Summary: The arrival of a range detective in Virginia City means trouble for Adam in more ways than one. (A WHIB for The Flannel-Mouth Gun, part of the Ties That Bind AU series)
Rating: T (13,258 words)
Ties That Bind series
Ties That Bind
A Pearl Without Price
A Piece of Cake
Something About Amy
Guarding the Henhouse
When Angels Cry
When Worlds Collide
No Ordinary Day
Winter of Discontent
Gently, Full of Grace
When Angels Cry
Author’s Note: In this rewrite of “The Flannel-Mouth Gun,” my firm objective was to maintain the integrity of the original story while weaving in a secondary plot as seamlessly as possible. The incorporation of dialogue from the script by Leo Gordon and Paul Leslie Peil is in no way intended to infringe on their rights. Sherman Clegg, Ira and Cynthie Tatum, Alf Simmons, Phil Shelton, the Denton brothers and Doc Dawson are their creations, for which I thank them.
Adam Cartwright propped himself against the buckboard, arms folded, eyes half-closed, wrapped in the glow of a day so lovely it could almost break your heart. September—the delicious shiver of nights, the snap of mornings that melted into languid green-gold afternoons like this one—small wonder it was his favorite time of year.
After the choking heat of July and August, September’s gentle warmth was a welcome respite, invigorating and intoxicating, like the scent of a beautiful woman in your arms. She made a man breathe deep and stand tall in a last dance with summer, one that could go on for days or end at any moment. As fickle as any woman he’d ever known, that was September, and Adam was irresistibly drawn to her.
The cloudless azure sky evoked a watershed memory from another lifetime. On a day when summer lingered as though it would stay forever, winter crept in reminding him that nothing ever does. Two days later he stood at the fresh grave of his stepmother beneath a canopy of gray, with snow falling like angel tears. He thought it poetic at the time, but the years since had convinced him it was just the caprice of September. You could never lay odds as to what she might do.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
His reverie interrupted, he looked up and grinned. “I must be getting old. I didn’t even hear you come out.”
Jilly smiled. “You were someplace else—with a girl, maybe?”
“What makes you say that?”
“I saw you and Violet Baines after church on Sunday.”
“I was merely being polite.”
“You don’t have to make excuses. She’s very pretty. I think you two would make a lovely couple.”
“You do, huh? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but she’s not my type.”
“Hmm, tall, blonde, beautiful…I see what you mean.”
“For your information, little Miss Matchmaker, beauty isn’t everything, as if you didn’t know.”
“So what’s wrong with her?”
“Let’s just say, she suffers from a dearth of imagination.”
“Dull, is she?”
She shook her head, feigning disappointment, but he read the laughter in her eyes. “I’m not sure you can afford to be so choosy anymore, Adam – you know, there aren’t that many eligible women around here, and you’re not getting any younger. She could be your last chance. Still, there is Miss Jones,” she reminded him, trying not to smile. “She’s very bright.”
“If those are my only options I think I’ll just stay a bachelor, thank you very much. Why do you want to marry me off, anyway?”
“Because I would love to have some nieces and nephews, and besides, you need to someone to take care of you in your old age.”
“Oh, so I AM old, huh?” He drew her into a playful headlock.
“I think you must have been born old.” She struggled, shrieking as his fingers found her ribs. “Adam, don’t…no…stop!”
“If I had known you were gonna give me so much grief, I’d have packed you off to St. Louis with Pa and the others.”
Her cheeks were pink with laughter when he let her go. “It’s too late now.”
“Yeah, looks like we’re stuck with each other for awhile. But if you just keep your cute little nose out of my personal life I guess we’ll muddle through.” He winked at her. “You ready?”
“Whenever you are.”
He boosted her into the wagon and climbed in beside her. “I don’t know how long I’ll be tied up with this meeting today. You think you can find enough to do in town to keep you busy?”
“I’m sure I can. I’ll go to Mrs. Cameron’s, see a few friends.”
“Anyone in particular?”
“Tell you what. I’ll keep my ‘cute little nose’ out of your personal business if you promise to do the same for me, how’s that?”
“Uh oh, now I know I should have sent you with Pa.”
He was teasing, of course; in fact, he was looking forward to their time together before she returned to school in San Francisco. The only thing he wasn’t looking forward to during his family’s absence was the Cattlemen’s Association meeting. Rustling had become rampant, with some ranches suffering substantial losses over the past few months, and though there had been a lot of speculation about the thefts, no one had been able to produce any real evidence. Tempers that were already running high were further fueled by an aggressive new president. According to Pa, Alf Simmons was a hothead with a talent for stirring people to the wrong side, and his campaign to indict every small rancher in the territory seemed to be gaining momentum even among the more moderate members.
His father warned him about Simmons as he gave him his proxy almost with apology. “He’s liable to have his way, whatever he wants, because the Ponderosa is just one vote after all. Yours may be the only voice crying in the wilderness, but I know you’ll do what you think is right, son.”
Like it or not, he’d have a chance today to see for himself what Mr. Alf Simmons was all about.
“You can defend those greasy sack outfits all you want, Cartwright. Maybe the Ponderosa can stand losing twenty or thirty head a month, but the rest of us can’t. We’ve got to do something about it.”
Adam was already tired of listening to the man at the head of the table. His father’s assessment of Simmons certainly rang true. “Those greasy sack outfits you’re referring to are our neighbors, and until we have some real proof I suggest we take the losses.”
“Proof from Sheriff Coffee?” Simmons spewed the name as if it were poison. “The only thing he’s proved so far is how worthless he is. Besides, we’ve got a right to protect ourselves from cow thieves. And there’s only one way to handle ‘em—chase ‘em all off!”
“You can’t just lump people into a group like that,” said Adam, frowning. “It’s true, maybe one or two are guilty of some rustling, but just because a man has a small outfit or a run of bad luck or can’t afford to join the Association doesn’t mean he’s a thief.”
“Adam’s got a point, Simmons.”
“Make up your mind, Jameson,” he snapped. “Do you wanna go broke or do you wanna put an end to this?”
“How?” asked Jameson.
Simmons leaned forward on his elbows, eager to share his plan. “The same way they did it up in Montana a couple of years ago – bring in a range detective.”
“You can’t be serious.” Adam stared hard at Simmons. “A range detective is nothing more than a hired killer.”
“Coffee can’t get the job done, so we hire someone who can. What’s wrong with that?”
“Why don’t you ask the people up in Montana?” Adam replied. “A dozen good men dead, homes burned to the ground, and a hate that will live for years — is that what you want here?”
His question met with an uneasy silence from the other men in the room, except Simmons, who continued to push his agenda by trying to discredit his challenger. “As I recall, Cartwright, it’s your father who’s a member of this Association, not you. We don’t have to listen to your opinions.”
“You all know that my father is in St. Louis.” Adam pulled a piece of paper from his jacket and handed it to the man across from him. “He left me his proxy to vote as I see fit.”
“Looks legal to me,” said Jameson.
Simmons scowled. “All right, let’s put it to a voice vote. As President of the Virginia City Cattlemen’s Association, I propose that we hire a range detective to put a stop to these losses before we all go bankrupt. All those in favor, say ‘aye’.”
Seven voices united in affirmation. Simmons sneered as the lone dissenter rose from the table. “Looks like the Ponderosa’s been outvoted, Cartwright.”
Adam stepped outside onto the sidewalk, crowded by a group of small ranchers excluded from the meeting. Ira Tatum greeted him with a look of concern.
“We’d sure like to know what’s goin’ on in there, Adam.”
Phil Shelton, a squirrelly man with a pinched face, spoke up before he could answer. “You expect him to tell us anything?”
Adam ignored the slur directed at him. “The Association voted to bring in a range detective.”
Ira frowned. “Oh, so that’s why they kept us out.”
“You won’t be satisfied until you drive us all out, will ya, Cartwright?”
“You got a pretty short memory, Shelton,” said Ira. “Hadn’t been for the Ponderosa, most of us would’ve gone under a long time ago.”
