Chimera (by Krystyna)

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Summary: Adam goes on an errand for a sick man and finds a cat, a dead town, and an adventure.

Rating:  G  (10,550 words)

CHIMERA

 

It was twilight when the cat heard footsteps on the planks approaching the door to his territory. His ears pricked up and his body stiffened as he slowly rose to his feet and stared at the entrance. When he heard the shuffle of feet, as though the owner of them were undecided as to what to do next, he drew back into a darker corner his fur standing on end to make himself look as big and fierce as he possibly could, and his ears, like antennae, pointed towards the sounds. The footsteps became firmer, more determined. The door was pushed open with a confidence that made the cat push itself closer into the corner as though wanting the wooden wall to give way and cover it over completely from view of this impending danger.

 

He watched with alert amber eyes that were as wide as they could be, and his grey and black striped body trembled beneath the mass of fur. The man walked to the centre of the room, paused, and looked around him. The cat could sense indecision once more, and half closed its eyes to observe the man’s movements. He followed every action intently. The man went to the centre of the room to the large counter that ran along it, before he passed his hand along the wooden surface and looked at it sadly.

 

The dust of years dropped from his fingers, along with some cobwebs and, the cat had no doubt, some mouse droppings. Mouse had been the cat’s main food for some time now. He could just about recall the days when humans had fed him from dainty bowls. He yawned, yes, he could even just about remember when humans had picked him up and stroked him, spoken their odd words at him. He remembered most vividly that the way they spoke would often bring him the strangest, the most wonderful, feeling of being loved and wanted.

 

A strange longing for human companionship surged through him as he watched the man take a dust covered bottle from a shelf behind the counter. Relaxing just a little he followed the man, slinking carefully along the skirting boards, keeping well into the shadows, so as not to be observed by him.

 

“Early one morning just as the dawn was breaking,

I heard a pretty maiden, so sweetly did she sing…”

 

The cat cocked its head to one side, and then to the other. Words, up and down in an odd fashion followed by a high pitched sound that made his eardrums quiver. He backed under a table and waited.

 

The man stopped whistling and picked up his saddlebags. He pulled out a chair which he observed closely before dusting it carefully with a handkerchief, and then sitting down. The bottle top was broken against the table, and some of the contents bubbled out in a froth.

 

Champagne…” the man sighed, “Should never be enjoyed alone…here’s to those who sat here before me, wherever you may happen to be.”

 

Time ticked by, although the cat had no notion of time and there was no longer any clock working in the saloon in which he lived. But the shadows drew closer, hemming him and the man together, a strange bond of kinship. The man left the table and walked about for a while, making odd sounds as he rummaged here and there.

 

Suddenly, and so suddenly that the cat gave an involuntary purr from the depths of his throat, there appeared a light. The man was carrying a golden globe of light towards the table and set it down carefully.

 

Oh how long had it been since he had seen such a sight? There were kittens in the town with which he played chase, and there were mice that they hunted down in abundance. The kittens had grown to cats and were now his enemies, always trying to trespass on his territory. There had been subsequent kittens of course; one can’t keep a good cat down after all.

 

The man drank the stuff from the bottle, and ate something from the saddlebags. Then he stretched out his long legs and tilted his hat over his face. Very soon sounds came from beneath that hat that indicated the man slept.

 

Slowly, slowly the cat approached the table. He surveyed it thoughtfully. Sniffed cautiously. A swift leap and he was on the table. He drew close to the lamp and purred. There was warmth here. There was light here. Just like – just like oh so long ago.

 

He turned his head towards the man and smelt his warmth and his body smell. It smelt good. He inched towards him. Once there had been humans who loved him, held him in their arms and stroked him. Put him in their laps and held him close. He purred deep within his throat at the memory.

 

The cat took his time but eventually, gradually, he slipped into the man’s lap. Within minutes he had stretched and wriggled and squirmed himself into the position he most favoured. His head upon the man’s chest. The beat of the man’s heart beneath his ear. Companionship. Warmth. The cat slipped into sleep.

 

Adam Cartwright stirred and stretched. There was a weight, unaccountable, upon his chest. He looked down and frowned in bemusement, and then smiled. Gently he picked up the cat and touched it’s head with his forefinger,

 

“Hey, little kitty, what are you doing here. Huh?”

 

The cat’s eyes opened like flashing beacons. Claws zapped out. His fur bushed and his tail swished furiously back and forth, and he spat, and he hissed…this was HIS territory. The man was an intruder. The man was his enemy.

 

Adam dropped the cat and looked at his hand where the blood seeped from the scratches upon it. He shook his head and looked around him, but of the cat there was no longer any sign.

 

 

…………………………

 

Standing in the middle of the deserted street, Adam Cartwright felt a shudder trickle down his spine. He had ridden through other towns like this, towns that had shot up at some time past and died just as quickly. He had always wondered what had happened, and about the people who had once lived in those towns. Where had they gone, and why? What had their lives been like and what had brought them together in the first place?

 

As he stood there, a rifle in one hand and his other hand resting on the butt of his gun, he had an uneasy feeling that the dead town was more alive than any other town he had ever been in before. The buildings seemed to be standing closer together, watching, waiting. It felt as though they were turning towards him, their shuttered up windows and doors like blank dead eyes willing him to look into their innermost souls for all to be revealed.

 

He walked slowly towards the Sheriffs Office and Jail. Perhaps some record of what had taken place would be deposited here. Sweat trickled its course down his spine, and his shirt began to stick to him like a second skin.

 

Nothing moved. There was no breeze to send the tumbleweed drifting here and there, or to make loose shutters swing back and forth, or doors to thud open and shut. Dust had settled over the years, the wood of buildings, sidewalks and railings long bleached by the suns heat and the cold winds of winter. The writing on signs and windows were faded, some with words obliterated by the weather. He paused at what had been the hardware store, the shutters still intact and the door securely padlocked. Perhaps the owners had intended to return one day to find their stock still intact on the shelves. He walked on and found the Sheriffs Office.

 

Here the door had come off its hinges and the windows had been broken. Adam pushed back his hat with his thumb and surveyed the building thoughtfully. The blackened walls on one side indicated that there had been a fire or an attempt of one, for the building was still reasonably intact. He stepped over the door and into the chaos within.

