Equinox (by Krystyna)

Summary:  The Cartwrights face an unseen enemy who is preying upon the young women of Virginia City .. can it possibly be the man Adam suspects?

Rating:  T  (164,625 words)

Home is the Sailor Series:

Home is the Sailor
The Iron Horsemen
There will Always be Rainbows
The Pledge
No Greater Love
Kismet
The Gap…
A New Direction – Changes
Equinox

EQUINOX

Chapter 1

My name is Ben Cartwright. My home is the Ponderosa.”

He never opened his eyes until he had uttered those words. He never opened them because he was afraid that when he did he would find himself back in that hospital room with the white walls and the white ceiling and a window that he had been unable to look out off for what seemed days.

He was afraid that if he did not say those words as soon as he woke up to a new day, then it could mean he had forgotten – forgotten who he was, who he is now, because not so long ago, he had been in that black hole of nothingness and he dreaded returning to it.

He felt calm. His pulse and heart beat were steady. The ache in his chest reminded him that he was mortal, he had nearly died, but he was alive. He inhaled a deep breath, and opened his eyes.

A new day and all was well.

For a few moments longer he just lay there and savoured the fact that he was back home. Downstairs Hop Sing would be preparing the morning meal, his family – well that part of the family that shared this house with him -would join him before going their separate ways. Hannah to school, Hester would take Hope on their morning chores and Erik would run around and enjoy life, and why not? A child should have every opportunity in life to enjoy his freedom, the restraints imposed by adulthood came soon enough.

He heard Hoss whistling and smiled as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and felt the warmth of the rug beneath his feet. He reached for the walking stick that leaned against the night stand within reach of his hand and stood up. His leg was getting stronger, but the stick was still a necessary evil. At least he could get about now, mount his horse, go riding…

He walked to the window and looked out at the view, every morning he needed to see that view, just – well – just to make sure that it was just as he remembered it. Clouds were gathering above the tops of mountains, and the air was colder. He shook his head and sighed, like so many his age, winter brought along the aches and pains that came with being older.

Don’t fool yourself, Ben Cartwright, you are old!”

…….

It never paid to dawdle, not when there was school to attend and that never ending journey which seemed to be twice as long on a cold windy day. Sofia grabbed at her bag, her books, her lunch pail and closed her eyes. Just for a moment she needed to stand very still and collect her thoughts, and her self, so that she could face the day.

She could hear Nathaniel protesting about something in the other room, her father’s deep voice talking to Reuben in the study. Sounds coming from everywhere! She finally opened her eyes and looked around her and sighed, hopes of having been transported to somewhere else had not been realised. She sighed and made her way to the door where she waited for Hank, or Ezra, or even Cheng Ho Lee to drive into the yard and thus begin the trek to town.

When Granpa had been ill in that other town they had stayed in Virginia City, it had been more than an adventure, it had been wonderful. She had not realised what being a town girl meant, and now could understand why Rosie had always been so miserable at having been brought to live on the Canadays homestead. Sofia hopped from one foot to the other thinking about that, and wondering if it would ever be possible to convince her Pa that a move into town could be a good idea.

She frowned, realised her boot lace was undone and put down her books, bag, lunch pail in order to tie it up. There had been a lot of talk lately about moving away…she had not understood most of it, after all, the adults had made sure that the children were not privy to their discussions, but she knew enough and heard enough for her to speculate for herself.

To leave the Ponderosa and go to that other town, to where there was a vast meadow that her Pa and Uncles thought were extra special. She had seen them around the table looking at maps, smiles, frowns and lots of pouting and furrowing of brows….laughter too, and sometimes even raised voices.

Hannah had told her the same thing was happening where she lived, her Pa and Granpa were often deep in conversation and there was often a map on the table, which Granpa would scribble over and then her Pa would scribble over somewhere else.

Sofia straightened up and picked up her belongings. Would they be leaving the Ponderosa? She loved her home, she would not admit it to anyone, but she was beginning to enjoy school. Reuben had not talked about any move, and when she had asked him about it, expressed her concerns he had just shrugged and said roughly “I don’t know…”

She didn’t realise that her big brother was harbouring the same fears as herself. He didn’t want to talk about it because – well, sometimes talking about something made it seem more real. It was as though a box had been opened and everything had popped out and there was no way it could be put back, not as tidily. Reuben had his own thoughts about leaving the Ponderosa, and he didn’t want to share them with any girl, especially his sister.

Neither of them knew whom they could talk to about it, because if Pa and Ma and the Uncles and Aunts and Grandfather had not discussed it with them, it simply meant that the matter was not to be mentioned. They would just have to ‘sit on it’ and wait for the answer.

But it was very difficult

Reuben emerged from the study looking suitably calm, he called out goodbye to his mother and Nathaniel, and rushed out of the house in order to get Max out of the stable. The steady little horse had already been saddled up and ready to go, so it seemed no sooner had he closed the front door than he was riding out of the yard. As he did so Ezra appeared with the buggy, and Hannah’s little face was just visible behind his back.

The buggy was always better than the wagon, it was comfortable and had a hood and a cape so they were protected from the cold blasts from the wind. Sofia sighed with relief, called out her own goodbyes and was about to open the door and run out into the hard when her father came and scooped her up into his arms and gave her a hug

“Good bye Daddy,” she giggled, and looked down into the brown eyes that were twinkling up at her. She thought her father had the most brown eyes in the world, and she loved the way he would smile and dimples creased his cheeks.

“Enjoy your day, pumpkin.” he said and kissed her lightly on the brow before setting her back down onto the floor.

Then she was gone, a flash of blue coat, blonde hair and ribbons disappearing across the yard and clambering up into the buggy. Adam watched her from the doorway, raised a hand to wave her farewell and remained standing there to see the buggy disappear around the bend by the stables.

His wife’s arms snaked around his waist, he felt her lean against him with her face upon the centre of his back. He smiled, turned into her embrace and encircled her waist with his own arms, then lowered his face to meet hers “One day she’ll be too big for me to pick up like that…”

“She’s growing up,” Olivia nodded, and tightened her hold on him, “One can’t stop the inevitable.”

“Happens too fast…” he murmured and lowered his head so that his lips touched hers, lightly, softly.

“Much too fast.” she whispered as she returned the kiss.

They parted slowly, smiled at one another, “I guess I had better get to work…” he murmured and leaned in for another kiss

“Yes, and I have things to do – the hospice, the bank, various -” his mouth stopped her from saying another word, and just for a moment she forgot about the hospice, the bank and various whatever they happened to be…just for the moment she lingered in her husbands arms and enjoyed the smell of him, and the taste, and the gentle pressure o f his lips upon hers.

………………

Joseph Cartwright stood and stroked the sleek neck of the horse while he listened to his little boy chattering away beside him. The horse nudged the man with his handsome head and then nodded as though to encourage Joe to continue stroking and fussing him, Karim, son of Kami, was a singularly beautiful animal, and had been put to stud during the previous year. Joe was hoping it would be the start of something big, perhaps the cattle station could also become a stud farm.

A noise from the door of the stables caught his attention and he turned to see his wife standing there watching him with a whimsical smile on her face. “I’ve been watching you for the past five minutes, Joe. You were lost in thought – if I didn’t know better I’d say you loved your horse more than you loved me.”

Joe laughed and shook his head. Still slim, but bulked out with the muscle that came from hard work on the ranch, and from breaking in countless horses, Joe was a handsome looking man and as so many had told him that fact since he was knee high to his brother Hoss, then he truly believed them. No point in denying the obvious he would have said had anyone accused him of being arrogant. But he wasn’t that, not at all, proud yes, of his family, of what they had achieved, but humble enough to admit that there had been times when it could all have easily slipped through their fingers.

She stepped into the stable now and Daniel ran over to snatch at her hand, holding up his cup and ball to show her. It was his favourite toy, and already looking well worn.

“I was just thinking – about having a stud farm.”

She nodded, it was a subject he had raised several times, ever since Adam had given Karim to his youngest brother as a gift. She slipped her fingers into his, felt Joe’s entwine between hers, and smiled. “Well, he certainly looks the part -”

“His first off spring are due in a few months. Gallagher is keeping a close eye on the mare, she was quite a beauty herself so when it is born it should be quite a handsome foal.”

“I guess so.”

She raised a hand and stroked the horse, feeling its soft muzzle beneath her fingers, Karim nodded as though to confirm he liked the attention. “I just came to see if you had a little boy in here who should be indoors eating his breakfast.”

She looked down at Daniel with a ‘pretend’ scowl on her face and her son laughed, always happy to get attention from his pretty Ma. Joe nodded and picked the boy up, swung him back and forth once or twice before depositing him in Mary Ann’s arms, “Off you go, son, be a good boy for your Ma”

“He’s always good, arn’t you, son?” and Mary Ann laughed as she kissed the warm soft neck of the little boy before putting him down and telling him to run indoors.

“I’d best get to work, Pa will be wondering where I am..”

“I think he’s used to you being late -” she laughed as she leaned in to grab his hand and kiss his cheek.

“Well, I’m never late, just later than Adam, and he’s always early.” Joe chuckled and then looked at her more seriously..

Just sometimes he had to step back from himself and look at her as though he had never seen her before in his life, in that way he could capture the whole of her, the essence of her being, and he loved her more and more each time.

“Well,” he said softly, as though reluctant to admit to it, “I had better stop dragging my feet…” he kissed her and then turned to his horse, Navajo, took his reins and led him out, passing his wife as they exited the building “See you soon…”

“Don’t be too late…”

“I’ll try not to be…”

A wave of the hand, a nod of the head and a smile on his handsome face and then he was gone, horse and rider disappearing in a cloud of dust as he loped his way from his home to the Ponderosa ranch.

Chapter 2

There had been several theatres built during the heyday of Virginia City’s triumphs. The first theatre of any significance had been Topliffe’s* on C Street which had been built in 1862. Tom Maguire built his theatre on D Street in 1863* and five years later John Piper purchased it.*

When the big fire in 1875 burned it down, along with countless hundreds of other buildings, Piper rebuilt his theatre in B Street. Piper’s Theatre and Opera House* opened in 1878*, and had the capacity to seat 900.

From the time it had re-opened the Cartwrights had enjoyed a regular attendance to its theatrical productions, particularly when the travelling Shakespeare Company made their annual visit to present one of the Bard’s plays. Hoss was the only one to prefer staying at home if the play was ‘serious’. He preferred comedy. He had never fully recovered from his experience of seeing Adah Menken being strung up on a horse, ‘nekkid’. The resultant fallout from her visit had put him off serious theatre for life.

He far rather enjoyed seeing the antics of clowns, and he could follow a comedy well enough, his hearty guffaws had more success in making the audience laugh along than the actual performance. John Piper had even asked him to join the theatre company as a kind of prompt when some comedies were lacking ‘audience participation’. It was an offer Hoss was happy to refuse.

However, he never stopped Hester from going into town to watch some Shakespeare or whatever other drama was to be performed. It was not something she often did, as she never felt comfortable going anywhere without her husband by her side but she often accompanied Adam and Olivia, even at times, inveigled her cousin Ann to join with her.

When she had been a young girl, attending the theatre had been her favourite outing of all. She would regularly attend with her brothers, Marlow and Milton and when Ann was staying in New York with them, she would go along too. Hester was able to lose herself in the performance and forget about the oppressive atmosphere at home. Ann was also of like mind, her visits to New York City were rare, and dependent on where her father, an officer in the army, was stationed at any particular time. The bond between the two girls had grown strong over the years and a theatre outing was always a joy that they could share between them.

So it was that she now looked forward to a performance of Romeo and Juliet along with Ann, escorted by Ben and accompanied by Adam and Olivia. The tickets for their box had been purchased and all they had to do was present themselves in the magnificent foyer and mount the red carpeted stairs and settle into their plush velvet seats in order to be transported into the courts of two warring families, the sweet love of two young people, and their sorrowful but unnecessary deaths.

…………………..

Christopher Orr had recently moved into Virginia City. He was a lawyer from Phoenix, Arizona with excellent credentials, having been educated at Yale, only son of a senator and from a family who claimed to have arrived on the Mayflower. He was wealthy, ‘old money’ as Widow Hawkins said, and he had a head for making a dollar spin into treble the amount it had been when coming into contact with him.

A handsome man, he was not overly tall but could match Joe Cartwright in height. Dark haired which he wore slightly longer than most, clean shaved, hazel eyed. He was neither too fat nor too thin, an excellent horseman, and what one would consider to be a ‘ladies man’. So far no one in town had yet found out if there was a wife somewhere, or whether he was widowed, or single. He kept a tight mouth on his personal life. There was, however, no denying the fact that he liked the ladies, and in the short time he had been in town, he was seldom to be seen in public without a woman on his arm.

He had been among the crowd that had welcomed Ben Cartwright back to town, and had made it his business to find out all that he could about the Ponderosa, and the family who owned so much land.

On several occasions he had hired a horse and ridden out onto the Ponderosa noting that it was not policed, there was little security, and one could wander about at will. He had even gone on one of the tours around Lake Tahoe* that had been a feature of the Whitney Hotel Management, by agreement with Ben Cartwright some years previously. He had been impressed by its beauty but also by the fact that so much could belong to just one family.

He enjoyed a social life, he donated to charities, he had, unknown to the Cartwright ladies, been behind the contribution for their hospice. He was fast becoming one of Virginia City’s favourite citizens.

But this particular Saturday evening he was going to the theatre to watch Romeo and Juliet. He had his own box reserved for him and his guest, a Miss Lucille Agutter.

………………..

Joseph Cartwright stood in front of the mirror and adjusted his tie, sighed and shook his head before turning to look at his wife who stood beside him with a smile on her face. It didn’t help that the smile was similar to the one she would bestow upon her son when he had tried to achieve something and failed. He sighed again,

“Dang hair.”

“Oh dear ..” the smile widened

“I reckon I inherited what Hoss has lost.” he thrust fingers through his mane and grimaced, then smiled at her and nodded “Mary Ann, you look beautiful. Better than a million dollars.”

“Thank you, and you look more handsome than ever, and I love your hair, if you go bald I’ll divorce you.”

She snuggled in closer to him and sighed, slipped her arms around his waist and looked up at him with the smile in her eyes “Do up my dress for me ..”

“Really ..”

“I can’t reach all the buttons.”

“You trust me…”

“No, not really…”

She twisted round now so that he could see where buttons needed to be fastened and he nodded, as his fingers got to work, “How long have we been married now, sweetheart?”

“Five years ..” she smoothed the skirts over her hips and then turned back to him, “Thank you, Joe. Will you fasten my necklace for me?”

She handed him a sleek band of diamonds which he put around her neck, lifting her curls as he did so, dropping a kiss upon her naked skin before he fastened the clasp.

“Five years? Shucks – that time sure went fast.”

“A lot has happened, Joe. Adam was in the Navy when we married, and Hannah had been born..”

“And now Pa has a whole passal of grandkids…”

“You sound more like Hoss every day..” she leaned forward and kissed him on the nose “I love you.”

“I love you more now than I did six years ago….” he said with a grin.

“Well, certainly more than you did when we first met…sixteen years ago.”

He nodded, leaned forward so that their brows touched, both lost in memories of that first meeting so long ago, his lips twitched into a slight smile “You were such a young girl, so pretty in your bonnet and green boots.”

“They weren’t green.” she looked up and kissed him then stepped back “If we stay here like this, Joe, we will miss the performance then Hester will be cross and Olivia disappointed. They still can’t believe that you’re actually coming with me.”

“Honey, I have heard Adam spouting bits of that Romeo play since I was a kid..” he laughed and then struck a pose, hand on heart, eyes gazing up at the ceiling “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou..”

“Oh Joe, that’s the girl’s part…”

He shrugged “It’s the only bit I can remember ..”

They were still laughing as they left their room, hand in hand, two star crossed lovers who found one another so long ago, were lost, and then found once again.

……………

Ben couldn’t really remember the last time he went to the theatre. Not due to his amnesia, simply because it had been so long since he had actually attended the performances. He had preferred staying home with the children and Hoss, playing chess, telling the children stories. But this particular play had always appealed to him, he had seen it performed in San Francisco during the early days of his marriage to Marie, and now, if he thought hard enough about it, he could still smell the perfume she wore that night, and feel the touch of her hand upon his.

He tugged down his waistcoat, and felt quite pleased that it was such a good fit, now he picked up his jacket and pulled it on. Before he could check how it looked there was a knock on the door and Joe’s voice saying “Pa, are you ready? Hester and Ann are waiting for their escort?”

He nodded and gave a brief glimpse over his should at the reflection in the mirror, then went to open the door to the couple waiting for him.

A handsome couple, no doubt about it, and the dark blue gown suited Mary Ann, added some colour to the grey eyes. He followed them along the landing to where Joe knocked on another door and called out “Come on, Adam, thought you would be the first to be ready….”

The door opened immediately and Adam nodded to his brother, smiled at Mary Ann, winked at his father. He stepped aside to let his wife pass him and join the others, then closed the door behind him.

This was Ben’s first public appearance since his return from Carson City, and Adam felt a wave of pride touch him as he looked at his father as the man walked, straight backed, to the stairs. Of course there was the elevator and he felt relieved when Joe shepherded their father towards it. They all five crowded inside and took the ride down to the foyer.

Olivia smoothed the lapels of her husband’s jacket with her fingers, lightly. Her eyes flicked up to meet his, smiled, because he was smiling down at her. She could see the reflection of herself in his dark eyes and thought she was the happiest woman in the world although she knew that was not true because Mary Ann was looking very much as though she were as well.

Ben glanced away from looking at Adam and Olivia. At times the fact that Adam was married and so happily so, gave him a pain in the heart, an emotional tug, similar perhaps to the feeling one could get when a baby was safely born and you held it in your hands and noticed it had all its fingers and toes and everything else as well. It was just that the memories that he had faced during his weeks in hospital had made him realise that his son had had a miserable childhood, and now, married to Olivia, he was really, truly happy. It was relief, gratitude, and love all rolled into one.

Olivia turned her smile on him now, and he thought it was hardly fair to have such a beautiful daughter in law. When she smiled little dimples appeared at the corner of her mouth, and her eyes, large and clear, darkened. She wore a dress of ivory pink, with a darker pink trimming around the shoulders and bodice.

The doors opened onto the foyer and there was Hester and Ann. In some ways the cousins did resemble one another, Hester often lamented that they shared the Buchanan nose, but their colouring could not have been more different. Hester had her golden red curls tidied away in the latest fashion, with curls caught up and forming a crown, she was not beautiful in looks, yet regardless of that she drew attention . Hester’s beauty shone from within herself, she was Hoss’ perfect counter part. She did not care that she had not the beauty of her sisters in law, all she cared about was that Hoss loved her, he was her security and soul mate.

But tonight, this particular evening, she looked as lovely as she could ever look, equal to any, and her green gown so perfectly complemented her looks and colouring that it only enhanced the qualities she possessed. Her cousin, the prettier of the two women, was dressed in blue, and showed nothing but genuine admiration at the appearance of the other women. Candy was not a rich man, he could not afford the jewels that adorned the necks and wrists of the others, but it of no concern, what she had was simple and treasured. She was too modest a woman to worry about trifles.

And so they left the hotel and strolled towards the theatre which shone like a jewel itself, with every window and door full of light, and noise and bustle and fuss. People thronging at the entrance, ladies in their best gowns, jewels at their throats and in their hair, men in their best evening suits, looking ‘dapper’ and very elegant.

Daniel deQuille was there, note pad in hand, his photographer close to hand in order to take pictures of the prominent citizens who posed like statues on the theatre steps until the ‘flash’ freed them to move on.

He knew better than to stop the Cartwrights in order for them to have their pictures taken, a nod of the head was sufficient but he scribbled his notes about what was being worn, who was with whom, and nodded away while he had his photographer position himself strategically elsewhere.

They made their way through the throng which flowed in an orderly fashion to the stairs that led to the boxes reserved for those affluent enough to afford them. Sometimes they paused to speak to someone in the crowd, but mostly it was a smooth progress.

“Mrs Phillips?”

The name rang out above the noise of voices, corsets creaking, shoes scuffling and the swish of skirts sweeping over the carpeted floor.

“Mrs Phillips?”

Someone touched Olivia’s arm, and she turned, unalarmed, with a smile. The man who stood in front of her now smiled in return, and nodded “I’d recognise you anywhere…how are you?”

She frowned, slightly, and perhaps the confused look on her face betrayed her for he apologised,

“I’m sorry, you don’t recognise me, do you? Well, it was some years ago when we last met…I’m Christopher Orr.” he smiled and his eyes twinkled “I went to college with your husband, Robert.”

“I am sorry, Mr Orr.” Olivia felt the colour mounting from the neck up, and when Adam came to stand by her, with a quizzical glance at the other man, she said “Oh Adam this is Mr Orr…” she paused “Mr Orr, this is my husband, Adam Cartwright.”

Chapter 3

Both men took a moment to take stock of the other. Orr’s companion stepped forward with a smile, unwilling to be left standing alone. She smiled at Adam and Olivia before slipping her arm through that of her escort.

“Good evening Adam, Olivia…” she looked wide eyed at them both, bestowing upon them a wide smile but keeping a custodial hold on Orr’s arm.

Being a local girl she had known the Cartwrights from the time she was first introduced to them by her late departed father, Gerald Agutter. She had been five years old then, and thought they were like trees they stood so tall above her. Adam and Olivia turned to her and gave her the benefit of a genuinely warm smile, Olivia even added how pleasant it was to see her again.

Music from the orchestra was warming up for the introduction to the story, and all four looked awkwardly at one another, Olivia leaned towards Orr

“I am sorry, Mr Orr. Perhaps we can talk again another time.” a dimpled smile and then she turned towards her husband who gave Orr a nod of the head took her arm in his and led her into their box where the family waited for them to take their seats.

“Do you remember him, Livvy?” Adam asked as he pulled out a chair for her, and as she sat down she shook her head,

“No, not at all.”

Adam nodded and took the seat next to her, Joe leaned forward

“What kept you so long….?” his hazel eyes switched from his brother to his sister in law, “Everything alright?”

“Yes, of course.” came the rather snapped off response from Adam who then settled down with a sigh “A friend of Olivia’s – of Robert’s – stopped to talk.”

“Robert?” Joe frowned, looked momentarily puzzled, then shrugged and turned his attention back to his wife.

Ben leaned forward now, “I remember watching a performance of this play years ago with your mother.”

Joe and Adam said nothing, unsure of which mother he was referring to but Ben didn’t care, he leaned back and lingered over his sweet memories… or were they just what he hoped to be memories.

Christopher Orr and his lady for the evening settled themselves into the box which he had reserved for them. It was within view of the box in which the Cartwrights sat and for a moment he sat and observed them. A stern faced white haired older man, smartly dressed and distinguished looking, seated between the two couples. He rightly guessed that this was the fabled Ben Cartwright, whom some credited with owning 1000 square miles of land. The Ponderosa. When he had first heard the name he had asked what it had meant, and was told that it was the name given to the pine trees that had grown so lavishly upon the mountain sides.