Shelton spat on the ground in contempt. “You just talk for yourself, Tatum. As far as I’m concerned, Cartwright’s no different from Simmons or any of the rest. They ain’t gonna let us get big enough to give ’em any competition.”
“Shelton, you talk too much and think too little.” Adam’s reply was curt. As far as he was concerned, men like Shelton would always be small.
“At least I don’t go around callin’ my neighbors cow thieves just because they can’t afford to belong to some fancy Association.”
Alf Simmons leaned in the doorway behind them, relishing his victory with a cigar. “Would you like to change your vote now, Cartwright?”
Adam stiffened at the smugness in his voice. He kept his back to Simmons as he walked away. “No, I think you’re still wrong.”
“Don’t pay any attention to Shelton, Adam,” said Ira, cuffing him on the shoulder. “He’s just a loudmouth fool. We know where you stand.”
“Thanks. Have you seen Jilly, by any chance? I left her at Mrs. Cameron’s.”
“Yeah, that’s where we saw her. She went with Cynthie to pay a call on the Reverend and Mrs. Fordham a little while ago. They’re around here somewhere. You know, Cynthie’s real fond of Jilly, and we both thought it was a fine thing she did, takin’ on those boys while their mother was sick.”
Adam smiled. “She’s a good kid.”
“Kid?” Ira raised an eyebrow. “You’d better look again.”
Adam followed his gaze across the street to the winsome brunette at Cynthie Tatum’s elbow, in animated conversation with Sheriff Coffee. “You’re right,” he said with a grin. “I tend to forget sometimes.”
After an early supper at the International House, brother and sister headed home in companionable silence. Jilly could see that Adam was steeped in something, most likely the Association meeting that afternoon; and all she could think about was Mitch Devlin.
The boys in San Francisco were different from the ones Virginia City spawned, she had decided, and those encounters seemed merely academic now compared to Mitch. Cast from the same mold as the strong men who raised her, his blue-eyed bronzed vigor piqued her feminine interest early, while he merely thought of her as Joe Cartwright’s little sister. At least that was true until this year. Over the summer she saw him frequently during her weeks in town with the Fordhams, and it pleased her to note that he seemed to view her in a different light. It wasn’t a complete surprise when he asked her to the July 4th picnic, and the fact that he was her most frequent partner at the dance a couple of weeks later wasn’t lost on her brothers or anyone else. Just the light touch of his hand on her waist was enough to make her stomach flutter in a most peculiar way, but she still wasn’t prepared for her feelings when he kissed her goodnight. What began as a tender offering turned into something more urgent and needful, and in its breathless aftermath it was hard to say which one of them was the more shaken, but from the look on Mitch’s face she suspected it might have been him – especially since Adam happened upon them at that particular moment. Mitch apologized profusely when he saw her the next day at church, and though he took full responsibility for his actions, he also cautioned her. “You ought not to let a fella kiss you that way, Jilly, not even your brother’s best friend.” She reluctantly agreed that they shouldn’t see each other alone anymore, at least for a while. It didn’t stop her from thinking about him, though, and remembering. She wondered if he remembered too, and if maybe that was why he took that job with Enos Milford, and if he would even be back in time…..
“Jilly, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?”
“Hmm? I’m sorry, Adam. Were you talking to me?”
“Well, there’s no one else here. Is something bothering you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You were lost in a pretty deep frown.”
“I was just thinking about Mitch.”
“Did something happen between you two?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Of course nothing happened between us. How could anything happen between us when he’s not even here? By the time he gets through over at Enos Milford’s I’ll probably be halfway to San Francisco, so you don’t have to worry, because apparently nothing’s going to happen.” She squared her shoulders and took a breath. “Besides, Mitch is mostly just a friend…”
Maybe if she said it often enough she would convince herself.
“You made these?” Adam’s fork paused in midair as he slowly chewed.
Jilly nodded. “Well?”
“They’re good. In fact, Hop Sing couldn’t have done any better. Are you sure he’s not hiding in the kitchen?”
She made a face at him as she poured his coffee. “Would you like this in your cup or in your lap? I don’t know why you’re so surprised. Anyone can make hotcakes — even you.”
“Feisty this morning, aren’t we? But you’ll have to admit you’ve come a long way since your first culinary attempt. Joe still gets a little green around the gills whenever anyone mentions apple pan dowdy.”
“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you – was it really that bad?” She sat down across from him and unfolded her napkin in her lap.
“Aw, I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘bad’…more like…just plain awful.”
Her response was a hearty laugh. “I guess it was. Thank goodness, I’ve learned a few things since then.”
He grinned. “I’ll say.” He caught her staring at him as he lifted his saucer to his lips. “What is it?”
“You’re the only person I know who drinks coffee that way. You didn’t learn it from Pa, so where did you learn it?”
“From a man named Peter Bremer.” As the name rolled off his tongue, he smiled at the memory of the face that belonged to it, ruddy and round, with a copper-colored beard and bespectacled eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe. “He joined our wagon train after Ash Hollow. His wife and son had died of a fever back in Ohio, so he was even more alone than we were. He and Pa became friends, and he sorta made it his business to help look out for Hoss and me.” He leaned back in his chair, idly tracing the rim of the saucer as he recounted some of the stories, songs and the rare and unexpected treats of peppermint and licorice that helped make a young boy’s hard life a little more bearable. “He was a good man.”
“What happened to him?”
“He settled in California for a while. Last we heard he was somewhere in Oregon.”
Jilly’s expression had changed from amusement to something else as he spoke. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard you talk about those days.”
He resumed eating. “No reason to, except you asked.”
“You weren’t much older than Deke back then. You really didn’t have much of a childhood, did you? I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you.”
He knew that look, the empathy she shared with Hoss for hurt things and people. Her affection for Reverend Fordham’s youngest son was no secret, and enough to bring a tear to her eye picturing him in her brother’s place.
Adam shrugged. “What’s past is past.” There was no point dwelling on it, mourning what could not be changed. “It’s true that I wouldn’t wish it on any other child, but it’s a part of who I am. Anything different wouldn’t necessarily have been better in the end.” He wasn’t sure he believed as firmly as his father did that everything happens for a reason, but under different circumstances the Cartwrights might be a very different family. “Believe me, Jilly—there is too much good in my life that I wouldn’t be willing be risk even if I could change the bad.”
Her smile lifted the cloud that had momentarily fallen over the room.
He smiled back at her. “What would you like to do today? I’m all yours.”
A knock halted her answer before she could give it.
“You’re not expecting a gentleman caller, are you?” He teased her over his shoulder as he unfastened the latch and opened the door.
Sheriff Coffee stood on the porch looking grim in the gray light. “Mornin’, Adam.”
“Morning, Roy. Come on in. Have some breakfast?”
He shook his head. “No thanks, Adam. Mornin’, Jilly.” He removed his hat. “Sorry to trouble you folks, but somethin’s come up, Adam, and I thought you might wanna know about it.”
“Well, I figured it had to be business to bring you out this early. What is it?”
“Some fellas brought Jake Denton into town last night, found him out in Black Oak Canyon, shot clean through the brisket. Looks like somebody might have caught him in the act.”
“Rustling?” Adam had heard rumors about the Denton brothers.
“Yep. I’ve had my suspicions about Jake and Sam for awhile but just hadn’t been able to catch up with ‘em. Looks like somebody else did, though. Me and Mr. Simmons and some of the other ranchers are gonna ride out there to take a look, see what we can find out, thought you might wanna come along.”
Adam nodded. “Sure.” He was strapping on his gun belt when he remembered Jilly. “Oh…” He offered her an apologetic glance before turning back to the sheriff. “You and the others go on ahead. I’ll catch up with you.”
Closing the door behind Roy, he turned to Jilly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she said, handing him his coat. “Here, you might need this.”
“Thanks. Will you be all right here by yourself?”