 

Yellowing posters still clung feebly to the walls, although pale patches of wood made it apparent that some had long been blown away. Holes in the wooden walls … he touched them with his fingers and pursed his lips. Bullet holes. The desk was overturned; the chair in which he imagined the sheriff had once sat was now resident in one of the cells. He absent mindedly reached out and set it aright, and found the sheriff’s badge on the floor beneath it.

 

Well, something had happened here, he surmised, and whatever it had been, it was nothing good. He stepped back to the desk and knew there would be no answers found there.

 

Once again he stood alone in the middle of the deserted street and felt a shudder trickle down his spine. It had been a strange morning and the sun was now at its zenith. He had walked the length and breadth of the town but found nothing to answer the numerous questions that arose in his mind. What dreams and hopes had been born and nurtured here only to flounder and die?

 

He returned to a house with the tangled, overgrown garden and stood at the gate that at his touch now collapsed at his feet. With a sigh he shook his head, and gazed once again around him, at the house, the garden and the neighbouring buildings. Everywhere was ruination. He chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, contemplating what he could see and realising once again that man, his hopes and dreams, were not infinite.

 

He stood now at the door of the house with its blistered swollen and broken wood. He turned to survey the frontage of the building from the doorstep and in the garden he saw in the corner of the tangled mass a burst of colour. It was unexpected this blaze of iridescent colour and he approached it with curiosity to discover a single rose of the most delicate hue of blushing red. He gazed at it with a feeling of wonder for Adam Cartwright had a love of poetry, of things delicate and beautiful. He reached out to it and touched it very lightly with his forefinger as though to marvel at this stubborn refusal to be choked out of existence by this most lovely of flowers.

 

His finger stroked the soft petals and he wondered whether or not to break it from its stem so that there was something more appealing to look at during his sojourn there. But in doing so would he not be destroying it? He drew his hand back. Something so sweet had struggled to survive, it had fought the tangled growth of weeds and foliage to reach to the sun and now, at the point where it would soon open up to its fullest magnificence he felt that it well deserved its momentary burst of glory and defiance.

 

He pushed open the door. Melancholy once again settled upon his shoulders as he gazed about him. This house had been a haven of love once. He could discern that from the pictures, faded though they were, that were still hanging on the prettily decorated walls. The curtains were dainty and those that were not torn into holes, or bleached and stained by the elements, spoke of quality and someone who had an eye for attractive things about them.

 

Where were they now, he pondered, as he walked towards the stairs?

 

He saw now something that touched his heart yet again. Something that was like a finger prodding deep into his innermost emotions, and declaring aloud just how terrible had been the events that had fallen upon this township. He walked up the faded carpeted stairs, the colours of the pattern now impossible to discern, and upon the step below the half landing he stooped and reached out for what had lain there for – oh, how long?

 

The little doll was dust covered and grey. But when he turned its face upwards he saw the colours still fresh, the creamy skin, the blue eyes painted so cunningly upon the porcelain, with black lashes painted to reach the delicately drawn eyebrows. The rosebud mouth was full and red and reminded him of the bloom in the garden.

 

He raised his eyes upwards, towards where the bedrooms were situated and wondered, dreaded, what he would find there. Holding the doll in his hands he took the steps slowly, one by one. When adults were involved in such situations some part of one’s mind did not think too deeply upon the sufferings and the sadness but involves itself with the whys and the wherefores, but when children come into the picture, then all the horror is stripped to the bone and leaves anguish of mind in anticipation of their misery.

 

He pushed open one door and then another and another. Once tidy rooms left in total disarray except for the last. Into this room he stepped and gazed about him. He saw a small bed upon which a child must at one time slept, the indentation of its head was still upon the now mildewed pillow. Toys were arranged neatly in a row at the foot of the bed and beside it were a small pair of slippers.

 

Adam gulped back the lump that rose to his throat. He who had witnessed and seen so many horrors in his lifetime, even as a child, yes, he had seen so many heartbreaking situations, but this… He turned slowly, wishing that he were elsewhere rather than be a witness to the picture now presented before him and filling his mind with all manner of possibilities.

 

He closed the door behind him, having left the doll at the foot of the bed with its fellows. After all this time did it matter? He didn’t think so, but it was a gesture, some kind of acknowledgement of what the family had endured. If only he knew what had happened and why?

 

He returned to what had been the comfortable living room and gazed about him. Papers and letters torn into shreds were scattered everywhere. The chickens had made nests in them, in the comfortable chairs, upon the tall bookshelves. He looked about him yet again and then his eyes saw it, a dull white square struck firmly in the corner of the once glittering mirror above the fireplace. It drew him towards it like a magnet attracts iron filings. Taking hold of it and prising it from its place he held it close to read the faded writing that in once black ink was addressed to: Whoever it may concern…

 

……………………

 

“Shucks, Joe, where have you been?” Hoss Cartwright’s blue eyes narrowed suspiciously as he viewed his youngest brother who appeared to be totally nonplussed by Hoss’ challenge.

 

With a whistle on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, Joe swung himself out of Cochise’s saddle to land gracefully next to Hoss. Without a word he fastened Cochise’s reins to a branch of a shrub before he turned to look at his now even more irate brother,

“I’ve not been anywhere, Hoss. What’s all the fuss about, calm yourself down,” he admonished in just the tone of voice that was meant to irritate Hoss even more.

 

“Not been anywhere? Joe Cartwright, you’ve been gone a full two hours and you were only meant to be checking on when exactly Pa was expecting us back.”

 

“Look, can I help it if Jock got to talking, Hoss?” Joe looked at his brother with earnest and sincere appeal in his eyes, “You know how Jock McFaddyan likes to run on at times, Hoss. I just asked him if he could recall when exactly Pa said for us to get back and he started rabbiting on some.”

 

“Humpff,” Hoss was not mollified by the explanation and gave Joe a dark scowl, “So when is Pa expecting us back? Did Jock actually get around to telling you that?”

 

“Sure he did,” Joe said as though it were of no importance at all as he began to cast around for some kindling, “I thought you’d have got a fire fixed up by now, Hoss. All that time wasted doing nothing, and me thinking there would be a decent cup of coffee ready by the time I got back here.”

 

“So how long we got?” Hoss asked, feeling guilty now as he began to forage for some kindling of his own.

