griff, at least not me alone. And she had no intention of having just one of us end up in her bedroom. She was extending a special invitation to both of us.”

Despite my plain words, it took a moment for their meaning to register. He looked at me blankly until his mind finally accepted there was only one possible interpretation. “Both of us?” He was quiet for another moment. “Together?” Another pause, as though he expected me to contradict him.  “At the same time?”

I nodded.

“Is that how they do things in Boston? Have you . . . .”

I laughed and shook my head. “But haven’t you ever imagined how it would be with two women?’

He leaned back and closed his eyes. “There was times in my life I did nothin’ but imagine all the way things might be with women. But I don’t figure I’m too sure as to how to handle even one in real life.”

“But you can see as how an experienced man might take his fantasies about the pleasures of being with two women and seek to carry them out.”

His eyes snapped open at that. “You’ve . . .”

“Had the fantasy. Sure. There was a set of beautiful raven-haired twins in Boston . . . “ Griff was hanging on my every word. “But actually looking to follow through. . . .” I paused, reflecting back on those lovely twins. “There are some things best left to the imagination. When a man makes love to a woman, she should be the center of his universe for that time, however brief.”

Griff sighed. I think he was disappointed not to hear a story of fantasies fulfilled.

“All I’m trying to say is Savannah’s an experienced woman who has her own flights of fancy. Maybe being in the company of two incredibly handsome and robust men like ourselves enticed her to try to lure one of those flights down to earth, right here, right now.” I laughed and punched him lightly on the arm.  “Look, we’ve got some accusations to look into. If you get a chance to slip off with her later – alone – then don’t let any concerns for me stand in your way.”

We parted company at that point. I saw him challenge Vanderlaan to a game of pool as I attempted to search out the man previously known to me as Cartier.

.

Joe

Where was she? I wandered through the drawing room, but didn’t see Savannah. I even took a peek in the kitchen and then strolled casually along the verandah, but still no luck. I’d heard her grandfather had taken ill, so I guessed she must be occupied with him.

I saw most of the other men appeared to be making good use of their time. An intense poker game was in progress, an impressive amount of money changing hands with each round of play. I saw Vanderlaan and Crowell playing billiards, obviously wagering on each shot.

I could have joined either group, but all I wanted was Savannah. My body burned in remembrance of the passion we’d shared during the storm. I had to see her, had to get to the bottom of her betrayal with Candy. What was she playing at? Had she felt sorry for him for some reason? Maybe her grandfather felt a Cartwright was a better catch than a Cartier. If that were the reason, I’d soon set her straight. She would have some plausible explanation, I was sure. At the back of my mind, I guess I figured she was just trying to make me jealous by fooling around with him. It was really the only thing that made sense.

I’d seen Griff huddled with the Lancer fella. Candy was mooning around somewhere, probably gloating over his conquest of the fair Savannah. My fingers closed into a fist and I itched to smash in those white teeth of his. But I sure would have been happier if I could see him. He’d better not be with Savannah again.

And then I saw him. Griff and Lancer were towing him along. They approached me with a pretty obvious attempt at being casual. Griff seemed a little dejected, while Lancer was quietly nonchalant. But Candy. Candy was walking a little taller, his teeth gleaming in a huge smile. I guess he figured he’d won in the Savannah sweepstakes.

I reached for him, but Lancer stepped between us. “Let’s play bridge gentlemen,” he said a shade too loudly.

“I don’t know how.” I’m sure I sounded a bit sulky, but that couldn’t be helped. The last thing I wanted to do was sit down at a table with Candy and play some high-falutin’ card game.

“I’ll teach you.” Lancer snagged my arm and pulled, and I saw he’d grabbed Candy with his other hand. He literally yanked us into Armand’s private den, and pushed us into some chairs around a nice little card table. He then shut the door, leaving us in total privacy.

“I said I don’t know how to play, and I don’t want to learn.” I stood up and prepared to stalk out of the room without so much as a glance at Candy.

“Sit down, Joe. We need to talk,” Griff said so low I almost didn’t hear him.  “Something’s going on you need to hear about.”

Candy didn’t look any happier about the idea than I did. He kept glancing at the door like he needed to keep a date with someone. A date with Savannah most likely. My fingers itched again and I sat down hard. “Spit it out then. What’s up?”

I guess I was pretty blunt because Lancer shot me a speculative look. He seemed like the kind of guy who read people fairly easily. I flushed a little. I didn’t need him looking into my soul for any reason.

And then it hit me. Griff had just called me Joe. I risked a peek at Lancer, but he just nodded to show he knew and didn’t care. I flashed Griff a glance that I hoped told him I was mighty upset he’d been spilling our secrets to a stranger. Griff pointedly turned his head and looked out the window. Yet another set of teeth I wanted to smash.

Lancer started talking then. Griff nodding occasionally as his only contribution. They’d hatched some far-fetched plot about kidnappers and ransoms, all based on Jamie’s frantic visit the night before. I had to laugh.

“Come on, you fellas aren’t taking this whole thing seriously are you? I sent Jamie back to town to let my Pa know that this whole thing is some sort of set up. We’re obviously not prisoners, but someone is making our fathers think we are. It’s a scam. Once our fathers realize that, it’ll all blow over. There’s no way Savannah or her grandfather even know what’s happening.”

They kept talking, or at least Lancer did. He’d seen Savannah deep in conversation with some man, dressed pretty rough but treating her like an equal.  They’d been talking about drugging someone, but Scott hadn’t heard who.  When I challenged him, he admitted it was possible they just needed something for the old man’s pain.

But the idea that Savannah and Armand were involved in something was starting to make sense. There were too many little things that could very well add up to one big plot to fleece some wealthy fathers out of a lot of money.

I could tell Candy wasn’t buying any of it. Of course, he mostly just sat there with that stupid grin on his face, gloating because he figured he’d won Savannah right out from under my nose. Obviously he’d been completely taken in by her charms because he wouldn’t hear one word said against her.

Griff, Lancer and I decided we should at least check some things out. I’d stroll out onto the verandah and see about getting our guns back, Griff would go back to the stables to see how many horses were there. Scott was going to snoop around Armand a bit since he’d had the most time to get to know the old man. If there were sleeping powders lying around, Scott should be able to find them.

Candy refused to do anything at all. Savannah was a princess, a lady of sterling reputation, and she could do no wrong. Boy, did he have it bad. I had to do it. I couldn’t let him sit there thinking he was the one she’d fallen for. I let him know in so many words that she’d been with me too, and it had been something special for both of us.