“I want you to know that I’d much rather spend the day with you than go off with a posse.”
His brow arched at her nonchalant tone. “You could act more disappointed.”
“I might if I thought it would make a difference.”
“I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Thank you for the lovely breakfast.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Now be sure and keep this latched while I’m gone,” he warned, closing the door as he left.
He hurried toward the barn, pulling on his coat with a grimace. He might well be shedding it by noon, but for now it was a cold morning, and certainly not one he had planned.
A pale sky hung over the canyon where Jake Denton drew his last breath a few hours earlier. Hunching his shoulders against the steel edge of the air, Adam eased his way down a rocky slope toward the men at the bottom.
“Find somethin’, Adam?”
“Just these, Roy.” He pulled from his pocket the two cartridges he had picked up on the rim and passed them to the sheriff. “Not much to go on, though. There are a lot of folks using a .44 rifle these days.” He breathed into his hands in an attempt to warm fingers stiffened by a cold he had underestimated, wishing for his gloves.
“This runnin’ iron should prove he was a cow thief,” said Alf Simmons. “Looks like somebody did us a favor.”
Roy frowned. “Murder’s never a favor, Simmons.”
Simmons pointed to an object on the ground. “What’s that?”
“Looks like a two-bit piece,” said Roy, stooping to pick up.
“Must’ve fallen out of his pocket.”
The sheriff looked doubtful. “With him wearin’ chaps?” He addressed the rest of his party, which included Ira Tatum and Phil Shelton. “Any of you men ever see the Dentons one without the other?”
“No,” said Ira. “Jake and Sam were always together.”
“We’d better check their cabin,” said Roy. “Maybe Sam’s still there.”
“Sam! Sam Denton!”
There was no answer from the cabin, though the saddled horse tied up outside suggested it wasn’t empty. Roy dismounted, unbuttoning his coat to expose his holster as he approached the front, calling again. “Sam Denton!”
The door opened, and a stranger sauntered onto the porch with a plate of food. “Ain’t nobody here but me, gents.”
The sheriff frowned. “Who are you? Where’s Sam?”
“I guess he high-tailed it outa here ‘bout an hour ago.”
“What’s your name?”
“Sherman Clegg?” The surprised response came from Shelton.
“I see you heard of me, huh?” Clegg grinned. “That’s nice. I like to be well known.”
Adam had also heard of Clegg, whose services had obviously been secured prior to the Association’s approval the day before. He didn’t bother to hide his disgust as he addressed the man on his right. “Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you, Simmons? Took it for granted the Association would go along with you.”
“Simmons? Are you Alf Simmons?”
A smirking Simmons nodded.
“I got your letter, Mr. Simmons,” said Clegg. “I got here as quick as I could.”
Roy scowled. “Clegg, I know you by reputation, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t stop the Cattlemen’s Association from hirin’ a flannel-mouth gun. But I’m givin’ you my warning; you’d better watch your step around here.”
“That’s pretty unkindly, Sheriff. I’m a range detective. I get along fine with the law. I do my job, I don’t bother the law and the law doesn’t bother me. In Arizona at my last job I didn’t have any trouble with the sheriff.”
Though Clegg’s manner was amiable and confident, Adam wasn’t ready to buy it. “Or up in Montana?”
“That’s right, no trouble at all. I didn’t get your name, friend.”
“Of the Ponderosa Cartwrights?”
“The way I hear it, those two-bit cattle thieves been pesterin’ you, too.”
“Not enough to bring in a man like you.” Adam held his gaze steady, knowing that Clegg was sizing him up as well.
If Clegg took offense at the remark, he gave no indication. “Sorry you feel that way, Cartwright, but you know how it is. A man gets around, he throws a long shadow. He’s bound to get a reputation that’s all colored up.” He pointed his fork at Shelton. “Hey, you down there on the end, I’ve seen you someplace before, haven’t I?”
Shelton sneered. “No. Don’t you try throwin’ no scare into me, Clegg. Your rep don’t mean nothin’ to me.”
“You got it all wrong, friend.” Clegg took another bite and studied him coolly. “We’ll have to get together and talk it over.”
“Clegg, I’m gonna ask you one question,” said Roy. “Did you kill Jake Denton?”
“You mean that man I caught changin’ brands in the canyon? Yeah, I killed him. Isn’t that why you hired me, Mr. Simmons, to stop the cattle rustlin’ around here?”
“That gives you no right to kill a man and you know it.”
“Sheriff, I wanted to bring him in to you nice and legal like, but he drew a gun on me. I had to shoot him in self-defense. The other hard case that was with him would vouch for that, if you can find him.” Clegg turned on his heels and set his empty plate inside the cabin. “Mr. Simmons,” he said, closing the door behind him, “I’m ready to ride into town if you are.”
“Now look, Clegg…”
“Don’t worry, Sheriff, if you wanna talk to me again, I’ll be around. Nice to meet ya, Cartwright. Maybe I’ll stop by and see ya sometime, if that’s all right.”
“Nobody is ever turned away from the Ponderosa.” Adam delivered his response without a smile, being more fact than invitation. A visitor wouldn’t be turned away, but some might be less welcome than others.
Watching Clegg and Simmons ride off shoulder to shoulder gave Adam a feeling colder than the morning. He wasn’t sure which one was the more dangerous, the one who made Anhis living by killing or the one who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. It was a formidable pairing, a match made somewhere other than heaven, and there was bound to be the Devil to pay.
“Excuse me, Miss, but if you’re havin’ a problem with that maybe I can help.”
The lazy drawl belonged to a lean, broad-shouldered cowboy atop a big chestnut roan. Jilly frowned as she continued to fumble unsuccessfully with the cinch of her saddle. “I can manage, thank you.”
Ignoring her refusal, the stranger dismounted and walked over to stand beside her. “Looks like it’s worked loose. That could be dangerous.”
“Yes, I know. That’s why I’m trying to fix it.” She was frustrated and tired, and it was hard to keep the irritation from her voice. Did he think she was an idiot? If there was anything she disliked, it was being treated like a child, or worse, an incompetent female.
“Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re not doin’ too good a job of it.”
“I suppose you could do much better.”
A pair of warm brown eyes crinkled as he smiled. “I believe I could if you’d let me.”
The friendliness in his face softened her. Besides, she knew he was right, and without his help she’d be facing a long walk home and a furious Adam when she arrived overdue. Figuring her pride wasn’t worth that much, she sighed and moved out of the way. “Be my guest.”
Strong hands and nimble fingers made quick work of the problem. “That oughta hold ya.” He stepped back, satisfied.
“My pleasure.” Tipping his hat, he grinned. “I’d hate to think of you takin’ a tumble on account of somethin’ like that. There aren’t enough pretty girls to go around this territory as it is.”
She blushed in spite of herself. He was handsome, taller than Mitch, she noted absently. If she had to guess, she’d place him around Adam’s age, give or take a year.
“I’m sorry I was rude before. I appreciate your help, Mr…?”
“Clegg. Sherman Clegg.”
Clegg…hadn’t she heard that name somewhere before? She smiled, extending her hand. “I’m Jilly Cartwright.”
“You kin to Adam Cartwright?”
“Oh, do you know my brother?”
“We’ve made acquaintance. So you’re a sister. That figures – thought you were kinda young to be a wife.”
“You can’t be from around here or you’d know there are no Cartwright wives.”
“My father’s a widower and my brothers all seem to be confirmed bachelors.”
“How many brothers you got?”
“Three. I was supposed to be number four.”
“Three older brothers, huh? Do they know you’re out here all by yourself with a stranger?” He cocked his head, a half smile playing on his lips. “I could be a dangerous man for all you know.”
She could feel her heart racing as she stared at him, answering with a question of her own. “Are you a dangerous man, Mr. Clegg?”
A shadow seemed to fall across his face. “Some might think so.”
All at once she remembered where she had heard that name before. “You’re the range detective, aren’t you?”