He now turned his attention to the women ..contrasts in beauty to be sure. He could only admire both Cartwright men for their choices, and leaned towards Miss Agutter to ask the names of the couple in the box with Adam and Olivia. Lucille glanced at the other box and whispered the names just as there was a little flurry of action and two women entered and took their seats so she added further information that the red headed woman was married to Hoss Cartwright, and her cousin Ann was married to an ex-sheriff of Virginia City.

“A ridiculous name.” he murmured just loudly enough for her to hear “Who in their right minds would want to be saddled with a name like Hoss throughout their lives…”

Lucille said nothing, it had not mattered to her or anyone else what Hoss called himself. He was just Hoss Cartwright to them, a big lovable man with a heart as big as the Ponderosa. For some reason she knew better than to mention that to her escort.

She flipped open her fan and swept it back and forth, then leaned towards him again “Hester and her cousin, Ann, are related to the Buchanans in New York City. You know, the Banking people.”

He nodded and smiled slightly, but he wasn’t particularly interested in the Buchanans, nor banks, he was far more interested in watching Olivia and Adam Cartwright as they sat, side by side, hand in hand.

The play began as it always would and did with the chorus introducing the main thrust of the romance awaiting their audience

“Two household, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood make civil hands unclean,
From forth the fatal loins of these two two foes
a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life:
The fearful passage of their death mark’d love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove;
Is now the two hours traffick of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”

How many times had those words -star cross’d lovers – been mentioned since they were first written? Orr noticed how Adam had leaned forward and whispered something in his wife’s ear, and how she had raised her head, exposing her slender neck, in order to laugh and then whisper something back to him.

A light applause rippled through the audience, eager to get to grips with the tragic story so laid bare by the chorus. Orr noticed how the younger Cartwright leaned back in his chair and unbuttoned his jacket, smiled at his wife, the cousins were all attention with eyes riveted to the stage as the play began, but he, only had eyes on one person…

Just before the interval Christopher Orr sent a message to the other box inviting them to join him for some refreshment. The message that was returned suggested that, perhaps, he and his companion should join them instead. It was not what Orr had wanted, but he mentioned it to Lucille who, ambitious in her own right, was more than pleased to be noticed by others of the citizenry sharing the interval with the Cartwrights so within minutes he found himself stepping into the Cartwright arena, having his hand pumped as introductions were made and chairs pulled out for them to be seated, and someone appeared with a small table with glasses of champagne which bubbled and frothed and was just the right temperature.

“A friend of Roberts?” Ben asked without a clue as to who Robert was, sadly Olivia’s husband existed beyond the periphery of his memory as it was at the present time.

“I went to college with him.” he glanced at Olivia who had half turned in order to listen in to the conversation. She was obviously not offended by any mention of her previous husband, and he smiled at her, pleased to receive an answering smile in return. “We shared rooms for a year.”

“What did you study?” Adam asked now, standing up with glass in hand , handsome in his suit and the ivory silk waistcoat he wore.

“I studied Law and economics. I always thought Robert had a great future ahead of him, he was quite a brilliant student -”

Adam nodded and smiled briefly at his wife who was looking at Orr but obviously lost in nostalgia, his words creating memories of that long ago time when another man would hold her hand, lean in and tell her he loved her, a man who was indeed intelligent and could have done great things…had he lived.

Orr sipped his wine and now also rose to his feet, as though he found having Adam Cartwright standing, towering over him, was somehow intimidating. Olivia looked down at the glass in her hand and then raised her face to look into Christopher’s eyes, “He was hoping to become a Senator. He had been mentored by some in the party who thought he had a good future in politics.”

Orr nodded solemnly, “I’m not at all surprised to hear that, Mrs – Cartwright.” he sighed and composed his face into more sombre lines “I am very sorry to know that he died, I wish I had known – my apologies for my blunder earlier.”

“No need to apologise, Mr Orr.” she said with a sigh in her voice and she turned to her husband who was standing very still, and very silent, by her side. “It was some years ago, time passes…”

“And I lost track of a good friend, a great regret on my part.” Orr gave a slight bow to her and was about to say more when the music began again to introduce the second tragic part of the play. “Excuse us..”

He took Lucille by the arm and gently coaxed her through the door and back to their own box.

Adam glanced at his wife and gave her the benefit of a small smile “Are you alright?”

“Yes.” she nodded and glanced over at the other box where Orr and Lucille were taking their seats, the glasses of wine still in their hands, “I just wish I could remember him…”

“Perhaps you never met him – personally that is..”

“He seemed to think that we had met though, didn’t he?” she looked at Adam with a confused look on her face. “I just can’t recall when….”

Adam raised his eyebrows and grimaced “Never mind, I’m sure that he will come calling and refresh your memory.”

“Do you think so?” she sounded unsure, a crinkle in her brow and her eyes clouded.

“Oh yes, I’m quite sure.” her husband replied and then settled down to watch the rest of the play, the enjoyment of which was now somewhat mired

Ben tapped Adam on the shoulder “Who was that?”

“A friend of Roberts.” Adam whispered with his eyes on the stage as the performance got under way.

“Oh.” Ben sat back and tried to recall anyone he knew or could remember from the past called Robert.

The young actor playing the part of Romeo had a light voice but it carried well, the sadness as he gazed upon Juliet was seemingly heartfelt, his hand upon his breast as he said

“Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
that unsubstantial death is amorous?
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that I still will stay with thee,
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again, here, I will remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids; O here
will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! Lips O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea sick weary bark,
Here’s to my love – O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.”

It didn’t surprise Adam that his wife reached out a hand to clasp his, and when he looked he saw a tear trickle from her eyes and he wondered for whom she was weeping..poor Romeo now collapsed upon the stage, or for Robert whose lips had once kissed hers.

The play continued on….but it seemed to pass in a haze as far as Olivia was concerned, and Adam wished he could leave, wished he had not brought her to such a dismal setting, wished that a certain person had not intruded into their lives in order to stir up ghosts from the past.

Chapter 4

It was customary for the Cartwrights to stay overnight at the Hotel International on such occasions as theatre visits so upon leaving the theatres they took their way to the restaurant to dine there.

If Olivia seemed a little distracted no one paid too much heed (except her husband) for she had admitted not having seen Romeo and Juliet before and so they presumed the emotion of the play had made her melancholy.

There was little point in trying to draw her out, although she was pleasant and smiled when others laughed, and otherwise acted not too distractedly as to appear anxious to leave, or to be somewhere else altogether. By the end of the meal even Adam was glad it was over, and offered his arm for his wife to be escorted to their suite in the hotel.

All it needed was for Christopher Orr to be staying at the International and to appear with that nonchalant air of composure and self confidence to end the day on an even worse note.

Silas Armstrong, unaware or uncaring of dark clouds hovering over Adam’s head, saw the Cartwrights leaving the restaurant and heading for the elevator that would take them to their suites. When a shouted hallooo had failed to rouse Adam’s interest he navigated through the grouped ensemble in the foyer, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process.

“Adam – Adam Cartwright.”

All the Cartwrights came to a full stop, turned and upon seeing Silas hurrying towards them, now stooping to pick up his hat, now hurrying once again, all but one turned to continue on their way.

Silas eventually reached Adam’s side and said, between puffs “You’re a hard man to get hold of…”

“Is that right?” Adam replied between clenched teeth, “Perhaps that’s because I didn’t want to be found – by you or your father – “

Silas grimaced, shrugged “I – you – didn’t give us much time to explain about the plans you drew up -”

“- and which ended up in Carson City -”

“And which ended up in Carson City – yes” Silas bit down on his upper lip and bowed his head “You and me – we go back a long way, Adam.”

“For Pete’s sake – what angle are you playing at now, Silas. Let’s get this straight, yes we go a long way back, and no, we were never friends. This latest trick you played makes me rather relieved I never became a friend of yours and -”

“Hear me out, Adam, please -”

“There’s nothing from you that I want to listen to, Silas. No excuses, no explanations can clear up the mess you and your father helped create.”

“I was going to explain, I tried to – remember?”

“I kind of forgot! Was that when you and your father were trying to get me hired as one of your associates? Or when you were going to claim commission on my design – if it had ever been approved of course – or -”

“I can tell you are angry, I know, but -”

“No buts, and no more talk, Silas…now, if you don’t mind, this conversation is over…and if you or your father ever pull a stunt like that again I swear I’ll ram your shingle down your collective throats.”

Silas opened his mouth, but before he could say more Adam had turned to join his family, pulling his hat lower to shade his eyes. Olivia slipped her arm through that of her husbands and sighed

“Feeling better now?” she murmured raising her eyes to look at him and then sighing at seeing the grim expression still hovering there.

“No.” Adam replied shortly. He glanced over his shoulder to see Silas walking slowly back to his wife who was standing wide eyed and open mouthed among the crowd of late arrivals to the hotel. He shook his head and muttered what he thought of Armstrong and Co beneath his breath, but he knew, in all fairness, it was not just Silas that had put him in this mood, he had just collected the fall out from the meeting with the late departed Robert Phillips best college buddy!

As soon as the door to their hotel suite was closed behind them Adam reached for his wife’s hand and drew her close to him. If she had expected some amorous advances she was wrong, for his face was stern. There was no smile on his lips, no twinkling of the eyes for they now looked at her with anxiety, concern. Once he had her attention he put his head to one side a little as though to observe her from a different angle, then gave a slight nod

“What happened?”

“What do you mean?” she raised her head, her face towards his, her lips only inches from his mouth.

“I mean ..what happened this evening? You’re unhappy, and I want to know why?”

She sighed and pulled her hand away from his fingers and turned away from him, some how his eyes so concerned for her, seemed also to be accusing her of – what? She cleared her throat, and then shook her head

“I don’t know.” she shrugged off her cloak and placed it carefully over the back of a chair, “The play, it was sad ..it ..”

“It wasn’t the play ..or rather…not entirely the play.”

She didn’t answer for a moment but tried to assemble her thoughts, then shook her head “Adam, I don’t want to discuss this with you just now. Can we leave it until tomorrow?”

“I’d rather we talked about it now. I don’t want you to be worrying through the night about something if I can help you worry less…”

He came behind her, his hands gentle upon her shoulders and just momentarily she relaxed, leaned against him, and bowed her head so that he kissed the nape of her neck, where a little curl had escaped her hair arrangement. Then she shook her head and turned to him, took his hand and held it between both of hers,

“I found the play – the last part profoundly sad.”

“Yes?” he stared into her eyes, narrowing his own just slightly, enough for her to know that as she had started, so she had to continue.

“That man – Mr Orr – calling me Mrs Phillips – “ she put her hand to her throat, “I’ve not been called that for so long. It caught me by surprise.”

“Go on …” he sighed and his eyes roved over her face, noted the pallor there, the moist eyes, tangled eyelashes

“And then after we had talked, and he mentioned Robert it brought back memories, and made me realise that I had not thought about Robert for a long time. It was as though I had put him into a black hole somewhere in my memory and put a lid over it…and that was wrong, terribly wrong…”

Her husband’s silence did nothing to reassure her, but she released his hand and now clasped both hers together, and walked over to the window. She stood there for a while looking down at the dark street lit up here and there by the lights from the saloons, the theatre lights were still twinkling…she bowed her head and closed her eyes.

“Robert had been part of my life for so long, he is the father of my two children, and I – I have not spoken about him or thought about him -” she cleared her throat “I’m sorry, Adam, it isn’t fair that I should be talking about him like this to you, after all, you never knew him and – “

“That doesn’t mean you cannot talk about him to me, Olivia. As you just said, he shared a lot with you, his name, his love, his life … “

“Yes, all of those things.”

Again she looked down at the street below them, watched the last of the theatre goers – or perhaps the theatre company – make their way to their homes, or their boarding houses.

“I didn’t recognise that man, that Mr Orr. He was Roberts friend, and I didn’t recognise him.”

“Should you have done? I mean – was he a close friend? Did Robert speak about him to you or – or did you -”

“That’s just it, I can’t remember.” she shook her head once again, “I should have done, shouldn’t I?

I should have remembered him, as he was Roberts’ friend.”

Adam said nothing for a moment, but watched as she turned away from the window, as she brushed a tear from her cheek, he didn’t approach her, but stood where he was, waiting for her to speak again.

“Then the words of that play …the sadness and the heavy sense of their loss, and their love…it made me feel so guilty. Then I felt annoyed at myself for being made to feel like that, I felt annoyed at that man too for making me do so, and – and I remembered how ill I had been, how I was so ill because of my grief at my loss. Oh Adam, it was such a miserable time…and ..”

Now he came to her and folded her into his arms, and stroked her back and held her close. She just clung to him, her head on his shoulder, relaxing into the warmth of his body, feeling reassured by his love. “I don’t want to feel like that again, Adam…not all that grief and misery, not again.”

“There’s no reason why you should, sweetheart. None at all…”

“That man made me feel – that I had not suffered enough, that I had no right to be happy.”

Adam held her tighter, knowing that any words he said now would sound trite, cliched. So he said nothing, but stroked her hair, and kissed the top of her head. Then after she had relaxed enough and he could release her once more he said quietly “He may have been a close friend of Roberts, but he didn’t know he was dead, did he?”

“What do you mean?” she stepped back, a quizzical look on her face in which there was now some colour again.

“Well, if he were such a close friend of Roberts, how come he didn’t know he had died – what? Nearly 8 years ago?”

He walked to a low table upon which were glasses and wine, one bottle of which he uncorked. He poured a little into each glass and held out one to her while giving her a small smile, “Yet he knew you, although you say you had never met before…”

“I can’t recall meeting him before, Adam. As I said, I’ve not thought back to that time for so long…”

He nodded, took her hand and led her to the settee upon which they both sat, leaning against one another in the way that had become customary between them. “And why is he here….”

There was no answer to that of course, but she drank her wine, and relaxed against the broad shoulder of her husband upon whom she knew, she had placed yet another burden

Chapter 5

Amy Grant had been overwhelmed with pride when “Ridley’s Ladies Emporium” had been replaced with legend ” Amy’s Ladies Emporium”. The words glowed golden in the daylight upon the large plate glass window behind which some samples were displayed samples that she hoped would entice the ladies inside to see and purchase the items for themselves. She had stood watching with awe as the sign writers had removed Amanda’s name and then carefully drawn in her own.

It had been a surprise from her husband, Grant. A small gift, he said, to show how much he loved her. For several days she would find an excuse to go outside and stand on the pavement to admire the golden scrolled lettering. The seamstresses and counter staff smiled a little, and perhaps were a trifle envious that she had such a devoted husband. But Amy was a sweet young woman, and no one begrudged the gift one iota.

Mary Evans came once a week to go through the ledgers and order books with her, although she was not really needed. Both of them knew that, but they also both enjoyed each other’s company and sometimes the ledgers were put to one side just for a little chat, about this and that, and whoever.

Mary’s pregnancy was progressing well and she was happy. Perhaps she did have a twinge of nostalgia when she saw Amanda’s name being wiped out, but then Amanda had metaphorically speaking wiped herself out of Virginia City’s history when she left to pursue Rights for Women with Lucy Garston, who was now no longer Lucy Garston but Lucy something else instead. Mrs Garston, having been informed of her daughter’s marriage after the event, had been too proud to inform anyone of Lucy’s married name.

Christopher Orr was a regular customer to the Emporium and there were no blushes or awkwardness when he selected a gift for whichever lady he was with at the time. He would flirt with the staff, assure Amy that her husband was a ‘lucky man’ to have found her for a wife, and then make his purchase. Usually something small but expensive, something a husband would not puzzle over should his wife be wearing it, or an unattached lady assume more was intended than there actually had been promised.

All in all the ladies of the Ladies Emporium rather enjoyed his company for those brief few moments when he visited. He would leave them smiling and enjoying the fragrance of his cologne for just a few moments after he had gone.

Amy Grant did not like him. He gave her goosebumps.

……………….

School days were far more settled now for Sofia Cartwright. Her sudden love for books had given her a thirst for learning and although she was hopeless with Maths, she tried hard to learn. Her friendship with Lilith had provided her with an anchor that kept her steady for the weekdays were long, and the travelling at times took its toll on the little girls.

Hannah was a ray of sunshine and without even realising it – which was no doubt a good thing – she was teacher’s pet. No one worried about that at all, for she was loved. She had her father’s disposition, amiable, cheery, shy and always wanting to do the right thing for everyone. She was pretty like her cousin Rosie, with her black hair and blue eyes and attentive little face. She really never caused a moment’s anxiety. The long day sometimes seemed too long, and more than once Ezra or Hank had had to carry her into the house when she had fallen asleep on the journey home.

It was good that Hannah was so popular, and had friends her age to care and fuss over her. This meant that Sofia was free from the responsibility of care for her cousin, as was Rosie, and both girls were able to develop more friendships as a result. To Sofia, the best friend she had was Lilith Martin.

Lilith bit into her apple and watched as Sofia signed a few words with her fingers. She nodded and smiled, then sat for a while holding her half eaten apple between her hands hidden in her lap.

You are a quick learner, Sofia. It took me quite a while to learn as much as you have done over these past few weeks.”

I’m trying to learn as fast as I can. I want to be able to teach Nathaniel …just in case…”

In case of what?”

Just in case.”

Sofia sighed and looked at her fingers, then at Lilith’s, still holding onto her apple. She looked in the direction of where Lilith was gazing and frowned, a group of boys, one of whom was Reuben. Surely her friend was not getting silly notions about her brother?

Lilith, was Peter always unable to hear?”

Peter?” Lilith turned her attention back to her friend “No, he was alright at first, but then I got ill, and he was ill with the same thing but I was alright …no one thought Peter was unable to hear because he seemed just fine. He knew when someone came into the room, he – he just seemed as usual. A bit more bad tempered.”

Oh why?”

I guess he was – just plain frightened. He couldn’t hear and he couldn’t tell us because he was still a little baby, he must have felt trapped inside of himself -” she tapped her head “inside of here.”

Sofia nodded and turned her head away from looking at Lilith because the older girl always looked so very sad when talking about Peter. It made her think though, of what it was like to have hearing taken away so suddenly. She put out a hand and laid in gently upon Lilith’s arm, but said nothing.

For a moment neither one spoke, then Lilith smiled slowly and nodded her thanks for the gesture.

You never knew your father, did you?” she suddenly said just when Sofia was about to bite into some cake.

No. I didn’t ..Reuben did…but he doesn’t remember very much now” she paused “My daddy died before I was born….” she thought she needed to explain that, just in case Lilith thought of another question that she couldn’t answer.

But Lilith just nodded and bit into her apple. She didn’t say another word for the rest of their lunchtime together. Sofia ate her cake and drank the cordial that Cheng Ho Lee had made her, and tidily put everything away. The bell tolled and it was time to return to class.

Are you going to be a nurse when you grow up?” Sofia asked as she gathered up her things and made sure there were no crumbs on her clothing or around her face that would embarrass her later.

No, I’m going to be a Doctor.” Lilith said stoutly and tossed her apple core into a corner of the yard for the birds and bugs to enjoy “Pa said I would have to work hard but after I leave here I want to go to college … “

Sofia nodded and looked at her friends determined face, the way she jutted out her jaw. She somehow felt quite sure that Lilith would accomplish what she had aimed for, Lilith would make sure of that.

………………

The room was smelling of wood smoke, of apple pie and coffee. There was a hint of Olivia’s perfume as well which always made the house a home of welcome.

Nathaniel was sprawled out upon the rug in front of the fire playing with his wagon and horses, bouncing them along the the edge of the rug just as a real wagon would be pulled along a road by its horses. He made little noises to imitate the sound of the horses hooves as they bounced along . In his own little world Nathaniel Cartwright was safe and happy.

In her chair Olivia continued to write her letter. Every so often she would glance up and watch her little boy, and sigh at the thought that he was growing up, and so quickly.. She dipped her pen in to the ink and wrote a little more before putting the pen down and sitting back to think. She removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose, a habit she had found herself doing more and more often, and which annoyed her. Then she leaned back and closed her eyes in order to gather in her scattered thoughts and try to put them into some kind of order.

The past few days had been strange. She had to be perfectly honest in that she had only herself to blame for the constraint that currently existed between herself and Adam. She had never imagined that it could happen, after all, she loved him so much and she was certain that he loved her in return. But since meeting Christopher Orr at the theatre she had been – detached from her real self. She had spent more time looking inside herself and back at the past, instead of enjoying her life as she had been doing for the past years.

It didn’t matter where she looked, past or present or future she was confronted by her failures, her guilt, and then feeling selfish for being guilty. She had never felt such a sense of guilt before that night at the theatre

Now she found herself looking at Reuben and Sofia to see if she could detect any resemblance to Robert Phillips, a characteristic perhaps that defined them as Roberts children and not Adams. It was unfair to do that now, but she found that she just could not stop herself, and the worse thing was, that she knew Adam was well aware of what she was doing!

As she sat there with her hands folded in her lap and watching her little boy playing so contentedly Olivia remembered when Sofia had gone into a strange period of comparing Robert with Adam. It had been silly really, a childish whim. Sofia had never known her father but even so she had created a father figure and as a result caused Adam a degree of confusion and pain.

Now Olivia wondered if she had not been doing just the same.

Mommy?”

Nathaniel had rolled over onto his side, and was holding up the wagon in one hand and a wheel in the other. “wheel -”

At least he was not swallowing them now, she thought as she replaced her glasses and leaned forward and took the little wheel and fixed it carefully back onto the wagon.

Don’t be so rough with it, Nathaniel.” she cautioned him as she handed it back to her little boy and he had dimpled his smile back, so like his father. Impulsively she reached out to stroke back a curl from his brow, and then tapped him gently on his nose.

Nathaniel was happy. The wagon was complete again, all was mended.

Olivia finished her letter and sealed it into the envelope. A log settled as the flames consumed it and she got up and placed another log carefully among those already burning. Then she picked up her pen to write another, paused in the act of doing so and recalled how she had very carefully cornered Hester the other day and asked her if she ever thought of her first husband Mark. Hester had smiled slowly and looked, awkwardly, away.

I’m sorry, that was tactless of me.” Olivia had said quickly but Hester had just shaken her head and said quite simply that she did, at times.

I can go days without thinking of Mark at all, after all he died a long time ago, during the war…he went away one day and never came back.” she had paused then and leaned forward to pour more coffee into their cups, “I had not been married for more than two years and there were no children. “

But you grieved for him…”

Oh yes, among all the other hundreds of widows who were grieving over their losses. But then things got difficult with having to stay with Ingrid and Milton..poor Milton, he was caught between the two of us, and he only recently married.”

You don’t grieve for him now?”

I feel sad, sometimes I feel – that I have no right to be so happy. I get frightened that one day Mark will just walk through that door …after all I never had a body to bury, to mourn over.”

Olivia had nodded and looked at her friend closely, but Hester laughed then and shook her head This isn’t a very happy conversation, Olivia…what brought this about?”

I was just wondering how other women handled the loss of a dear husband…”

I see.” Hester had looked at her intently then, that sapphire blue gaze of hers that could pin one down like a butterfly can be pinned to a board.