His grin disappeared so fast it almost fell off his face. Candy’s got a tough jaw and it was jutting out toward me like some cliff face, and I think if Lancer and Griff hadn’t been there he would have hit me. He headed for the door, flinging it open with a crash. Every eye in the room turned toward us, and that’s when he came back to his senses. If there was a plot the last thing we needed was to have everyone in an uproar. Candy kinda grinned a little. He looked like a sheep to me, but he gave a little wave to the other men and came back to sit at the card table with us. I noticed he wouldn’t look me in the eye though, and he seemed ready to blow at any minute.

He’d left the door open, so we started dealing the cards, even though we had no idea what we were doing with them. I guess from a distance we looked fairly natural, because the other men soon lost interest in our little group.

We discussed what we should do for another minute or so, but then, just when I figured we’d convinced everyone that we were playing a friendly game of cards, Griff stood up and walked out. Walked away from us, across the room, straight to the old man’s liquor cabinet. He poured himself a huge slug of brandy in one of those massive balloon glasses that seem so popular with rich men and started to drink.  I knew my jaw had dropped a little, but I didn’t want Lancer to think badly of him.

“Don’t mind him, Lancer,” I said. “He’s just upset because all he got from Savannah was one kiss and it turned his head completely. He’s a little naïve.”

Lancer snorted. “He got more than a kiss from the lady,” he said quietly. “He was with her before you were. And so was I. He made the mistake of thinking it was for real. Like you said, he’s a little naïve. Poor fellow.”

That’s when I started to believe Jamie’s story might be true.  It was one thing for Savannah to be playing games with Candy and me. But if she’d been with Lancer, and Griff too. . . Griff! That kid with no experience. I felt like I was the one who had been naïve. Yes, we were definitely going to have to get to the bottom of this and soon.

We went our separate ways, agreeing to head up to our rooms early. As soon as the rest of the men were occupied and paying no attention to us, we would each check out a different lead, the guns, the drugs, the horses. I sighed. It had been fun while it lasted.

*****

He’d been right. Jamie’s cockamamie story was right. We were being held for ransom. I couldn’t believe it. I knew Pa would be tearing San Francisco apart to raise the money.

We’d separated to see what we could find out. I headed casually for the verandah. If anyone asked I was going for a stroll, feeling the need for fresh air. As I passed through the house, I could see the other men lounging around, still innocent of the plot swirling around them. I shook my head in disgust. How could we all be so stupid?

I wasn’t stopped as I left the house and stood on the porch, but I did notice a couple of men walking between the house and the barn. They tried to act casual, but I could see they were a little too interested in what I was doing. I made a show of settling myself on the railing, propping my foot up next to me and stretching, making sure my yawn could be seen about a mile away.

It seemed to convince them, because they merely passed by, nodding pleasantly when they were at their closest. I nodded back, then leaned back against a post and closing my eyes. I waited a minute or two, opened my eyes a slit, so that I could get a peek at the area without rousing suspicion. They weren’t in sight.

Moving slowly, trying to look like I was just moseying around the porch, I found the chest where Savannah had stored the guns easy enough. It was still locked just the way she’d left it. I wanted to drag Lancer out and rub his nose in it.  But then I bent to examine the lock. Like Candy’d said, the lock was easy enough to get through if a man was determined.

So I opened it.

The guns were gone. Every last one of ‘em was gone. I sucked in some air but my lungs didn’t seem to be working right ‘cause I had to keep struggling to drag in another breath, and even so my head swam dizzily. Savannah had lied. It’d all been a lie from the start.

After a few minutes I put the lock together as best I could and staggered into the house. I headed straight for the whiskey and poured a large glass, swallowing most of it in one gulp.  Then I headed up to my room to wait for the others. We’d agreed to meet in an hour, and now I was more than ready to hear what they had to say.

Candy slouched in first, hands jammed into his pockets, a glare his only greeting. Then Griff slipped in looking like he’d lost his best friend, followed by Lancer. I did a double take when I saw him. He was cool as a cucumber, not a hair out of place, his usual calm expression on his face. Seeing him was like putting a match to a powder keg.

I exploded.

“How can you take this so calmly? Our fathers think we’ve been kidnapped and are most likely fearing for our lives. We’ve been tricked. Duped by a little girl and her grandfather. And yet you sit here like you’re on a Sunday picnic.”

I paced the room, and couldn’t seem to stop the stream of words that poured out of me. Lancer just dropped into a chair, his arms crossed and he never said a word. Just watched me until I finally ran out of steam.

When I’d finally stopped, he spoke, his voice never rising, no anger in his tone. “My father’s a strong man. He’ll be all right as soon as I get back to explain the situation to him. Right now I’m more concerned with getting out of this mess before things turn ugly, so I can get back to him. Are you gentlemen now convinced we’re in serious trouble?”

All the fire drained out of me and I sank onto the bed, defeated. “Yes.” Boy it hurt to say those words. I’ve never been too fond of admitting I was wrong. “The guns are gone. The chest on the verandah is empty. What’d you find out, Griff?”

The boy was miserable. He looked like a hound dog who’d run into a skunk, he was so dejected. “The horses are gone too. Nothing left at all in the stable but one buggy horse, probably the one they plan to use for their escape. I don’t know where they’ve got the rest of ‘em hid, but they’re not where we can get to ‘em easy.”

Candy sat silent, no longer smiling that fool grin. In fact, now he looked like he wanted to hit someone. We all swung around to face Lancer. “Well?” I demanded. “What about you? What did you find out?”

“I found a large amount of sleeping powder in Armand’s room. He’d gone to the kitchen to settle a domestic problem and I took the opportunity to slip in there. There’s more than enough powder to put all of us under. I’d guess they plan to drug the wine, as it would be the easiest way to gain control of so many men.”

“What makes you think they won’t kill us?” Candy’s words were quiet, but the tone was ugly. He scowled at Lancer, like it was all his fault.

Scott smiled. “I think they want money, not our lives. If they kill us they’d live in fear for the rest of their lives. My father and brother wouldn’t rest until they’d found my killers, and I’m sure you gentlemen could say the same. If they drug us, they stand a good chance of getting away without too much in the way of pursuit.” He stared Candy down. “Make sense to you?”

Candy’s eyes dropped and he had the grace to look sheepish. “Yes,” he mumbled so that we could barely hear him. My opinion of Lancer rose considerably when he chose to ignore Candy’s mood.

Scott continued. “On my way out of Armand’s room, I heard someone coming. So I ducked into one of the spare rooms where I could see what was happening. Turns out a messenger had arrived with news about a package arriving in Sacramento for the Dupres. Most likely something to do with the ransom, don’t you think?”

We put our heads together over what we’d found out. We figured they’d probably try to drug us tonight, and agreed we’d pretend to eat and drink, and then hole up somewhere so that we could make our move together. We wanted the plotters to think we were still ignorant of the scheme. My spirits rose a bit.