 

“He’s expecting us home by the 24th, which means, Hoss, that we have a full two days to kick up our heels and have some fun.”

 

“How’d you work that one out?” Hoss paused, a scowl on his face as he surveyed his youngest brother with some suspicion.

 

“We’re ahead of time, ain’t we? If we ride on straight home in the morning we’ll be two days ahead of ourselves. That means Pa will be expecting us to mend fences and clear out water holes when we could have two days just coasting along back home, doing a bit of fishing on the way perhaps, or – or other things.”

 

He dropped his load of kindling onto the ground and grinned, then pushed his hat to the back of his head with a grimy thumb, so that Hoss was instantly aware of a plan fomenting within that nimble brain. He placed his kindling down carefully beside his brother’s tumbled about heap,

“What’s on your mind, shortshanks?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.

 

“Well, Jock told me that there was a town somewhere around here that used to be a real humdinger of a place.”

 

“Used to be?” Hoss frowned thoughtfully, “How’d he mean, used to be?”

 

“I dunno. That’s what I thought we could go and find out.”

 

“I ain’t never heard of no town around hereabouts,” Hoss said suspiciously.

 

“Neither have I, but Jock remembers it well. He used to pass this way at least once a year on his travels. Hasn’t been around for some time though, so doesn’t know much about how it is now, which is why I thought we would go and check it out.”

 

“We will?” Hoss knelt down, carefully assembling the scraps of wood and kindling into some semblance of a fire.

 

“We will,” Joe replied, walking towards Cochise and unbuckling his saddlebags, “First thing tomorrow morning, after we’ve eaten, we’re going looking for this town.”

 

“And what’s it called?” Hoss looked up at his brother, his blue eyes bright and round in his flushed face, “This here town, what’s it called?”

 

………………

 

“I don’t care what the place is called, Roy, I just want to know why you thought fit to send my son there, that’s all?” Ben Cartwright’s voice boomed around the Sheriff’s office and Roy winced, pulled off his spectacles and shook his head. He raised a hand in an attempt to placate the irate rancher,

“First of all, Ben, jest to set the record straight, I didn’t send Adam to Cascade Falls. He decided to go there himself. He didn’t expect you back home from that cattle deal for another week and thought he would help Mr Winterton out of a problem.”

 

“I’ve never even heard of the place before, and who is Mr Winterton?”

 

Roy took a deep breath and indicated to Ben the chair by the desk that was vacant and could do with a little polishing from Ben’s pants; still breathing fire Ben lowered himself down with a grunt.

 

“Now then,” Roy began as though reading out a lesson to a backward student in school, “Mr Winterton is an Insurance Agent. Seems that some years back his company had to handle a transfer from his branch in Genoa to Placerville. It was a big sum of money, Ben. Over $100,000 in gold bars.”

 

“Gold bars?” Ben raised his dark eyebrows.

 

“Yep. He and two other agents rode out to make sure it reached its destination safely.”

 

“Don’t tell me …” Ben sighed and slumped back in his chair.

 

“S’right, it didn’t get there. Winterton was shot and injured, another of the agents was killed. The other agent disappeared, with the gold.”

 

“Should I be surprised?” Ben sighed, shaking his head.

 

“Anyhow, seems Mr Winterton got the blame for the goods being stolen and it took some time getting his company to appreciate that he was innocent. In the meantime he was able to track down the other agent, the one who had gone off with the gold.”

 

“And he’s at Cascade Falls?”

 

“No.” Roy shook his head and looked disapprovingly at Ben, as though admonishing him for running ahead of the story, “He’s been in prison for about six years for another deal that went wrong. Once Winterton knew where he was, he put a track on him and got to know that the gold is in Cascade Falls, and when this other agent is released he’s going to head right there to dig it up again. Only Winterton wants to be there when he arrives.”

 

“So why is Adam there instead of Winterton?” Ben leaned forward, his black eyes staring into Roys face.

 

“Because Winterton had a stroke. Got off the stagecoach and managed to reach his hotel, then collapsed. It was Adam who helped him, and got him to the Doc’s. Then Winterton told them what had been going on and asked for help. Well,” Roy leaned back in his chair, thrusting out his chest in the manner of a man well pleased with himself, “You know your son better’n anyone else, Ben.”

 

“He agreed to go to this place and get the gold?”

 

“Yep, thet jest about sums it up right.”

 

“Young idiot. $100,000 in gold…no one will just meekly hand that over at the request of a stranger.”

 

“Guess not.” Roy tugged at his moustache, and with a sigh replaced his spectacles.

 

“And where exactly is this Cascade Falls?”

 

“Someplace west of here. About four days ride.”

 

“Four days ride?” Ben protested and slumped back in HIS chair, shaking his head as he did so, “Four days ride, did you say? And when did he leave? When is this other guy expected to get there?”

 

“Adam left here five days ago. Probably got there by now. Don’t know when the other party is due.” came the not very helpful reply.

 

With a muttered growl beneath his breath, Ben got to his feet, grabbed at his hat and made for the door. He was still growling when the door had been slammed firmly shut behind him.

 

 

“Sit down,” Paul Martin indicated the chair in front of his desk and then waited until Ben had settled into the leather backed and very spacious chair.

 

Even though Ben had said not a word to the doctor, Paul knew his friend well enough to know that Ben was breathing fire and brimstone about something. The look on his face, the pursed up buttoned mouth, and the blacker than black eyes were more than sufficient (best not to mention the red ears).

 

“Well?”

 

Paul steepled his fingers and peered over them at his companion who leaned back and after a second or two, took a deep breath,

“I want to see this Mr Winterton you’ve got here, Paul.”

 

Paul Martin grimaced and shook his head,

 

“I’m sorry, Ben, but Mr Winterton is too sick a man to have visitors.”

 

“He wasn’t too sick to see my son a few days back,” Ben growled, his fingers twisting round and round themselves as he strove to control his temper.

 

“He had little choice in the matter. He collapsed in the hotel, tumbled down the stairs and landed right at your sons feet. Adam carried him here and was with me while I assisted Mr Winterton. After that the man told Adam why he was here and what had happened.”

 

“On the basis of which Adam decides to leave the Ponderosa and his duties there, and go off to Cascade Falls.”