What do you see?” Olivia had smiled and tried to look no different to how she always looked but feeling self conscious.

You’re worried about – your first husband ? Pa mentioned that you were very quiet after the performance. He thought it had upset you..”

It did rather…and yes, it did make me think of Robert.”

Oh” that was all she had said, but Olivia had felt that she wanted to say more, about Mr Orr perhaps? Had Ben noticed?

Now Olivia turned her thoughts back to Christopher Orr and tried to recall him from all those years ago….but no matter how she tried he remained an enigma, she just could not remember him at all

Chapter 6

It had been a long day and the weather was turning colder. There had been a slight accident when unloading some timber from the wagon. No one was hurt in any way, but it caused a loss of time and Joe’s feelings had to be soothed as he was the cause, not helped by some caustic comment from Adam about having to always be on hand to bail little brother out of the mess he had created. It took Hoss a while to calm Joe down and to admonish Adam that ‘he sure knew how to rile his little brother.’ Adam had shrugged and walked away muttering it was all down to practice over the years, but he did apologise with a wink and grin, which Joe accepted with good grace.

But it lost time, as a result of which all three brothers were late in returning home…weary and cold.

Adam led his horse into the stable where the air was warmer. The body heat of several horses contributed to that, plus the bales of hay stacked alongside the walls that formed an insulation. He stroked Sports neck as he passed, checked that Buster had been left with sufficient food and water, and that Max was clean and groomed. Satisfied on all three accounts he unsaddled Kami and removed her bridle, talking quietly to her all the while as he carried the saddle over to the rail.

After removing the saddle blanket he got the cloth out to wipe her down, to remove the salt sweat from her coat, and after that he filled her hay bag and checked the water was fresh. Then he gave her a pat on the neck and turned to go, but stopped at the sight of his wife standing just inside the building, out of the cold breeze, with her shawl around her shoulders.

He smiled, and walked to her, his hand lifted to rest it upon her shoulder. “How long have you been there?” he asked affectionately, and leaned in to kiss her cheek.

A while, just enjoying the view…” she smiled up at him, and returned his greeting kiss with one on the lips, “I always like watching you with the horses.”

Adam brushed a strand of hair from her brow and nodded, “I didn’t hear you come in, I swear you’re getting as sneaky as a Paiute ..”

I’ll take that as a compliment.” she smiled at him and slipped her arm through his as they turned to walk to the house, pausing long enough to close the stable door behind them.

Are the children alright?”

All in bed. Reuben and Sofia are finding the journey tiring, the colder weather is getting to them rather now, and wears them down. Nathaniel was asleep before he got to bed…”

It is a long journey, I know that…” Adam frowned, “Hannah falls asleep on the way home most days.”

Yes, so Sofia was saying..”

He slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her gently towards him, and when she didn’t pull away but rather responded, he felt a warm glow settle on him. The strange mood she had been in for some days appeared to have been lifted and for that he was more than grateful. A tired man did not want to come home to a cold wife, and spend the last hours of the day wondering what to say or do that would not be misinterpreted. He said nothing however, involuntarily swung her up into his arms with a swish of petticoats and spun her around as though she were a little girl like Sofia and she, laughing, squealed just as Sofia would have done, all the time enjoying every minute of it.

When he put her back on her feet they were at the entrance to the house and there they paused to kiss a little, before they turned to go inside.

It was always a pleasure to return home to a warm room…the fire glowed in the hearth, the lamps and candles cast their light to make the room look welcoming and comfortable. He put his hat on the bureau and shrugged off his coat, before slowly unbuckling his gun belt.

As he did so he watched as she walked into the room, stopped to stoop down and pick up a piece of wood which she cast into the fire. Her straight back, nipped in waist and the full skirts of her dress reminded him that she was a very attractive woman, and when she turned her head to glance over at him, he smiled, recognising the look that makes a hungry man forget about food for the time being.

………………..

Later they sat by the fire, he on the settee and Olivia on the floor, her head leaning against his leg, while one of his hands toyed with her hair. She sat with a half smile on her face, the warmth of the fire making her feel relaxed after the tenderness and passion of the previous half hour. Flames cast shadows over their faces as they flickered and danced over the logs…

I wish we could stay like this forever..nothing changing to spoil it all.” she murmured eventually and moved her head so that her chin was resting upon his knee while her eyes stared into the fire.

Hmm, and the children upstairs – ?” he leaned down a little to kiss the top of her head and then relaxed back into the cushions of the settee

Oh, well, they would – just have to stay there, won’t they?” she smiled and half closed her eyes, “Little Nathaniel will never have to grow up and worry about going to school, and Reuben and Sofia – well – they won’t know – will they?”

And life?”

Life…” she sighed and stretched, then looked up at him and smiled “I guess life will just happen…”

And then we wake up to find – a world we don’t know and who won’t know us…and will have left us and the children behind. All those lost opportunities…”

Well, let’s just make this moment last, shall we?” she scrambled to her feet and joined him on the settee, one hand on his bare chest, the other trailing her fingers over his lips…”I love you, Adam.”

He didn’t speak, but drew her closer, kissed her again .and several times more…

………………

The morning dawned with the first hint of frost in the air and the children rose from their beds with a reluctance to face the coming day.

The warmth of the kitchen was appealing too, and the thought of having to sit on that wagon or in the buggy to take the long journey into school was made even more difficult to face. A cosy warm room, hot bacon and eggs, so much to make a little person feel content with life. Sofia pulled a face at Nathaniel who was going to be able to enjoy the coming day in the warmth of the house, while they – well, she didn’t even like to find the words of how she felt – but she resented the fact that he was going to stay in this cosy haven

Mommy, can I stay home today?” she whispered glancing sideways over to where Adam was seated, drinking his coffee.

No, you can’t and don’t try to wheedle your way around me, Sofia” Olivia shook her head at her daughter and then looked over at Reuben who was pushing aside his empty plate and about to leave the table. He saw her look and smiled “May I leave the table, Ma?”

She nodded and watched as he turned away from his seat and got to his feet. He was going to be tall, she thought, taller than his father had been – and immediately at the thought she felt that guilt again, and felt her face flush.

Are you alright, mommy?” Sofia asked placing a cool hand on Olivia’s flushed cheek and when her mother smiled, she nodded, felt content and continued to finish her meal.

The clock was ticking. Soon there would be the sound of the wagon and the horses in the yard. Sofia sighed and bowed her head, wondering how she could persuade her parents to let her stay home.

But there was the sound of horses in the yard, and she looked at the clock and thought it was too soon, not yet please.

A brusque knock on the door which was pushed open and Hoss stepped inside, sweeping his hat off as he did, nodding apologetically at Olivia and looking at Adam

Adam, Joe and me bin asked to join the posse…”

What posse? “ Adam rose to his feet immediately and glanced at Olivia, and then at Hoss, “What’s going on , Hoss/”

Nate and the boys are outside waiting for you, thought you would want to come along too…”

Adam nodded, dropped his napkin beside the plate and glanced at Olivia who was now on her feet and by his side. They followed Hoss to the door and upon looking out saw Nate and Joe talking together, “Where’s Pa?”

He’s staying home…” Hoss raised his eyebrows “You know – how it is -”

Sure, of course…” Adam nodded, Ben still had limits and he knew he should have realised that, he looked at Olivia “I guess I’ll see you later, sweetheart.”

She handed over his hat, nodded and then kissed his cheek before stepping back to stand beside Sofia who was watching avidly all that was going on.

Joe came out of the stable with a horse on a lead, a sturdy animal who had proved his mettle on a long trek before. “I’ve saddled up for you, Adam…”

Adam nodded his thanks and took the reins from him before looking at Nate “What’s happened, Nate? What are we searching for?”

Who to be correct…” Nate corrected in his deep slow drawl. “Missing girl..Nettie Groom.”

Nettie Groom?”Adam swung himself into the saddle “I don’t know her – “

Joe nodded “Nor me either, but seems she worked at Ridley’s Emporium from leaving school. She’s a seamstress there.”

Adam nodded and looked at Nate “When did she go missing?”

Nate sighed and shook his head “Not sure, her folks saw her leave for work yesterday morning, but she never arrived. Amy Grant didn’t figure on making much about it as Nettie had been irregular some days lately. Her folks got worried when she didn’t get back yesterday evening, even more worried when they found out she hadn’t been into work all day.”

Olivia listened to the men talking, to Nate’s words. She looked down at Sofia and reached out to hold her close to her side..she felt sick, heart sore and sick remembering only too well the time when her children did not come home from school…and it was cold, dark, and bleak outside.

She watched as the men turned the horses round and jostled their way out of the yard. She watched as they turned the corner by the stables and disappeared onto the road beyond. She was not aware of the cold now, only of the misery she knew Nettie’s folks would be feeling right now

Chapter 7

The group of horsemen rode out in silence across the Ponderosa. The sun was just rising now, touching the mountain tops and turning them pink where the early snows had already settled. The sky was streaked with vermilion and orange across a purple sky. Candy rode up closer to Adam so that he was riding between Joe and his brother, “I met them as I was on the way to work this morning.” he paused and lowered his hat “Nate asked me to come along…he’s pulled men from everywhere to help find the girl. Mark Watts has a group of men working on the other side of town. Vinnie Tyler has men searching around Gold Hill.”

What about house to house?” Joe asked sharply, and glanced at Adam wondering if his brother was casting his mind back to when his children had been lost.

Yep, that’s being done…Si Fletcher has some men with him conducting a door to door search.”

There was a collective sigh among them, Candy thought back to when Reuben and Sofia had got lost, and hoped that Adam was not comparing what Nate was doing with what he had done when he was sheriff. Back then there had not been the need for such an extensive search for the children as the house to house had yielded some clue to where they had been taken. He rode closer to Hoss who remained quiet.

Hoss didn’t want to talk about the girl. Even if she was nigh on a woman it still caused him distress to think of her wandering around lost, perhaps hurt. He kept clearing his throat a clear indication that he was getting emotional so Candy kept quiet too.

Sometimes, Nate thought, there was just too much of the Ponderosa, it seemed never ending. Where did one begin to look for a missing girl with so much land everywhere…stretching to the horizon and sweeping beyond one’s vision everywhere one looked. There were box canyons, and gulleys, ravines and old dry river beds, there was scrub land and swathes of woodland, thick Ponderosa pine. It scared him to think that they could search for days, weeks and never find her.

She can’t have gone far…” someone said, “not if she were walking…”

Nate shook his head “She wasn’t walking.”

How d you know that…” the man asked sharply hoping that his suggestion would have been taken up and they could have turned back towards town.

Because a young girl of her age, and with her looks, goes missing because of one reason only…” Nate replied curtly and narrowed his eyes “Irregular at work, change of daily habits and now missing…to me that means she has a man in her life.”

There were low murmurs of agreement among the group, Nate glanced over his shoulder back to where they had been riding through and then nodded “Alright we fan out into a straight line…keep two feet apart ..walk your horses and keep your eyes fixed on the ground.” he lifted himself in the stirrups and looked over them all “Hoss, you’re the best tracker we got. We’re relying on you to notice what we don’t…”

I only got one pair of eyes -” Hoss complained as he thumbed his hat back from his forehead.

Nate nodded “True enough, Candy, you can join with him…keep a distance of three feet between you. If you see anything we’ve missed, yell.”

Candy nodded and halted his horse as the group of men rode forward leaving him and Hoss behind. They looked at one another and nodded

Reckon on him being right?” Hoss asked quietly as he watched the backs of the men walking their horses onwards.

About there being a man? I do. Nettie was a pretty girl, but her parents kept her on a tight rein.”

Hoss grimaced “Then if a man took her out of town, he’d have had a buggy or some vehicle – don’t’cha reckon?”

Candy nodded “So we look for buggy wheels?”

Yeah …that was what I was thinking.”

The men ahead of them were fanning out now, forming a line and each of them two feet apart from the other. Adam and Joe had dismounted, wanting to keep closer to the ground, several others did the same. It was eerily quiet.

The sun was shining now, a thin miserable sun creating shadows. A man complained that he had missed out on his breakfast, another told him to shut up, a girls life could be at stake.

Around Gold Hill and on the other side of town the deputies and their group of men were doing the same, using stout poles to swipe away undergrowth, opening doors to empty derelict houses, peering down wells. The house to house search provided few leads if any, but it instilled fear in the hearts of the parents of young girls throughout town.

……………..

Sofia and Reuben, with Rosie and Hannah had arrived at school and had sensed the atmosphere, the tension among their fellow students. Even children as young as Hannah’s class were affected. They were restless, all of them. Fear had that way of spreading, like a spiders cobweb so that everyone was on tenterhooks waiting for the spider to appear.

All the teachers tried to lighten the mood, but some had taught Nettie only a few years earlier. They knew her parents and their minds were trawling through memories of her schooldays wondering who her friends were, trying to remember any particular one or two – of the male gender. Nettie had been a very popular girl.

The children grouped together at recess, whispers among them. Children whose fathers were on the posses’ were given preferential treatment making the other children resentful, but it was all part of the human process, the shifting and swaying of allegiances…suddenly someone does something that no one expected of them and they become a hero. Thoughts turned to Mr Crook..an evil man who had saved the life of a little girl and suddenly became a hero, a dead one though which is what everyone preferred in his case.

……………….

The house to house search brought out a few names of lads who had known Nettie well enough to come under suspicion of being more involved than they actually were, but were told to report to the sheriffs office to make a statement when the Sheriff returned. They weren’t sure what to put in a statement or why they were being singled out, it left them angry and confused. Such feeling fed the fear.

Anderson, Manager of Ridley’s Livery, confirmed that no buggies had been hired out as did all the other stables and liveries in town. It seemed that Hoss’ theory that a buggy was used to take the girl out of town was null and void ( not that he knew that as he was out in the wilds with his group of men) until Anderson mentioned that there were those who owned their own buggies or wagons…should that be taken into consideration?

At noon the posses took a break. In their own particular areas camp fires were lit and coffee was put on to boil, those who had the foresight to bring food shared out what they could. Hoss’ stomach rumbled ‘something orful!’

No one had seen anything. Nothing had been found.

Dick Cromarty approached nursing a mug of coffee and a thick beef sandwich “How long we keeping this up, Sheriff?”

Until I tell you to stop…” Nate replied in his calm voice and he looked over at the men there and nodded “If any of you want to turn back, you might as well do so now. A willing volunteer is worth ten pressed men…”

Cromarty scowled and bit into his sandwich, then said, spraying food everywhere “Ain’t found nothing, not a lick, and I got a business closed down and losing me money.”

Then go back -” someone snarled, “Just make sure you keep your own daughters safe and hope folk will be more willing to go looking for ’em if’n anything happens to ’em.”

Cromarty shrugged and moved away to eat his sandwich and drink his coffee. By the end of the break he and two others had mounted their horses and ridden back into town.

Adam had been surprised to have seen Christopher Orr riding among the men but had not made any attempt to approach him apart from a nod of the head to acknowledge his being with them. It was now that Orr walked up to the Cartwrights and greeted them with “A sad business, gentlemen”

Joe nodded “It is, doesn’t happen – can’t even recall a young girl missing due to these circumstances.”

Oh what circumstances – I didn’t quite catch what they were..” Orr frowned and looked at Hoss and Adam, then switched his gaze back to Joe.

Reckon a man’s involved. No other reason why a young girl like Nettie would start acting like she has been..” Joe replied and shook his head before taking a gulp of his coffee. Like his brothers he had had no time to fix up food, and was grateful for the substantial breakfast he had eaten.

Yes,” Orr nodded, and sighed “Yes, that makes sense.”

She was a pretty girl,” Hoss muttered and then shook his head “She is a pretty girl shoulda said.”

Nate approached them now and asked Hoss if he had noticed anything, anything at all to which Hoss shook his head “Fact is, we’re riding into rocky country now, could be any place that she’s hid. I reckon we should split into smaller groups, and fan out”

Well, you know this territory better than I do, so I think each Cartwright should take two men with them and move in each direction – north, south, east and west.” Nate said and rubbed his chin with a gloved hand “Do you think, in your heart of hearts, that she would have got this far?”

If she was taken by a man with a wagon or buggy – it is possible.” Hoss said and Candy, his brothers, nodded in agreement.

Haven’t come across any wagon tracks to prove that point, Hoss.” Nate said quietly.

Well, she danged well didn’t walk this far.” Hoss asserted strongly. “If’n you reckon she would have done then there sure ain’t no sign of it.”

Nate nodded, there was a sense of unease among the men, a restless shifting. He looked around “I think you’re right, Hoss. I just don’t want to give up on her too soon. Let’s fan out and see if we can find anything then get back to town…we’ll look until dusk.” he bowed his head as though regretting every word, “then we’ll get back to town.”

The men remounted their horses and in smaller groups recommenced the search. Adam was somehow not surprised to see Christopher Orr riding along with him and two other men. For a while they rode in silence, their eyes searching the ground, occasionally stopping to dismount and examine something..anything..that could have been a clue to the missing girl.

You’ve quite a spread here, Adam.” Orr said as he moved his horse closer to the rancher, “A whole lot of land.”

Adam clenched his teeth, it rankled with him that the man, somewhat of a stranger, would address him by his first name. Had he been on board ship he would have sharply reprimanded him for doing so..’Who gave you permission to use my personal name/’ he would have snapped out. Now he just released his breath and puffed out his cheeks and shrugged

Yes, I guess so….”

You’ve got yourself a very attractive couple of houses on the land too..couldn’t help noticing.” Orr smiled, a pleasant smile, and his eyes twinkled as though he found the exchange amusing.

I guess they’re different style to what you’re used to, Mr Orr.”

Well, I was raised in an old city…” Orr shrugged, the slight nudge that they were on strictly surname terms dismissed

Your family are in textile, arn’t they?”

Yes. Severely damaged as a result of the war, but we survived.”

And you chose to go into Law rather than follow in your father’s footsteps.”

They were big footsteps.” Orr grinned, dimples in his cheeks, “I wanted to carve out my own path. Father understood and gave me his support.”

Adam nodded and his mind wandered back to when he had left college with a Degree in Architecture and Engineering. Perhaps if he had been raised in New England he could have settled into a cosy career ..he sighed and continued to keep his head down, searching for clues to a missing girl.

What do you know about this girl?” Orr asked now, his own head down and looking for what, he didn’t know, but was doing his best.

Nothing really. I never met her. By all accounts she’s pretty, she’s young and -” he shrugged “Now, if you don’t mind, I think we should concentrate on what we’re here for..hopefully either find her or a clue as to where she could be.”

Christopher nodded. He was tempted to salute for he knew all about Adam’s naval career now, he had made his own enquiries. He edged his horse some distance away and began walking his horse slowly through rock strewn land, wiry shrubs snagged at their legs every so often, there was now little grass and fewer trees. Birds called in the sky and every so often the men would look up, scan the skies …one of the men explained to Orr that if they saw a group of buzzards it could mean the worse, that they would find the girl, but probably not alive.

As the sun began to fall Nate signalled that they were to turn back to town, or to home. Hoss was not sorry, he was near fainting with hunger.

When they gathered into a group and Nate asked them if any of them had found anything at all, every man there shook their heads. There had been no sign of Nettie Groom.

Maybe the other posses were more successful, after all, we had no indication that she had come this way.” Joe ventured to say

She could even be home by now…from wherever she went.” Mr Hanratty said with a slight edge to his voice, he was losing business by the hour but he knew the family so tried not to be resentful.

If she ain’t found …what do you want us to do tomorrow?” Hoss asked already planning to get Hop Sing to make a pile of sandwiches.

Adam leaned on the pommel of his saddle, he arched his back a little and said quietly that he and his brothers would ride into town early and find out what Nate wanted to do. Nate nodded, bowed his head…he felt that most there had little hope of finding Nettie – dead or alive.

At the crossroads to town they parted, the Cartwrights and Candy to their own homes, the others taking the trek back to town

Chapter 8

The day did not end there for Nate Carney. Almost as soon as he stepped through the door to his office and taken a seat to write out a report Mr and Mrs Groom entered. It made Nate’s heart sink to see them both, the mother in tears but trying hard to not break down into broken hearted sobs, while her husband supported her with his arm and looked the colour of uncooked dough, the stubble on his chin like snow against the unhealthy tan of his skin, and the rims of his eyes red from his own weeping.

“Saw you come back, sheriff.” a hoarse gasp of a voice, his breath whistling through his lungs, “Saw you come back with the posse.”

There was hope in the voice but at the same time despair. Nate stood up and pulled out a chair and guided the woman to sit down, while her husband hovered as though he knew he was going to have to protect her from further blows of adversity. Nate sat down opposite them and looked from one to the other, then shook his head

“We didn’t find Nettie.” he said in his gentlest voice, and being that he was a gentle man his voice was extremely quiet and soft.

“You didn’t?” she whispered and after staring at him she glanced up at her husband, there was hope on her face, something she was clinging to, if they had not found Nettie, then that meant she was not dead. She was still out there – somewhere.

“Sheriff, that means she could still be alive, don’t it?” Mr Groom asked.

“Yes, it does” Nate inclined his head “My deputies are doing all they can to find her.” he picked up a pen and toyed with it, rolling it round and round between his fingers for a moment before looking back at them “Are you sure you can not think where she may have gone? A hiding place? A friend – perhaps someone you did not approve of so she would not tell you about him – or her?”

“Nettie’s a good girl.” Mrs Groom asserted firmly, “she didn’t have friends of whom we would not approve.”

“That’s right, sheriff. Nettie always told us where she was going and who she would be going with…she was not a deceitful girl.”

Nate nodded “Did you know that Nettie was irregular at work recently?” he could tell that they had not known that, it was obvious from the little start Mrs Groom gave and the nervous clutch to her bag, the way Mr Groom’s Adam’s apple jerked in his throat, “She was arriving late some mornings and some times she left early. Yet she told me she always returned home on time every day.”

“She did, didn’t she, Tom?” another nervous tear filled glance up at her husband and then back to Nate “They must have got it wrong. Some other girl maybe, not Nettie, she was – was not like that,”

They were suddenly quiet, as though realising how easily they had slipped into referring to Nettie in the past tense, as though – already acknowledging something unknown, unwanted, to have happened.

“I’m sorry, but -” Nate gave a slight shrug of the shoulders and Mrs Groom bowed her head and began to weep again, holding a scrap of lace trimmed handkerchief to her face, trying to suppress sobs. Mr Groom placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder,

“There must be a mistake, sheriff, Nettie likes her work, she always left the house on time to get there as soon as the shop opened. I’ve never known her to be late and …”

The door opened and Mark Watts stepped in, removed his hat out of respect for the woman and then looked at Nate, shook his head. “Didn’t find any sign of Nettie, Sheriff.”