“Looks like the Dupres have met their match.” I couldn’t help the crow of pride in my voice. “They’ve underestimated us.  Now we’ve got surprise on our side.”

Lancer cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t get too confident.” He rose, preparing to leave. We all stared at him in surprise.

“What do you mean?” I demanded.

“They haven’t gone wrong underestimating us yet,” he replied, and then calmly left the room, leaving us staring after him with our mouths gaping open.

.

Jamie

It was all I could do to stay hidden throughout that long day. I knew my brother and my friends were in danger, but I couldn’t warn them. I wanted to storm the house and drag them outta there, but knew that I’d only end up getting us all in trouble. No, I just had to outsmart the kidnappers.

We’d spotted the messenger followed by two armed guards riding in first thing. I made sure we were waiting when he came back out of the house having left the guards inside somewhere. Neddie followed him back down the trail at a distance with instructions not to get close enough to get caught, but to make sure he knew where the man went and what he was up to. Once he was gone, it was just a waiting game. And I don’t wait all that well. I was getting’ more’n a little antsy as each hour rolled by.

So, I spent the day talkin’ with my British posse. We all took turns spying on the house, trying to get as close as we could. We wanted to hear what the guards were saying to each other without getting caught ourselves.

Between their scraps of conversation and my talk with Joe and Griff, we were able to figure out that the ransom had been paid. The kidnappers were probably planning on a big move sometime during the coming night. I felt the clutch of fear in my stomach again, but I forced myself not to think of it. Nigel, Basil, and Cedric were still looking at me like I knew all the answers. I couldn’t let them down either.

It was six hours before Neddie came back and unloaded an earful on us. He’d followed the messenger to Sacramento and then ridden back hell for leather. As I listened, I got more’n more afraid. I didn’t think I could handle this. The plot was too big, the people involved too dangerous. And I was just a kid. I glanced around at the gathering darkness and I shook my head. No. Not a kid. I was a grown man carrying a gun.  No time to contact Pa. It was up to me to save the day. Time to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Neddie told us that Savannah and her grandfather were planning their escape for that night.  A couple of the men had been gloating over the amount they were being paid to see them safely on the train for Boston where they’d booked passage for Europe. They didn’t say whether they’d be boarding in Sacramento or were fleeing to meet the train at another stop. The others were laughing about how easy they’d be earning their money what with the guests being so distracted by Savannah they’d never notice the drugged liquor.  As soon as it was dark, I had to get inside to warn Joe or one of the others about the drugs. I decided I’d climb back up the trellis to Joe’s room. I was betting he hadn’t locked his window.  Nigel’d heard the guards talking about having the buggy ready around midnight so it was likely they’d be drugged before that, but not too much before.

I figured we had to send Neddie after the buggy. Tired as he was, he was the only one who could manage to hide his British accent if he was seen or needed to talk with someone. That’s why I’d sent him after the messenger. So I showed him how to mark a trail and ordered him to stick with that buggy no matter where it went. It sure did something to my confidence to have Neddie follow my orders without a question. Maybe we’d get through this after all.

With any luck we’d be able to follow Neddie’s trail to catch up with them before the leaders escaped too far with the ransom money. If for some reason we missed them, I told him to wait for us at the hotel and we’d figure a way to intercept the train after they boarded.

The buggy and the Dupres planned for, I turned my attention to the house. In all likelihood the gunmen, not the Dupres, would be in charge of making sure the guests didn’t take out after them.

I knew we had to be prepared for anything. I had Cedric check out the barn. You never know when you’re gonna need a carriage. What if someone got hurt? We’d need a carriage ta haul ‘em out of there. A couple of those carriage-broke horses would come in handy then.

Cedric came back to tell me there was a big carriage and a smaller buggy in the barn. The buggy must be the one the Dupres were planning on taking to the station later that night. I was sure they wouldn’t bother with the big carriage, especially as they seemed to have only one horse.

I pulled out my new revolver and checked it for the twelfth time. Okay, maybe it was more than that. It just felt so good having that holster on my hip with that sweet little gun nestled inside it. Thanks to Griff I felt more’n ready to use it if I had to, but something kept making me check it. I don’ know. Maybe I was afraid it’d disappear or be snatched away if I didn’t keep my eye on it.

Now I sighted down the barrel and allowed my fingers to get a feel for the trigger, my hand for the weight and my arm for the best position. When the time came, I’d be ready. And so would my new friends.

I was going to save Joe and my friends whether they wanted me to or not. I knew there was trouble afoot, and that was good enough for me.

And then it was time. I was snaking across the lawn, Nigel, Cedric and Basil at my heels. They split off to cover the other entrances of the house and I shinnied up the trellis as fast as I could go. I made it into Joe’s room without a hitch and was feeling pretty cocky. All I had to do was wait until Joe, Candy or Griff came upstairs and we could make our escape. Nigel and his buddies would cover us as we got out of the house.

It took me a while to realize that my plan had fallen apart. I paced Joe’s room as quietly as I could, hoping all the time to hear his footstep in the hall. But I never did.

He never came upstairs at all. None of them did.

.

Candy

Our plan looked good. When the drugged liquor started affecting the others, the four of us collapsed in a part of the billiards room where we thought we’d be the least vulnerable. We didn’t figure they’d drug everyone just to make it easier to kill us. The heavy lock Lancer had spotted on the reinforced door to the cellar suggested they’d just leave us, figuring the drugged sleep, the heavy door and the absence of horses would give them plenty of time to get away.  When they started dragging men off to the cellar, we wanted to be taken last. If there was gunplay, we didn’t want the unconscious guests to be inadvertent targets.

There were only two of them. They’d dragged five of the men down the cellar stairs before they got to us. As one of them grabbed Joe under the arms and the other one headed for Scott, the four of us took them by surprise. Their guns were holstered; they were outnumbered; it was easy.  Or it would have been.

They were still struggling when rifle fire shattered a lamp and a bottle of whiskey. The four of us looked up from the brawl to see two more thugs pointing rifles in our direction.

We were about to raise our hands in defeat when a familiar voice shouted for us to get down. Suddenly there were four revolvers pointed at the riflemen.  Griff and I grabbed the handguns from the two men we’d overcome and immediately the two riflemen saw the wisdom in dropping their weapons.

Griff, Scott and I had finished immobilizing the four men with drapery cords before Joe recovered from his shock over the identity of our rescuers.

Jamie hadn’t followed Joe’s orders. He was standing there with a handgun still pointed at the men we were binding to chairs. With him were three well-dressed men I took to be the real Nigel and his friends.

When Joe didn’t react, I walked over and clapped Jamie on the back. “Good work. You couldn’t have picked a better time to start being your own man and ignoring your big brother.”

