Summary: Just how much trouble can Adam get into while killing time in a sleepy town.
Rating: T (3,300 words)
The Artist – a Missing Scene
Adam Cartwright lounged on the boardwalk outside the Pavilion Hotel and carefully picked his teeth clean with the sharpened end of a matchstick. It was around two o’clock on a hot, sunny afternoon, and Adam had time on his hands.
His father had driven off in a buckboard with the blinded painter he’d met in the local saloon. For reasons that Adam only half understood, the two had promptly proceeded to knock all shades of hell out of each other. Now though, they seemed to be the best of friends, and Adam wasn’t unduly concerned for his father’s safety; he was pretty sure that the old man could take care of himself. In any event, old Ben Cartwright certainly wouldn’t appreciate having a grown up son tagging along as a nursemaid.
Both of Adam’s siblings had wandered away to find their own amusements. Joe, no doubt, had returned to the saloon across the street and filled the empty seat that he’d spotted in the perpetual poker game. Adam fully expected that, by sundown, his little brother would be stony broke and scrounging the price of a beer. Big, bluff Hoss had done exactly as he had threatened and taken himself off to bed. Adam knew for dead certain sure that, right now, the big man was lying flat on his back and snoring very loudly. The window was open; if he held his breath and listened real’ hard, he could hear him. All in all, that left Adam entirely to his own devices.
Of course, by the same token, he was also free of responsibility and had only himself to please. Adam shifted his toothpick across to the other side of his mouth and frowned as he considered his options. There was the standard long, soapy bath, topped off by a shave and a haircut and followed by several cold beers and an evening spent in the local whorehouse, but today, that just didn’t appeal. While not exactly in search of adventure, he felt like doing something a little bit different.
In the full heat of the afternoon, the street had grown quiet. People had retreated in doors for a well-earned siesta. Several horses stood dozing at the hitching rails and a row of mules waited with patient docility outside the saloon. A huge, black cat lay on the boardwalk almost at Adam’s feet. He was sleeping as soundly as Hoss with one relaxed paw and his fat, black tail hanging down over the edge. The only other folk in sight were a pair of old timers engaged in a ferocious and seemingly endless game of dominoes in the shade of the boardwalk awning.
With no clear idea of where he intended to go, Adam stepped over the cat and into the street. As if at a given signal, the world swung into motion. Somebody yelled, and Adam heard hooves pounding towards him. He turned quickly. A huge, black horse was bearing down on him, coming from the stables in the street behind the hotel. The animal was galloping, his ears laid flat, and his eyes showing white; a very small person clung to his back. Adam did a neat little dance in the dirt as he tried to get out of the way. The horse caught him a glancing blow with its shoulder as it passed by and knocked him clean off his feet.
Adam hit the ground rolling and took the force out of the fall. He was winded, and landing hard on the butt of his six gun bruised his hip, but otherwise, he was undamaged. The horse, running out of control and thrown off balance by its collision with Adam, and by its rider’s instinctive jerk on the reins, stumbled and almost went down. Its diminutive rider somersaulted over its head and tumbled into the dirt.
Adam picked himself up and went over. The fallen rider was only a boy and a young one at that. His clothes were dishevelled and frayed at the edges, and he wore a round, hard-topped hat. He started to stir and sat up, bemused. He shook the cobwebs out of his head. Adam didn’t wonder the bone-shaking fall had made him see stars. Leaning down, he took him by the elbow and lifted him onto his feet. “Are you all right, son?”
Blue eyes blazed at him: cornflower-blue, eyes as blue as a bright summer morning surrounded by fair, sandy lashes. The boy shrugged off his hand. “I ain’t your son, Mister!” The voice hadn’t yet broken; it was high and piping and, at the same time, snarled with a bitter resentment.
People appeared as if out of nowhere and came running from several different directions. First among them was the thick-set, bull necked sheriff Adam had nodded to earlier as he rode into town, and a much smaller man suited in black. The undertaker was somewhat put out to discover that no one was in immediate need of his services and retired in a huff. The sheriff looked Adam over with some speculation. “That was some tumble you took there, Mister. Are you all right?”