Nate nodded and stood up. His long legs took him over to the territory map, and the map of the town pinned to the wall. He looked at the Grooms, and pointed to the map “We have now made a complete sweep of this area, and this -” his hand brushed against the maps indicating where they had searched. “The town has had a thorough investigation -”

“There’s a whole lot of buildings she could be in.” Mr Groom cried, his voice rising hysterically “Warehouses, the old houses that have been empty and “

“They’ve been looked over, Mr Groom. There’s been a house to house search and enquiry, and we have looked into all the wells, ditches and storm drains in town. Vinnie Tyler reported finding nothing in the area he was searching.” he shook his head and then returned to his seat, “Tomorrow we will conduct a search and enquiry of all the ranches, homesteads in the area. Unless you can think of anyone at all -”

They shook their heads, and Nate knew that in the past hours the couple would have been going over and over every name, every person, every property that could have been linked to their daughter. He knew they would have exhausted every avenue because when desperate the mind has to work on something , had to feed on the what if’s and if only’s.

“If Nettie comes back -” Nate said, still standing by his desk, “let us know immediately.”

“She will come back,” Mrs Groom whispered, a desperate sob laden few words and with her husband’s arm around her she was ushered to the door and out into the street. Mr Groom paused a moment and turned at the door,

“Thank you, sheriff, for everything you have done. When Nettie gets back I’ll get her to come thank you personally.”

The door closed. Mark sighed and placed his hat on the hook, then walked to where the coffee pot was steaming, “Do you think she will come back?”

Nate shrugged and took the mug of coffee from Mark, grateful for the smell, that removed the drift of misery in the office. “I don’t know. Still too early to say…”

“We’ve search just about everywhere . Saloons, shops, hotels …as well as private homes.”

“Tomorrow we’ll have to ask the stage depot and railway station – check and see if anyone of her description bought a ticket recently…or rode out of town.”

“Already done that, sheriff. Ain’t been no one.”

Nate bowed his head “It’s always hard when – “ he paused, and shook his head, “it’s always hard when anyone goes missing, leaves an empty space that always demands to be filled.”

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr Groom -”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, they say that where girls are concerned it’s often someone they know, and more than often it’s their Pa.”

Mark stared over the rim of his mug at the sheriff but Nate refused to meet his eyes, preferring instead to stare down at the murky coffee in his own mug.
………………..

Olivia Cartwright sent off her letters and those of her husbands and received some letters in return. It was always a joy to receive news from someone living somewhere else far away. She recognised the writing on the envelopes and then tucked them into her purse.

Her next visit was to the florist where she bought some flowers which she took to Mr and Mrs Grooms home. Bridie was already there, sitting beside Mrs Groom and holding her hand, trying to comfort her but getting no where fast. Grief for the dead was often times easier than grief for those who are missing because one never knew if that grief would turn to joy upon the missing ones’ return or – deepen because they never would come back.

Olivia wanted to say ‘I know how you are suffering -I know -” but she had to hold back because she didn’t know how this particular little body was suffering. Nettie was a young woman not the little child that Sofia was, and she may well have chosen to leave town and start a new life somewhere else. She gave Mrs Groom the flowers and wondered just what to say as the woman stared at them, muttered a hoarse thank you, and placed them on the table beside her.

“I’m so sorry -”Olivia started to say

“Everyone’s sorry.” Mrs Groom whispered through dry lips and a hoarse throat, her eyes she could barely open she had wept so much. “Everyone’s sorry but it don’t bring Nettie back.”

“Everyone’s doing all that they can to find her…” another attempt to say something and Olivia put her hand gently on the woman’s arm, but there was nothing, no response to that action, so she withdrew it again and looked up at Bridie who just shook her head.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Olivia now asked only to have the woman shake her head and then say

“Find my Nettie. That’s what you can do…find my girl for me.”
………………………

The boys who had been rumoured to have been involved in romantic dalliances with Nettie were brought in for questioning. All four protesting their innocence, insisting they had not seen the girl for however long each one said, certainly not recently.

Nettie had obviously not been partial in her choice of male friend, one was the son of a town councillor, another the son of a homesteader from out of town, a hard drinking man whose wife had died of overwork and beatings several years earlier. One lad was an orphan, working hard to make a living and a respectable life for himself, while another was a lad, whose father had been Paiute and whose mother had been a respected member of the towns Temperance Movement.

All four had been respectful, nervous, anxious to please. All of Nate’s gentle probing and questioning brought about nothing that could lay the blame of Nettie’s disappearance on any one of them.

More house to house enquiries took place, the deputies ranged further afield, leaving the town and making enquiries of the local homesteaders and ranchers. As Olivia left Mrs Groom’s house she watched as Vinnie Tyler and Mark Watts rode back into town and dismounted outside the sheriff’s office. There was no sign of Nettie alive – or dead.

She made her way to Mrs Albierno’s and took a chair at a table from where she could see the comings and goings of the town. Not so long ago a young Muslim had sat in the same location watching to see where she or Bridie would lead him and his associate in order to commit murder. Perhaps that bit of information was not necessary for her to know.

With a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in front of her, Olivia withdrew the letters from her pocket, placed her spectacles upon her nose and opened the first envelope with the intention of reading read through all of them, a pleasant half hour spent with friends.

My dear Olivia

How good to hear from you again. Time passes by so quickly here in France, and yet my life in San Francisco with you and Booth and all that happened there, seems to be a very long way away .

My husband is so different from Booth, Olivia, sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I am not caught up in a dream. The boys are growing fast, they resemble Jean Paul, both handsome and intelligent.

I wish you could come and visit us ..”

she read through to the end, dear Morgan, she could never read any of Morgan’s letters without feeling so sorry for her. And realise also that it had only been since they had started writing to one another that she actually had come to know her sister in law for the kind, gentle woman she really was but had never revealed in her life with the Phillips’ family. All that time wasted, what friends they could have been, what misery they could have avoided.

She was about to open her next letter when a shadow fell across her table and looking up she found herself gazing into the twinkling eyes of Christopher Orr. He removed his hat, smiled that charming smile of his and asked very pleasantly “May I?” as he withdrew a chair to take a seat opposite her at her table.

Chapter 9

Olivia suddenly became aware of Mr and Mrs Garston seated not so many tables from herself and as she watched Orr’s lean body lower itself onto the chair opposite she felt the warmth of a blush creeping over her coat collar and mantling her cheeks. She lowered her head in order to appear busy putting her letters back into the purse, from a purely feminine reason she removed her spectacles and placed them along with her letters Then she picked up her cup to sip some coffee.

“I was visiting a client and saw you coming in here” he put his hat on the empty chair next to him, and started peeling off his gloves “I thought it would give be the perfect opportunity to see you and apologise.”

“Apologise? For what?” Olivia looked at him, wide eyed over the rim of her cup.

“For Saturday.” he replied and then paused as Mrs Albierno approached with another cup and saucer, the coffee pot in her hand.

Christopher thanked her as though she had presented him with something more than a cup of coffee which she set down upon the table before refilling Olivia’s cup, giving her a smile and leaving them to themselves. Olivia’s eyes darted over to the Garston’s, now somewhat obscured by another couple who had just entered the restaurant.

“I -” he smiled, stirred in sugar, ”I embarrassed you by referring to you as Mrs Phillips, in public, too. I could tell from your face that you felt awkward, and I apologise for putting you in that position.”

“Oh-” she gave a very slight shrug of the shoulders “It caught me unawares, I’d not been called Mrs Phillips for such a long time.”

“How long is it since Robert died?” now it was his turn to look at her over the rim of his cup, his eyes earnest but reassuring, kindly.

“Oh – Robert died before Sofia, our daughter, was born. Near to 8 years ago now.”

“That must have been difficult for you, raising your two children alone.”

She said nothing to that, although her mind wandered back to the time, shrouded in mists of misery and illness, a night mare that lasted years.

“My mother in law, and Robert’s brother and his wife moved in with me, I was quite ill for a while.” she managed to say, aware that he had been waiting for her to speak and yet not wanting to say more.

“Booth? That was his name, Robert’s brother -”

“Yes.”

“I knew him briefly as well. He came to the same college as Robert. Nothing like his brother, was he?”

“No.” she shook her head, thought of the letter she had just read from Morgan, sighed before drinking some more coffee.

“Booth tried too hard to be popular, got in with the wrong crowd.” he smiled then, his eyes twinkled, “There’s always a ‘wrong crowd’ isn’t there?”

“I suppose so.” she darted another quick look over at the Garstons, but thankfully the other couple shielded her from view, although they would have had a good look at Orr’s back which was facing to them.

“What was Robert like when you knew him, Mr Orr?” she heard herself saying, anything rather than stumble along making small talk. She had never learned the art of small talk, preferred to have a conversation about things that mattered, so waited for him to reply.

Christopher Orr put his head to one side and observed the far wall, as though gathering his thoughts, then he smiled and nodded “Robert was a good friend, and I mean by that everything one expected from a friend. He and I were roughly the same age, just weeks between us you know? Well, he was a good student, worked hard at his studies. He wanted to achieve so much….” he frowned slightly, “If I recall rightly he had a tyrant of a father -”

“Grandfather.” she said quickly, “His father – from what I have been told – was a very kind and gentle man. It was his Grandfather who was the tyrant…Robert used to tell me stories about him that came straight out of a Grimms’ fairy tale. Hard to believe that such monsters could exist….”

He leaned back and shook his head “That’s the most I’ve heard you say yet -”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr Orr. I – I just blame Mr Von Richter for much of the trouble that the family suffered, even after his death.”

“You never met him?”

“Several times, he was always very kind to me, very generous too. But – “ she shrugged again, lowered her eyes and resumed her coffee. The cake remained on the plate, seemingly forgotten.

“Yes, Robert told me quite a lot about him. We were close friends during our college days, acted as confidantes to one another I guess. He was good to have around, you know? Made a rather shy youth more confident because of the interest he showed. I envied his ability to concentrate on his studies too…he was a brilliant student.”

She smiled softly, her eyes limpid with the thoughts of Robert as a youth, diligent and hardworking, fun and a good friend.

“Booth told me quite a bit about the family as well.” he noticed how quickly the smile faded and the eyes went dark, but having ventured this far he pressed on regardless “It rather amused me how differently they both felt about the old man.”

Olivia nodded “I think Booth considered his grandfather a good role model.”

Christopher sighed now, and then leaned forward “I think you made Robert very happy though, Olivia, in fact, I know you did as he told me so himself. I’m sorry that you don’t remember the times we met.”

“I’m sorry too, I should have remembered but a lot of my life back then was a blur. I was never very good in company -” she blushed now and forced a smile “My life was very different from Roberts, I was always quite surprised that he even noticed me. My parents lived some distance away from here, and we led a very isolated solitary life. I had no grand schooling, home schooled with my brothers and sisters. When I met Robert I was – well – just a mouse really.”

“How did you meet?” Orr asked, looking interested enough to appear sincere.

“My father took me along on a business trip. I met Robert and for some reason he wanted to meet us again, and then – one day he appeared at our home and asked my father if he could court me.”

“Robert always went right out for what he what wanted…he said it was a Von Richter trait. See it, want it, take it.” he grimaced and shrugged

“Oh, he wasn’t like that at all.” she replied, her voice softening, “Ambitious yes, but not ruthless like his grandfather. “

“You were so different to everyone else he knew.” Christopher smiled, his eyes warm, and he leaned towards her again, “He told me you were like a rare jewel shining through the mud of everything around him. You saved him from despair..”

“Despair? I don’t understand – what do you mean?”

“He felt trapped in his life, with that Grandfather he hated, a mother he loved and felt he had to protect. Then you came along, and gave him a purpose. He said if it had not been for you, he would have sunk, married someone his Grandfather would have chosen for him, become nothing…”

Olivia frowned “I never saw that in Robert. He always seemed very sure of himself. He knew where he was headed and aimed for it, although -” she hesitated and toyed with the spoon between her fingers “I suppose I never noticed at first, being so unsure of everything myself, all that etiquette, all those fancy manners. I think Robert enjoyed teaching me to ‘fit in’ – how to use the right fork, or spoon, what went where -” she smiled, the dimple by her mouth that Adam loved to kiss.

“I can imagine. But he loved you with a passion. I could see why, of course, when I first met you, I could quite understand how he would have fallen in love with you.”

She bowed her head, for some reason now she felt uncomfortable with this rather personal conversation She fumbled with her purse and glanced again over at the Garstons who were making a deal of noise in getting up from their table. She watched them approach, and prepared herself for Mrs Garston’s cold eyes sweeping over her, which they did.

“Good morning, Mrs Cartwright. Mr Orr.” Mr Garston said and tipped his hat before going on his way, his hand on his wife’s elbow to steer her out of the building.

“Well, I must go -” Olivia muttered and started to move from her seat

“Are you working at the Hospice today?” He stood up, pushed himself away from the table, and prepared to assist her.

“No, I came into town to see Mrs Groom.”

“Ah of course, the missing girl’s mother…” he took her elbow and led her from around the table, as though she were incapable to doing so herself.

“I feel for her, poor woman. She must be in agonies.” she very carefully detached herself from his grip and walked away, he strolled close behind her so that they were standing together on the sidewalk.

“Her daughter – quite a young girl I believe?”

“Yes, but old enough -”

“Yes?” he raised his eyebrows and waited for her to speak, say something more

“My daughter went missing a year ago, she was – gone – for some months.” Olivia put a hand to her throat, here fingers twisted the top button of her coat, “I still have nightmares about it, but she was only a little girl, Nettie is more a young woman, and pretty too.”

“I had heard so.”

“Of course, Adam told me that you were with them on the posse. He said he was surprised that you didn’t turn back with the others when their stomachs started rumbling.”

Orr laughed, a pleasant chuckle, and he nodded “Ah I see, the soft lawyer out for a jaunt and ready to leave as soon as he could….”

“He didn’t mean it to be offensive, he was actually quite impressed.”

“I imagine it takes a lot to impress you husband, Olivia.”

He was smiling, his eyes twinkling at her. She said nothing, cleared her throat and turned to leave, saying that she thought she would go to the hospice after all, just see how the building work was progressing.

“I admire you for that work, I went to see it, it’s very very impressive. You know that deSousa wanted me to change the Contract? To find some thing in one of the clauses he could tweak and get you thrown out.”

She stopped in her tracks, and turned to look at him her lips clamped and eyes dark, “He did, did he?”

“I gave it back to him – told him I’d not touch it, that I admired you all for what you are trying to do for the poor and unemployed.” he placed his hat upon his head now, and stepped beside her, “I do charity work myself, I can afford to. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help, won’t you?”

She allowed herself a small smile and nodded “Thank you, Mr Orr.”

“Call me Christopher, please. For old times’ sake.” he took one of her hands and gave a slight bow over it, then walked away.

She didn’t watch him go, she was glad he was gone, and hoped not to see him again. With a feeling of impending doom, about what she couldn’t say, Olivia made her way to the hospice.

Barbara greeted her with a smile “I’m so glad you came today, Olivia. Henry says the work is finished, and for the first time – listen!”

The two women stood side by side, listening to the chatter of women, the calls and laughter of children, the sound of knives cutting and chopping food but there were no more sounds of hammers, no more men yelling or cursing, so sawdust drifting down on their heads. She looked up and around her, spinning round like a little girl to take in all that was around her and she laughed, and Barbara grabbed her hand and laughed as well.

“It’s beautiful. All finished, I can’t wait to tell Ben…and Adam…” she clasped her hands together, beneath her chin, and heaved in a deep breath, “Oh the first winter when we won’t get chilblains and there won’t be water to mop up from the floor because of the condensation…it will be wonderful.”

“Henry said the men were sad to finish the job. Some of them will be unemployed again…”

“Yes.” Olivia stopped and the bubble of excitement popped, she looked around her “They must feel wretched -”

“Some -” Barbara nodded, and then gave a small smile “But others have found a vocation, and have formed their own team to go out and do work for the townsfolk. Henry may have competition.”

“I hope that they succeed. I hope they do well. They’ve worked so hard for us these past few months.”

Barbara pushed open the door to the office. It was warm and tidy, a geranium flourished on the cill of the new window, papers were piled tidily on the desk.

“Any news of Nettie Groom at all, Olivia?” Barbara asked as she moved to the small stove that provided both warmth and a means to boil up coffee, she poured the hot liquid into two cups and handed one to the other woman who thought immediately of the cake left on its plate at the restaurant, untouched.

“No, not that I know of, her mother is in a wretched state as you can imagine.”

Barbara sat down, the cup nursed between her fingers “Oh Olivia, what a wretched business. Are they still looking? John was expecting them to bring in a body …”

Olivia shook her head “Not that I know of …they were resuming the search today. Adam and Joe and Hoss were meeting them …”

They fell silent, outside in the preparation room someone started singing a popular song of the time, others joined in, but neither woman in the office listened, instead Olivia quietly closed the door to shut out the sound.

Chapter 10

In the ranch that everyone knew as The Ponderosa the fire was burning brightly, Hop Sing laboured over his cooking in the kitchen and Hester bustled about the house with a bright red spotted duster, humming to herself. Hope trotted along beside her with a little duster of her own. They had a system, Mother had the top and higher items to polish and dust, while Hope flicked her duster here and there where she could reach.

Erik sat in his chair scribbling with wax crayons on paper. Ben was very generous with paper, partly because he liked the little boy to be happy and also because when the boy was happy he was quite and out of the way. Ben had not reared three boys without learning something.

Now he sat at his desk and re-read through some documents, marking sections here and there with his pen, his dark eyes scanning line after line of the fine script. Now and again he would listen to the sounds that were becoming more familiar to him again. The little things that were liable to slip through the holes in the net of memory…perhaps because they existed in the background of one’s life, always a part of life but never a major part. He sighed contentedly, and leaned back a little to listen to Hester humming some tune, the clatter of the pots and pans.

He was remembering so much more with each day that passed. At times he forgot things, but then, as his daughters in law were quick to remind him, everyone forgot things, every day new memories were being formed pushing aside the old to make room for the new. It reassured him a little but only a little.

He was stronger physically although he was honest enough to admit that he could not have gone on the posse ride the previous day nor today. It would be some time before he could do so. When Hoss told him that Roy had not been on the posse and added the word ‘either’ it made Ben angry, he felt as though his son was relegating him to the ranks of the old and infirm. He didn’t want to be in that position. He was Ben Cartwright and as such – well, he was not going to get old, he refused to do so. Infirm temporarily, but old – never.

Of course he had to chide himself about that when he shaved himself, looked at his image in the mirror and saw the white hair, thinning, receding, and the face that much thinner, and the stubble on his jaw looking like frost upon his tanned skin. ‘You’re an old fool’ he told himself but he didn’t say why, because he was sure once he accepted the fact that he was old – no, older – he would start to fade away.

He picked up his pen and as he did so heard the sound of horses coming into the yard. He sighed, put down the pen and got to his feet. Hester had stopped singing and Erik had called out “Daddy” while Hope was already running to wards the door.

The three brothers entered wearily, and Ben could see from the droop of their shoulders, the low dip of their heads that they were not only bone tired but also had no good news to tell. He cleared his throat and as each one put down their hat upon the bureau, they glanced at him.

“Any news?” Ben asked, “Have they found her?”

Adam shook his head and his dark eyes looked sideways on to Hoss, who also shook his head,

“No, Pa, no sign.”

Joe flopped down into one of the chairs, catching Hope up in the scoop of his hands and settling her upon his lap. “No sign, Pa, Nate even had us dragging the river.”

Hester shivered, people went missing, of course they did, over the years it had happened at times. But usually a body was found, or they returned home. Or news came from somewhere to say they were safe and well. But she could not recall a pretty young girl going missing, not ever. For some reason it fed the imagination with thoughts that no woman wanted to dwell on.

Hester decided to join Hop Sing in the kitchen rather than listen to the conversation that would follow. Her mind trickled over to how Mrs Groom would be feeling and then memories of how Olivia reacted when Sofia had been away from home for so long. But then, no one really knew Nettie, not here on the Ponderosa, all one knew was how a mother would feel for a lost child. And any mother would say that no matter how old a daughter or son, they were always a child to the parent.

“So how far have you covered -” Ben asked as he led the men over to the territorial map, not the one of the Ponderosa that was framed and hung on the wall behind his desk, but the map of the territory that he had spread out over the table close to the stairs

“Well, Nate had us sweep this area here yesterday -” Adam pointed to the area and then traced the outline of where they had been before bringing his index finger to the river “Mark and Vinnie started dragging the river from here, we started from here … “ he shook his head “Nothing…”

“Just a load of garbage folk had chucked into the river -” Hoss muttered “But nothing about that pore little gal.”

“Seems she just vanished.” Joe rubbed his chin, “Everythings been checked in case she left town, stage depot, railway ..and no buggies or any vehicle has been hired out.”

“A private vehicle then?” Ben suggested

Adam grimaced and Joe cast down his head and stared at the map, while Hoss shook his head

“That kinda makes it seem that someone in town knows exactly where she is…” he muttered.

“Yeah, I can’t imagine Nettie hiring a vehicle.” Joe added while Adam bit down on his upper lip and shook his head

“To my mind, it seems she knew someone who had a buggy and that someone took her for a little ride -”

“And never brought her back?” Joe shivered “No, I don’t like the way this is going….”

“I don’t like to think in that direction either..” Hoss agreed and then turned as the rattle of crockery and so forth drew his attention to his wife, who was now setting down a tray with coffee and cookies for them all. She cast an anxious look in Ben’s direction but he would not look at her, but continued to stare down at the map.

………………………

Vinnie Tyler looked at the map and then stuck another pin into it, before stepping back to observe his work. Behind him Nate stood with his hands folded across his chest staring at the array of pins and trying to work out some conclusions from it. Mark Watts was perched on the corner of a desk doing the same.

Staring at pins. All of them indicating where they had searched for a missing girl who, for all they knew, had gone visiting some place and was now too scared to get home because of all this fuss made over her not getting into work one day. He had volunteered such a suggestion earlier, but it had been dismissed out of hand, no one wanted to think of Nettie being safe and sound somewhere, but then no one wanted to think of Nettie being – well, what it seemed to be getting more obvious by the minute.

“What do you think?” Vinnie asked Nate, “Seems we been just about everywhere -”

Nate shook his head “This area is full of caves, mines and places we have never even thought of…”

Mark sighed and shook his head “I don’t think she’s in any old cave – or mine – I think -”

“We know what you think, Mark, and it doesn’t hold up…from all accounts she’s a caring girl, who loves her folks. She would not deliberately be hiding away some place because of all the fuss that has been made in our looking for her.” Nate tapped his fingers against his mouth and stared at the map, “We’re missing something…”

“Perhaps we should get those boys back in – slap them around a bit and get them to talk.” Vinnie suggested.

“Talk like that again and I’ll be slapping you about a bit -” Nate scowled darkly at his deputy who had the grace to shrug and mutter that he was only joking.

“Mark, go and talk to the ladies at the Emporium, the women she worked with …ask them if Nettie ever even slightly hinted at having a beau.”

Mark nodded and walked over to where he grabbed his hat and quickly left the building. Vinnie looked at Nate, before walking over to his desk and taking a seat

“Boss, do you think it’s possible that she could still be in town?”

“No.”

“I mean – “ he cleared his throat “Not like I thought, suggested – just – like kept unwilling like. Against her will.”