My action seemed to wake Joe from his trance. I could see he was angry, but he had the good grace to control himself for a moment to thank his brother. I knew the underlying anger was based in fear and Jamie probably knew it too. Even though we all seemed to be safe, the sight of Jamie with a gun facing down armed men was not something Joe could accept without trepidation.

He hugged Jamie, but then he tried to turn him back into his kid brother. It was like trying to push water back over a dam.

Joe attempted to take charge. “We have to go after the ransom. We should be able to track the buggy. I’m betting that Savannah and Armand are heading to collect it if they don’t already have it.”

He turned to Nigel. “Thanks for taking care of my brother. If you could get one of your comrades to loan his sidearm to Scott over there, I’ll take Jamie’s and we’ll be on our way. We’ll send someone back to collect you if you don’t mind watching this lot for us.”

I watched as Nigel and his two friends closed ranks around Jamie. Jamie holstered his revolver and turned slightly to put it out of Joe’s reach.

“Excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, but we don’t take orders from you. Jamie’s got us this far and we’ll be taking our direction from him. He had the foresight to send Neddie after the buggy and instructed him as to how to mark the path so we could follow.  He also told Neddie where to leave word if they should make it back to Sacramento.  If Jamie wants Basil and Cedric to surrender their sidearms to you and your friend, they will, but he should keep his.”

That statement drew a murmur of protest from the two I took to be Basil and Cedric. Nigel turned and quelled this mini-rebellion. “It’s not like you lot know how to use them anyway.” Nigel’s stern look apparently had an effect. The two men looked at Jamie. When he nodded, the two men extended their revolvers to Joe with no more grumbling.

Of course, Joe wasn’t about to accept the notion Jamie was going to remain in the action, much less that he’d be running the show. I reckoned he mostly wanted to protect Jamie, but a bit of it was protecting his own pride. Grateful as he was, he couldn’t be happy that he’d been conned by a beautiful woman, ignored Jamie’s warning, then had to be bailed out of trouble by his kid brother.

He put his arm on Jamie’s shoulder, studiously ignoring the three Brits. “Jamie, you could be the most help to us if you and your friends would stay here, guard the prisoners and take care of the men who’ve been drugged.

I could see Jamie stiffen into resistance.  He stood up straight and looked Joe straight in the eye – something he hadn’t been able to do until he’d gotten his growth spurt this past year.  “We have to get Pa’s money back.  I’m going with you. One of the others can stay here.”

Nigel positioned himself immediately behind Jamie, forcing Joe to look up at him.  He didn’t actually speak, but his support for Jamie was clear. Joe looked around as if expecting us to give him the same support.  When no one moved, he turned back to Nigel. “If you don’t mind I don’t need you encouraging my little brother to get involved in gunplay.”

Nigel smiled in what I knew Joe would think was a condescending way – actually I kind of thought so myself. “Little brother? Why it appears Mr. Cartwright, that your little brother is an inch taller than you are, possesses just as much courage and is much more careful of the company he keeps.”

Now that whole speech was something intended to put Joe in his place, but it was that height thing I knew would get Joe’s dander up.  In truth Jamie wasn’t an inch taller – they were pretty much of a height. Joe wouldn’t like Nigel giving Jamie that extra inch. But even so, he didn’t address himself to the Brit. And instead of talking to Jamie with that overbearing older brother authority, he started using those Joe Cartwright powers of persuasion.

“Jamie, you’ve done a great job here.  But Pa’s gonna have my hide for leaving you in Sacramento and letting you get involved in all this. I can see you were adult enough to handle it – convincing Pa’s going to be the tough thing.  And he’s not going to be too happy he had to pay out all that money because I had to come to this party.  It would really help me out if you’d let me handle it from here. Please.”

I could see Jamie was beginning to cave. But Nigel wasn’t ready to let Joe take over. “Mr. Cartwright, my father is going to be no happier about the money he put up, especially if he finds out I tricked him and sent Griff here in my place. It would be most helpful if he knew I had a hand in the recovery of the sums extended. I trust Jamie to help me with that recovery. I suggest we get along. I’d be happy to leave my chums here to keep the brigands safe until the law collects them.”

Joe was about to respond when the drawing room doors opened from the hallway. Immediately, there were seven guns pointed in that direction. It was Vanderlaan. He held up his hands to forestall anyone mistaking him for brigand.

“Gentlemen, Gentlemen. I assure you I’m on your side. I thought perhaps I could persuade you to abandon your bickering and take out after your quarry before they disappear with your fathers’ money.”

Lancer caught the reference a split second before the rest of us and voiced the question first. “Don’t you mean ‘our’ fathers money?”

“No, Mr. Lancer. The man attending that meeting as George Vanderlaan is a Pinkerton agent, as I am myself. The real George and Martin Vanderlaan are quite safe. Some families in New York who were the victims of a similar scheme two years ago advanced the money paid out on my behalf. They are depending on my partner and me to see that it is returned to them safely. They’re depending on a conviction this time.”

“This time?” Lancer was again first with the question on all our minds.

“On the previous occasion, only the underlings were convicted. The Dupres remained free to repeat their scheme here in California.”

“So why didn’t you just arrest them and haul them back to New York?” This time I got my question in first. “Why put us all in danger by letting them repeat their crime?”

“Double jeopardy. The lovely Ms. Savannah persuaded the good men of the jury that she and her poor grandfather were innocent victims of evildoers who took advantage of their party. You can’t imagine how gullible well-intentioned men can be when faced with a beautiful woman.” He said this in the manner of someone knowing he was conversing with a few men who had been just that gullible.  Now Mr.– uh I gather your name isn’t Cartwright.”

“Canaday,” I supplied. “He’s Griff King,” I said, nodding toward the former Nigel Wingate who’d finished securing the final ‘brigand’ to a sturdy chair.

“And you two were hired by another wronged family?”

“Not exactly.” At that point I was wishing I could claim something better than being not just a dupe, but a dupe here under false pretenses. “Griff and I came to protect our friend Joe here.”

Joe gave me a disgusted look, “Yeah, right. You did a great job too.” Then he addressed the man posing as Vanderlaan. “And you are …?”

“Vincent Reingold, Pinkerton agent.” He looked around the room. “I suggest we dispense with the rest of the introductions and get on our way after the Dupres. I believe the younger Mr. Cartwright could be helpful in interpreting the trail signs of the man he sent after the buggy.” All of a sudden, this guy who couldn’t get out three words in Savannah’s presence without stammering was taking over.

Joe made one last stab at taking charge of his brother. “Mr. Reingold, I’m sure I’ll be able to read any trail markers my brother showed his friend. We both learned them from our older brother.  But I can’t let Jamie put himself in harm’s way, armed with a firearm he doesn’t know how to handle and . . .”