She broke away from his gaze with a little laugh, shaking her head. “I’m sorry for staring. It’s just that you’re not at all what I expected.” What was it Mr. Holzmeyer called him earlier – judge, jury and executioner? “The way people talk I thought you’d have horns or something.”
The light returned to his eyes when he smiled again. “Just goes to show you can’t believe everything you hear, don’t it? Course, you can’t judge a devil by his horns, either.”
He was standing very close to her, and she felt herself blushing again as she looked up at him.
“Can I ask you somethin’?” His voice was sweet and low, barely above a whisper, as he leaned toward her.
“Hm?” For an instant she thought perhaps he was going to kiss her, and she vaguely wondered what she ought to do. At that moment she wasn’t sure her legs wouldn’t work – but she had no desire to run.
“How old are you?”
His question surprised her, but she found breath enough to answer. “I’m almost sixteen.”
He admonished her with a slow shake of his head and a boyish grin. “That makes you fifteen by the numbers. And even if you weren’t, you’d still be a Cartwright with three older brothers. I reckon I’d better stick to my own brand of trouble.” He walked back to his horse and gathered the reins. “I’ll be on my way, unless you need me to ride back with you.”
She bristled at his insinuation. “I’m perfectly capable of getting myself home.”
“I don’t doubt it.” He swung himself into the saddle with a swift seamless motion. “Pleasure meetin’ you, Miss Cartwright. Hope to see you again sometime. Give my regards to brother Adam.”
Lifting the brim of his hat in farewell, he gave her a smile that sent her pulse racing again. She stared after him, marveling that a complete stranger could make her feel this way without laying a finger on her, and the fact that it would have been highly improper was not enough to keep a small shameless part of her from wishing that he had.
Cynthie Tatum’s kitchen was cheerful and tidy, like the woman herself, and the sunny curtains adorning the window matched the yellow of her dress. She hummed as she lit the stove to heat the coffee and then filled a kettle for tea. “It’ll just be a few minutes,” she said, smoothing her apron as she turned to Jilly with a smile. “Let’s sit down and visit a while. Are you enjoying your last few days at home before you go back to San Francisco?”
“Yes, I am,” said Jilly, taking the seat opposite her at the table. “I’ve had a more of a summer than usual but it has passed so quickly it feels like I just got home. It seems the longer I stay, the harder it is to leave.”
“It doesn’t take a person long to get used to something when it’s comfortable. Is Mitch still working over at Mr. Milford’s?”
“As far as I know—I haven’t heard otherwise.” Jilly felt a twinge of anger, though she knew she had no right to it. She and Mitch had no claim on each other, she reminded herself.
“Mitch is a fine young man. Mrs. Fordham seems to think he’s sweet on you.”
Jilly had thought so too, but now she wasn’t sure. “I don’t know about that. We’ve known each other since we were kids. He and Joe have been best friends for as long as I can remember.”
“I think I knew that. He certainly grew into a handsome young man, didn’t he? And I can easily understand what he would see in you.”
“Then why did he leave and not say a word to me?” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.
Cynthie’s gray eyes were kind. “Jilly, men and women don’t always feel things the same way at the same time. Some things that make a woman happy can scare a man to death. The funny thing is that a man who would never run from a fight sometimes tries to run from his own feelings. He just needs time to figure them out. Be patient with him, if you care for him.” She smiled. “You do, don’t you?”
“Yes.” That was probably an understatement. She had adored Mitch for years, and ever since the night he kissed her at the dance she could think of little else. “Cynthie, how does a woman know if she’s in love?”
“Do you think you’re in love with Mitch?”
“I honestly don’t know, but when he kissed me, I felt something I’d never felt before. It was like we were the only two people in the whole world, and nothing else mattered. Afterwards, I almost had to remind myself to breathe. If Adam hadn’t come along…” Her voice trailed off as she recalled Mitch’s strong arms around her, pulling her closer than propriety would permit even on the dance floor, and the feeling that her feet no longer touched the ground.
“What do you think would have happened if Adam hadn’t come along?”
“I don’t know, maybe nothing. It just felt like there was more that didn’t happen, if that makes any sense, which it probably doesn’t.”
Cynthie patted her hand. “Oh, believe me, it does. Jilly, the feelings you’re talking about don’t necessarily have anything to do with love, but they can be very powerful. They can make people think and do things they might not ordinarily do, things they might even regret.”
Jilly’s eyes widened as the import of her words sank in. “Oh no, I would never do that!”
“Honey, no one ever plans to. Well, some obviously do, but I’m not talking about them. What I mean is that it happens, and not just to those we might think of as ‘bad girls’. I knew someone…,” Cynthie’s face clouded. “She was sweet and lovely and everyone loved her, including the handsomest boy in town. One day she found herself in a very unhappy situation and he was nowhere around.”
“What did she do?”
“She was so ashamed of disgracing her family, especially her father. He was a minister, and she was sure he would never be able to forgive her. She killed herself…Papa never got over it.”
“She was your sister—how awful for you. I’m so sorry.”
“It was a long time ago…I’ve never told anyone except Ira, and I probably wouldn’t have brought it up now except that you do remind me so much of Anna, with your sweet spirit and angel face. She never meant to get in trouble; she just fell in love with the wrong person.”
Cynthie took both of her hands. “Remember this, Jilly. Falling in love is the easy part. It’s like drinking champagne – it makes you feel all lightheaded and warm, but you can’t live on it. Real, true love is like bread and water. It may seem plain sometimes, but it keeps you alive when there’s nothing else, and there are times when it’s all you want.” She smiled. “I don’t expect you to understand it now, but you will someday. Now I think we’d better get this coffee out to Ira and Adam, don’t you?
Jilly rose with her. “Cynthie?”
Cynthie returned her affectionate embrace with warmth that matched her words. “You are so welcome.”
“Mr. Holzmeyer came to see me yesterday morning,” said Adam. “He said he got a ‘warning’ from Clegg. He wanted me to buy his place.”
“Yes, I know,” said Ira. “He just sold to Simmons and pulled out about an hour ago.”
“Sold to Simmons?” Adam hadn’t expected this, and he felt a pang of regret for not being able to help the man.
“That’s right. We’ve all had a standing offer from Simmons for a long time – real generous, too—fifty cents on the dollar. Of course a man doesn’t quibble when his life is being threatened. Clayborn left last week.”
“Clayborn, huh—he get a warning, too?”
“Oh yes. Well, maybe he stole a head of beef here and there rather than eat his own, but Holzmeyer’s as honest as the day is long. That’s the trouble, Adam. We’re all gettin’ blamed for a few bad apples.”
“They look to you, Ira. You’re one of them. Can’t you do something?”
“I can’t give a man courage when the fear of death has been thrown into him. That Clegg has got ‘em all panicky.”
“Well, he’s only one man.”
“One man with a gun and the cold blood to use it—and he’s put a bull’s-eye on the back of every small rancher around here. Innocent or guilty, any one of us might be the next target. I can’t understand why you let the Association bring him in.”
Adam sighed, thinking once again of his father’s impeccable timing. “It was a vote, Ira. The Ponderosa doesn’t control the Association or Alf Simmons.”
“Well, you’d better take a long hard look at Mr. Alf Simmons. He’s just been here two years and already…”
Adam interrupted him. “I’m way ahead of you – if he runs all you little ranchers out, what next, the Ponderosa, maybe?”
Cynthie’s willowy frame stepped through the doorway, followed by Jilly. “Here’s that coffee I promised you gentlemen. Sorry it took so long. We were just enjoying some girl talk.”
“That’s fine. I know Jilly gets a little tired of being the only female on the ranch, and with everyone else away I think she’s pretty bored. I’m afraid I haven’t been much company lately.” Adam smiled an apology to his sister which she didn’t see, her attention focused on something beyond him. As he turned to see what it was, Cynthie spoke up.
“Ira, he’s at the barn.”
Sherman Clegg was examining hides from Tatum steers, seemingly unimpressed by the fact that Ira was bearing down on him with a Henry rifle.