Nate stared at the map, then at his deputy, “To be honest, Vin, I’m beginning to think so, just can’t think of any other reason why she is still missing.”

“Perhaps she’s still at home – you know – “

“Speak plain, what’s your meaning?”

“Just that, folk often say that killings of young girls are often done by the folk they know, and just perhaps -”

“I don’t think so.” Nate shook his head and walked closer to the map, “I can’t imagine Mr and Mrs Groom -”

“Usually it’s the father…”

Nate glared at the other man, and shook his head “Get that idea out of your head, deputy.”

“I was just speculating – I mean – I was reading this book about crime and -”

“This isn’t a story, this is real and it’s happening here, right now, so stop yammering and get on and do something constructive. Go and interview some of her old school friends…you’ve got a list somewhere -”

“I already done that, Boss.”

“Then do it again. It’s just possible someone may remember something now that she has been gone this much longer. They may be getting scared, and that could prompt some memory of Nettie saying or doing something that now may be more relevant than it was yesterday.”

Vinny

“Those boys all had alibi’s – but if you feel inclined to ask them any questions go ahead, but no slapping or bullying tactics. D’you hear?”

……………..

The young ladies at Amy’s Ladies Emporium stood side by side with their eyes fixed on the Deputy feeling flutters of excitement, after all a little bit of drama in their lives was always like a little spice in their daily drudge, but also with a flutter of panic. Each one there wished they knew more, could say more, be more helpful but Nettie had been a closed book, giving no hint of anything untoward.

The only thing they all agreed on was that when she was late she never offered any explanation, which Miss Ridley and Mrs Evans would have insisted on, but Amy was too young, too sweet, to press matters. She just accepted Nettie’s muttered hurried apology and said nothing more about it.

The same as when Nettie sloped off early. No explanation,just a quick ‘Oh is that the time – I must dash.” or something of that sort and Mrs Tombs just smiled and nodded.

The interview gave Mark no idea of what Nettie was up to, but it did provide a lot of evidence that Mrs Tombs needed to toughen up.

Mark asked, very politely, if he could have a private word with Mrs Tombs and was taken into her office where they faced off each other across the desk.

“I’m sorry we can’t tell you anything more about Nettie, Deputy.” Amy said in her quiet voice although inwardly she was shaking, being a timid girl, she found this aspect of her managerial duties rather daunting.

“In your own words, Mrs Tombs, what kind of girl was Nettie?” Mark pulled out a note book and pencil, on his own with all these women, even if there was a door between him and them, made him nervous.

“She was quiet. A very good seamstress.” Amy replied promptly and then grew quiet as she tried to think a little more about the young girl.

“If you don’t mind my saying so but you were very lenient about her coming late and going early..is that usual?”

Amy blushed and blinked several times faster than usual, “No, it isn’t normal. Nettie explained to me that her mother was unwell…that there were days when she would have to help in the mornings and get back earlier in the afternoons .. she was a very caring girl, and she loved her parents very much.” she sighed and bowed her head “It was obvious from how they were together ..I would see them at church sometimes and think what a lovely family they were…she was especially fond of her mother.”

Mark nodded and looked at Amy who felt she needed to add more but couldn’t think what it could be the Deputy wanted her to say.

“Do you feel that Nettie was keeping a secret of some sort?” Mark asked now, his pencil hovering over his notebook

“Well, she told me it was a secret about her mother’s illness. No one knew…and her mother did not want anyone to know either.”

“Nothing else? No hint about a boy in her life -”

“I did ask her that – well, I joked with her about that once, and she was quite angry – said she had no time for such nonsense. She said there was no one boy in town that she considered man enough to be bothered with -”

“If you were just joking -”

“I did apologise and explained it was just a joke and she laughed it off.”

“But it was rather strange her getting angry about that – wasn’t it?”

Amy thought for a second or two and then nodded “It was out of character. I didn’t expect her to react like that, but I rather think it was because some of her friends at school of her age were now married and she felt as though she were left behind.” she blushed then, after all she had been one of those just recently married herself.

Mark nodded as though he were an expert on how girls react to such things, and thanked Mrs Tombs for her help. He left the building leaving them all feeling like a black cloud had just descended on them

Mark stopped at the surgery where at one time Paul Martin held reign. Dr John Martin was in the office and looked up over the sheaf of papers in his hand “Mark? Can I help you at all?”

“Well, I was wondering if you or the other docs could -.”

“What is it then/” John frowned, he was busy on a tight schedule and minutes were ticking away.

“Mrs Groom -”

“Ah yes, poor woman.”

“She’s sick?”

John frowned, “Of course not – well, perhaps from anxiety and shock with this matter of Nettie. But otherwise she is a very healthy woman. I daresay she will come through this with her good health intact.”

“She ain’t sick at all then, other than – “ Mark shrugged and nodded, sign language John seemed to understand because he just confirmed his previous statement and then asked to be excused, he had work to do.

“As if I don’t -” Mark muttered under his breath as he hurried over to the Sheriff’s office

Nate had just picked up his hat when Mark pushed open the door with a look of satisfaction writ large over his face. So much so that Nate stepped back, put his hat back on the peg and indicated his desk.

Mark cleared his throat “Seems Nettie had a tendency to lie.”

“Go on.”

“And she’s mighty sensitive about not having a beau – “

“So?”

“Well, putting two and two together, Boss, I think Nettie does have a man in her life and wanted no one to know about it.”

Nate looked at his Deputy thoughtfully and then nodded, smiled “Tell me what you found out, Mark. Then we’ll take it from there.”

Chapter 11

The boys were having a spitting contest. The girls thought it was disgusting but a group of them were gathered around the boys to watch. Of course Davy Riley was taking the lead and some boys were complaining that he was cheating because he had a gap between his front teeth that gave him an unfair advantage.

Reuben was not interested in such contests, he already knew he was not a good spitter compared to Davy, so had chosen to spend time with Sofia and Lilith and little Hannah. It was a strange little group, one boy among three girls of such differing ages but Lilith was more than pleased, for more reasons than one, which was to help teach them sign language.

Davy had just surpassed himself by succeeding in sending a gob of spit further than his previous success. There were intermingled sighs and groans, he was proud of this achievement and grinned from ear to ear being awarded a pat on the back from Tommy Conway who had woefully fallen far short off the mark.

Reuben glanced over at the noise and grinned but then fell silent at the sight of the Sheriff and the Deputy walking pass the school building, looking very serious. He was about to speak when Sofia said “Do you think they have found that girl?”

“Doesn’t look like it. She isn’t with them is she?” Reuben replied as he stood up and walked slowly to the entrance of the yard to watch their progress.

“Perhaps she’s dead…” Lilith murmured.

Davy Riley came and joined them and shrugged “They bin dragging the river. I saw your Pa and Uncles riding out with ’em this morning, Reuben. She’s dead alright. Bet she’s bin in the river for so long that she’s all bloated and floating on the surface.”

Sofia scowled from beneath her brows, and Reuben told Davy to shut his mouth, it was not seemly to talk like that, and anyhow, how would he know ! That was quite the wrong thing to say to Davy, after all, he was the Undertaker’s son. He raised his chin and squared his shoulders

“I seen ’em – bodies brought in from the river or drown-ded. Depending how long they bin in they look – “ he snapped around to stare at Sofia “horrible with maggots coming out of their eyes and their skin looking like -”

“Shut up, Davy.” Reuben said and grabbed his sister by the arm “Don’t listen to him, Sofee, he’s just making It up.”

Sofia twisted away, she couldn’t imagine the picture that Davy was drawing up, but in her mind she knew she would probably have a nightmare about it later during the night. She was further horrified when Tommy, lover of all things gruesome, asked Davy what the skin looked like if it was all bloated up and Davy grinned, his eyes still on Sofia as he said “Yeah, just like a pigs bladder blown up like a ball we kick around, and -”

He didn’t get any further as Sofia’s hand slapped him across the face, leaving a red stinging mark on his cheek. He grinned and someone laughed and made a comment about Davy, champion spitter being bested by a girl.

“Sofia, one of these days you’re going to hit me once too often.” he chuckled rubbing his cheek where her hand had struck him but she was not paying attention to him any more but had ran off, skirts swirling around her ankles and her hair streaming while tears trickled down her face.

Jimmy C Evans (as he was now known) saw her and stopped her in her flight, he put a hand gently on her arm, and then produced a very clean white square of cloth for her to mop up her face.

“Don’t take no notice, Sofia. He’s just telling a story – he likes being the centre of attention, you know. He hasn’t really seen a drowned body.”

“Thank you, Jimmy” she said very quietly and looked up into his face, Jimmy Carstairs, Evans she meant, she blinked and returned the cloth. “I didn’t mean to cry. He just made me angry.”

“Guess he makes most of us angry some of the time, best just to ignore him.”

She nodded, heaved in a deep breath and turned away to join with Lilith and Hannah. Reuben was having an altercation with Davy but Jimmy, he just watched as Sofia ran away from him, while clutching the little handkerchief tightly in his hands …It would later join other items in a little box he had hidden under his bed.

………….

Mrs Groom opened the door to her house and looked with red rimmed eyes up at the Sheriff. She had to crane her neck quite a bit as she was a short woman and Nate, well, he was 6ft 7 inches and seemed to go on forever. She blinked and then looked at Mark who was more on her level,

“Have you – have you found her? Bradley said you were – going to search the river -” her hands opened and closed nervously at the pleat in her shawl and although she knew she should ask them in her feet just didn’t seem to want to move.

She had never known cold like it. No mater how the fire roared in the sitting room she was cold, her feet like ice, she had even put on two pairs of woollen stockings but it was no good, even now standing there she was shivering and shaking.

Mark put out a hand and laid it on her arm, very kindly, for Mark Watts was that kind of man, kindly and thoughtful.

“How about you let us come inside and talk, Miz Groom?”

“Yes, of course – come on in -”

She shuffled out of the way and closed the door behind them. Nate asked if her husband was home and just as he asked Bradley Groom appeared. His face was grey and haggard now. There was no doubt in the two lawmans minds that both of them were suffering torment at the girls absence. Nor any doubting that she was much loved and probably pampered to an inch of her life. Perhaps that was part of the problem love can sometimes be stifling when it was just meant to be protecting.

“Come on inside..” Bradley said and indicated the room where the fire was roaring and to which Mrs Groom shuffled in order to sit as close to the flames as she possibly could.

The two men sat down on the sofa and held their hats in their laps, glanced around the room as though the wallpaper hid a clue to Nettie’s whereabouts and then before Bradley could ask, Nate told them that the latest search had yielded no result.

“You dragged the river? I heard the other deputy talking about it to Mr Coffee. You didn’t find anything did you?”

His voice contained a mixture of hope and relief. Hope that finding nothing meant Nettie could still be alive, relief in that the river had not claimed her. Unlike many he did know what a body would look like brought up from the river as he worked alongside Mr Riley as the Undertaker’s Assistant. He reached out and took hold of his wife’s hand before looking at Nate

“Is there nothing else? No clue to where she is?” he didn’t dare ask the other question, too scared, just in case. The thought that his dear little girl could be dead – he gulped and as usual his Adam’s apple jerked.

“No – but she did tell her Employer that she had to stay home to care for her mother in the mornings, and leave early some days – because of Mrs Groom’s health problems.”

Mrs Groom shot upright, her eyes bulged slightly and she gave a loud hiccup of surprise before lifting her lace trimmed handkerchief to her face. She shot a look over to her husband,unsure now what to say..if she denied it then it meant her daughter was a liar, but if she said she was ill then she would be lying. She was as fit as any woman her age could be and when she looked at Nate she knew that he already was well aware of that fact. She bowed her head

“I have good health, Sheriff, I don’t know why Nettie would say such a thing …”

The silence descended like a blanket until Nate stood up and asked very politely if they could look at Nettie’s room. This request was met with cold disapproval, more silence, until Mr Groom asked if it was really necessary.

“It may provided us with a clue..something that would give us some idea as to why Nettie would lie about her mothers health.” Nate replied, gentling his voice for he also knew how to treat grieving and potentially hostile family members

“Come this way -” Bradley sighed and stood up, looked at his wife and gave a weak smile “It’s for the best, for Nettie, my love.”

She nodded and as they left the room, buried her face in her handkerchief.

………………

When Adam returned from the main house, he was greeted by his wife who had opened the door as soon as she had heard his foot steps. She leaned in to kiss him, and smiled. He was more than pleased to see that the smile was in her eyes, and the kiss was warm, so he lingered a little longer than usual to enjoy it before she slipped away from him, her fingers trailing down the side of her dress,brushing against his hand.

“Had a good day?” he asked with a grin, his cheeks dimpling and brown eyes darkening. He stood by the bureau and unbuckled his gun belt which he placed high up out of reach from inquisitive children’s fingers.

“Yes, well, bits of it were – I saw Mrs Groom.” she paused then and turned to face him, “No sign of her daughter?”

“No,” he shook his head, “None at all.”

“Poor woman, she’s desolate. I – I can remember -” she paused and heaved in a deep breath, then shook her head “Well, we were blessed with Sofia getting back, but somehow I don’t think Mrs Groom will have such a blessing.”

Adam nodded, and looked around “It’s very quiet -”

“Nathaniel fell asleep so he’s in his bed already. Reuben and Sofia are working on their school work” she smiled and said very brightly how she had been to the Hospice, and how the work was now finished. “It looks wonderful. Henry is so pleased and I can’t believe that we won’t be getting chilblains working in that office during the winter.” she turned and gave him an impulsive hug “Oh Adam, you and your Pa have been so generous, it has been a wonderful transformation.”

“I should have thought of it sooner..” he kissed her fingers “Would hate to see these little fingers itching with chilblains.”

“Mr Orr told me -”

“Christopher Orr? You saw him?”

“Yes, in town…he was just leaving a client and was on his way to his office. He said he was so impressed with the Hospice, he told me that Mr deSousa had given him instructions to find a way around the Contract, so that he could find a way to get out of it. But he told Mr deSousa to forget it, and gave him the Contract back.” she frowned “That rat! Mr deSousa is determined to close us down, Adam…”

“Well, we won’t let him.” he replied with a shrug “So he gave Mr Orr the Contract, did he?”

“Yes, and Mr Orr gave it back to him.” she smiled and looked at him with a slight wrinkle in her brow “I thought that was good of him to do that, and to tell me too…puts us on our toes so to speak.”

Adam nodded and was about to say more when Sofia came running in to the room, her face screwed up in a dramatic grimace of dismay and horror. Olivia raised her eyebrows and shook her head, having already heard everything already, and knowing what to expect she promptly excused herself and said she would go and attend to the meal.

“Well, now -” Adam said and stooped down to his daughter’s level, “What’s wrong? A problem with your maths?”

“No Daddy, something horrible…”

“Oh, worse than your maths?”

“Daddy, that horrible Davy Riley – he said that that girl was in the river and would be maggots now and she isn’t is she?”

Adam sighed and picked her up, balanced her in the crook of his arm “Nothing of the kind, sweetheart. You don’t have to worry about that at all.”

“But he said you were all going to look for her body in the river and that -”

He put his finger to her lips “We have to look everywhere, Sofia, just in case she had had an accident and had fallen in to the river.”

“But he said -”

Again his finger went to her mouth, and he shook his head “Forget about what Davy said…for all we know she could be safe and well at her parents home by now.” he placed her back down, and then raised a warning hand up to stop her saying another word on the subject, a knitting of his dark brows and a slight shake of the head. The subject was closed. Sofia nodded and with a sigh dragged herself back to where Reuben was busy toiling over his school work.

He grinned over at his Pa and assured Adam that he was alright, no problems, upon which Adam relaxed, and strolled into the other room where Olivia and Cheng Ho Lee were preparing for the evening meal. Despite his wife’s warm welcome Adam Cartwright felt that there was a little black cloud hovering overhead, he didn’t know whether it could be labelled suspicion, or jealousy. The thought discomfited him while at the same time made him feel guilty

Chapter 12

The banging on the door caused all four Cartwright men to stand up and stare at one another, Joe sighed and muttered something under his breath while Hester hurried to open the door. Hop Sing hovered nearby, an anxious scowl on his face while Erik and Hope, after a brief pause, continued to play.

“Is Mr Cartwright here? I really needs to speak to him -”

A deep voice, one that quavered a little, and then footsteps approaching them. Ben had sat down again once he accepted that the stables were not burning down, while Adam turned to face the newcomer. Hoss stood behind his brother while Joe continued to be seated opposite his father.

“You gotta come – come quick -” the man brandished his hat towards the door, his face was red from a hard ride but his eyes were bulging as though whatever had happened, whatever he had seen, still terrified him.

“Calm down, Mr McCrieff, calm down and tell us what’s happened” Adam suggested, approaching the man with a raised hand, an intention to calm their visitor

“I can’t – get the words out -” McCrieff put a hand to his chest, and hauled in a deep breath, “my girls found her, dead she is, dead as can be -”

Now all four men were on their feet waiting as McCrieff hauled in yet another breath, he had obviously ridden hard and Ben wondered why the man had come to the Ponderosa instead of the town. One of the black spots of his memory was the fact that he could not remember all his neighbours and poor Mr McCrieff was one of them.

“Who do you mean,Mr McCrieff?” Hoss asked as they strode towards the door close behind the man who had slapped on his hat and was scuttling to the door as fast as he could

“Reckons on it being that girl that gone missing? S’right, ain’t it? A girl from town?”

“That’s right, Mr McCrieff. You reckon you found her?” Hoss answered as he nodded farewell to his wife and hurried behind the homesteader.

“My girls found her. Scared them witless. They came home jabbering nonsense and then I went out and saw her….” he grabbed his horse by the reins, “Thought best to come for you seeing how its close to our borders.”

“It may still have been wiser to go for the sheriff in town.” Adam muttered as he swung himself into his saddle with a frown, another days work hindered and he glanced over to his father who was standing by the door. “Be back as soon as we’ve looked into this, Pa.”

Ben nodded and watched as the four horsemen turned their horses and made their way from the house. He watched until they were finally out of sight, only the echo of their horses hooves fading into the distance.

McCrieff rode closer to Adam “I sent my man to the sheriff, but thought you should know seeing how you’d be called to check it out any hows.”

Adam nodded but said nothing. It made sense if the man was right and the body was close to their borders then Nate would want to haul them in to ask questions and help with the tracking down of the person responsible.

No one else spoke, each man there had thoughts of their own ranging from sympathy for the Grooms and frustration at the thought of a days work set back again. The weather was not helping as a thin drizzle of rain was beginning to fall.

McCrieff drew his horse up and pointed to a low copse of trees and shrubs. He had been right, the site was just a mile from the Ponderosa border. He had built his homestead as close to the Ponderosa as he could, thinking in some abstract way that by doing so he would be better protected. He had a wife and five children to care for, all under the tender age of ten and none of them at school. The building in which they lived could just be seen beyond the trees, smoke trailing from its chimney

“Here – over here.” he had slid from the saddle and led them to where something dark was hidden beneath an old blanket. He waited until they were all standing close by and lifted the corner of the blanket for them to see.

The three brothers looked down at the face of a young woman, her face frozen in the rictus of fear. Each of them removed their hat and bowed their heads. Hoss was first to move and took the blanket from McCrieff to reveal the body as it lay among the fallen leaves and damp soil.

She was dressed only in a pastel coloured camisole, her limbs were bare, her feet unshod. Each man drew closer and looked at her with eyes that did not dwell on her femininity or frailty, but on those signs that would give them some indication as to how she had died, in what manner, even, perhaps, where exactly her life had ended.

They straightened up, and Hoss gently lay the blanket back over her. Then looked at McCriefff “No one touched the body since you found it?”

“My girls – Mona and Siobhan – they found her. They saw her and ran screaming to the house. Ain’t touched nothing, just put the blanket over her.”

“Was she wearing anything else?” Joe asked and before the man could explode in indignation at the merest hint of theft he added “Like shoes?”

“Or jewellery, or anything other than what she has on now?” Hoss asked but the man shook his head,

“Like I said, I just put the blanket over her. The girls wouldn’t venture near, I told ’em not to, and sides which they’re scared out of their wits as it is.”

Adam nodded and placed a placating hand on the man’s shoulder, “You did the right thing, Mr McCrieff.”

“I’ll get Una to make y’all some coffee. It’s been a trek and the weather ain’t so good.” he glanced skywards “Reckon the sheriff will be here in about an hour.”

As soon as he had turned to make his way back to the house Hoss pulled back the blanket again and squatted down to look more closely at the body. He looked at his brothers “Notice anything?”

Joe nodded “She was running without any shoes, her feet are a mess -”

Adam bit down on his lower lip and frowned, he carefully placed a hand on the girls left leg and raised it from its position on the right leg, he sighed “I wondered if it were possible -” he pointed to the wound in her leg, in the calf, a neat bullet wound that would have passed clean through the flesh

“And another thing, Adam, Joe, she weren’t killed here.” Hoss stood up and replaced the blanket “Poor girl.”

Adam rubbed his chin, sighed and shook his head “I’m hating what I’m thinking – “

“Go on..” Joe prompted “We might be thinking the same…”

“First – that’s a hunters trick, wound your prey and bring them down -”

Hoss and Joe nodded, Hoss muttered “That’s what I was thinking, but she weren’t killed here, so there ain’t no way we can find the bullet that caused that wound.”

“Wait -” Joe raised a hand and then raised it to his brow, “She wasn’t shot, I mean, the wound that killed her, it wasn’t a gun shot.”

“There’s no blood anywhere.” Adam agreed, “Not on her body nor on her clothing.”

“And she’s pass the stage of rigor mortis.” Hoss mumbled, “Been dead – a while.”

They nodded in agreement and turned towards the house, walking slowly upwards as the house was built on a knoll. “How long do you think she’s been there?” Joe asked his brothers

“The animals haven’t got to her, I mean, seems like she was just put there a few hours ago. Bin longer than the wild critters would have got to her.” Hoss said with a nod of his head “And there were no tracks around her body, no animal even been sniffing around.”

“Yet.” Adam frowned “They would have been sooner than later…even though the McCreiffs live so close.”

“Shucks, that would have scared the girls witless alright if that had happened…” Joe shuddered as he removed his hat on entering the house.

Mrs McCrieff had coffee ready for them, steaming hot on the table. The five children stood in a row at the back of the room, staring at them. Hoss nodded and grinned, and received a tentative grin back from the two youngest.

“Sorry to have had to bring you from your work, Mr Cartwright…” Una’s eyes swept over the three of them, the singular use of their name intended for each one of them

“Thank you for the coffee, Una.” Adam replied and gratefully picked up a cup. “Do you get many wild animals about here?”

“Some,” Douglas McCreiff replied, “There’s an old wolf likes coming down, but I make sure he don’t bother the girls. Smaller wild life -” he paused and gulped “Oh, I see what you mean….but ..she was alright, wasn’t she? Looked like to me she was just fallen asleep…”

“Yeah,she weren’t hurt none, not by wild animals any hows.” Hoss replied and swallowed his coffee in one gulp. “That sure was good, Miz Una.”

She smiled and nodded, poured out another cupful for him. Joe nursed his and then looked at the children, all girls. “Who found the – lady ?”