“I guess so.” Adam attempted to brush off some of the dust. “I don’t know about the boy yet.”
The sheriff looked down. He was a tall man and the boy’s pale, upturned face came about to his middle. “He looks okay to me.”
Adam was about to suggest that they have a doctor look the boy over, just to be sure, when a shout came from behind him. “Horse thief! Horse thief!”
The moonfaced, overweight ostler from the livery stable stumbled into the street. He was puffing and panting, gasping for breath and very red in the cheeks. “That boy’s a horse thief!”
Clutching his hat to his head with his hand, the boy turned to flee. The sheriff acted with remarkable presence of mind and, for a big-built man, moved with speed. He grabbed the boy by the elbow, almost jerking him off his feet, and held on tight. The stableman panted up. His face was florid; great patches of sweat stained his dirty pink vest and his trousers were slipping down over his belly. The sheriff still held the boy firmly by the fleshy part of the arm. “What’s this all about, Breeching?”
The stableman pulled out a spotted bandanna and swabbed at his neck. “That horse isn’t his. He sneaked in, an’ he stole it from right under my nose!”
“Di’n’t! Di’n’t steal it!” The boy started squirming, trapped in the big sheriff’s grasp.
Adam decided it was just about time to join in; “Why don’t you tell us what happened?”
The sheriff, the ostler and the boy all turned to look at him. Adam thought, for a moment, that he might have grown an extra head. Finally, the sheriff said, “What’s this got to do with you, Mister..?”
“Cartwright,” Adam supplied. “Adam Cartwright, And I think I’ve a vested interest. The boy and his horse damn near killed me.” He rubbed the sore spot on his butt.
The sheriff considered it, then nodded his head. “You could be right about that. But you want to think real’ careful afore you tangle yourself up in this. In this here town, we hang horse thieves.”
Adam knew it was common practice: rough-cut justice in a savage land. He was a man of his times, and it was, on the whole, a penalty that he approved of. On this occasion however, he balked at the prospect of the thief stretching a rope. This was no hard-bitten rustler who would steal a man’s hard-earned worldly goods with never a second thought; this was no more than a child. “But he’s just a boy! He can’t be more than twelve or thirteen. He doesn’t have his full growth yet.”
The boy was indignant. “I was fourteen last week! I’m just small for my age, that’s all.”
Adam wished that the boy would keep quiet. At fourteen, a boy was considered a man full grown and fully responsible for his own actions. If he was a horse thief, he could be hung. The sheriff knew it as well. “It don’t make no nevermind how old he might be. The law’s the law.”
Adam couldn’t argue with that. The sheriff looked sternly down at the boy. “What name do you go by?”
The blue eyes gazed at him without the slightest trace of guile. “My name’s Jordan, Mister. Jordan Cartwright.”
Adam stared at him, his mouth dropping open. He didn’t believe what he’d heard. The sheriff looked from Jordan to Adam. “This here your boy, Mister?”
Adam shook his head, numb with shock. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
The boy let out a wail. “Daddy, don’t say that! You gotta save me!” He wrapped his arms tightly ‘round Adam’s leg.
“I think,” the sheriff said grimly, “We’d all better to go my office and sort this thing out.”
After the sunlight and the heat of the street, the sheriff’s office was dark, cool and airless. It was dominated by a huge, battered and battle scarred mahogany desk that took up half of the floor space. A pot-bellied stove and a couple of chairs took up the rest of the room. The first thing the sheriff did was to take away Adam’s gun. “Just a general precaution,” he said. He lifted the Colt.44 out of it holster and slipped it into the drawer of the desk.
By now, Adam had become distinctly uneasy. He wiped his palms of the seams of his pants. The sheriff poured himself a cup of thick, black coffee from the pot that sat on the back of the stove. He didn’t offer it to anyone else. Breeching, the ostler, slumped into a chair too small for his bulk; he overflowed at the edges. He pulled out the bandanna and mopped at his face. The sheriff stood over him. “Breeching, why don’t you tell me about the horse?”
“A horse is a horse.” Breeching gazed up at him with small, beady eyes. His face was still sweating. “I got that one as part payment of a debt. The boy stole it away from me. For all I know, his Pa put him up to it.” The eyes rolled slyly in Adam’s direction.