 

“Well,” Paul sighed and looked at his friend with a blank expression on his face. He spread out his hands consolingly, “You know your son, Ben. What was there for us to say that could stop him?”

 

Ben opened his mouth, closed it and got to his feet. These people and their no good opinions; of course he knew his son, of course he knew that Adam would go off on a hare brained escapade like this one, of course he knew that his son would not even consider the fact that he could end up dead.

 

********

 

Adam took his time in opening the little envelope. The ink was so faded on the paper that he wondered if the letter inside would be just as difficult to read. He walked over to the window through which the sunlight streamed and pulled out several pages of paper, each one covered with neat hand writing.

 

He cleared his throat. Even though he was totally alone, except for a stray chicken or two, he felt conscious that he was about to peer into some stranger’s personal and private life. He took a deep breath, and smoothed out the sheets of paper in order to read what was written upon them.

 

“Dear stranger,” the letter began, and Adam swallowed a lump in his throat, and glanced around the room. Suddenly it seemed to him that the very presence of the person who had written down his or her thoughts had entered the room. It was as though the eyes of that one were watching him closely, and waiting.

 

 

He glanced up sharply, something had moved from the corner of his eye. Nervously he looked about him, at the faded furniture and mildewed walls. Then he noticed a vivid patch of colour on the wall opposite him. Approaching warily, he saw how colourful the wallpaper must have been at one time, and he noticed, also, that the patch of colour was in the shape of a heart.

 

Looking down he saw a limp remnant of card and picking it up he realised that it was or had been a daintily painted card of hearts, love birds and ribbons with blue flowers like forget me knots and heartsease. He opened it carefully, for it was so fragile, and he could see that the writer was the same as the one who had penned the letter that he was about to read.

 

“My heart is like a flower

you plucked it and took it for your own;

your heart is like the stars above,

to which I reach out, my gentle love.

 

Your wife, Anna”

 

Adam sighed, and bowed his head. With a pensive air he placed the card back on the wall, where it covered, once again, the gaily decorated heart shaped paper. He then returned to the window, and began to read the letter

 

*********

 

The light from the window was warm and golden but the words written in the letter chilled Adam’s heart. The very first sentence intrigued him, but from thereon the mystery of the town unravelled, leaving it bare and cold and somehow abhorrent.

 

“Dear Stranger,

 

Doesn’t anything scare you?

 

I thought that nothing would scare my husband, nothing at all. I thought nothing would frighten us away from Cascade Falls. It has been our home for ten years now. Ten perfectly happy years.

 

I arrived here with my parents, and Paul came with his brother several years later. We met and married. Now we have two children. We had two children, I mean …

 

Our little girl sleeps upstairs and is safe for now. My father is coming soon to take us away from here. Susan and I. I’m rambling now as though I have all the time in the world yet the minutes tick away the hours of my life and of my time here.

 

A little while ago several men rode into town. They went to the hotel and there seemed nothing out of the ordinary. But during the night, when all was dark, one of the townsmen overheard them talking about a great haul of gold bullion. Hundreds of thousands worth. He heard them arguing. There was a fight. One man was killed and they took his body and hauled it into the well. Then they rode away.

 

The sheriff hauled up the body. There was nothing there to identify him. Of course, once one part of the story was confirmed in such a manner, speculation about the other part of the story became substantiated. Where was this gold bullion? How much was it really worth? Where could it be hidden?

 

These questions ran like wildfire through the town that had once been so settled and happy. People began to dig and search for it everywhere. People began to suspect others, relatives or friends, of knowing its whereabouts and not revealing the truth. Greed and hate replaced the common decencies that had existed here.

 

Fights broke out. Rumours spread that the gold had been found in a certain person’s home and within minutes a mob would be formed, the house ransacked, sometimes, due to disappointment or just plain meanness, the house would be set afire.

 

Doesn’t anything scare you? Have you never been afraid? Have you ever tucked up your children into their beds and wondered what if it was going to be your house next time? Fear, fear … it eats into ones mind until one descends into the same bestial state as those about you. Paul became different. He took to taking a gun with him everywhere. People began to say things about others that created more hate. The gold was never found. More homes ransacked and destroyed. More families severed apart by the greed and the hate. The search for the gold become an obsession. So much gold they said, so much.

 

Then they said old man Dodgeson had the gold in his cabin close to the Falls. A mob went there, and Paul was with them. There was no reasoning with them now. Gold fever is bad enough in mining towns I hear, but this gold was just sitting neatly someplace waiting to be found. Mr Dodgeson fought hard along with his two boys, but they died, and so did some of the menfolk, including Paul.

 

My father and I decided it was time for us to leave. How could I stay here now when it is so corrupted by this foul hate and murderous spirit? Better that a plague had fallen upon us and chance took lives, rather than man being pitted against man like this. Children too. My son was killed when the mob rode out to Dodgeson. He fell into the path of the horses, calling out to his father to come home. Paul never heard him. Paul died never knowing his son was also dead.

 

My heart is like lead. Beating yes, but feeling nothing now. I am so afraid. I hear my father coming with the wagon. I pray and hope that we can leave this accursed place in peace. If they suspect we are leaving, they may think we have the gold and they’ll follow … I am just so afraid.

 

Anna Henderson”

 

Adam folded the slip of paper and put it into his pocket. The sun was still shining through the window and dust motes danced like gold dust in the air. He walked out of the house and closed the door behind him. Vaguely he recalled the name of Anna Henderson. Susan Henderson. Where had he seen them before?

 

His feet led him to the cemetery. His eyes swept along the rows of graves. Then with a long drawn out sigh he saw the names before him…Anna. Susan. Paul. Henry. So they never left Cascade Falls after all. At least some one had had the decency to bury them.

 

 

 

…………………………………..

 

He made his way back to the huddle of houses and made Sport safe and secure in an out of the way place where he would be unseen by anyone entering the town. Once again he picked up his rifle and walked the way back towards the saloon.

 

There came the sound of a horse and hugging into the shadows of the next building he came to Adam peered around the corner to survey who was riding into the ruins of Cascade Falls. He had to wait some moments before the man made his appearance.