They fidgeted a little and then two of them stepped out of line, he reckoned on them being 6 and 4 years of age. They held hands as though seeking solidarity and about to face a firing squad. Joe smiled, his face crinkling and his eyes gentling “That wasn’t very nice, was it? Finding the lady like that.”

“She was asleep.” the little one said, and promptly plugged her thumb into her mouth

“Yes, that’s right, she’s asleep. Did you try to wake her up?”

Both of them shook their heads. Mona, the elder of the two, bowed her head “We was scared cos she didn’t wake up. I said “Lady..wake up” but she didn’t and then she didn’t move at all.” she nudged Siobhan “She didn’t did she? She didn’t move”

The little one shook her head and shuffled back into line with her sisters, “Well, you were very brave. You came right back and told Pa, huh?”

“Yeth.” a nod of the head

“Did you notice if she was holding anything in her hands? Or had any thing on her at all…any pretty thing?”

Douglas stepped forward, face reddening “My girls wouldn’t steal anything from anyone, dead or alive.”

Adam nodded “We know, just making sure, it’s just possible she had something other than just that one garment, something that would identify her.”

Siobhan shook her head and Mona stared at Joe and frowned, “She had her hands tight, like this.” and she clenched her fists.

The brothers nodded, the child was right, the woman’s hands had been clenched tight, against her chest. Adam sighed and shook his head,

“Seems odd, how that body came to be there, no sign of prints except the children and yours Mr McCrieff, and ours of course.”

“Well, she ain’t been here, if that’s what you’re saying.” Douglas snorted, his red hair sticking up on end as though is disgust at the very thought.

“No – of course not.” Hoss nodded and bowed his head as though he had to think, try and work out the conundrum before Nate arrived and started asking his questions.

“Did you know her, the girl?” Joe asked looking from Una to Douglas, and both of them shook their heads

“Thought she was the girl that had gone missing from town. I heard about it when I was there yesterday.” Douglas replied.

Adam raised his eyebrows, “You heard about it yesterday in town, and the body was found early this morning by the girls….”

“Now look here –” Douglas bellowed

“Douglas didn’t do anything -” Una protested

Behind her the line of girls shifted, huddling closer to their parents as though forming a protective barrier.

“Ain’t saying you did anything, Mr McCrieff, just that -” Hoss rubbed his head, “I jest can’t figure it out.”

Douglas McCreiff nodded “Jest so’s you know, we ain’t never seen that girl before, don’t often git into town any hows, like to keep ourselves to ourselves. Someone jest came and dumped that body there, someone who didn’t care about my girls, or Una…finding it.”

“They may have hoped wild animals would have got to it first.” Joe muttered then seeing Una shiver apologised

“No, they would have seen the house, knew there was someone living close by. They wanted the body to be found.” Adam said and to that Douglas nodded in agreement. “I’m sorry it had to be your girls, Mr McCrieff.”

The sound of horses stopped them talking further, and they waited for the knock on the door and Nate to enter the room, bending low in order to do so without cracking his head on the door lintel.

“I hear you found Nettie?” he said quietly “Mark’s here with the wagon to take her into town.”

“Best come and see for yourself, Nate. Tell us what you think -” Hoss gestured to the door and the five men walked in a group down to where the blanketed body remained.

Nate drew in his breath “Poor girl. This is going to hit Mr and Mrs Groom hard….”

Nods of heads in agreement then he bent down and pulled back the blanket, drew in his breath and then straightened his body “Shucks.”

“Yeah, not good, is it. Mr McCrieffs little girls found her like this…” Joe said and glanced over to the house, the door was closed, it was as though Una wanted to keep the girls from being involved any more than they had been

“Poor girl.” Nate rubbed a hand over his mouth, shook his head again and hauled in his breath, “I wonder who she is.”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked staring down at the body, “It’s Nettie Groom…isn’t it/”

“No. That’s not Nettie Groom.” Nate said quietly.

A horse neighed, rain fell in a light drizzle and made the blanket wetter than ever. The girls long dark hair was black upon the damp fallen leaves. The five men stared down and wondered the same thing ….if it wasn’t Nettie Groom, then who was it?

Chapter 13

Time was spent checking over the area, looking for prints of a wagon, or buggy, or horse. Footprints had been cunningly obscured by the leaves near the body, and there were no sign of prints beyond the copse of stunted trees. The drizzle had turned into a heavy shower of rain and puddles formed making it impossible to locate any prints at all.

The girls body was respectfully carried to the wagon and the blanket tucked around her as though putting her to bed. Mark turned the wagon round to make the girls journey into town, her last one.

Nate mounted his horse and shook McCrieff’s hand “I may have to come back later, have another look around.”

“I understand that, sheriff.”

“Thanks for your help, Hoss, Joe, Adam.” Nate sighed and shook his head, “This is the last thing we need, a girl – she certainly didn’t come here for an evening stroll, that’s for sure. Someone -”

“Someone killed her, they shot her in the calf, Nate, that’s a hunters ploy, you got to look for someone who knows about hunting.” Hoss stated as he stood by his horse, ready to mount up. There was a collective sigh after that comment. 90% of the population at that time knew all about hunting!

“I got to look for a missing girl – another missing girl” Nate retorted sharply back, his hopes of finding Nettie and ending the parent’s anguish faded, smothered by this murder, a young woman like Nettie.

“Sure opens up a can of worms, don’t it?” Hoss said quietly

“Have there been any other girls missing, reported missing I mean….” Adam asked Nate, who shook his head and gave a rather helpless shrug of the shoulders.

“I had hoped this would be Nettie, perhaps just wandered off – no, it would have had to have been a murder. Even with Nettie, I think – I think she’s dead.”

“Let us know what you find out about this girl, sheriff.” Joe asked, as he mounted his horse, the saddle creaked, slightly, as he turned its head towards the Ponderosa.

“And if we can help in any way.” Adam added, then nodded over to the Mr McCrieff “Thanks Mr McCrieff…”

“’Bout time you started calling me Douglas, ain’t it? Bin here long enough.”

Adam allowed a small smile to touch his lips, he tipped his hat and then nudged the big horse to move on, closely followed by his brothers. Nate watched them go, then turned to the homesteader, thanked him again and loped out of the yard, his head turning once to look back at the girls’ resting place before he rode on.

………………….

Mr Groom was waiting by the sheriff’s office when Nate returned, he had seen the wagon with its burden trundling towards the undertakers. He had wanted to follow it, see if it was his Nettie lying there, beneath the blanket, but his courage had failed him. All the bodies he had seen in his job as Undertaker’s assistant, but this particular body…no, not just yet, it wasn’t time to give up on Nettie yet.

Nate removed his hat as he passed Mr Groom, and wished the man had given him a little time to catch his breath before coming to see him, hopeful, fearful. He put his hat on the peg and asked Vinnie for two coffee’s, then beckoned to a chair for Mr Groom.

Mr Groom was swaying on his feet by now, and almost fell into his chair, his breathing was fast, nerves were strangling him, he had to speak fast before he choked up altogether.

“Is it Nettie, is it my little girl?”

The mugs of coffee were placed down on the desk, Nate nudged one over to Groom who stared at it as though seeing his death warrant.

“Is it -?”

“No, Mr Groom, it isn’t Nettie.”

They stared at one another. The relief Mr Groom felt made him feel light headed, a tear welled up in his eyes and leaked down his cheek, he nodded “It isn’t? You sure?”

“Quite sure.”

Groom brushed away the tear, he nodded, picked up the cup and held it close to his chest, the warmth seeping through his fingers, “Are you going to keep looking for her?”

“Yes, of course.” Nate blew over the surface of the coffee and then frowned “Nettie may have had a man friend. If you have any idea of who it was, please let us know.”

“Nettie didn’t have any man friend as far as we knew. You telling us about her not getting to work early ..leaving late..making excuses, that just ain’t how Nettie was, is, she’s a good girl.”

“No doubt she – is – but in this instance she has told some lies, which indicates to us that she must have felt a lot for this person to have felt it necessary to lie, even to need to lie…” he looked at Groom and could see how the man was trying to work these things out for himself, he sipped some coffee, waited for Groom to speak.

“Nettie isn’t a liar. But I guess you’re right, whoever she was seeing those days instead of being in work, must have turned her head some way, made her feel she had to lie.”

“Does anyone come to mind, Mr Groom.”

“I – I can’t think, not just yet.” Groom still hugged the cup against his chest, his eyes roved around the room, then looked again at Nate “I’ll talk to my wife about it. She may have an idea. Just that I can’t think…not just now.”

He drank the coffee as though he thought it was important somehow to do so, good manners anyway. He put the empty cup down, thanked them both and made his way to the door. Vinnie shook his head in sympathy

“There goes one broken man….”

Nate stood up and reached for his hat, “Anyone asks, I’ll be at the Undertakers – Rileys.”

………………….

Dr John Martin stood up from bending over the body, and looked at Nate as he entered the room. It was customary for a Doctor to be called in to examine a body, and provide a Death Certificate. Cause of death, whether natural or not, was a legal requirement after all. He cleared his throat and walked over to where Nate had been standing by the door, waiting for him to comment.

“Cause of death, Dr Martin?”

“Strangled…come here ..” he beckoned Nate to the body and pointed to red marks around the girls neck “She must have been wearing a necklace, at some point it was yanked off from around her neck leaving this mark here .. and you can see quite clearly finger marks …”

Nate nodded, his eyes scanning the girls slender neck. “Anything else?”

“Bruising on the upper arms, they look the same as the finger marks on the neck. She was held down at some point, may be just before her death. She had been married , her ring finger has an indentation, paler skin, indicating a ring, and she was not a virgin of course.”

“Married, young, pretty….” Nate shook his head, “No grieving husband has come in to report a missing wife.”

“I should imagine this one would have been sorely missed, she’s very lovely.”

“Yes.” Nate nodded, his eyes lingering on the girls face, “Yes, she is – was -. “ he felt misery touch his heart, wished he was looking down at some bewhiskered drunken old prospector that had been found in his shack somewhere, instead of this sad lovely young woman.

Mr Riley stood back respectfully as the two men walked pass him, Nate paused in mid stride “Mr Riley, I don’t want you to bury her until I know who she is – understood?”

“Of course, Sheriff.” Riley nodded and looked over at the body lying there, waiting for his attention.

The rain had stopped, the sun was shining, a miserably weak sun, sufficient for a feeble rainbow. Nate bowed his head, odd, but just showed ..life went on regardless.

………..

It had been a sombre days work, but the three brothers did what was needed to be done. It never helped when it was raining, and it never helped when their minds were elsewhere, dwelling on the girl that had been found, on the mystery of her death.

As they rode home Joe said quietly “I wonder who she was…”

They knew to whom he was referring, and nodded in agreement because that was what had been in their minds throughout the day. They talked in low tones together, pondering over her death, and why she had been left so close to the Ponderosa borders.

“Do you think that would be significant?” Hoss asked as they stopped where the road forked leading to Adams home.

“I don’t know, but whoever dumped her body sure came some distance to do so.” Adam replied

“Fact is, we don’t know where she was killed. Could be close by here….” Joe said pursing his lips and glancing around him.

“Hmm, makes one think. Perhaps we need to look at some of the line shacks closer by …just in case.” Adam suggested and Hoss nodded and agreed that they should do that, starting from the morning.

…………..

Hester greeted Hoss with a warm embrace, holding the dear man close to her before she stood back and simply asked “Was it Nettie?”

Her husband shook his head and seeing his father now coming towards them, sighed deeply “No, it weren’t Nettie. Ain’t got no idea who she is, right purty girl too.”

Ben put a hand gently upon his daughter in laws shoulders before asking Hoss if Nate had been to see the body to which Hoss nodded,

“Nate was the one said it wasn’t Nettie. We didn’t know, hoped that it was …he says there ain’t no one been asking about a missing woman.”

Ben nodded “How long had she been there?”

Not long, but – “ he scratched the back of his head “Sure is some mystery, can’t figure it out.” he settled himself into his favoured chair and crossed one leg over the other, smiled as Erik came to sit on his lap, “We thought we should check out the line shacks around about the borders there.,..could be she was killed in one of ’em.”

“I hope not….” Hester shuddered, not sure why, as she never stepped foot inside a line shack, but the thought of a woman being killed on their property brought the whole thing too close for comfort

…………………

Joe caught Constance just as she was about to trip over her own feet in her eagerness to reach him first, he swooped her up and gave her a hug, placed a hand upon Daniel’s shoulder and then gave his wife a kiss. “Hester told us about the body -” she said as she took Constance from his arms so that he could shrug out of his coat.

“Huh-huh,” Joe nodded, “Over at McCreiffs place.”

“Poor girl.”

“Yeah, a poor girl alright. Pretty too, and young.” he slipped his arm around her shoulder now, while Daniel ran to collect his toys, Constance close on his heels.

“Nettie was only about 17 wasn’t she?”

“It wasn’t Nettie. Nate came and it gave him a shock to see it wasn’t her, some stranger…”

“How could that be? “

“I don’t know, sweetheart, but seems he has one murdered girl, and one missing girl to worry about now.”

“I hope Nettie is safe…oh Joe, what if – if she’s dead too.”

…………………

Sofia reached her father first, taking his hat from him and smiling up for approval as she placed it carefully on top of the bureau. Reuben came to stand by his side, looking anxious,

“Everything alright, Pa?”

“Well -” Adam sighed and leaned down to untether the thong around his thigh which kept his holster secure, he then began to unbuckle his belt

“Daddy, is it that girl in the river?” Sofia wanted to know, “Davy Riley said -”

“Forget about Davy Riley, there was no girl in the river.” Adam sighed again.

“See – I told you so.” Reuben chided his sister and shrugged “Who was it then?”

“No one knows, Nate didn’t know who she was -” he smiled as Olivia came towards him, “How are you, sweetheart?”

She leaned in to kiss him, touched his hand “Was it very bad?”

“Bad enough in that a pretty young woman’s dead and no one knows who she is…” Adam replied and seeing Nathaniel he leaned down to say hello to his little boy, Nathaniel reached out and wrapped his arms around his daddy’s neck for a hug.

“Did she have worms -” Sofia asked in a squeaky voice, “Davy Riley -”

“Sofia , I don’t want to hear Davy Riley’s name mentioned again do you hear me” Adam snapped and ignored the plaintive look on his daughters face. He held Nathaniel tightly in his arms and then tossed him in the air, a game the child loved. Up again, and he raised his hand to see if he could brush his fingers against the ceiling.

“More, more” he squealed

“So it wasn’t Nettie. Oh poor Mrs Groom…” Olivia sighed and shook her head as she led the way to the dining area where Cheng Ho Lee was setting out the meal.

“I’ll just wash up first…no, it wasn’t Nettie, but at least Mrs Groom can hope that her daughter is still alive, which is more than can be said for whoever the dead girl is…somewhere some mother must be missing her.”

Olivia shuddered and looked at Sofia who had eyes as round as an owls, for she too had memories of a time when she was missing. It made her stomach quiver to think of what life would be like now without her mother or father, or if she would be like the girl they had found and – was dead.

.

Chapter 14

An over imaginative little girl would find it impossible to sleep under current conditions. The conversation prior to their evening meal whirled round and round in Sofia’s head, she was bursting to ask more questions, just so that she could put her fears and imaginings to rest. But Pa had said no more mention of Davy Riley and therefore the conversation had to stay there.

It was still locked in her head though as she struggled to sleep. She could vaguely remember now the strange feelings she had experienced when she had first woken up in a strange room with people whom she did not know. She could remember the fat Doctor who prodded and poked at her and muttered things to the thin elderly woman standing beside her bed. It had been terrifying, and now, as memories returned coupled with thoughts of the lost girl drifting in the river tears fell unchecked from her eyes.

She bunched up the sheets in her fists and covered her face, she didn’t want to see the shadows laughing at her from the corners of the room, nor the way the moon shone in slanting shapes across her bed. She huddled herself into a little ball of misery and for a little while tried to hum nursery rhymes to herself but eventually she had to give in and with a wail she threw back her covers and ran out of the room.

Reuben turned in his bed and groaned “Oh Sofia, go away…”

“I’m scared..please let me get in with you.”

“Your feet will be cold.”

“No, they won’t they won’t. “ and before he could pull the sheets away from her she slid in beside him and cuddled in close.

Reuben had always been her solace, even when a small toddler she would go to him, from her little cot to his small bed. Now she cringed in close and Reuben groaned “You shouldn’t take so much notice of what Davy says, you know it is all hot air.”

She didn’t reply to that, she wasn’t too sure what hot air meant. She tucked her hands like little fists beneath her chin.

………………

Nettie Groom huddled into a corner of the room, her spine pressed up against damp walls and her eyes shut tight. Behind her eye lids it was dark, but a preferred darkness to the one that surrounded her in this room.

She was free to move about, but was afraid to do so because she did not know who or what shared the room with her. It was so dark that she could not see her hand in front of her face. All she knew was that she was alive and every so often a door opened and someone came in to the room – was it a room? – and left her food on a plate and a large jug of water. She could not see who came into the room because they never stayed long enough for her eyes to grow accustomed to the light around them to see.

Just a dark shape carrying food and water to keep her alive.

Once she had heard the person speak, a gruff voice, anonymous, first to tell her to eat and keep her strength up “It won’t be for long, my dear.”

Did that mean whoever or whatever it was had plans to set her free, was she held for a ransom, would be be able to go home when the ransom was paid? Or did it mean that in a little while she would die!

She didn’t eat the food at first in case it was drugged or poisoned, but then thirst raged at her and hunger roiled in her stomach. She ate, good tasty food, and drank, clean fresh water. She lived. She fell asleep.

At one time she had got up and by keeping her hands on the wall she had paced around the room, it was no big, parts of the wall were mud and slimy, parts were rock and wet to her fingers. There was no light, not until the door opened and then it blinded her as adequately as the dark room had before the door opened.

But now she sat huddled on the mattress with the sheets around her feet to keep them warm. Someone had removed her shoes, someone had taken her coat and bonnet. She was cold. She was terrified

Alone in the dark Nettie Groom tried to remember what had happened to her that morning she had climbed into the buggy and met the man who had told her she was lovely, beautiful. He had told her she was his secret, she was to say nothing about him, until the day he was free to marry her.

She had believed him.

But it was all a blur now, a mixture of nightmare and horror and fear.

She bunched the sheets around her and tried to level her breathing. She was still alive, she told herself, still alive…but then the thought slipped into her mind ..for how much longer!

Chapter 15

There was a warm buzz of conversation in the building, smiles on faces, comradely connections between everyone working there, whether in sorting out the clothes and putting the in little piles or preparing the food for the lunchtime meal. Bowls and cutlery was being washed in warm water, the stove was being replenished with wood, and the children were adding their own calls and laughter as they gathered in the area designated just for them.

Nathaniel released Olivia’s hand and ran to meet his little friends and Olivia watched with a smile lingering on her lips. These children would perhaps share his school days as they grew older, be his friends and form their own gang as a result of these first seedling friendships

Barbara Martin came to her with a smile, no longer the tense rather fierce looking woman with the cold features that warned a person off from making friendly overtures, but a confident woman, relaxed and her smiles reached her eyes as she welcomed Olivia as she made her way to the office.

“We weren’t expecting you in today.” she said but not with that hard underlying cynicism that would once have been there, “Weren’t you going to go away to Carson City?”

“That was the plan,” Olivia replied as she removed her bonnet and coat, “But Adam is involved with this missing girl, he and his brothers have planned another day looking for her, and looking for some indication as to who the dead girl is that they found yesterday.” she sighed and shrugged, lifting her shoulders in comic despair, “He thinks we would be better going to morrow morning, when there is no school to make Reuben and Sofia grumpy.” she looked around “Where’s Bridie?”

“One of the ladies needed her,” Barbara explained as she pulled up a chair to sit opposite Olivia, “Her waters broke last night and the first person she called on was Bridie…”

Olivia nodded, of course Bridie who never said no to a woman about to give birth and could not afford the services of a doctor. Barbara watched as Olivia unlocked a drawer and removed some files, which she placed on the desk and began to riffle through “I saw Mrs Groom earlier.”

Olivia raised her head “How is she?”

“Not very well. I think the fact that her daughter had lied to them – about having a man friend – has added another layer of grief on her shoulders. She said that in a way she wished the dead girl had been Nettie.”

“That’s a harsh thing to say…”

“She said it was better knowing her daughter was no longer being hurt, suffering, that she would be at peace -”

Olivia leaned back and bowed her head, then looked up at Barbara “If it were Lilith what would you think?”

Barbara shook her head “I don’t want to even think about it, Olivia, not at all. What mother could bear it…”

Olivia nodded, and looked down at the book work in front of her, of course, she thought, what mother could bear it indeed

………….

.

The three men closed the door to the line shack and walked slowly to the waiting horses. They did not speak, although Hoss took his canteen to screw off the stopper and take a long refreshing drink of water. He looked at the two other men, “What do you think?”

“Nothing to think about…this is the third shack, and no sign of anything wrong.” Joe muttered and put his foot in the stirrup to mount into the saddle

“I don’t think the line shacks further than this would be any different.” Adam looked around him, one hand on his horses bridle and the other pushing back his hat, “I think we’ve been looking at this the wrong way round.”

“Oh, what way else is there?” Joe scowled, he was tired, hungry and riding on goose chases like this really chewed on his nerves.

“Well,” Adam straightened his hat so that it was shielding his eyes, “We thought it was one of our line shacks because of the proximity to McCrieffs homestead…and lack of tracks…in actual fact, no real reason at all.”

“It seemed right at the time.” Hoss ventured to say as he thumped in the stopper and looped the canteen over the pommel of his saddle.

“I know ..but …”

“Spit it out, say what’s on your mind!” Joe groaned, and settled into the saddle to await his brothers theorising.

“Well, let’s think this thing over…”

“We bin doing that for the past twelve hours….” Hoss scowled, feeling guilty now he had said that because he had slept really well without a thought to the dead girl nor the missing one.

“It was raining yesterday when we found her.”

“Yeah,” Joe nodded and leaned forward, his arms resting on the saddle horn

“But beneath the body the ground was dry.” Adam looked at Hoss and angled his head in a way that indicated that he was expecting his brother to add to that, Hoss nodded

“S’right..it was. I noticed that, but didn’t think much about it…”

“Well, ask yourself, when did it start to rain? She was placed there when it was dry, whoever took her must have walked on dry ground, while carrying her body.”

“Lots of leaves, would have deadened the sound -”

“Dry leaves rustle ..” Joe snorted derisively

“Sure, but who would have heard anything during the night…” Adam sighed, and closed his eyes, “Lots of leaves, dry, he walks carefully and there are no tracks, the rain falls and any sign, if there is any at all, are lost. We probably helped there too, tramping about as we did, and the children too, they would have helped mess up any tracks that were left.”

“Don’t the McCrieffs have a dog?” Hoss asked, “Surely if there was anyone sneaking around it would have barked.”

His brothers nodded in agreement, “Why did the children go down there anyway, did anyone say?” Joe ventured to suggest.