The sheriff turned to the boy; “Your Pa tell you ta steal that horse?”
Adam was tired of being talked about instead of being talked too. “For a start,” he said testily, “I’m not this boy’s Pa.”
The sheriff regarded him with open speculation “The boy here says different. You sayin’ he’s lyin’?”
“I’m saying he’s not telling the truth.”
The boy who had called himself Jordan Cartwright gazed up at Adam with brilliant blue eyes. “Daddy, you know that ain’t so!”
“And you know I’m not your Pa!” Adam retorted with venom.
The sheriff sucked his teeth. “Then would you mind explaining how come he’s got the same name as you?” He shook his head. “I’m gonna get ta the bottom of this; have me a talk with them three fellas you rode inta town with. In the meantime, I’m gonna lock you up fer a bit – just so I know where you’re at.” He lifted a huge bunch of keys from a nail in the wall and directed Adam into a cell.
Adam spread out his hands “There’s no call for that. Why would I steal a horse? I’ve got a horse of my own.”
“Then you ain’t got nothin’ ta worry about.” The sheriff pulled out his pistol and jammed the muzzle hard into Adam’s belly, just under his belt. “I don’t know you, an’ I don’t know this boy. Could be you don’t know each other. It’s somethin’ I’m gonna have ta look into.” He backed Adam into the cell with a prod of the pistol and pushed the boy in after him. He swung the door closed and turned the big key in the lock. “Don’t ferget, Mister,” he said with a lop-sided grin, “in this town, we hang horse thieves.”
Adam found himself locked in a cell that was hardly luxurious in its appointments. An unglazed window, high in the wall, admitted a single shaft of barred sunlight but little fresh air. The bunk was solidly built out of boards; it had a thin straw mattress and a single, somewhat threadbare blanket, and there was a pot underneath for a man to piss in. That was all. The sheriff went out with the ostler. As they went through the door, Adam heard the fat man declaring what a very fine animal the black gelding was.
Adam turned on the boy, his tawny eyes angry. “Why don’t you tell me what this is all about?”
The boy backed as far into the corner as he was able; there wasn’t much room to retreat. The bright eyes widened with fright. Adam realised that he made a threatening figure and backed off, exasperated. He took a deep breath and unwound his hands. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The boy wiped his coat sleeve over his mouth and picked up a silvery stream from his nose. “Was all your fault anyway,” he said sulkily. “Iffen you hadn’t got in the way, I’d have got clean away with that horse.”
“You told me that you didn’t steal the horse.”
“Di’n’t. Not exactly.” The boy sniffed the snot back into his nose. “That horse belongs to me an’ my Ma. That fella Breeching took him away ‘cause of a feed bill we owed him.”
Adam began to see how it was. “A man had to pay what he owes.”
“We’d of paid him!” The boy was defiant. “But without the horse, we can’t plough, then we don’t have nothin’ to sell an’ no money to pay with.”
“I need you to tell that sheriff the truth!”
The boy shook his head. “Iffen I tell the truth, they’re gonna hang me for stealin’ that horse for sure.”
From what he had seen of the sheriff’s attitude, Adam allowed that the boy might well be right. He prowled back and forth behind the bars with a scowl on his face. The boy sat on the bunk and watched him. Adam’s anger had turned to frustration – and some concern. He wasn’t really expecting to dance on the end of a rope – not if Hoss woke up before Christmas and Joe ever got out of that poker game. He was pretty certain that they’d be able to prove who he was and vouch for the fact that he didn’t have any children. All the same, he didn’t like being in jail, and he had a kind of a dry raspy feeling at the back of his throat.
The boy was an entirely different matter. If it came to a trial, Adam would find himself cited as a principal witness, and he’d have to say what he’d seen. The boy could be hung on his evidence alone, and he didn’t like the idea of that one little bit.
He glanced at the boy. A single wisp of corn coloured hair had escaped from under the hat. It dangled beside the bright blue eyes in a long coiling spiral. A faint smile touched Adam’s lips.
The boy was belligerent. “What you grinnin’ at, Mister?”