 

He rode down the centre of the street upon a mule. Another mule was following, kept under control by a leading rein. Both beasts looked laden down with the usual paraphernalia of the prospecting men that still existed at that time in the territory. He was dusty, dirty, and his beard was greying but with yellow streaks from tobacco juice stained in the grey. A hunk of tobacco was obviously being chewed right at that moment from the bulge in his cheek. Grizzled grey hair emerged from beneath his battered hat, long and unkempt it straggled over his shoulders and tangled into his beard. He wore faded clothing, torn and ragged.

 

Outside the saloon he paused and while still in the saddle he looked about him with a slight frown on his face. Then he pushed back his hat from his brow and shook his head,

 

“Seems like times haven’t been kind to folks here, ol’ gal,” he remarked to his mule, and spat a stream of juice into the dirt. “Sure changed since last time we came by, that’s for sure.” he wiped his mouth on the back of his jacket sleeve as he dismounted from the saddle.

 

He clambered down and tied her reins to the post supporting the saloon porch. Once again he glanced around him, and once again he spat into the dirt road before stretching his long legs to get the kinks out of his knees. He walked to the door and pushed it open. Immediately there came the hiss of the cat before it streaked out into the street with the fur on its arched back standing on end.

 

As the prospector disappeared into the environs of the saloon Adam stepped away from the wall and chewed his inner cheek. He knew without any doubt at all that the other man would notice the signs of his having spent time there very recently from the disturbed cobwebs and dust, the footprints and the champagne. He frowned slight and bowed his head as though by surveying the dust at his feet he would get an indication of what to do.

 

He walked slowly past the mules, noticing the picks and the dustpans, the loaded saddle bags and the piled up baggage he would expect to see from such a travelling man as this. He stood for a moment, indecisive, weighing his rifle loosely in one hand and scratching his chin with the other. Then he pushed the doors open and stepped into the saloon.

 

The other man didn’t move although it was obvious that he had heard Adams entry. He was holding the champagne bottle in one hand and surveying it thoughtfully,

 

“Welcome, stranger,” he said quietly, “it’s good to know I’m not alone in this sadly forsaken place.”

 

He turned then and surveyed Adam with a scrutiny that made the younger man feel guilty for his previous caution. The deeply inset eyes were dark and gleamed beneath bushy black brows, the large mouth moved within the forest of face hair as he chomped on the wedge of tobacco.

 

“You from here?” he demanded from Adam, who shook his head and stepped further into the room, “Jest travelling through, huh?”

 

“Same as you, it seems.” Adam replied, setting down his rifle on the counter, “Been here before?” he looked innocently at the prospector, having heard the mans previous comment to the mule and already knowing the answer but interested in hearing what the man had to say now to the only other living soul thereabouts.

 

“Some years back,” the other man replied, “My names Travis, Travis Holmes.” he extended a hand which Adam shook, “Been prospecting around these parts some time now, but -” he glanced around him and brushed some dust from the table, “never expected this town to die like it has.”

 

“Adam Cartwright,” Adam nodded, and watched as the other man strolled around the empty building, pushing back a chair here, a table there. He picked up an abandoned pack of cards, “Seems like they left in a hurry.” he observed.

 

“Strange, ain’t it?” Travis flicked the cards back down and looked up at the stairs, “You bin up there yet?”

 

“No. I came here last night, didn’t feel inclined to look further than here.”

 

“Yeah, well -” Travis shrugged and grimaced, “Probably not much to see. You came last night, huh? Alone?”

 

“Quite alone.” Adam replied, narrowing his eyes. “I wasn’t expecting to see this – dead place.” his pause emphasised the surprise he had felt upon riding into the dead town, “It’s kind of hard to believe that normal living came to the end for so many.”

 

“Yeah,” Travis nodded, a trifle absent mindedly, “Yeah, sure is. When I came here some years back it seemed a nice enough place. You know, just how most towns are. Although -” he paused, then looked thoughtfully at Adam, “You eaten yet?”

 

“Spent the morning looking around the place. In an odd kind of way the place seemed – well – alive.” his voice trailed off on a note of puzzlement, as though he was trying to convey to Travis a lot more by that one word.

 

“I noticed plenty of chickens running about the place, chickens mean eggs …” he grinned, “I’ll check out the oven in this place and get something going, if you can spare the time to collect some eggs.”

 

Adam smiled, nodded and thought – well, why not – and as he closed the saloon door behind him he could hear Travis whistling.

 

The stove was alight and Travis had unloaded some of his packages, bringing in his enamel coffee pot, some mugs and plates and a frying pan. It took no time at all to get some eggs frying and coffee boiling. He had cleared a table free from dust, cobwebs and mouse droppings to place the plates and mugs. Before long the two men were eating in a companionable silence.

 

“Last time I came through here there was a bakers shop -” Travis stared up at the ceiling as though to bring back to mind that time more clearly, “I could remember the smell of it. I even mentioned it to my pal -” he paused again, pursed his lips and glanced slyly over at Adam as though to see whether or not Adam would have noticed what he had said, but the younger man kept his head down and continued to eat, “the smell of bread sure makes a man feel hungry.”

 

“Something really strange happened here.” Adam said quietly. He picked up the mug and drank down some of the coffee, “It wasn’t just a case of people just drifting away because of the reason they came together had ended. It was more like some catalytic even that drove them all out.”

 

“Some kind of plague, d’you mean?”

 

“I don’t know.” Adam shrugged, “What do you think? Have you prospected around these parts long enough to know? I mean,” he looked at Travis meaningfully, “I never even heard of this place before, I didn’t even know it existed.”

 

Travis nodded, shrugged also, and strained coffee through his whiskers,

 

“When I came last time, something odd had happened. There was a lot of people gathering together, having meetings, lots of shouting and things like that …”

 

“Why? What about?”

 

“Seemed like they found a body in the well. Some men identified the body as one of several men who had ridden into town that previous night. Seems some of the men heard or claim to have heard talk of lots of gold being hidden away here, and that there was an argument between the men.” he shrugged, “That’s all I know. Reckon the sheriff knew how to handle it.”

 

“Was it a lot of gold? I mean, you mentioned that there was talk of lots of gold, but what exactly did that mean? Gold as in a new vein, a mining project being set up? Or – what exactly?”