“But he does.”

All eyes turned to Griff as he entered the conversation for the first time. “He’s pretty good too.” He grinned at Jamie who smiled back, probably glad to have an ally who wouldn’t be dismissed as a fish- out-of-water Brit.

In the end, we left Basil and Cedric to guard the fort so to speak. Rather than try to haul the drugged men out of the cellar, we just unlocked the door and instructed the two Brits to take them some blankets and pillows to keep them comfortable until they could manage the stairs on their own.

.

Griff

Joe wasn’t happy with me — I’d supported Jamie against him. I took him aside as we got the horses ready. “I know you’re worried about Jamie, but this is his big moment. Let him have it. I’ll stick to him like glue. Nothing will happen to him, I promise.”

Joe seemed mollified by that, but I’m not sure if it was only because he was relieved I’d keep his brother safe. Maybe he liked the idea that someone else recognized Jamie wasn’t all grown up yet and needed protecting. I figured Joe’s brothers had protected him when he was that age – sometimes without him knowing about it.

Neddie had done a good job leaving his markers but they were unnecessary. The trail went straight to Sacramento. We found them at the train station getting ready to leave for Boston. Half an hour later we’d have had to telegraph the law to intercept the train. That was something we hadn’t wanted to do. Leastways Joe, Candy, Scott and Nigel didn’t.  Candy especially was anxious to make things up a little to Mr. Cartwright.

Nigel just wanted his father to take him seriously – like Jamie did. He’d made all the others promise not to tell his father about the switch he’d made with me. He figured his father might feel a little guilty about insisting he go to that party instead of doing the things he wanted to do. Maybe he’d loosen up on him now, especially if he could claim a part in recovering the money.  I think he and Jamie both were a little disappointed that the Dupres and their two remaining henchmen gave up without a fight.

.

Joe

I kept my eye on Jamie throughout the ride. And I wasn’t the only one. True to his word, Griff never strayed from Jamie’s side though he did it in the guise of camaraderie not safekeeping. What really surprised me was the way the Brit, the real Count Nigel, followed him. He didn’t hover protectively. He looked to Jamie to lead him. It was quite an eye-opener.

We’d parceled out the horses. Jamie’s foresight in bringing extras for Candy, Griff and me had paid off. I couldn’t believe he’d thought of it. Using Nigel’s horses, we had enough to go around, and thundered down the trail as fast as we dared.

We met up with Savannah and Armand just before they were to board a train to Boston. I’d taken one look at Savannah’s pale face, two bright spots of color burning on her cheeks, and then I hadn’t been able to look again. My stomach clenched when I thought of how I’d let myself believe she’d felt something for me. I busied myself with securing Armand and hustling him toward the buggy the Dupre’s had just deserted.

Or at least I told myself that’s what I was doing. But all the while, I watched Savannah from the corner of my eye. I noticed Griff keeping his distance from her. He seemed more interested in checking the horses over and over again. I don’t think he looked up at her once. And Candy. He acted like he’d stepped in something foul because he kept his eyes on his boots. Lancer stood back, letting the Pinkerton agent run the show. His face was carefully bland as he watched the proceedings, his arms folded across his chest.

Vanderlaan/Reingold took charge of the whole thing, and I spared a thought for Jamie. This had been his rescue up ‘til now. I hoped my little brother’s nose wasn’t out of joint. Jamie was staring awestruck at Savannah. I remembered that he’d only seen her once in the restaurant before this whole thing began, and then again through Candy’s window. Now he was exposed to the full range of Savannah’s more than ample charms. He was standing with his mouth wide open.

Reingold was busy settling Armand when Savannah made her move. I saw her plain as day, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop her. Lancer looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and deliberately turned his back. Savannah edged toward the horses, one step at a time, drifting casually, obviously hoping no one would notice. She ran right into Griff, who hadn’t left those horses since we’d arrived. Griff recoiled as if he’d been burned, stumbling away from her as quickly as he could.

I wondered if he’d stop her. He had her within arm’s reach and could have grabbed her easily. But he didn’t. She smiled at him, and he turned six shades of red, but he kept his arms at his sides. He was going to let her go, and I can’t say that I blamed him. She’d actually gotten her foot in the stirrup when Jamie moved.

He passed me so fast he appeared to be no more than a red blur. I don’t think he shouted, I don’t remember hearing a sound. One minute he was at my side gaping at Savannah’s beauty, the next he was pulling her away from the horse. And then he shouted. Reingold rushed to his side, gripping Savannah’s other arm as she struggled to free herself.

And what did I do? I stood there. Stood there and felt a pang of regret that her attempt had failed. I’d wanted her to go free. I don’t know why, but I did. From the look of blatant misery on Griff’s face, he felt the same way I did. Candy had stopped eyeing his boots long enough to slam a fist into the side of the buggy. I guess he didn’t want her in prison either. Lancer let his mask slip for one moment. But it was enough for me to see a look of resignation, then it was gone.

But Jamie didn’t know–couldn’t know–how we were feeling. He grinned triumphantly as Reingold tied Savannah’s hands together. I had to return his smile, and moved to clap him on the back. The kid shouldn’t know how badly I’d wanted her to get away. None of this was his fault.

I don’t really know what happened after that. I remember Reingold telling us he was going to escort the Dupres to the jailhouse in the buggy. He wanted to escort Savannah personally. He implied that we’d tried to let her escape, but I couldn’t help but notice his eyes when he looked at her.

.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 10TH

Joe

How did it happen? How? I want someone to tell me what went wrong? All I wanted to do was have a little fun and show Candy he couldn’t just steal my name and get away with it.

And what happened? I ended up sitting in a hotel dining room with a stout maiden aunt hanging on my arm for dear life. Almost like she thought I’d bolt if she let go. Who knows? Maybe I would have.

I shot my best glare at Candy who sat smugly on the other side of the table, sipping from his glass of champagne. He’d ordered it, knowing I was going to pay for this dinner, even though it was all his idea. His and Griff’s. Hell, even those Brits and Scott Lancer were in on this dinner party.

“Let Jamie take his friend to dinner. Let him celebrate. He deserves it.” They hadn’t shut up until I’d agreed. And in truth, they were right. Jamie had gotten us out of a jam and he’d made me proud the way he’d done it. But how had that simple celebration dinner turned into a train ride to San Francisco, with dinner at the finest hotel the city had to offer?