Adam reached out and lifted the hat. A cascade of golden ringlets tumbled down over the shoulders. “They might be ready and willing to hang a horse thief,” he said. “But I don’t think they’ll hang a girl.”
The sheriff thought the same way. His feet on the top of his ancient desk, he sucked at his teeth. “Don’t reckon as you done no harm, Miss Jordan. I ain’t gonna press no charges.” It was a simple statement that took a whole lot of weight off Adam Cartwright’s mind.
Jordan – the girl – the very attractive young woman – was reluctant to elaborate on what she had revealed to Adam, but bit by bit, the entire story came out.
“When Papa died, Mama had a hard time making’ ends meet, what with me an’ my two little brothers to feed. She signed a paper with Mister Breeching to provide feed for our young stock, with our one good horse as a surety. But the yearlings didn’t sell for as much as we had expected. When Mama couldn’t pay, Breeching took the horse to settle the debt. I thought, if I dressed up as a boy, he wouldn’t recognise me, and I could borrow our horse back long enough to do the ploughing this fall.”
Adam slipped the Colt.44 into his holster and gave her a wink. “I guess I’ll go pay Mister Breeching a visit.”
In the humid heat of the late afternoon, Adam made his way to the livery stable. Inside the barn-like building it was warm, dim and damp. The close-confined gloom stank of horses, straw and fresh-dropped manure. Adam’s “Halloo!” brought Breeching out of a stall at the back. He carried a two-tined pitchfork like he knew how to use it, and his dirty pink vest was more sweat stained than ever. His florid face darkened at the sight of his guest.
“What do you want, Cartwright? How come the sheriff let you out of the hoose-gow?”
“I guess he liked my face,” Adam responded with a pleasant smile. Breeching made a non-committal grunt. Adam continued, “I want to make you a small business proposition.”
Breeching leaned the pitchfork against a supporting post in a business like manner and sat himself down on a barrel-head. He mopped at the sweat on his face and gave Adam his full attention. “What is it you have in mind?”
“I’d like to settle the debt that you have on the horse.”
Breeching shook his head. “Nope. Not a chance. The horse is worth more than the feed bill.” His small eyes glittered with greed. “But it might be that I’d be willing ta sell you that horse.”
Joe Cartwright ran his hands through his hair and asked the inevitable question, “Hey, big brother, will you buy me a beer?”
Adam regarded him with that well practised air of long-suffering irritation and amusement. “You haven’t run through all that money that Pa gave you?”
“I had a run of bad luck.” Joe pulled a face. “I think those guys were cooking the deck, but I couldn’t prove it.”
Adam pinned his brother with a jaundiced eye. “Three week’s wages and an end of drive bonus?”
Joe shrugged and looked sheepish. “I had a winning hand. I’d have sworn it couldn’t be beaten.”
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck again, little brother. I haven’t a cent.” Breeching had asked a good deal more for the gelding than Adam had anticipated, and then there had been essential supplies and some harness and a young lady’s dress…
Joe stared at him, aghast. “So what did you do with your money?”
“Let’s say I invested it.”
Now it was Joe’s turn to look askance. “You invested it?”
Adam wasn’t prepared to explain any further. He squared his hat on his head. “That’s what I said.”
Across the street from where they stood on the boardwalk, lamplight started to glow in the hotel windows. Adam’s expression became speculative. Then he brightened with inspiration. He slapped Joe hard on the shoulder. “I’ve got an idea.”
Hoss emerged, sleepy eyes, from the front door of the hotel. Adam and Joe accosted him, one on either side. Each of the brothers hooked an arm in the big man’s elbows, effectively tying him down. Joe gave him a cocky grin. “You’re just the man we were looking for.”
Hoss looked suspiciously from one to the other. “What d’you fellas want?”
Adam smiled silkily. “We thought you might buy us supper.”
Potter Bar 2002.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Stranger – A Missing Scene (by Jenny G)
- Escape to Ponderosa – A Missing Scene (by Jenny G)
- The Lady from Baltimore – A Missing Scene (by Jenny G)
- Nathan Kincaid #4 – Anyone Who Fights One of Us (by Jenny G)
- The Lengths a Man can be Driven To. . . (by Jenny G)