 

Travis scratched under his armpit, shrugged and shook his head,

 

“Don’t think it had anything to do with a mine, ain’t no gold vein been found hereabouts for some time, not that I heard of anyway.”

 

“And you’ve been prospecting for – how long?” Adam glanced over at Travis and smiled, friendly, encouraging him to talk.

 

“Oh, years and years now.”

 

“Ever been to Virginia City then?”

 

“Nope, never been inclined to travel that faraways. Never hit pay dirt either, ceptin’ once.” he pursed his lips again, fleshy fat lips, greasy now from the food he had just eaten, “No, then I lost it all. But -” he smiled, “I intend to get rich agin, soon.”

 

“I hope you make it.” Adam replied, and smiled again.

 

Travis leaned forward and picked up the coffee pot, he poured the steaming liquid into Adam’s empty mug and then reclined back in his chair,

 

“Tell me, Mr Cartwright, what really brought you here? I mean, I’ve heard about the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights, and all that mountain of gold and silver you’ve got over there. Why are you here ?”

 

“You asked me that before,” Adam said slowly, holding the mug between his hands and looking down into the steam.

 

“I hadn’t forgotten,” Travis replied.

 

“Well,” Adam leaned back, tilting the chair onto its back legs, “I was riding home in a stagecoach and one of the passengers got to talking about this town. I admitted that I had never heard of the place and reckoned he must have made a mistake but he insisted he was right, said he knew someone here once. He was taken ill when we reached Virginia City and as I had a few days to kill before my father returned home I thought I would just ride along and see if the place really existed.”

 

He looked up into Travis’ face and smiled, shrugged and drank more of the coffee.

 

“So, now you’ve been here, what do you intend to do?” Travis asked.

 

“Well, there isn’t anyone here to visit, is there?” Adam replied, setting down his mug, “So I reckon I’ll just go along home.” he pursed his lips and straightened his chair up. “What about you?”

 

His dark eyes looked straight into Travis’ face and the man looked back without blinking, before he looked down and sighed,

 

“Well, fact is, Mr Cartwright – Adam – I reckon on staying just a while longer. You see, that gold strike I was telling you about is right here, in this town.”

 

“Really?” Adam opened his eyes wide in surprise, “You’ve located a mine someplace?”

 

“No, not a mine, not as such, no, not that.” Travis narrowed his eyes and looked keenly at the younger man, “Fact is, you could help me find it, if you’ve a mind to do so.”

 

“I’ve certainly got the time.” Adam admitted, nodding as though contemplating the matter over in his mind, “Nothing to stop me from helping you in any way you wish.” he crooked an eyebrow, “Whereabouts is it?”

 

Travis, having said so much was now doubtful as to whether or not proceed further. He looked at Adam again and frowned before pouring himself more coffee. Adam knew his companion was buying out time, and sighed,

 

“Well, of course, I can understand if you want to keep it to yourself. Don’t worry, I’ll just get on my horse and -”

 

“No, no, there’s no need.” Travis replied slowly. “Adam, I’m going to tell you something now that may surprise you. If I wasn’t in need of your help I’d not mention it, but I think in all fairness you should be told the truth.”

 

Adam nodded, he drew his bottom lip over his teeth and raised his eyebrows,

 

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. You’re not really a prospector?”

 

“Oh!” Travis seemed surprised and blinked, “How’d you know that?”

 

“Your pickaxe and other gear look like its all just come right out of a store.” Adam replied with a shrug.

 

“Guess you’re right.” Travis chuckled, “Didn’t fool you for a minute then?”

 

“No, not really.”

 

“So, do you know who I am?”

 

“Not the faintest idea.” Adam replied with pure innocence and ignorance written all over his face.

 

“This is where I have to – huh – ask you to keep this confidence to yourself.” Travis lowered his voice although there was no one to overhear apart from the cat that had crept back into the saloon, enticed by the smell of an ovens warmth. “Some years back 100,000 dollars worth of gold bars was sent to a bank in Placerville. It never arrived.”

 

Adam frowned and nodded,

 

“Come to think of it, I recall reading about that.” he said with complete candour.

 

“One of the agents, a man called Winterton, murdered one of the agents and wounded another. He was eventually arrested and imprisoned for theft but he never admitted to where he had hidden the gold.”

 

“So how do you know it’s here?” Adam asked, rounding his eyes in confused curiosity.

 

“He confessed to its location shortly before he died.” Travis sighed and looked down at his mug of coffee, he raised it to his lips and drained it. “I’ve been assigned by the Insurance Company to recover it.”

 

“Oh!” Adam blinked, looked thoughtfully at Travis and grimaced, “Very trusting of them.”

 

“How so? What do you mean, trusting of them?”

 

“Well, to send just the one man.”

 

“You didn’t expect them to send an army into Cascade Falls, surely? A man of your intelligence must see that that would have aroused suspicion. No one knew then that this town had become – well – like this! A ghost town.”

 

Adam nodded, Travis continued, tapping his companion now on the arm,

 

“It seemed to make more sense for me to ride incognito …”

 

“Incognito? Oh! I see…” Adam frowned, “100,000 dollars worth of gold bars though? They’re going to weigh a lot, far more than your mules could carry.”

 

“I know,” Travis sighed as though it was an oversight much regretted, “But that was what my employers wanted me to do.”

 

“I suppose they’ll be sending someone else along with a wagon?”

 

“Probably – well – as a matter of fact, yes, they will.”

 

“So how do you need my help?” Adam leaned forward, his elbows on the table and his hands cupping his chin, he looked at Travis like a schoolboy enthralled at the reading of an adventure story.

 

“Well, you’re strong and young. You could help me dig them up.”

Adam nodded again, he smiled,

 

“Mr Holmes, I’d be delighted to help you.” and he extended his hand which Travis took and shook heartily with a big beaming smile on his face, which exposed his yellow stained teeth.

 

“Come on then, let’s get started.” Travis replied and rubbed his hands together, “Nothing like getting an early start on the job.”

 

“And you really do know where this treasure is?”

 

“Exactly the spot.”

 

“Almost as though you’d put it there yourself?” Adam chuckled, pushing his chair from the table.

 

“Could say that, Winterton was very exact with the details. He knew he was dying, poor soul.”