“Get away from those.”
“I’m just about done, Tatum. These all look like clean brands to me. Hello, Cartwright.” He nodded to Cynthie. “Hope I didn’t alarm you, ma’am.” His tone was benign, almost cheerful.
Ira frowned. “You’ve been nosin’ around my place all week.”
“That’s what I get paid for.”
“I got a right to put a bullet through you for trespassin’.”
“There’s some people who might think different about that. They might think you shot me to cover up for somethin’. You haven’t got anything to hide, have you? Least I haven’t found any such evidence yet. I’m gonna give you a clean bill of health, Tatum.”
“To whom?” Adam asked. “Simmons?”
“To the Association, of course.”
“Well, they’re one and the same,” said Ira. “If I catch you sneakin’ around my place again scarin’ my wife, I’ll kill ya.”
“You couldn’t do that, Mr. Tatum. That’s just plain murder. Good day, gents. Ma’am.” He touched his hat in deference to Cynthie and then turned to Jilly. “Nice to see you again, Miss Cartwright. Glad to know you made it home safe yesterday.”
Jilly’s heart fluttered in her throat as he winked at her and smiled. Something in the way he looked at her made her feel like he could see right through her, and she could no more keep from blushing than she could sprout wings and fly. It wasn’t until after he rode away that she became aware of the other eyes on her, most notably Adam’s. Though he didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to.
It was bound to be a long ride home.
“Adam, I don’t know why you’re so upset. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I never said you did.”
“You don’t have to say it for me to know you’re angry.”
He snorted his frustration over the subject at hand. “I’m not angry with you, Jilly. I’m just sick and tired of all this business with Clegg and the Association, and I’d like to forget about it long enough for us to have dinner in peace. Can we please do that?”
“Well I can, but I’m not so sure about you.”
He wasn’t sure either. Sherman Clegg might as well have been sitting between them. Adam stabbed a slice of roast beef and began cutting it in silence.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about our meeting before. I should have, I realize that. But it was perfectly innocent. I’ve already told you, nothing happened. Don’t you believe me?”
“I believe you. I’m sure he was a perfect gentleman – as charming as a snake, no doubt.” And Jilly was as trusting as Eve, far too independent for her own good. “I don’t want you riding alone anymore.”
She slammed her fork on the table. “That’s not fair. If you’re not angry, and if I didn’t do anything wrong, then why are you punishing me?”
He stared at her as he chewed, mulling his next words. He needed to win her, not push her toward defiance, so he decided to avoid Clegg for the moment. “This is not punishment, Jilly, it’s common sense. If you think about it, I know you can see that. With all that’s going on right now, who knows when this situation might escalate into something more dangerous. Now a range war may not seem likely, but rational people can be pushed to do some pretty irrational things, and innocent people often suffer in the process. If it’s not fair of me to want to keep you safe, all right, I’m unfair. I’m sorry if that makes you angry, but I’d much rather have you mad at me than hurt or worse. If anything ever happened to you, I’d…”
The angry lines of her face softened. “You’d what?”
“I’d be in big trouble with Pa, that’s what.” His teasing response drew a smirk from her. “Come on now. Do we really need to fight about this?”
She sighed into her plate, her shoulders sagging. “I suppose not.”
Their evening was short, its atmosphere subdued. Jilly declined Adam’s offer of a game of cribbage after dinner, retiring early to read instead. Her door was open when he passed by on his way to bed.
“Mind if I come in?”
She glanced up briefly from her book. “Of course not.”
“I just wanted to say good night.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Certainly.” Her tone was non-committal.
“But…” he prompted her. “If there’s something you want to say, go ahead. I’m listening.”
She laid the book in her lap and tilted her face to meet his eyes. “You wouldn’t be treating me like this if I were Joe. I’m not a child, Adam.”
There were times lately when she reminded him so much of Marie that it was almost startling—less in looks than in ways more subtle and inherent, yet achingly familiar. This was one of those times.
“You’re right. You’re a young woman, and that’s the point. I’m sorry if it seems unfair, but you have to admit, Jilly, a woman is by nature more vulnerable than a man.”
“A bullet can kill a man as quickly as a woman.”
“I’m not talking about bullets, and I think you know that.” He sat down on the edge of her bed. She wasn’t a child, and yet she was in some ways, and it wasn’t just the naiveté of inexperience. She still possessed the optimism and self-assurance of youth that often leads to the belief that ‘bad things can happen to other people, but not to me, because I’m too clever.’ The truth is often a sobering come-uppance, a series of painful lessons learned the hard way, if Joe was any rule of thumb. Adam was determined to keep their sister from such a path if at all possible.
“Jilly, you have no idea what some men see when they look at someone like you. You wouldn’t have to do anything ‘wrong’ to be hurt, except be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person.”
“And by the wrong person you mean someone like Sherman Clegg. But you don’t even know him.”
“Do you, honestly?” She didn’t answer. “I don’t have to know him to see that he’s the kind of man who invites trouble by his reputation. Even if he’s not looking for it, sooner or later trouble comes looking for him. Don’t be fooled by charming manners and an easy smile. He is what he is. Not all devils have horns. Remember that.”
A slight frown creased her forehead. “Funny, that’s almost exactly what he said.”
Her thoughts seemed to be somewhere else, and he wondered if he had gotten through to her at all. He raised her chin with a finger, drawing her attention back to him. “What I meant to say before was that if anything ever happened to you, I’d never be able to forgive myself if I thought it was because of something I didn’t do. I’m only trying to protect you. Please tell me you know that.”
“I do.” The corners of her mouth turned up slightly. “I’m sorry for thinking only of myself. I know you have a lot on your mind right now, and I don’t want to add to your worries. I’ll be good, I promise. I’ll even try not to complain.”
“Well, I won’t hold you to the part about no complaints,” he grinned, rising. “I’m not looking for miracles. You want me to put out the lamp?”
“No thanks, I think I’ll read a while longer.”
Her lamp was still burning an hour later when he started downstairs to the kitchen for a cup of tea. He peeked inside the room to find her asleep, her book still in hand, so he slipped it from her grasp. Sense and Sensibility. He smiled, studying her for a moment. And which one are you, my dear?
He laid the book on the table and put out the light, leaving her to what he hoped were sweet dreams.
Jilly woke suddenly, her nightgown plastered to her trembling body. She sat up and managed to get the lamp going, even though her fingers were shaking. The familiarity of her room was small comfort, and even the brightest flame could not dispel the darkness of the dream she could not remember. Shivering, she pulled her knees to her chest and huddled against the headboard trying to will back the tears that refused to obey. She didn’t know why she was so afraid, but she had the desperate feeling that she had somehow committed a terrible sin, one that could not be forgiven.
Sherman Clegg dropped from his horse and tied him to the hitching post in the yard. It was a nice house by any standard, but he had expected something more. Then again, if Adam was any indication, he figured the Cartwrights to be a pretty understated bunch with the exception of the girl, maybe.
He smiled recalling the look on her brother’s face that day at Tatum’s place. It was obvious she hadn’t told him about their meeting. He probably shouldn’t have winked at her, but he couldn’t resist the temptation. She sure was a pretty thing.
A small oriental man answered his knock. “I’m lookin’ for Adam Cartwright,” he told him.
“Mistah Adam not home.” His scowl was visible through a crack in the door.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“Well, I’d like to leave a message for him.”
“You can leave it with me.” The door opened wider and there was Miss Pretty. She smiled at him. “It’s all right, Hop Sing.”
The little man frowned at her as he moved aside, grumbling something about somebody “not gonna like.”
At her invitation, Clegg took off his hat and followed her into the great room. It was spacious but not showy – a man’s room in which the most feminine element was standing in front of him.
“What brings you out here, Mr. Clegg?” She motioned for him to sit.
“Are you looking to buy?”
He could tell from her smile that she knew better. “No, I’m lookin’ to return. I found close to 300 head of your brand up in a little meadow about three hours from here. I figured your brother would want to know about it.”