They looked at one another and Hoss nodded “Reckon we need to visit the McCrieffs again.”

Adam mounted into the saddle and turned his horse around, behind him Joe and Hoss did the same, so that it was not long before they were taking the narrow track that led to the McCrieff’s homestead.

………………….

Nettie was a giddy girl, naïve in many ways, but she was not a coward. She had not screamed when she had first opened her eyes to find herself in her prison. She had cried, yes, lots of tears, but she had not screamed or shouted for help. It was as though she knew that it would have been useless had she done so, .As though had she screamed, shouted, protested, her end would have come far sooner.

When she had woken that morning she had lain very still on the damp mattress and listened. But she heard nothing. There was not even the sound of a breeze, or a bird, or – or anything. Her heart beat was faster, she had to struggle to breath properly occasionally but in the main she tried to keep calm and think.

She could not remember what had happened after she had got into the buggy and they had ridden out of town. She could not recall how she had gone from the buggy to this dismal dark damp prison. But here she was, and she was determined not to let it become her grave.

She knew that soon the door would open and there would be food and water brought to her. Beyond the door was light, the light that prevented her seeing who it was bringing in her provisions. Her eyes were used to the dark so were too dazzled by the glimmer of light for her to see anything other than a dark shadow. Someone shuffling towards her …and then retreating back to the doorway, closing it and plunging her back into the darkness.

The water jug was empty. Her fingers groped for the plate where she remembered leaving some food, and then she stopped, remembering now the scampering feet of little creatures who would have found the food already. She crouched back on the bed and drew her knees up to her chin, wrapped her arms about her legs and bowed her head.

She had to find that door and she had to get out but she already knew there was no door handle on her side of it, no way of getting it open. She felt tears well up in her eyes again, and sobs catch at her throat. She had not screamed yet, and she wasn’t going to do so now. She just had to think….

………………….

Una McCrieff was surprised when she opened the door to the three horsemen. Her sharp grey blue eyes moved from one to the other of the brothers who had respectfully removed their hats

“Douglas isn’t home.” she clutched the cloth which she had been using for some domestic chore, to her chest, “He’s hunting.”

“We just wanted a quick word with you…and the girls.” Hoss said in his gentle voice, the voice he used to quieten down nervous horses, or his own children.

“Come in,” she stepped aside and they walked pass her into the room. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Very grateful, Miz McCrieff.” Hoss nodded and looked over at the girls, three of them seated at a table writing words on slates, the smallest playing together close to the stove.

“Sit down then. I don’t know when Douglas will be back but he left early -” she glanced over at her children “Clear the table, girls, for the gentlemen.”

“There’s no need to disturb them.” Joe said, and smiled at the children “I’ve children of my own, I know how they enjoy their scribbling.”

“I’m home schooling ’em.” Una replied, “I used to teach school before I married Douglas.”

They all three nodded in understanding “My wife did as well, Mrs McCrieff.”

“I heard that. “ Una inclined her head and then busied herself making the coffee. She poured it into four cups and then brought it over to them, then sat down, nursing her own cup. “Is it about the girl the children found?”

“Just a few questions, Una.” Adam said quietly, “You don’t mind my calling you Una, do you?”

“It’s my name.” she said cautiously and then smiled, a flash of something in her eyes, “What do you want to ask.”

Adam looked at Hoss who looked at Joe, but it was Hoss who cleared his throat and asked Una if they had been disturbed by any one coming close to the house the early morning of the discovery of the girl’s body.

She shook her head, “When we get to bed we sleep heavy. Days are busy, with the five of them to care for, and everything. Douglas is often worn out from work…he is not in the best of health and …” she drew in a shudder of a sigh, “he tires easily.”

“Do you recollect when it started to rain ?” Joe asked and Una nodded “Early morning, but it was dry when the girls found her, it started raining when Douglas left here to get you.”

Joe nodded, and glanced now at Adam “Una, living this far out of town, don’t you think you should have a dog!”

She frowned and was about to speak when one of the little girls said “We had a dog but it died.”

Hoss looked at her, and smiled, the child smiled back “What’s your name now, honey?”

“Shiona.”

“When did your dog die?”

“It was -” she slid her eyes over to her mother who nodded so she continued “He was killed, Pa said someone shot him. Pa found his body when he went looking for him because Angus usually barks and warns us about anything outside but he’d been quiet an awful long time so Pa went looking…”

Mona nodded and looked up from her slate “Pa found him dead. Someone shot him.”

“I said that already..” Shiona whispered, annoyed at having the attention taken from her.

Una nodded “About four days ago. Angus was a good loyal dog, Douglas was sore distressed to find him like he was ..shot like that…” she sipped some coffee “Just shot and left to rot.”

“Four days ago?” Adam murmured

“Yes. If he was still alive whoever left that girl would not have got that far, Angus would have raised the roof.”

Adam clamped his mouth together, while Hoss and Joe stared at her and then at each other. Shona said in her high pitched voice “Pa said he would kill the man who shot Angus.”

No one spoke, they drank their coffee and the girls continued with their scribbling on the slates.

Adam put the cup down and nodded “Best we leave you be, Una. Thank you.” he reached for his hat and then looked to the girls “What made you go down there that morning, it was very early for little girls…”

Mona looked up, then over to her mother “I left my book there…it’s our favourite place, we go there to play and I like to read there. It’s pretty when the sun shines through the branches. I wanted to get my book before Ma asked me where it was …”

“Ma would have given her a spanking -” Shiona smirked, she was the eldest of the children, and believed herself smarter than the rest of them put together.

“Did you find the book?” Joe asked and Mona nodded that she had, and that was when they saw an arm, where an arm should not have been…

At the door Adam turned to look a the girls and then at Una, who looked self consciously down at the ground, “Una, is there anything you need – books for the girls, things like that?”

She blushed,and shook her head, but Adam had noticed how quickly the girls had raised their heads, and then bowed them again, disappointed at their mothers silence response.

They walked away and heard the door close behind them. Joe looked at his brothers and raised his eye brows “That dog was shot for a reason.”

“Yeah – which means someone had scouted this area out a while back.” Hoss agreed.

“It was all planned,” Adam sighed wearily as he reached for his horses’ reins, “Whoever killed that girl wanted her body to be found, and knew exactly where to put it, and when to put it, so that it would be…”

“Most killers bury their dead, want to hide them -” Hoss settled into the saddle “Don’t make sense going through all that – killing the dog as well -”

“It makes sense to the killer.” Adam replied “We had better get to town and tell Nate what we have found.”

…………………………

The floor was cold to her feet and made her shiver, and her hands slipped on the damp slick wet walls but inch by inch she made her way round the circumference of the room until she could feel the rough edge of the wooden framework of the door. Keeping close to it, forcing herself to ignore the damp cold from the ground, she reached the side where it would open. Her hands travelled up and down, up and down trying to find a lock, a handle, but it was just rough wood blocking off the hole in the wall and she knew that on the other side it would be bolted, perhaps with chains, perhaps with padlocks.

She sunk down upon her haunches and buried her face in her hands, She began to cry, rocking herself back and forth, she wanted her Ma and her Pa. She wanted to be warm and safe because – she was terrified.

She must have fallen asleep because the sound of bolts being drawn on the other side of the door startled her awake. With beating heart and her head spinning with dizziness she got to her feet, and stood pressed against the wall. A dark shadow among shadows. The door opened and the man entered, a tray carrying the food and water in one hand, carefully balanced, light from the doorway streaming dimly behind him

She held her breath and waited until he was some paces away from the door, he must have realised she was not on the bed, for he paused and she saw him turn his head to try and see where she cold be in the gloom of the room. This was the time she had to act, she had to move, and as silently as she could she made a movement to get out of the door, out into the light.

She stumbled immediately as the light hit her face, dazzled her eyes, she couldn’t see where she was, nor where she could go, tears from the light filled her eyes, she ran several paces forward, and realised that beneath her feet the ground was rock strewn, sharp shards, there was no possible way she could have ran, or even walked from her prison with bare feet.

A hand grabbed her shoulder, another hand clapped around her mouth. She struggled, fought, kicked, and tried to scream but the hand around her mouth was suffocating…and then she was dragged back into the darkness

Chapter 17

The weather was turning colder now, and the children had to wear their coats or jackets during recess. The chill of stone was slowly eking its way through Sofia’s clothes and making her bottom numb, but it was a familiar place for her to sit now. From here she could see most of the yard, and watch what the other children were doing.

She looked at Reuben as he played with his gang which sometimes numbered five but was often reduced to two. Jimmy C Evans was his main friend and now Sofia watched as the two of them kicked pebbles back and forth. Sometimes Davy Riley and Tommy Conway would join them, jostling and pushing as boys were wont to do. She was proud of her brother. He was not unkind to her, he didn’t pinch her or pull her hair like some boys did to their sisters. He was not really prone to saying unpleasant things to her, unless he was really annoyed or irritated. Even when the boys gave her a list of reasons why she could not be part of the gang he would go along with them with a ‘sorry’ look on his face

Someone came to sit beside her. It was Lilith, and she could feel her bony elbow nudge her as she settled down by her side. They greeted each other with a smile and then she resumed looking at her brother. He was dark haired and had hazel eyes, but he did not look at all like Adam Cartwright, not really. Some people who did not know about their real father would say how like Adam he was, but it was only because of his colouring. Sofia thought he was handsome even though he was her brother.

“Want some cake?” Lilith said and she shook her head and thanked her for the offer.

Barbara was a nice lady but she could not make a good cake. Once one tasted Tilly or Bridie’s cakes then Barbara’s was a definite non starter. Lilith munched for a while and like Sofia, watched the boys. They watched the boys kick the pebbles about and then the bell rang…it was time to return to the warmth of the school rooms, to the smells of chalk and bodies, the clamour of chatter, and

The lessons wore on and the day ended, Olivia came to collect them from school. Nathaniel told them that daddy had bought him ice cream. He chattered in his little boys way all the long trip home while Reuben told his mother about his lessons, and how Billy Riley had told them about the dead woman, and Sofia had closed her ears to it all and stared ahead of her

“Are you alright, Sofia?” Olivia asked, just to make sure that her daughter was not going to be ill. There was the weekend plans to arrange, it had been bad enough having to post pone the trip this evening but tomorrow morning was all settled, in her mind at least.

“Yes, Mommy”

“You are very quiet.”

“I don’t mean to be…” Sofia replied and relapsed back into silence again.

Mmm, thought Olivia, you never do mean to be, which is why it is worrying when you are….

Adam had not returned home from his work. After leaving Nathaniel with his friends at the hospice, after the ice cream treat, Adam had made his way back to find Hoss and Joe, to talk over their morning, and to discuss what else to do. As they were unable to do much because Hoss and Joe had found nothing of interest or help in their search earlier for clues, they returned to work. There was wood to stack and prepare for the timber yard. McManus would bring a team of men down from the hills, and collect it later

“Come and get some milk and cookies, Sofia.” Olivia said as she made her way to the kitchen, “Reuben – make sure you have your homework finished this evening. Remember we are going away tomorrow for a few days holiday.”

Sofia collected her glass of milk and her cookie, which she nibbled at very neatly without leaving crumbs everywhere, unlike Nathaniel. She watched Reuben working hard at his homework and was more than glad that she had none to do, so for a little while she just watched as his pencil toiled over the paper.

Reuben looked at her and frowned. He loved his little sister, and was glad that she was his sister and not Jimmys or Davys. She was a pretty little girl too, with her big blue eyes and blonde hair, and when she smiled she had little dimples. He suspected that Jimmy C Evans cared a lot about Sofia. He could understand why now that he was a bit older. Last year he would have thought Jimmy was being a bit stupid.

He put down his pen and nodded “Shall we explore?”

“Explore?” Sofia’s eyes rounded, she looked around in case Mommy was near by, and then leaned forward “Where?”

“I”ll show you…” he moved to get off the chair but she said “No, just tell me”

“I’ll show you,” he repeated and walked away from the table and took to the stairs.

From the stairs, Reuben led her across the landing to the door at the far end, and then up the next flight of stairs to the attic. They did not often go there mainly because there was never anything they considered interesting enough for them to bother but also because of the spiders…and perhaps some mice. He pushed open the trap door and stepped inside, then turned to help his sister into the low ceilinged area. He had collected and lit a candle on the way up, and now set it down carefully.

“Don’t go knocking that over, Sofia.”

She felt annoyed that he would even think that she would, she was not Nathaniel after all! He knelt down now in front of a large trunk. It had leather straps, they were fastened to the trunk by large metal studs. It was certainly battered. “CMMDR A CARTWRIGHT” was engraved on the top and she hauled in a deep breath. This surely would be the repository of great secrets. She watched as Reuben carefully raised the lid.

It was not very dark inside the attic and the light from the one candle was more than enough for them to see what was there…across the top, the first thing they could see, was the dress sword…not that they would know it was called a dress sword, it just looked like any sword to them. But it looked splendid, with the carefully worked design of the handle, the gold fluting work on the velvet sheath. Reuben picked it up and held it carefully balanced on his two hands

“Wow” he breathed “Look at that…”

A gold tassel hung from the hand grip, and Sofia touched it gently. Reuben put it carefully down on the floor and then they both leaned in to see what came next. Some boxes and envelopes addressed to Adam Cartwright ..these rested upon the jacket of an Officer, brass buttons, gold epaulettes, braiding…Reuben released his breath “Pa’s uniforms.”

“What’s in the boxes…”

Reuben opened one and then looked at her, “Pa’s medal.”

Medals, and uniforms, all belonging to a time before…before he finally settled down to being a rancher, a father and husband. Sofia knew she would not find the secret thing here, not among these other wonders. “Put them back.” she whispered

Reuben did so, holding the sword almost reverentially before replacing it upon the immaculate jacket. He lowered the lid carefully and then turned to Sofia

They both knew there were other things contained in the trunk, but lacked the courage to rummage through them. The very sight of the pristine jacket with the gold braiding seemed to say ‘Far enough’

They descended very carefully, lowering the attic trap door, and Reuben blew out the candle, leaving it smoking on the landing table.

…………………

Adam was late returning home. He told Olivia that he had worked a little longer as they would be away for a few days so wanted to make sure he had done his fair amount of work. He was in time to see the children to bed. To receive hugs and kisses, and promises that they would get up bright and early in the morning. Nathaniel wanted to know if he would be on the train again, and he made choo choo noises all the way up the stairs to his bed.

After he had eaten his meal, and everything had been cleared away, he spent a little time in his study checking their personal household accounts. Reading through his letters and setting aside those that needed to be replied to when he returned home.

Then he sat down in the chair opposite her and relaxed. Cheng brought in fresh coffee and bade them good night. The flames of the fire danced around the room making shadows on the walls, over them. Olivia looked over at her husband and smiled, then leaned back a little in her chair. She remembered the day they had first met, he in his uniform and great coat, striding through the park as if he owned it and then stopping to watch them – Marcy and herself, the children. The next day he had arrived at her house with a dozen red roses…

“What are you thinking?” he asked now, smiling at her, his dark eyes twinkling in the firelight.

“A dozen red roses.”

“Mmm,” he smiled more broadly and his eyes were half hooded as he looked at her, “Really?”

“Really.”

She left her chair and came to him, sitting on his knee and wrapping her arms around his neck and then placing her head upon his shoulder “The day after we met in the park..” she smiled “Before you went to China.”

“Yes…” his mind drifted to Jiang Peng, the huge ship with the red dragon flag, and the fire that could have killed him as it had killed his enemy

“Yes ..” she said and thought of poor Morgan and the look of despair on her face as she saw the beautiful roses, when had she ever had roses? And then Booth, her brother in law, with his furious scowl as he flung out his arm and dashed them across the table.

They were silent for awhile, immersed in their separate thoughts. She smiled now “I thought you were so handsome, the way you smiled, those dimples…” she placed a finger on his cheek, at where the dimple would crease his skin and then she kissed him there.

“Oh not the uniform then?”

“No.” she laughed a little, and then sighed “Well, perhaps, maybe, a little …”

He kissed her then, fully on the mouth, lingering to enjoy the moment, the promises in a kiss. He sighed “I would look at the sea and think of your eyes…all those miles away, apart …. O’Brien missing his wife, and I wondering if I would ever see you again.”

“Did you miss Barbara like that, when you first left her?”

“I did miss her, at first, and then as the weeks went by – I couldn’t remember her voice, then her face faded from my memory and I realised then that I had no right to her. I wrote to tell her she was free of me, and if someone else came along …”

“Poor Barbara..” she sighed and once again they were silent until she raised her face to him ..

Chapter 18

The cabin was no longer the ramshackle about to fall to pieces building that it had been when last they saw it. As they stopped the horses in front of it Adam felt a smug glow of satisfaction that his drawings had been adhered to, and seeing the reality of them made the expense more than worth while.

Leaves were falling like freshly minted golden dollar coins or vermilion lozenges swirling round and round, falling in deep troughs at their feet. All three children jumped down and did what all children enjoyed most – they ran into the heaps of leaves and kicked them about, gathered up armfuls and threw them at one another. Olivia stepped down from the vehicle and stood to watch. She did not like to admit that she would have loved to join in. Adam stood beside her, a box under one arm, another in one hand. He nudged her and nodded in the direction of the children. Go on he was saying and she laughed up at him as she gathered up her skirts and ran into the melee. Huge piles of dry leaves, brittle and rustling as they crackled and broke under their onslaught.

He watched them for a while and then carried the baggage to the door, a rather splendid door now, and unlocked it. He placed the boxes down upon the floor and looked around him.

By the window there was now no sign of the blood where Ben had lain all months ago, nor where his would be assassin had fallen. The planks of flooring had been planed smooth and oiled, gleamed golden in the light, diffused as it was from the windows and doorway. He could hear the children shrieking, laughing, he could hear her laughter.

The cabin had been extended and remodelled. The beds were now located in rooms of their own, on the side of the original building. Now the room in which he stood looked larger, free of unnecessary furniture. Drapes at the windows and rugs on the floor. He looked around him, went to the other rooms and then returned., Then he struck a match and lit the kindling so that there would be a good fire burning for when everyone came in from play.

Sofia ran in first and grabbed at his hand. “Come on, come on, Daddy – come on, it’s fun.”

He allowed himself to be hauled out to join them. He ran after the boys and chased them through the trees, Reuben slipped over and rolled down an incline into a ditch, mud on his clothes and dismay on his face. Adam lifted him up and tucked him under his arm as though he had been 3 years old, although of course Adam had never known him at that age. They were laughing. Mud dries, it would brush off.

Nathaniel wanted to roll down the incline, he wanted to land in the ditch and Olivia had to run through the trees to catch him so that he was prevented from doing so. He squealed when she caught him, not because he had been caught but because he could not roll down the incline and get muddy.

The horses stood stoically by the corral waiting to have some attention. To be unharnessed and freed from their burden, to be fed, watered and told, perhaps, that they had done a good job. They tongued the bits in their mouths and drooled.

Eventually Olivia flung herself down upon the leaves, arms widespread on either side of her, laughing. Nathaniel came and with a whoop jumped down beside her and then rolled over her, as though she were just another log to bear his weight but she caught him and hugged him close to her so that they rolled together round and round in the leaves.

Sofia pulled leaves from her hair, brushed them from her coat and scarf. She looked round her and sighed, they had created a terrible mess but the leaves were still falling, in the morning there would be piles more.

“I’m hungry” it was Nathaniel who had decided rolling about with mommy was not so much fun after all, he was being squished.

“So’m I,” said Reuben whose stomach had began to rumble and he spat out some dry leaf, and swiped his hand across his mouth

“Time to go and get some food then,” Olivia sighed and closed her eyes, just lay there and smiled to herself.

“Come along then,” Adam said and she knew he was standing over her because there was a dark shadow within the darkness behind her eyelids.

She didn’t open her eyes just reached out a hand which he grasped and hauled her onto her feet, into his arms, and then she opened her eyes and smiled. His arms were around her waist, he looked down at her, smiled and then kissed her gently.

“Eee-ach” muttered Reuben as he ran past and into the house, while Sofia sighed and thought it was romantic but Nathaniel grabbed at her hand and pulled her to wards the doorway demanding food.

Adam pulled away dead leaves from her hair and brushed away leaves and debris from her coat,

“You children -” he murmured “- will you ever grow up?”

“Never.” she whispered back, her eyes softening as she melded into the curves of his body

“Mommy – “ Sofia wailed, “Mommy – Daddy -”

They sighed together, their breath intermingled, they kissed again, briefly and then hand in hand made their way to their little cabin in the woods, where the children stood in front of the fire and warmed their hands and looked rosy cheeked and red nosed.

…………………

Una McCrieff reached for the rifle which stood by the side of the door. The little girls backed away into the other room. The knocking was resumed and with a determination not to show any fear she called out a demand “Who is it?”

“Hoss Cartrwight, Miz McCrieff” he paused “And my wife, Hester.”

She relaxed and opened the door, the children emerged like little birds peeking over the edge of the nest wondering how safe it was now to fly.

Hoss and Hester waited, listening to the bolt being drawn back before the door was open. The dog was barking and Hoss was pleased to hear that, knowing that she would have been made aware of anyone who approached before that knocked ..or did not for more nefarious reasons.

They said good day together then laughed self consciously, Hoss swept off his hat “Miz McCrieff, this here is my wife, Hester.”

The two women looked at one another, nodded and smiled. Una stepped back “Come in, come in…”

and then she shouted to the dog to keep quiet, “Silence now….”

The children stole back in ..just three of them. Una smiled and introduced them “Mona, Siobhan,and Shiona. The others are with Douglas. He’s gone into town on the wagon.” she gestured to chairs “Please sit down. Can I – would you like some coffee?”

She was nervous. It was not often they had visitors, in fact apart from the recent activity due to the dead girl, she could not even remember the last visitors they had. Even when she gave birth to the girls it had been just Douglas and herself.

They sat down, the chair creaked under Hoss’ weight, as all chairs did until they settled down and got used to it. Una smiled and turned her attention to the stove, to making coffee.

Hester looked around her, smiled at the children who looked shy, sneaked looks at one another. Hester noticed that this was a poor house, the children were wearing ‘hand me downs’ that had been handed down too often. There was a lack of toys, a lack of books. She remembered Hoss telling her that the children were being home schooled and she wondered how, with what?

Una should have looked exhausted but she did not, she looked a healthy attractive woman. She was obviously happy with her life, her husband, her children and this out of the way place in which they lived. She smiled a bright smile and then poured out the coffee. The girls scattered to play in the other rooms, and Hester noticed they wore no shoes, no stockings or socks. She made a mental note to tell Olivia, knowing that her sister in law would be knitting winter socks non stop through winter.

Hester had never tasted coffee like that provided by Una. She swallowed it down and smiled over the rim of her cup. “Una, you and Douglas are probably among our nearest neighbours and yet we have never met ..”

“We do keep ourselves to ourselves…” Una said quietly, she smiled, a genuine smile because her eyes were bright too “We prefer it that way.”