The train ride had been a real eye opener too. I kept looking at Jamie, wondering where my little brother had gone. Instead I saw a poised, confident young man, sitting with a pretty girl at his side. She was clearly smitten with him too. Kept looking up at him, making sheep’s eyes, hanging on his every word like he was some kind of hero. And those Brits, they’d acted like Jamie was some kind of leader. But the truth was the kid had done a good job. He had been a leader and a damn good one. So why couldn’t I get used to seeing my new grown up brother? Part of me missed that little kid he’d been something fierce. I couldn’t help but shake my head as I wondered if my father and brothers had felt the same way when they’d realized I was an adult. I snorted in disgust. Seemed to me they’d taken much longer to admit it than I had about Jamie.

Of course, I couldn’t begrudge the kid his night of triumph. But Aunt Agatha? How’d she get thrown into the deal? I hit Candy with another one of my glares, but he ignored me. This was his fault. He’d put his head together with Griff and the two of them had invited the old biddy to dinner, to give Jamie a free evening with his girl. They’d even chosen a table at the far side of the room, to give Jamie the maximum amount of privacy.

But then she attached herself to me, starting from the moment we all stepped onto the train together. Me! Hanging on my arm, tittering at every word I managed to say when she stopped chattering briefly, and cooing up at me like a lovesick calf. It was enough to put a man off his feed. I signaled the waiter for another drink, and spared a murderous thought for Griff. He wasn’t even at the table. There he was halfway across the room, laughing at some joke from one of the Brits. Oh, he’d rushed in pretty quick with that sad story about how it was Nigel’s last night in town. How’d they wanted to take him to dinner to thank him for all he’d done. Seemed like everyone was getting thanked but me. Lancer had skedaddled with some bogus story about being needed back at his ranch. Candy’d tried to make some excuse to leave too, but I snagged him hard and slammed him back in his chair. Just my luck Savannah couldn’t decide between us, but Aunt Agatha could.

“Why, Mr. Cartwright, such strong arms you have.” Agatha’s voice grated in my ears. She simpered up at me. “Now you just be certain you behave like a gentleman tonight, young man. I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me, and I’ll have you know I’m a proper lady. I’ll have to rap your knuckles if you get too fresh.” And she tapped me sharply with her fan, all the while smiling up at me.

“Yes, ma’am.” I gulped and ran a finger around the inside of my collar. The hotel laundry must have put too much starch in my shirt, because it sure didn’t fit right tonight. I rolled my eyes a little and then glared at Candy again. This was all his fault. Every bit of it. And I was going to pay him back if it took me the rest of my life.

.

Jamie

Dinner was better than I’d ever expected it to be. Candy, Griff and Joe had done everything they could to make it special. Griff had even gone out of his way to distract Pa before he had a chance for one of his “hearty greetings” which would have made it clear he was so happy that little Jamie had a girlfriend.  He and Nigel had swarmed all over Pa, and hustled him off to their table for a drink. I just stared in shock when Pa’d settled for a quick kiss on Priscilla’s cheek and a slap on the back for me. I don’t know how they managed that trick. I truly don’t.

With Priscilla clinging to my arm, dressed in a shiny blue silk gown, how could it not be the best meal I’d ever eaten? She smiled up at me, her eyes soft in the candlelit restaurant. And the best part? I mean the best part besides me having my pockets full of money from the reward, besides the glorious train ride with my girl at my side, besides sitting in a fancy restaurant with the most beautiful woman in the room? It was the thought of Candy and Joe sitting with Aunt Agatha. I grinned at the memory of Joe’s face, and Priscilla giggled in understanding.

We lifted our glasses in a toast, and I tried not to mind that it was only sarsaparilla. When I’d placed the order for champagne I was amazed the waiter didn’t even blink an eye. He’d have brought it too. But then Priscilla’d nodded in the direction of her aunt, who was sitting with Joe across the restaurant. She didn’t figure it was a good idea to be drinking with her aunt so close by and said a sarsaparilla might be better for her. I shrugged and cancelled the order for champagne, and asked for two sarsaparillas instead.

After a bit, Priscilla excused herself with a blush, refusing to say where she was going. But I understood, and let her go without making too big a deal over it. Ladies are shy like that.

While she was gone I found myself thinking about how I’d ended up here. Fancy restaurant, all the money a man could want and a pretty girl at my side. And I felt my grin grow wider. I couldn’t have wiped it off my face if I wanted to.

After the Pinkerton agent had arrived on the scene, he’d made sure we handed over the satchel of money, then insisted it be counted. After Joe and Candy made sure it was all there, he’d scooped up the whole satchel and stowed it in his buggy. But first he counted a lot of bills from the top of the heap.

I still can picture Joe’s face when he saw that cash separated out. And I can definitely hear his sputter, as he demanded to know what the hell the man thought he was doing. I’m sure he thought the Pinkerton agent was stealing the money.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the expenditures at the Manor,” Reingold said. “The servants haven’t been paid, and there’s the matter of food and lodging for the time you were there. The owners of the property are due reimbursement. I’ll take care of that myself.”

Nobody said anything for a minute, and then I had to hold my hands over my ears because they were all shouting at once. Reingold never turned a hair though.  Just let ‘em all babble while he patiently brushed some dust off his jacket. Then he held up a hand, stopped ‘em all in their tracks and said goodbye. Last I seen of him, he was riding off with Miss Dupre in a carriage, having stowed her grandfather in another vehicle for the ride back to town. I guess he wanted to keep them separated so they couldn’t plot their escape.

You could’a knocked me down with a feather when I got back to the hotel and found the bank draft waiting for me. Reingold had left it for me. Apparently he’d been ordered by those other families, the first ones to be duped by the Dupres, to offer a reward for their capture. I guess he felt I deserved it. I don’t know about that, but it sure was more money than I’d ever had in my life.

“Jamie?” Priscilla’s giggle jerked me back to the present. “What are you thinking about so hard?” I jumped up and held her seat for her, just like I’d seen Joe do a million times.

I knew it musta been the right thing to do, because I got a little weak at the knees from the look Priscilla gave me when she said thank you. I had to slide back into my own seat pretty fast. Thinking fast, I told her I’d been thinking of her.

The rest of the evening went by in a blur.  I remember Nigel and Griff sneaking over to the table with a bottle of champagne and pouring both Priscilla and I a small glass for a toast, carefully moving to block Aunt Agatha’s view of the table. I didn’t like it much, but I didn’t let on that the sarsaparilla was better. I could see they wanted my night to be special.

But one thing stands out from all the rest. For the first time in my life, I felt like a grown man, able to stand on his own two feet and take his girl on the town to boot. Jamie Cartwright was all grown up and the world had better look out.

.

EPILOGUES

“Hello mother.” I crossed the room and bent to kiss her cheek.

My mother, Victoria Barkley, is a beautiful woman, with the marvelous ability to command the eyes of everyone who occupies a room with her. She radiates power, obviously a woman used to issuing commands and having them obeyed. She’s quite a woman.