“I’m sure he would. Adam should be back soon. You’re welcome to coffee if you’d like to wait.”
He glanced over at Hop Sing who had posted himself at the end of the dining table, arms folded, wearing a very unfriendly expression, and figured him to be enough of a chaperone. “Coffee would be nice, thank you kindly.”
The cook threw up his hands and turned toward the kitchen, and there was no mistaking his displeasure even if it was in Chinese.
“Is he always like that?”
“Not always.” She sighed. “I’d better go in there.”
She carried herself with a natural grace, enhanced by a poise suggesting a more refined upbringing than being raised on a ranch in the middle of a wilderness with three brothers. Old man Cartwright could afford to send his daughter off to a fine school, and he supposed she’d had the best money could buy. Not a penny of it would ever be wasted, either, not on someone like her.
She returned with a tray. “How do you like yours?” she asked as she poured his cup.
“Black.” He took it from her hand, murmuring his thanks. The perfect cup of coffee was just about the color of her hair.
“Why are you here, Mr. Clegg?”
“I told you.”
“No, I mean why are you in Virginia City, doing what you’re doing?”
“I’m just doin’ the job I was hired to do.”
“Then why are people so afraid of you?”
“In my experience it’s usually because they’ve got somethin’ to hide.” He set his cup and saucer on the table next to him and leaned toward her. “But you’re not afraid of me, are you?” The question was merely rhetorical; clearly, she was not.
“Should I be?”
He stifled an urge to smile. She was used to men, but mainly brothers, and he sensed there was a lot she had yet to learn. But not today.
“I don’t wanna take up too much of your time this morning, Miss Cartwright. Tell your brother to get in touch with me through the Association if he wants me to help him bring down those cattle.”
She walked him to the door, and he thanked her once more for the coffee.
He allowed his eyes to linger on her for a few seconds, mainly because there seemed to be too few things in the world that hadn’t been spoiled, and the memory of a lovely fresh-faced girl was worth keeping. Pink bloomed in her cheeks. He smiled, and so did she.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you blush like a wild rose?”
She shook her head, answering softly, “No.”
If there was ever a perfect moment for kissing a woman, this was it, but he had checked that temptation even before the sound of footsteps on the porch and the opening of the door.
“What are you doing here, Clegg?”
Adam Cartwright did not look happy to see him.
“Look, Cartwright, I came out here this morning to do you a favor, and your sister was kind enough to offer me a cup of coffee for my trouble. Now if you don’t want to get your cattle back, that’s fine by me.”
Clegg’s explanation was reasonable, backed up Jilly, though something didn’t feel quite right to Adam when he walked in the room. He would have a talk with her later, but for now the cattle were more pressing. At least he would know Clegg wasn’t skulking around the Ponderosa.
It was nearly high noon when they reached the meadow. Clegg drew up beside him. “Just like I told you. Every one of ‘em’s got the Ponderosa brand.”
“How’d you find ‘em?”
“It’s my job, what I get paid for.”
“And all this other business – intimidation, accusations, this war of nerves – is that part of your job, too?”
“It’s not my fault if a man’s got a guilty conscience. Property’s gotta be defended.”
“Does that give you license to trample people’s rights and turn them into frightened animals? You’ve got these small ranchers so rattled there’s no telling what they might do.”
“That’s the whole idea; you get a man panicky enough, he traps himself – works every time.”
Adam grunted. “Like turning a wolf into a sheepfold.”
“Call it what you like, but a man’s got a right, some might even say an obligation to protect his own, whatever it takes.”
“If that’s the way you feel, then you shouldn’t have any trouble understanding what I’m about to say.” Adam leveled a hard stare at him. “Stay away from my sister.”
“You’re not still stuck on this mornin’, are you? All we did was pass the time over coffee. It was perfectly innocent. You can ask your cook.”
“I don’t think ‘perfectly innocent’ and you belong in the same sentence, Clegg, but that’s beside the point. She may look like a woman, but she’s still an impressionable young girl. I’d rather rip my arm off than see her hurt by the likes of you, and there’s more than one way you could do that. Now I’m not asking, I’m telling you. Leave her alone.”
Clegg’s expression lost a little of its affability but he didn’t flinch. “You got it all wrong, Cartwright.”
“Look, I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you she couldn’t turn my head, but I’m just not that big a fool, no matter what you think. I can understand you wantin’ to protect your sister, and I respect that. Reckon I’d feel the same way. So let’s just say we agree on that subject.” He shifted in his saddle, squinting up at the sky. “I gotta be gettin’ back to town pretty soon. Tell you what. I like you, even if you don’t wanna pay me for what I do. So what do you say I help you get these critters back to your spread and you buy me a beer afterwards?”
As much as he would have preferred not to be further obligated to the range detective, Adam saw no other recourse than to take him up on his offer. On the other hand, a beer was a small price to pay to keep him away from Jilly. Nudging his horse to follow Clegg, he wondered if it would really be enough.
“You know your cows, Cartwright. I know my corpses.”
The words were Doc Dawson’s, and the corpse fished out of Frenchman’s Creek was Phil Shelton, shot with a .44 and left with a two-bit piece in his pocket. Clegg’s calling card.
The doctor estimated Shelton had been dead no more than six to eight hours. Adam could still hear the cocksureness in Clegg’s voice when Roy asked him his whereabouts that morning. “Do you want to tell him, Adam, or should I?”
Even as he gave the truth, the notion that he might have been set up as an alibi crossed Adam’s mind. While it was certain that Clegg couldn’t be in two places at once, what if the killing had taken place earlier? Frenchman’s Creek was glacier-fed, close to freezing even this time of year. Couldn’t that affect a body? Doc Dawson had taken offense when asked, sticking by his professional opinion. On that basis, Roy had no grounds to hold Clegg as a suspect. To make matters worse, Ira was there, and it hurt to see the recrimination in his eyes when he questioned where the Cartwrights really stood.
While Adam had no great love for the victim, murder was murder. It also required a motive. Based on the exchange between the two men at Sam Denton’s, he would be willing to lay odds they were somehow connected. A man like Clegg doesn’t usually forget a face, and he recognized Shelton from somewhere. No, they weren’t complete strangers.
Trailing the lengthening shadows back to the ranch, Adam had plenty of time to think on the matter, and while some things were uncertain, one seemed clear. Sherman Clegg was more dangerous than he appeared, and the person who needed the most convincing was waiting at home.
“You look tired, Adam. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. It’s just been a long day.”
“I’ll get your supper,” she said, turning toward the kitchen. “Hop Sing made your favorite stew.”
He caught her arm. “Jilly, we need to talk.”
“Can’t it wait until after you eat?”
Her smile was tempered by the faint worry lines in her forehead. Better for both of them to get this over with, he decided.
“I’d rather do it now.”
“Adam, about this morning…”
“We’ll get to that. There’s something else I want to tell you first. Sit down.”
If he thought the news of Shelton’s murder and his own suspicions about Clegg would open her eyes or least, shake her up a little, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I’m sorry about Mr. Shelton, but if Doc Dawson says Clegg didn’t do it, and Sheriff Coffee is willing to accept his opinion, why can’t you? I know you were angry this morning about his being here but that doesn’t mean…”
“Stop right there. You’re not suggesting that I would try to put a rope around a man’s neck over a personal matter?”
“Of course not. I know you would never do that. But I also know one of the reasons you dislike him so much is because of me.”
“First of all, I don’t like Clegg because of who he is and what he does. The man kills for a living, even if he’s able to do it within the so-called law. A man who lives by his gun hurts more than just those he kills. I don’t seem to be able to make you understand how dangerous he is, and frankly, that worries me. I know you said nothing happened, and I believe you, but you should never have invited him in this morning. That was an unnecessarily foolish thing to do, even with Hop Sing here.”
She was on her feet and angry. “I can’t believe you’re still treating me like I’m five years old! Why can’t you give me a little credit once in a while? I’m not stupid.”