 

Adam said nothing to that, he picked up his hat from the corner of the table and placed it carefully over his head and stood up. He was over a head taller than Travis and stronger, he pursed his lips and nodded, as though to himself as he followed the man out of the saloon.

 

With the room empty now the cat slunk on its belly slowly towards the warmth radiating from the stove. He stared at it as he had stared at the golden orb of light from the previous evening. He remembered evenings stretched out before this warmth, and he crept closer still until he found a familiar spot where the sunlight just touched the plank flooring. He heaved a sigh as he lowered himself down and he half closed his eyes, raised a languid paw to lick in order to pass it around his ears. It was almost like coming home.

 

……………

 

They walked together down the high street, each bringing a mule on a leading rein behind them. The prospector and the man dressed in black, the one leading and the other following very closely by his side.

 

“See that building?” Travis pointed to a large building with one door missing and the other swinging by its hinges.

 

“The Library?”

 

“That’s what it was then. Come on.” he led the way to the door and entered, dragging his mule behind him. Adam did likewise, giving his mule a sharp tug as she seemed disinclined to follow as readily as the other.

 

Travis paused. Together they stood in the centre of the building and looked around them at the havoc wind and storm, blizzard and sun had done to the masses of books that had been upon now broken shelving. It was, for Adam, an upsetting sight. His love of books was such that he treasured each and every one that he possessed and to see this wanton waste, this total abandonment of a treasury of knowledge, adventure and solace was almost as touching a sight as the letter he had pinned back on the wall in the empty house.

 

“Is it here?” he asked after a while, his voice hollow in the emptiness of the shattered building.

 

“Yes. According to Winterton he had it buried under the floor. Apparently this was the last big project the town underwent before it kinda fell apart. They were still building the last section when they got here.”

 

“They?” Adam frowned.

 

“How do you mean – they?”

 

“You said ’they’. I thought you said it was Winterton who buried the gold.”

 

“He did. He had accomplices.”

 

“I see. You never said that before.”

 

“Didn’t I? I meant to, I forgot. It didn’t seem important.”

 

“What happened to the accomplices?” Adam asked, as he followed Travis down a corridor, stepping over the books that lay like mottled moths upon the boards.

 

“Sadly, one of them got killed. He was greedy so I’m told, and threatened to squeal on them if they didn’t give him his share right there and then. He was impatient and foolish, so he ended up dead.”

 

“Dear me, such a shame.”

 

“Such a waste of life,” Travis agreed.

 

“And the other accomplice?”

 

“He stayed here for a while. They had planned to dig the stuff up once the Insurance Company had quietened down about it and all the fuss was over with.”

 

“Then what happened to him?”

 

“Well, it was like this …” Travis paused and pulled the pick from among the baggage on his mule’s back, this he handed to Adam, “Just here. See that red stone? Start just there. Give it a good swing.”

 

Adam took the pick and swung it down hard. Travis took another pick and began on the other corner of the stone.

 

“You were saying?” Adam reminded him as he swung his pick.

 

“Yes, you see, the story I told you about the man who was found dead down the well? That was the murdered accomplice.”

 

Adam nodded. He paused in swinging the pick, and wiped his hands down the side of his pants before picking it up again and swinging harder.

 

“I thought as much, it makes sense now. Rumour got around about the gold bars, I suppose?”

 

“Yes. 100,000 dollars in gold bars. Just imagine? This town died from greed, Adam. Pure greed. They went crazy here. They murdered, they rioted, there was no law and order.” he shook his head, “It was – it was terrible.”

 

“I thought you’d gone and left the sheriff to deal with it.”

 

“Yes, I did.”

 

The two men said nothing more for a while. Their labour became more intense, so much so that soon they were grunting as they swung the picks into the stone. At last, when Adam was about to make some wry comment that whoever had laid the stones down had certainly not intended for them to dug up again, there was a giving, and a slow collapse of the material. They pulled the stone away with their bare hands and Travis, after wiping his neck and brow with his handkerchief, nodded and smiled at Adam,

 

“This is it alright. We’re nearly there.”

 

The two men continued to work together. They worked with a steady rhythm that soon saw a good deep hole emerging. Travis grunted and sweated and finally clambered out to get one of the water canteens from the mule. He drank deep and handed it over to Adam, who swallowed some before handing it back.

 

An hours labour at the end of which Travis had clambered out to lean upon his pick and watch the younger man who swung the pick steadily, pausing only occasionally to take the canteen of water and swallow some water. Adam was now up to his hocks in the hole. He continued to ply the pick. Then he straightened, flexed his shoulders and looked at Travis,

 

“Will you get a reward for finding this gold after all this time?” he asked.

 

“Definitely. A worker is worthy of his hire,” replied the man who had been leaning on his pickaxe for the past hour.

 

“What about your accomplices?”

 

“My who?”

 

“Your accomplices with the wagon?”

 

“Oh sure, he’ll get his share too.”

 

“He won’t end up in the well then, like the other one?” Adam replied.

 

“I don’t know what you mean, Adam.” Travis smiled blandly.

 

Adam said no more, but leaned down “I think I’ve found what you’re looking for,” he murmured.

 

Travis scrambled into the hole and fell upon his knees as he scraped away the rough hessian sacking that covered the gold bars.

 

“100,000 dollars worth of gold.” he whispered.

 

Adam was about to speak when there was the sound of a footstep close by them. Both men raised their heads to see a tall swarthy man standing only a foot away, a rifle in one hand.

 

“Hello, Travis, I see you found it then.”

 

“I sure have, Peter, I sure have.” Travis grinned, pure delight shone in his eyes.

 

“Who’s your friend?” the rifle swung and pointed at Adam.

 

“Mr Adam Cartwright from the Ponderosa. He’s been kind enough to help me dig this gold up and I’m sure he’ll be just as helpful getting it up from this hole for us. Won’t you, Mr Cartwright?”

 

Adam looked from one to the other of them; he nodded, narrowed his eyes and frowned. Travis climbed out of the hole and joined his associate,

 

“Just hand one bar up, one at a time and place it here.” he pointed to a spot near his foot, “Please.” he added with a cynicism that grated on Adam’s nerves.

 

In silence Adam bent to his task. Each time he placed a gold bar at the edge of the hole he looked at their faces, at the rifle, and then silently resumed his task.

 

“This is the last one,” he said finally as he set it down carefully.