“It’s lovely to have you home, Jarrod. How was your trip?” She poured a measure of tea into a cup and then added a dollop of whiskey. “It’s raw outside, and this rain just won’t stop. Here. This’ll warm you up.” She held out the cup, and I took it gratefully.

“That’s just what I needed. Thank you.” I sipped from the cup, feeling the soothing warmth of the tea followed by the more satisfying burn of whiskey as it traced a path down my throat. I felt myself begin to thaw as I settled into a chair at her side.

“You look done in.” Her eyebrows drew together in a frown as she eyed me in concern. “Rough trip?”

I sighed as I stretched my boots toward the fire. “You don’t know the half of it. I’ve never had a case like this before.” A ripple of amusement caught me off guard.

“Who are you representing this time?” Mother settled in for what looked to be a long chat, curling her feet up onto the settee, and sipping from her own whiskey-laced tea.

“A group of merchants in Sacramento. Apparently a pair of con artists moved into the territory, rented a big mansion, lived a life of luxury while working a scam and then attempted to flee with a large ransom. All without paying their bills in town. The merchants were owed quite a sum of money by the end of it, I must say.”

Mother held out a plate of small pastries. “Eat something, Jarrod. It looks like this is going to be a long story and it’s an hour until dinner.”

I chuckled, rubbing at my eyes. The whiskey relaxed me and I was finding it hard to keep them open. I’d been riding in the rain for longer than I liked, and I was tired. I hoped I’d make it until dinner. Selecting a pastry, I continued my story.

“It seems this couple, a man and his granddaughter, have worked this scam before. They set up a big business meeting for the local landowners, cattle barons and financiers, while their sons were lured to a party at a luxurious mansion. The fathers were in meetings, thinking they were going to get a lucrative business deal, while the enticement for the sons was the lovely Savannah Lisette Dupre.” I sighed, a vision of Miss Dupre flashing before my eyes. “And she was lovely. One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.”

I shrugged off the image, lifting my eyes to see my mother stifle an amused grin.

“The sons were wined and dined in the finest style, and apparently enjoyed more than just the presence of Miss Dupre. Some of them sampled more than the local wines, shall we say? She had them all competing with one another for her attentions, and the lucky few she favored were blushing when questioned about their activities. What these poor young men didn’t realize was that their fathers were told they’d been kidnapped. A ransom note for a million dollars was presented to these men and they promptly scrambled to obtain the money.”

I filled mother in on the details and she drank in every word, sitting silently, her eyes wide in amazement. The Dupres had thought of every detail and they might have gotten away with the plan except for two things. I told mother about the first.

“You’re saying a seventeen year old boy saved all of those young men from the clutches of the Dupres?” Mother’s voice rose an octave in surprise. “What a plucky young man. I’d like to meet him.”

“You just might, someday. He’s the youngest son of Ben Cartwright, from Virginia City.” I dropped my bombshell and sat back to wait for the explosion.

“Ben Cartwright’s son was mixed up in this business?” Mother’s eyebrows almost met her hairline. “Joe Cartwright was held hostage by the Dupres?”

I nodded. “Along with the sons of several other men you’ve probably heard of as well. But it was Jamie Cartwright who figured out where they were being held and who gathered together a posse and rode out there to save them.”

“What was the second thing that foiled the plan?” Mother was sitting on the edge of her seat now, and I smiled at her eagerness.

“A Pinkerton agent had infiltrated the gathering at the Manor. He’d been hired by the victims of the last Dupre scam. He was just about to make his move when Jamie Cartwright rode in with his posse. I had his help in garnishing some of the ransom to distribute to my clients who’d been bilked out of their money. Funny thing about that. The Pinkerton agent insisted the merchants of Sacramento deserved a share of the money because of their unpaid bills, but there was no legal way to enforce the claims. Come to find out the fathers were all more than happy to contribute to the fund when they realized it would keep them out of court on that issue.

I guess none of them wanted the embarrassing facts coming to light at a trial. One of them was a British Count who felt particularly bad because his son had wanted to go on a mountain lion hunt, but he’d insisted Nigel seek the safer recreation offered by the weekend party. Ben Cartwright kicked in quite a bit, as he not only had Joe involved, but his ranch foreman as well. From the look on his face, those two will be hearing from him all the way back to Virginia City.”

Mother let out a long breath and eyed me thoughtfully. “You have been busy haven’t you? So what happened to the Dupres? Are they awaiting trial in Sacramento?”

I grinned. “Not exactly. Armand Dupre is sitting in a jail cell waiting for a court date, but his granddaughter is nowhere to be found. No problem trying him, as far as those fathers are concerned. The case will focus on the extortion, not what happened at the Manor.”

Mother set her teacup down, almost as if she were afraid she’d drop it. She stood up and paced to the fireplace, then turned back to me. “I’m almost afraid to ask. What happened to the granddaughter?”

I relaxed back into my chair and continued. “Last I saw, she was sitting in a jail cell.  I interviewed her there, in fact. But she’s gone. She was last seen being bundled into a carriage by Vincent Reingold, the Pinkerton agent. He was supposedly transferring her into a facility more suitable for a delicate young lady, but they never showed up. The two of them have just disappeared.”

Again that fleeting vision of loveliness crossed my mind and I sighed. “I’ve got some ideas about the kind of persuasion Miss Dupre might try on a man. It’s possible the agent just couldn’t resist her charms. It’s possible we’ll never know. It says a lot for his honesty that he didn’t abscond with the ransom money as well.”

“Jarrod Barkley!” Mother’s voice was strident. “Why are you grinning at the thought of that girl escaping?

I laughed outright, this time. “It’s just the looks on the faces of those men. Mother, you should have seen them. They looked like a string of fish caught and thrown on the bank. Mouths gaping open, gasping for air. Not one of them was willing to testify as to their activities with Miss Dupre either. I suspect the ones who were–shall we say–more successful feel especially duped while the others don’t want to admit they weren’t successful at all.”

I shook my head. “And I’d been looking forward to representing the merchants in that trial, too. Watching those men try to explain their weekend on the witness stand would have been worth the trip.” With a tired sigh, I pushed myself to my feet. “I think I’m going to go upstairs and rest before dinner, if you don’t mind, Mother.  Otherwise I’m not going to make it through the meal.”

She nodded abstractedly. As I climbed the stairs, I looked back. She was sitting on the settee laughing, tears streaming down her cheeks. I guess she could imagine all too well how I would have taken those poor fools in the witness box.

I know I could.

.

Lancer Epilogue

Johnny heard them as they came through the door, Murdoch’s voice raised in complaint and Scott’s in mild protest.