“On the contrary; you’re a bright girl and a fast learner, but you still have a way to go. I’ve been around a little longer than you have, remember? Why can’t you give me credit for knowing a few things you don’t?”
“Yes, Adam—you’re older and you know a lot more than I do, but you have no idea what it’s like being me. Sometimes I wonder if you know me at all.” She appeared near tears before she turned away from him.
“No, I don’t know what it’s like being you any more than you could know what it’s like being me.” Pushing up from his chair, he joined her at the hearth. “But don’t think I don’t know you, because I know what I see.” He drew her around to face him. “I see someone gentle and lovely who always looks for the good in people, whether it’s there or not. Unfortunately, not everyone is like you. There is pure evil in this world—those who would take without asking, given the chance, and you couldn’t stop them if you wanted to. That’s an ugly truth I hope you never learn firsthand.” He was practically pleading with her. “Jilly, I don’t know what it is you think you see in Clegg, but not everyone can be redeemed.”
Her eyes were dry, and he could not read whatever was hidden in their dark depths.
“You were right, it’s been a long day for both of us, and I think I’d really like to go to bed now if you don’t mind. Your supper’s on the stove.”
They were at an impasse. He was no longer the big brother with all the answers and she wasn’t the little girl who could be convinced with a wink and a smile.
He watched her walk up the stairs, thinking he’d done about all he could short of locking her in a tower, hoping he’d said enough of the right things. Whatever happened next depended mostly on her. Sometimes, in spite of his best efforts, a man had no choice but to stand by and watch a tender heart break.
Staring into the fire a few moments later, he found himself wishing for his father.
Alone in her bed, clutching her pillow, Jilly’s tears finally came. She hadn’t lied to Adam, but she couldn’t tell him the whole truth even after she realized it herself.
It was Clegg, not Mitch, who came to her every night in dreams. Maybe they were both beyond redemption.
Hair tousled and eyes still blurred by sleep, Adam pulled on his robe and met Jilly in the hallway.
“Is someone at the door?”
“That’s what it sounded like.”
“At this time of night, in this weather?”
“Must be trouble. You stay here,” he warned her as he started down the stairs.
He removed his gun from the holster on the credenza before unbolting the latch and opening the door to a dark figure in a dripping poncho.
“Sorry to trouble you, Cartwright. My horse fell in the mud, broke his leg four or five miles back, and I had to shoot him.” Sherman Clegg’s tone carried its familiar cheerful bent in spite of the circumstances.
Adam sighed. “Come in.” He closed the door and put down his gun.
“Well, you said no one’s ever turned away from the Ponderosa, and I just thought I’d take you up on that. Howdy, Miss Cartwright. Hope I didn’t disturb you.”
Adam directed a sharp look across the room to Jilly, who had clearly ignored his instruction, before turning back to Clegg. “Take off your poncho. What are you doing out here in the middle of the night, looking for your next victim?”
“You know you’re always makin’ it plain, you don’t like me or what I do. I make my livin’ my way, and you make yours your way.”
“With you I don’t think it’s just a living.”
“No?” Clegg warmed his hands in front of the banked fire.
“I think you’d find a way to do what you do whether you got paid or not.”
“I dunno, never thought much about it. Pay is pretty good, most of the time. Say, if you’ve got an extra bunk I’d sure appreciate it tonight.”
Adam’s gaze shifted from Clegg to Jilly and back again. As much as he’d like to, he couldn’t send the man back out into the storm. “Upstairs, second room on the right.”
“I’ll show you,” she said.
The chiming of the clock momentarily diverted Clegg’s attention as he joined her on the stairs.
“It’s 11:00,” Adam assured him. “In case we need to remember, right?”
Clegg looked almost amused. “Cartwright, you sure got a powerful lot of mistrust for me.”
Adam’s only response was a frown as he followed them up. It seemed the night had just gotten a lot longer.
“Here’s an extra quilt in case you need it.” Jilly laid the it on the bed; she had already refilled the pitcher in the basin. “We have breakfast at 7:00. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Not at all. Good night.” She smiled at Clegg, disregarding Adam altogether.
“Good night.” Clegg let out an almost imperceptible sigh as he watched her go, his smile fading.
“I want you gone at daybreak,” said Adam. “The storm will be over by then; I’ll have a horse ready for you. You can leave it at Kelso’s stable, and I’ll pick up it the next time I’m in town.”
“I’d appreciate that. I won’t be goin’ into town, but I’ll see that you get it back. I’m pullin’ out tomorrow.”
His announcement took Adam by surprise. “Well, that’s the best news I’ve heard since you got here. I’m curious, though, with all the small ranchers still around, why?”
“My business is like a gambler’s. A fella’s gotta know when to take his losses and fold.”
Adam studied him for a moment and decided to take him at his word this time. “So much the better for everyone.” He turned to go back to bed and then paused. “By the way, my room is right next door, and I’m a very light sleeper.”
“You don’t ever quit bein’ big brother, do ya?” A wry grin formed on Clegg’s lips. “Don’t worry. I’ll let you say goodbye for me.”
Jilly sank against the door of her bedroom as she closed it behind her, taking a deep breath to try to calm her runaway heart. How she managed to keep from flaming under that man’s gaze she’d never know, but she did, even with Adam eyeing her like a hawk. She couldn’t help but think what would have happened if he hadn’t come home at the precise moment he did yesterday. Clegg might have kissed her—and she would have let him. She wondered if he was thinking of her right now, and whether or not he slept in the…she quickly tried to turn her thoughts in another direction, because that was the last thing she needed in her head tonight. Oh, she was wicked, all right; and she had no idea how she was going to get a wink of sleep with him just down the hall.
Clegg lay on his back, hands beneath his head, the bed covers draped loosely across his bare chest. He wondered if she was still awake; and the idea that his presence in the house tonight was costing her watchdog brother a peaceful night’s sleep almost made him chuckle out loud. Well, Cartwright could think whatever he wanted, it made no difference. The girl was off limits, he had already decided, though she did remind him of someone he hadn’t thought of in a long time— a dark-eyed beauty he met in El Paso about ten years ago. Rosalita was pretty near the same age—a willing pupil, he recalled with a smile. A memory like that could keep a man awake at night….
The rain lashing the windowpanes brought him back to the present, reminding him of the reason he was out on such a night in the first place. He had underestimated Alf Simmons, and that miscalculation could cost him more than he wanted to pay. Things were liable to get real ugly, real soon, and he intended to shake the dust of Virginia City off his feet before anyone had the chance to point a finger at him.
It was such a relief to see Clegg ride off that morning, Adam didn’t really care whether he returned the horse or not. He figured Jilly would probably be more upset than she would let on, but he could handle her; she’d get over it.
He was pouring his coffee when a flurry of hoof beats pounded the yard. Roy and Ira and a fierce-looking posse met him outside.
“Adam, you seen Clegg?
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. “Don’t tell me there’s been another killing.”
Roy nodded, his mouth a grim line. “He’s really stuck his neck in a noose this time.”
“It’s Cynthie, Adam – he’s killed Cynthie!” Ira’s face was ashen.
“Last night, just before the storm,” Roy added.
“How do you know that?”
“The ground underneath the body was dry. He ambushed her in the yard, between the house and the barn.”
“And you’re sure it was Clegg?”
“We found a .44 shell and a two-bit piece, and his horse wasn’t too far away, dead.”
The relief he felt before turned to a sickening dread and sank like a rock in the pit of his stomach. “Well, he’s mounted now. I gave him a horse. He left here just a few minutes ago.”
Roy frowned. “How come?”
“He spent the night here.”
“Adam, he killed Cynthie! You tryin’ to give him another alibi? ”
He flinched under his friend’s accusing stare, the normally stoic visage now etched in pain. “Ira, I had no way of knowing…”
“Adam, was he wearin’ a black poncho last night?”
“Yes, Roy, he was.”