 

He was about to manoeuvre himself out of the hole when the newcomer kicked his hands back, sending dirt and dust falling back,

 

“Stay just there,” he said coldly, “You ain’t going no place, mister, you done dug a nice big grave just there, saves us the trouble of finding one for you.”

 

Adam inhaled deeply, his hands on his hips and his face blank. He watched as Travis picked up the last bar of gold and grinned down at him,

 

“Sorry about this, Adam, you’ve been a great help as well, but you see -” he shrugged, “we already got rid of one accomplice, a two way cut goes much further than one split three ways.”

 

Adam nodded, his eyes fixed on Peter while he listened to Travis as he carried out the last gold bar to the waiting wagon. One of the mules moved restlessly away and ambled off behind his master, the sound of its hooves clipping against the flooring.

 

Adam watched the mans face, he watched as the eyes narrowed and the cheek bones bunched up and the mouth thinned. As the bullet winged death towards him he threw himself sideways into the pit, drew out his gun and fired off several shots.

 

For seconds there was only the whining echo of the shots to fill the building and the sound of a mule making a quick exit through the door.

 

Without a second thought Adam scrambled out of the hole and made his way to the shadows of the forlorn shelves that leaned so crazily against the wall of the library. The man known as Peter was silent; his body sprawled at an odd angle across the pit that he had designated to be Adam’s grave.

 

Travis entered the building cautiously with a rifle in his hands. He saw at a glance that his associate was dead and saw the shadow within shadows as Adam stood back from him,

 

“Adam? Listen up now, how about a deal?”

 

“Sorry, no deals, Travis.”

 

“Well now, you ain’t expecting me to grovel to ya, huh? Because I ain’t gonna do so.”

 

“Wouldn’t expect you to, Travis. Why not just throw in your rifle now and give up?”

 

“How about if’n you and I make a deal.”

 

“Told you already, no deals.”

 

Travis heaved a sigh. It was loud in the now silent building.

 

“Look, how about you give me just a few bars of that gold. You can take the rest with you. I did some years in prison, Adam, I ain’t intending to go back. If you give me a few bars of gold now, I can just disappear. Look now, folk have forgotten about the gold, the Insurance Company done got it all straightened out, they ain’t bothered about the gold now. They won’t miss a few bars.”

 

“No, sorry, Travis, but you killed people because of that gold, you sowed the seed of greed that caused this township to die, and you murdered your accomplice.”

 

“Adam, I ain’t going to grovel to ya, but …”

 

“What do you want then, Travis? To die like some of the people here? Because of greed?”

 

“Just a few bars is all I need to set up a new life. You won’t see nor hear of me again. I swear it, Adam. No one need know …”

 

“I would.”

 

The two words hung ominously in the silence. There was the sudden explosion of sound as first Travis fired his rifle and answering fire came from Adam’s gun.

 

Afterwards there was only the silence once more. Dust motes danced in the sunlight that slanted through the open doorway and the body lying prone across the opening. For a moment Adam remained motionless, before emerging from the shadows and pausing to look down upon Travis Holmes. Slowly he replaced his gun into its holster and with a sigh walked outside the building and looked up at the blue blue sky.

 

It took less than an hour to have the two bodies secured in the wagon, covered by the canvas that had been brought along to conceal the gold bars. The mules were disencumbered of their load and set free, although they chose for some while to follow the wagon when Adam left town. He had wondered about burying the bodies in the graveyard along with those victims of the gold crazy hunger that had been unleashed years before but as there was no law in this dead town, he felt it more correct that Roy should know what happened, and Winterton would need to have closure on this particular venture.

 

As he took his place on the seat of the wagon and flicked the reins for the horses to move on, Adam wondered about the vulnerabilities of the living, and the sad permanence of the dead. A 100,000 dollars worth of gold bars in the back of the wagon, two dead men, and the constant question as to why?

 

The dead eyes of the buildings on either side of the street seemed to watch him as the wagon lumbered forwards, followed by the two mules and Sport prancing proudly behind on a leading rein. A door creaked on its hinges. The petals of a rose began to fall, slowly, one by one among the weeds that littered the little garden.

 

 

The cat raised its head and its ears pricked forwards. Her eyes closed, she yawned delicately and then slowly lowered her chin upon her paw. This was home. She was home and warm and safe. Golden sunlight slewed from a window across the wooden floor and bathed her fur in warm sunshine. She stretched out languidly and sighed.

 

……………

 

“Shucks, Joe, I sure don’t reckon much on this place.”

 

Hoss Cartwright looked around him in disgust and shook his head,

 

“Well, this is the place Jock told me about, Hoss. It said on that sign back there Cascade Falls, didn’t it?”

 

“Sure, I can read, I got eyeballs in my head too, y’know.”

 

They rode down the silent main street of the dead town, awed by the dignity of the decaying buildings. A door creaked on its hinges. The petals of a rose began to fall, slowly, one by one among the weeds that littered the little garden.

 

“Don’t seem like anyone’s been here for years and years.” Hoss lamented.

 

“Sure is dead.”

 

“Wonder what happened to it?”

 

“I don’t think I want to hang around too long to find out, do you?”

 

Hoss shook his head, he shivered. From the corner of his eye something white fluttered, he turned the hair on the back of his neck standing on end and was relieved to see that a curtain was trailing from an open window. Joe steered Cochise around some chickens that clucked crazily into their path.

 

“I reckon we should just make our way home, Joe.” Hoss muttered.

 

“Sooner the better, Hoss.”

 

“Just make sure we’re outa here before dark.”

 

“You ain’t afraid of the dark, are ya, Hoss?” Joe’s voice held a hint of a chuckle, restrained now as his eyes roamed from one side of the street to the other, from one dying building to the next.

 

“Nah, ‘course not. Jest that this is the kinda place no one should be when it gets dark.”

 

Joe said nothing to that, he swallowed fear. There was nothing to be frightened of, he told himself, nothing at all. His knee brushed against Hoss’ and he glanced anxiously at his big brother.

 

“I reckon we could go a bit faster than this, don’t you?” he said.

 

Hoss said nothing, but dug his heels into Chubbs flanks to send the big horse leaping forwards, and to be honest, Cochise was not far behind him.

 

The End

 

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