“Johnny, you feeling better?” His father’s concerned voice warmed Johnny’s heart as did Scott’s keen-eyed gaze and hand on the shoulder to keep him sitting. “Teresa, has he behaved himself?” The older man greeted his attractive ward with a quick hug and kiss on the cheek.

“He’s been very good, Murdoch. Much better patient than some I know.” Teresa gave her guardian and the blond man by his side a knowing look. “Did your meeting go well?” Without waiting for an answer she continued, “Scott, did you have a high old time in San Francisco?”

Murdoch’s snort was on the wrong side of rude and Johnny went alert as he saw the tension between his father and older brother.

“I could use some coffee,” Murdoch decided as he strode toward the kitchen, followed by Teresa, who was still asking about the trip and any shopping Murdoch might have done. “Maybe your brother will tell YOU about his time,” was his parting shot to Johnny.

Scott watched his father’s departure with a frown and Johnny scrutinized his brother. “OK, big brother, how’d you rub up against Murdoch that hard?” Johnny’s opening remark went straight to the problem. “I’m usually the one who ticks him off that bad.”

Scott laughed and stalled, “How about a drink, Johnny. It’s miserable weather out there, not fit for man nor beast. Are you really doing all right?”

“Yes; it’s that time of year, and fine. Quit changing the subject and give.” Johnny’s voice was laughter-filled, but determined.

Scott brought him a whiskey, eased his tired, damp body into a chair in front of the fireplace and stretched out his long legs. “You shoulda been there. Well, no, maybe not,” was Scott’s opening ploy.

“Scott.” Johnny’s voice sounded threatening, but the grin on his face spoke of anticipation. “Give, now!”

“Let’s see. I got kidnapped and Murdoch almost had to pay to get me back. That’s his problem, almost having to spend hard money.”

Johnny reached out a quick hand to turn his brother’s face, checking for injuries or pain, but Scott pulled back. “Naw, no rough stuff. Matter of fact, I didn’t know I was kidnapped until I got rescued.”

“Why not start at the beginning, brother, so I can make a little sense of this tale?” Johnny suggested.

Scott told him about the elaborate scheme, the elegant manor and the rich guests, the card games. He explained that while they were being wined and dined, the fathers of the guests were being given a ransom demand for their safe return. Johnny nearly choked when Scott admitted they had been rescued by the 17-year old brother of one of the guests, who had been masquerading as someone else because his foreman had stolen his invitation and was pretending to be him. Then there was the Pinkerton agent with a phony identity, not to mention the fake English aristocrat who was really a ranchhand. “Got to where you couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard.”

“Sounds like young Jamie Cartwright has a better head on his shoulders than the rest of you put together. You said something about a hostess, but not much. What did she look like and what happened to her?”

Trust Johnny not to miss a thing. Scott dropped his eyes for a minute, then confessed, “She somehow disappeared, along with the Pinkerton agent guarding her.” Scott tried to hide his relief, but knew he had failed when Johnny pushed.

“What was her part in this plan? Pretty girl?”

“She was the real bait for the trap. She was absolutely beautiful, with deep blue eyes, a perfect face, legs that went from the floor to wherever. A beautiful flirt with the morals of an alley cat.”

Johnny’s blue eyes widened. “You – you mean – like she slept with all the guests?” His shocked voice was matched by the look on his face.

“No, no, she wasn’t that loose a woman. She picked and chose who she shared her favors with, but you can bet there wasn’t a one of us who wanted to get up on a stand and tell about our time there. We were all glad she was gone, so there wouldn’t be a case against her. I’m going to change out of these wet boots and shirt.”

Scott turned toward the staircase just as Johnny remembered the remark about the long legs.

“Wait a minute. How do you know about her legs? Were you…? Scott, Scott, I want to hear more.” The plaintive cry followed Scott as he rapidly made his escape from the living room. “Scottttt!”

.

Ponderosa Epilogue

Ben

Sounds of sawing and chopping filled the night air, and I hid a grin at the sight of Candy and Joe working their way through a mound of logs. For the third day in a row, they’d labored to fill every woodbox around the house, and were now working on the largest pile of stove wood we’d had in years.

Darkness fell early in February, so Hop Sing had helpfully lit a string of lanterns to give them the necessary light to get the job done. By the muffled string of curses drifting through the night air, I could tell they were none too pleased by the chore. The fact that Joe had meekly accepted the punishment, in spite of the fact we both knew he was too old for me to discipline, told me volumes about the happenings at the Manor. Candy’s presence at his side only confirmed my deep-rooted suspicions about the whole weekend. When those two would rather chop firewood for a week than discuss what happened, it wasn’t good.

“See ya later, Pa.” Jamie’s voice almost sang with happiness. He waved cheerfully as he rode by with Griff at his side.

Griff touched a finger to his hat in salute, and I caught him smirking in the direction of the laborers. “I’ll make sure Jamie gets home safely, Mr. Cartwright,” he assured me.

I forced a smile to my face. “Have a good time, boys. Don’t be too late.” My gut churned at the sight of Jamie riding off, his gunbelt proudly slung around his hips.

It stuck in my craw that he was wearing it, but what could I do? He’d proven he could use it responsibly when he rescued the men from the Manor. I wanted to tell him he was still too young, but even that argument had me standing on shifting sand; Joe had been younger when he started wearing a gun.

I sighed and spared a thought for Griff. He’d stick by Jamie’s side, I was sure. No harm would come to the boy while in Griff’s company. The two seemed to have formed a real bond since they’d rescued the men from the extortionists. Except Griff wasn’t taking any credit. He’d followed the lead of Nigel Wingate’s friends and touted Jamie as the leader of what the Brits insisted on calling a posse.

I’d assumed he was simply helping Jamie look the hero in front of that nice girl he’d met in Sacramento. I was a little annoyed when he kept up the act after we left for home because Jamie was all too willing to accept what I assumed were not fully deserved accolades. But when I’d tried to explain to Griff that he wasn’t doing Jamie any favors by giving him a swelled head, he kept insisting Jamie really had handled everything. Joe and Candy backed him up with Joe adding, “He’s right Pa, Griff was pretty much no use at all.”

And Griff got the same look in his eyes that Joe and Candy did when anyone mentioned the Dupre woman. I was starting to think Savannah Dupre had used her wiles on Griff just as she clearly had on the Pinkerton man she’d disappeared with. Maybe Jamie had forestalled a similar mistake on Griff’s part and he was grateful.

I poured a measure of whiskey into a glass and dropped into my favorite chair in front of the fire. I needed a drink tonight. Joe and Candy acting like guilty schoolboys, Griff mooching around looking both smug and repentant at the same time, and Jamie wearing a gun as he rode off for a night on the town.

It was likely I’d never know what had really gone on in that manor. It sure is hell getting old.

.

.

~end~

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