The sheriff reined his horse to the right and spurred him on. “We’ll get him.”
Stunned by this unexpected turn, Adam didn’t hear Jilly until she was at his side. “What did they want? What’s going on?”
Anger wouldn’t allow him to mince words. “Your friend Clegg killed Cynthie Tatum.”
Her horrified expression as the color drained from her face made him regret his bluntness, but only until she spoke. “No, it’s not true! He couldn’t have!”
Grabbing her arms, he shook her, furious at her disbelief even now. “Jilly, what have I been trying to tell you? What kind of a man kills for money? That is what he does! And now he’s killed the wife of a friend, and I’ve got to go after him because I let him ride away from here!”
He left her in the yard and went back to the house for his gun.
Sobbing, Jilly ran to the barn. It was a place where she had sought solace on many occasions, amid the warmth of horses and hay. Even the smell was still a comfort sometimes, because it took her back, if only for a moment, to a time in her life when the world was simple, and choices were easy, and people were what they seemed to be.
She heard him behind her, but he was so quick she didn’t have time to turn around before his hand covered her mouth and she was caught in an iron grip.
“Keep still and don’t scream.”
His voice, low in her ear, made her shiver, but not in a way she had imagined. Instead, she felt sick in body and soul.
“I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise. I want you to listen to me. I did not kill that woman, I swear. I need your help. Please, don’t scream, okay?”
He took his hand away and turned her around. “You gotta believe me, Jilly. You’re my only chance.”
It was the only time he had ever called her by her first name. She knew what she desperately wanted to believe, but she didn’t know if what she saw in his eyes was fear of being wrongly accused or merely getting caught.
“Take your hands off her and get ‘em up, or you’re dead where you stand.”
Clegg released her with a pleading look. “You’re wrong, Cartwright. I don’t know nothin’ about that killin’.”
“Get over here, Jilly.” Adam kept his gun on Clegg as he moved her behind him with his free hand. “Why did you come in here and hide from that posse?”
“As long I’ve been in this game, don’t you know I can smell trouble? I knew there was somethin’ wrong when I saw ‘em ridin’ up out there. Look, I give you my word, I didn’t kill that woman. I don’t care what you think, but I’m not that low. It was Simmons, it had to be.”
“Now why would he do that when he’s got you on call?”
“That’s just it. We had it out last night. He was drunk, wanted me to get rid of Tatum for him. I decided I’d had enough of him. I was on my way out of town when my horse fell.”
“Why the sudden reformation?”
Clegg acted as though he didn’t hear him. “What I don’t understand is why he killed Mrs. Tatum. You give me a chance with Simmons. I’ll get it out of him.”
Jilly could see Adam mentally working his way through Clegg’s explanation, though he was still doubtful. “Maybe you didn’t kill her, but you’ve killed others.”
“I’ve always had a reason when I’ve done it. They deserved it. And it was always within the law. If it wasn’t, I’d have been behind bars or strung up at the end of a rope a long time ago.”
“That doesn’t justify you or your methods. I think they’re wrong and should be done away with.”
“Well, that’s your opinion, Cartwright, but that’s all it is. You’re not God.”
“No, I’m not. That’s why I’m taking you back to town and let a judge and jury decide about you.”
“You saw the mood of that posse! One of those hotheads will put a bullet in me and I’ll never get to a judge and jury! You know, you’re a great one for talkin’ up for the little guy, but when someone really needs your help, do you give it to him or just it to those you like?”
Jilly felt Clegg’s eyes beseeching hers once more even though his words were directed at Adam. “I need help to prove I didn’t murder that woman. Do I get it?”
“Adam, please…you’ve got to help him. You’re the only one who can.” She placed a hand on his arm, and in a moment he lowered his gun.
“All right, Clegg, I’ll give you a crack at Simmons. But don’t try any tricks. If you run, I won’t think twice about putting a bullet through you myself.”
The cold light of morning dimmed through tears as Jilly watched them ride away. Clegg’s thanks rang hollow in her ears as she dropped to her knees in despair over this sudden, tragic shift in the universe, and she was scarcely aware of Hop Sing’s patient hands lifting her up and guiding her back to the house.
The confrontation was over all most as soon as it began.
Disheveled and drunk, Alf Simmons had seemed surprised when Adam and Clegg walked into his office. “What are you doing here, Clegg? Don’t you know the whole town’s lookin’ for you?”
“Why would they be looking for him?” asked Adam.
“He killed Ira Tatum’s wife last night, that’s why!”
“Clegg spent the night at the Ponderosa.”
“You’re lyin’. He did it. He left a .44 shell and a two bit piece on the body. Everybody knows that’s his way.”
“Anybody could’ve left those there.” Adam noted the muddy boots in the corner, along with a rifle. “Is that your rifle? Looks like a .44.”
“You messed yourself up this time, Simmons.” Clegg stared him down, unsmiling. “Where were you last night?”
“Don’t you question me—I know plenty about you, remember!”
Clegg dismissed the threat. “What’d you do—mistake Mrs. Tatum for her husband?”
A sneer formed on his lips. “It doesn’t matter what I did,” Simmons replied, pulling a revolver from the desk. “I’ll get a medal for killing you, Clegg. Too bad Adam Cartwright got caught by a stray bullet in the process.”
Clegg lunged for the rifle near him as Simmons fired and missed. Adam drew and hit his mark, wounding Simmons in the shoulder. The fatal shot came from the .44.
Adam stood over the lifeless body. “I had him winged—why’d you kill him?” He had a feeling it was because Simmons knew a little too much.
“I did him a favor, kept his neck out of a noose.”
“Yeah, and you put your own in it.”
Alerted by the gunplay, an angry mob flooded the office and quickly had Clegg against the wall; only Adam stood between them. He knew from their faces they were out for blood and wouldn’t be satisfied until they got what they came for. The dilemma of how to hold them off was solved by a shove from behind that propelled him into the crowd as Clegg bolted out the back door.
The men in the alley made Sherman Clegg’s last journey a short one.
Sheriff Coffee ultimately settled the question of who murdered Cynthie Tatum. A piece of the killer’s ripped poncho, discovered near her body, proved a perfect match to the one belonging to Alf Simmons. According to Roy, “If Clegg hadn’t run he’d be alive and free today.”
He was prepared for the worst when he told Jilly how it ended that day, but what he saw in her face was quiet grief and acceptance, almost as if she expected it. As far as he could tell, her tears were for Ira and Cynthie, and she didn’t seem to have any left on this gray afternoon.
“I’ll be glad when Pa and the others get home.”
She had been mostly silent until now. Adam tried coaxing a smile. “What’s the matter? Am I not enough company for you?”
“No, it’s not that. I don’t know why, but I miss them more now than when I was in San Francisco. Maybe it’s just too much empty space. Or maybe I’m not as grown up as I thought.”
“I think you were right the first time. Besides, you never outgrow your family. Trust me.”
This time she did smile, but only for a moment. “Adam, why did he run?”
He followed her wistful gaze to the fresh mound of earth behind them. “Well, sooner or later, a man’s life catches up with him. Maybe he figured that was his best option under the circumstances.”
“He must have felt so alone thinking no one believed him.”
“You believed him. He knew that.”
She sighed. “I guess it didn’t matter in the end.”
A chill wind caught him by the neck; he turned up his coat collar against the cold. Jilly clutched her shawl, her expression a bittersweet acquiescence to more than just the passing of summer. He felt it too, and it made him feel old, and not just a little sad. Youth’s innocence had its own finite season. No one could shield her from the rough edges of the world anymore. Like everyone else, her best hope was a soft place to fall.
He put his arm around her. “Why don’t you slide over here and keep us both warm?”
The wagon creaked forward. A flock of geese overhead signaled their departure to a warmer clime. Adam watched them, squinting against the glare of the dying sun as it bled into the mountains. Higher above, the harbingers of winter were beginning to gather.
It looked like it might be an early snow, after all.
The angels cry as
Summer slips beyond the veil –