“Oh. I hope you don’t think we are intruding now, we would not want you to think that we are …it is just that after what you’ve experienced recently, I – we- just felt so ashamed not to have been more neighbourly.”

“Och, there was no need to feel that way.” Una replied and sipped her coffee. She looked from one to the other of them and then asked Hoss if they had identified the dead girl yet.

“No, Miz Una, jest that she ain’t no local girl.”

Una nodded, and frowned “If it had been snowing that would have been better, wouldn’t it? We would have seen foot prints -”

Hoss nodded “We ain’t bin able to track any foot prints, not hers nor her killers. It was as though she were just dropped there…”

They were silent, dwelling upon the fate of the unknown girl. Una sighed and Hester cleared her throat, and asked her if that was right, Hoss had told her she was home schooling the children.

“It’s too far from here to the school house. Douglas prefers that I teach them, he doesn’t like the thought of his girls travelling so far especially in winter time.”

“They look healthy and happy.” Hester smiled and nodded, hoping that her words would not be misconstrued

“Yes, girls are stronger than boys. Our boy died last year from the influenza.” her face fell, and momentarily she looked haggard and her eyes lost their lustre.

Hoss and Hester muttered their sympathies. Hester tentatively mentioned about Mary Ann being the school teacher at one time. “She still has a lot of the school books, primers and such. I could bring them here for you if you would like -”

For a moment Una was quiet, her eyes downcast. Hester guessed that she was thinking about whether or not that would be charity. Would Douglas disapprove? Then she nodded “I’d be grateful. Its hard to find paper and crayons and such….”

Hester nodded, obviously those sort of things would not be on Douglas’ shopping list. She told Una about her own children, two girls and a boy. She mentioned that she, Olivia and Mary Ann helped at the hospice in town, providing food, clothing and toys for the children of those who had become recently unemployed (and no so recently), she sighed and wondered if Una would take that sort of thing as charity. Hester thought to herself as she sat there hugging her cup of coffee it was like treading on egg shells to help some people.

Una nodded “Douglas got some things from there one time, for the girls.”

“I can -” Hester cleared her throat “I could bring you some things from there, if you would wish? What would you need ?”

A silly question really, what did the woman not want? Una smiled and shook her head “Oh I couldn’t.”

“It isn’t charity, Una.” Hester put on her strict no nonsense voice, it worked with some and she hoped it would work with Una “It is being neighbourly, caring for one another. Just tell me what you need and if we have it, you can – well – I’d be happy to bring it to you.”

Una thought of Douglas in this threadbare jacket, worn out boots. He paid out as much in ammunition as he did in food because ammunition for his rifle provided them with meat. She thought of her children, the two eldest going with their father because they were the only ones with shoes that fitted still, and with warmer jackets. She thought of her girls being warm through winter, with the things other children.

“Well, we do need a few things.. but Douglas is not one for taking charity.”

Hoss shook his head “Ain’t charity, Miz Una. Some folk got so much they just can’t wait to give things away, and others ain’t got nuthin’ so in a way it kinda balances things out, don’t it?”

Una laughed, Hester smiled and squeezed her husbands big hand under the table. Una said she would write out a list and if they could supply everything on the list then she would be quite amazed.. Hester just smiled and thought ‘Prepare to be amazed, she would make sure everything on the list was provided for, and more besides.”

Afterwards they rode away in their buggy, and waved back to the woman with her children clustered around her skirts. Hester looked at the horses, at the smart buggy, and her boots, newly purchased from Amy’s Emporium, and wondered if she would be able to handle life so contentedly as Una McCrieff.

Behind them the dog barked. His barking echo’d through the woods, and Hester huddled closer to her husband and thought of wolves.

………………….

Joe and Mary Ann left the store and made their way to the restaurant. They had Constance in her stroller and Daniel was one moment tugging at Joe’s hand and the next running ahead a few steps waiting for them to catch up.

“Are you alright?” Joe asked his wife, and squeezed her arm with his hand

“I was just thinking of Mrs Groom.”

“I’m glad we didn’t take the children in with us.” Joe sighed and looked down at Constance, who as usual was greeting everyone she meet with her sunny bright smile.

“Tilly spoils the children.” Mary Ann said quietly, and nodded “I don’t think Mrs Groom has ever been the kind of person to tolerate other peoples children.”

Joe nodded. Mary Ann had decided that morning to pay a social call on Mrs Groom, to give her sympathy and a cake, and some flowers. The children had been left with Tilly Treveleyn, Bridie’s housekeeper, while she and Joe had paid a call on Mrs Groom. It had been a difficult visit, both husband and wife were still grieving, but in that limbo state where the first rawness of their loss had passed, leaving them floating in the purgatory of not knowing. ‘If we only knew where she was’ wailed Mrs Groom, weeping into the bouquet of flowers Mary Ann had brought to her.

“That’s the worse part,” Mr Groom said, “Not knowing, and that other poor girl they found the other day…what if Nettie ..one can’t help but think….wonder…” and then he had started weeping, not like his wife who bawled shamelessly, but in gulping big jerky sobs, while fat tears trickled slowly down his sunken cheeks.

“I just wish the Sheriff would find her, end this – nightmare.” Mrs Groom wailed.

Joe assured them that Nate was doing everything he coud. Mary Ann assured them that Nettie was sure to be found, safe and well. Both reassurances rang hollow even in their own ears.

At the door Mr Groom mopped up his tears and thanked them for coming. The kindness of neighbours, he said, a shame something terrible had to happen before folk showed how kind they could be to one another.

The door had closed firmly and left the younger couple standing there wondering if they had said or done the wrong, or right, thing by visiting.

Chapter 19

A lamp in the centre of the table provided a golden light. Flames from the fire flickered over them, casting shadows, dark shades over ivory. It made blonde and silver hair twist into different shades of gold and russet. It made eyes hollow one moment, sparkling bright the next.

Adam sat beside his wife, a guitar slung across his lap, his fingers toyed with the strings. Olivia stretched out her legs, her little boy on her lap dressed or undressed ready for bed. His head resting upon her breast. Every now and again he would stretch out a hand and pluck on the strings, giggle when it went ping! Reuben and Sofia leaned upon one another until one shifted position and the other rolled away. They stared into the flames of the fire as though they had never sat before a fire before.

Adam had told them a story about a brave hero Captain O’Brien, who had saved his cousin from an evil slave owner who lived on an island where the sands were pure white. They wanted to know what happened to the evil slave owner. Adam had just said he had drowned when his boat had overturned on  trying to escape. He didn’t like to tell them about the sharks that had swum towards them and chomped the man to bits. He thought Sofia would have nightmares. He didn;t even think it wise to change it to a giant fish, because he felt that Nathaniel would never want to go fishing again in case a big fish came and ate him!

They agreed it was a fitting end to the evil slave owner and thought Captain O’Brien was very brave. Sofia hoped that the Captains cousin was very grateful for being saved.

They sang some songs afterwards…Sweet Betsy from Pike was one, then there was Beautiful Dreamer where Adam sang the words and Olivia just hummed in harmony.

Anyone who had chanced to ride by the cabin would have seen the golden glow of lamplight in the windows and heard the sound of singing and laughter. They would have known a happy family were there, enjoying the fall of autumn.

There were no hunters in the woods any more. Not with guns anyway. The entrance to the Ponderosa was well marked now, with boundary markers everywhere along the route. The Marshall had made a point of fining enough ‘poachers’ to deter the majority. Those who braved it at night did so with cunning and stealth, with traps and snares.

It was time for bed and Adam put aside his guitar and reached for his little boy who took to his heels and ran around the table, giggling and whooping. Reuben chased one way. Adam chased another. He darted under the table and was neatly caught by Sofia who held the wriggling little boy tightly.

No one minded going to bed in this little house., The stove warmed the wall of the bedroom behind . Colourful quilts covered the beds. Nathaniel was tucked into one and was asleep within minutes.

“Best step over him and sleep the other side. If I know him he will be up in the night wanting to pee.” Adam told Reuben who screwed up his nose and asked ‘Do I have to share the bed with him?”

“Be grateful” his father remonstrated gently, “ I know families who sleep on the floor, like sardines.”

“What’s a sardine?” Sofia wanted to know, smug in the knowledge that she was having a bed all to herself

“A fish.” Reuben yawned, “Smaller than a shark …it can’t eat you” and he sniggered.

Adam wondered if he had told the story of the evil slave owner before and mentioned about the shark. He looked at Reuben who grinned and said nothing,

He set a candle carefully out of reach, enough of a glow so that if any of them woke in the night there would be some light to guide them It was a strange different house after all…although no stairs to tumble down, there were still door frames to bump into.

During the night Nathaniel did wake. He lay looking around him. The shadows were different shadows to the ones he knew in his room. His eyes roamed from one to the other. A something hit his back and he opened his mouth to yell then remembered he was sharing a bed with his brother.

He turned onto his side and stared into the face of this other sleeping being. He could see the pale orb of Reuben’s face. Three dark black holes. Snorting snuffling sounds. He could feel warm breath on his face. It was something he had not experienced before and lay there very still.

The sounds of soft laughter and murmurs from the room next door meant nothing to him. He half closed his eyes. Whispers, sighs. He fell asleep feeling safe and warm.

……………..

Olivia had cooked breakfast for them and the table was laden with plates and dishes and mugs.

She was smiling, humming a tune under her breath. Adam wrapped one arm around her waist and kissed her cheek before taking his seat. He poured coffee into his cup, and looked at his children.

It was a noisy chattering little group, giggling and swinging their feet under the table. He smiled. This had been a good idea to come here for a few days. He looked at his wife and she wrinkled her nose at him, her eyes bright, wide.

“I have to go into town and finish off some business this morning.” he looked at the three children.

Reuben had raised his head and looked at him, then at his mother. Sofia was spooning food into her mouth, her mind elsewhere, spinning her dreams into a story to tell Lilith no doubt. Nathaniel was engrossed in his food.. whatever had been said and whatever was intimate in what was said sailed right over his head.

“I want to just enjoy being here,” Olivia said and came to stand by his side, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and leaned down to kiss the top of his head. “Do you mind if I don’t come?”

Adam placed a hand over her hands, as they were clasped over his chest, he said it was business anyway, and she would be bored. She laughed and released him, and returned to her cooking.

“Can I come?” Reuben asked, “I’d like to go with you, Pa.”

“Thank you, Reuben, in that case I would like you to come along with me.” Adam winked, grinned as though they had just shared a private joke between them.

“I’m helping Mommy.” Sofia said, blue eyes wide and she smiled now at her father, and wrinkled her nose just as her Mother had earlier.

Nathaniel said nothing. Without realising it he was enjoying the golden rule that silence is indeed golden.

……………

They made the journey in the buggy, splashing through the ford in the river and up onto the other side and on into town. Carson City trembled in hazy sunlight. He stopped to discuss things with Boulton and Herringshaw in their office. Reuben was fascinated by the designs pinned to the walls The items used in their profession that were littered around the room.

Mr Boulton, plump and ruddy faced, smiling and twinkly eyed, handed Adam a piece of paper which Adam looked over thoughtfully. Mr Herringshaw, thin and sallow, with a stern countenance, sat at his desk and watched as Adam itemised the invoice and when Adam nodded that all was in order he relaxed and watched Reuben. Just to make sure the child did not touch anything he should not…

Reuben listened patiently to the drone of voices. He realised too late that business talk was of no interest to a little boy of his age. He screwed up his eyes and tried to count raindrops weeping down the glass of the window.

It was still raining, but lightly, when they stepped out into the town centre. For a moment Adam stood there looking left and right, before he put his hand on Reuben’s shoulder and nodded to indicate that they were to cross the road. More business? Not so, this time Adam went into a florist and bought some flowers.

“Reuben, had I told you the story about Captain O’Brien and the – er – slave owner before?”

“No, Pa.”

“Oh, so you didn’t know that the slave owner had been eaten by sharks? He looked down at the boy and grinned

“Weeeellll, I kinda guessed.” Reuben replied and looked up at his father and shrugged, nonchalantly

“It was a clever guess.” Adam observed

“I thought it was more likely to happen that way.” Reuben frowned, “If I was writing a story I would have him eaten up”

“Oh!” Adam grimaced and sighed, nodded and stayed silent for a while longer.

They stopped at the Under takers. Reuben looked anxious and followed his father into the building. A tall thin man stood behind a counter and looked at him, relaxed and smiled “Mr Cartwright!”

“Mr Laws.” Adam nodded and they shook hands.

“How’s your Pa?”

“He’s well, thank you.” Adam put a hand on Reuben’s shoulder “My son, Reuben.”

“Ah” Mr Laws stepped back as though he needed more space to observe this unique specimen of boyhood. He nodded and smiled, and put out a large hand “Pleased to meet you, young man.”

They shook hands solemnly. Reuben presumed all undertakers were solemn and stern. Nothing could be done that was not done solemnly.

“How is Mrs Laws?”

“She is well. Much better now. .” Laws shook his head and sighed, “It was a near miss, and no mistake.”

“Would you give her these for me.” Adam smiled again, “I missed the opportunity to do so when I was in town before and …”

Mr Laws was profuse in his appreciation. Adam shrugged and muttered that Mrs Laws had saved his life and Mr Laws had saved Ben’s life…a bunch of flowers was very little by way of thanks in comparison.

……………………..

Adam was considering taking Reuben into a restaurant for a drink, perhaps a cake, perhaps something the boy would enjoy. He was deep in thought and wondering where to go after their little drink, the Marshall? The architects? He had to pay off the builders who had so improved the cabin! He thought of Reuben and knew he would be bored, he had been pretty good up to now, but Adam remembered brother Joseph Francis and how bored he would get trawling around business appointments with Ben and himself.

A man seemed to step right out of the boards of a building in front of them and instinctively Adam put his hand to his gun handle, and the other hand across Reuben’s chest to push him aside . The man was holding a newspaper in one hand, his eyes were wild, his face mottled, parts white and parts red. He gulped noisily and put a hand out to Adam, as though to prevent him venturing any further. “I know you…one of the Ponderosa Cartwrights ..from Virginia City ?”

Adam narrowed his eyes, leaned forwards, a put a hand on the other mans chest. It was obvious the man was not drunk, but he was obviously sorely distressed about something. A handsome man, with loose brown hair flopping over his brow, red rimmed eyes, in which the colour blue was swimming.

“What’s your problem fellow?” he asked trying to gentle his voice, trying to make sure that Reuben was safe if a gun appeared for fists started flying.

The man steadied himself, drew in a deep breath and stood upright. He looked at Reuben then at Adam and pushed the newspaper into Adam’s hand “This – article – picture -” he drew in his breath again, batted his eyelids, and his lips trembled.

Reuben stepped behind Adam, nervous now. Adam looked at the paper, his own eyes narrowed as he looked at the picture of the woman staring up at him. He recognised her. It was a very good artists impression. He looked at the man, then again at the picture.

“You know this woman?” he asked, gentling his voice even more so now just in case what he thought in theory was correct.

“Do you? It says in the article that Cartwrights found her body….that’s you ..and your brothers?”

Adam lowered his head and read the brief paragraph, then drew in his breath “Yes. We found her.”

The man whimpered, struggled to maintain his dignity but failed. He put a hand to his face, struggled momentarily. Adam put out a hand to steady him, then glanced down at Reuben who was watching anxiously. “Reuben, step over there, son, so this fellow can lean against the wall…” he paused, chewed on his bottom lip as he watched the man struggling to control himself. “Better still, we’ll go and take a seat over there in that restaurant.”

“No -” the man shook his head, and clasped Adam by the arm “You did recognise her, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” Adam sighed, and lowered his head before glancing up and looking at the man “More to the point, so did you. Who is she?”

“She is – was – my wife…My wife…Rosemary.”

………………..

Nettie lay upon the trestle bed. She had two blankets now. She wore only her chemise as the rest of her clothing had been removed. She lay with her eyes closed.

There was no noise, nothing, unless sounds were muffled so much where she was that she didn’t hear them any more. She wanted to die. She hoped if she kept her eyes closed for long enough she would just naturally fade away and die.

Trouble is, death isn’t as easy as that, wishing life away didn’t hasten death, as she was to find out

Chapter 20

The waiter hovered. Understandably so as one of his customers looked as though he were to pass out. He was unsure whether to ask if it was coffee or a doctor that should be summoned. Adam managed to get the man seated and then nodded over to the waiter and ordered a large jug of coffee.

Reuben looked from his father to the other man. He had the distinct impression that his presence would not be in any way desirable just now. He wondered what to say, and then wondered how to say it. Adam glanced briefly at his son and frowned, he nodded, but before he could speak Reuben forced a smile

“Pa, I was going to get a present for Ma. Could I could go now? I know what to get her, and I saw the store -”

“Have you enough money?” Adam’s eyes, flickered from the man to his son, and back again to the man who was lolling awkwardly over the table.

“Sure, Pa.” Reuben jingled his coins in his pocket

“Very good.” Adam gave his son a quick smile, his eyes lingered for a second, enough to tell Reuben that Adam was pleased at his initiative.

Reuben left without looking back. He felt sorry for the poor man, but now his mind was set on getting Ma a present. He had no idea what to get!

Adam sat opposite his companion and put out a hand to steady him. The coffee arrived and was poured into two adequately sized cups, he pushed one over to the other man. Perhaps the smell of the coffee impacted on the man’s mind, perhaps the reality of where he was just dawned on him. As it was he glanced around him and then looked into Adam’s face

“I’m sorry..”

“Nothing to apologise for…”

“I – I’ve been trying to hold myself together ever since I saw the picture in the paper.”

“I can imagine it would have come as a shock…”

“A shock?” the man shook his head and looked as if he would burst into tears. Adam inched the cup nearer and nodded, as though he understood.

“You recognised your wife…Rosemary? Was that her name?”

A long drawn out sigh. A nod of the head. He picked up the coffee and sat there, holding it between his finger as though the heat from the cup didn’t burn his fingers, that the memory of seeing that picture didn’t make him feel ill.

“Can you tell me more about what happened? Your name for a start…”

“My name? Chandler. Hal Chandler.” he nodded his head, his hair flopped over his brow, making him look younger than he actually was, he stared down at the coffee.

“Hal.” Adam nodded and waited for the man to speak but Hal decided to drink the coffee now, so Adam picked up his own cup and drank some “Hal, we didn’t realise she was married….there was no wedding ring.”

“No? He looked puzzled then nodded “Oh yes, of course…no, she left it behind on the table with the note.”

Adam nodded as though he perfectly understood. He could see it in his mind. The woman leaving the house, leaving a note and the wedding ring for her husband to find upon his return from work.

“How long ago/”

“Four months.”

“You didn’t look for her? Try to find her? Four months is a long time!”

“I looked, Mr Cartwright. I swear to you I looked. I cabled friends, acquaintances ..anyone I could think of…her family.” he closed his eyes as though the memory was too painful “Her father – he sent out messages to his friends, relatives…just in case…”

“Hal, you mean – she just disappeared without trace?”

“Without trace/” Hal intoned and emptied his cup, heaved in another deep breath “How does anyone disappear without trace? Rosemary did ..seems to have done….”

Adam poured out more coffee. Steam rose along with the smell – bitter. He looked at Hal, a good looking man, well dressed, obviously in a good type of employment. He probably had a neat little house in town, owned a buggy and horse. Obviously not enough to keep his wife at home by his side.

“Tell me about Rosemary. How did you meet, have you been married for long/”

“Married about three years..next month …our wedding anniversary. She’s from Illinois. I met her at a social event there, in her home town. I was on business there…”

“What do you do for business?”

“I’m a Doctor. That’s how I recognised you, remember seeing you in the hospital with your father.” he frowned, the thought slipped into his mind that he should ask about the old man but – he closed his eyes, thoughts were flitting through his head, going every which way. “Mr Cartwright, I thought I had the perfect wife, she was so pretty, so – so caring. About two months before she – went – she seemed to change. Didn’t want to – you know – “ he sighed and assumed that Adam was man of the world enough to understand what that meant “even to hug, or hold hands, she kinda just kept brushing me off. I thought there was another man -”

“You asked her?”

“Yes. In the end I asked her and she just laughed and told me I was imagining things. So I – I let it pass for a day or two and then I came home one day and she was gone. Just a note and the ring.”

“She took her belongings?”

Hal looked up, shook his head “No, just a coat and her bonnet. Just as though she were going out to church or – or visiting friends.”

Adam leaned back in his chair and cradled the cup between his fingers. Surely a woman intending to leave her husband would take more than that…

“Hal, you need to get to Virginia City and tell the Sheriff what you have told me. And he will need you to identify Rosemary. It could even be possible that it is not your wife…an artist impression can be inaccurate.”

“No, it’s her. I know it.”

Adam put down his cup, observed the other man and frowned “Hal, it is important that you get to Virginia City and tell Sheriff Carney what you have told me..he needs to know. He -” he paused and glanced down wondering whether or not to mention Nettie. “There’s another girl missing. Like Rosemary,she seems to have just disappeared -”

“Without trace?” Hal intoned

“Yeah, without trace. You may be able to tell Nate something that will give him an idea of who could have done these things..your wife, Nettie….”

Hal nodded, his mind trying to gather pieces together. He leaned forward “How was she killed? They – whoever it is – was – didn’t hurt her, did they?”

“I think the Sheriff will give you all the information you need about that…”

“No, Mr Cartwright. You found her, you’ll know… was there much blood? Was she ..” he put a hand to his brow and brushed aside his hair “Was she stabbed or what..I need to know…I keep getting these pictures in my head and I need to know …”

“She wasn’t stabbed …there was no blood and so far as I could see there were no broken bones…”

“She was shot then?”

Adam thought back to the first sight they had of the woman, nodded “She was shot in the leg…that would have made her fall eventually”

“And then he killed her, whoever he was …is…”

“Yes.”

Adam watched as the mans face registered his feelings, his fears, pity, anger ..”He shot her in the leg. Does that mean he was a bad shot? Missed his target?”

“We were more thinking it was a hunters trick…to bring down …to stop her running.”

“You were going to say to bring down his quarry, weren’t you? Like a hunter would when stalking a deer …”

Adam said nothing. He wondered where Reuben was, if the boy was alright and felt guilty that he had to be sent away and the morning together spoiled by this encounter. He leaned forward,

“Will you go to see the Sheriff?”

Hal nodded. “I’ll go today. Mr Cartwright. I want to see Rosemary for myself. I kept imaging that she was lying somewhere in a pool of blood and – and I couldn’t bear that happening to her.”

“if it helps at all…when we first found her she was – “ he paused but as he had started he pressed on , “We thought it was as though she had been posed, just lying there looking very lovely and peaceful.”

Hal nodded, lowered his head and mumbled a thank you. Adam stood up, pushing himself from the table “I’ll send a telegram to the Sheriff, tell him you are on the way. Will that be alright with you?”

Hal looked up, gave an odd twisted smile “You think I’ll not bother to go?” he shook his head, “I’ll go,I need to see her…..”

…………………

Reuben had wandered into a candy store. It sold lots of candies in very pretty shaped boxes, with ribbons and some boxes were heart shaped, some were round. He knew his Ma loved chocolate candy best so wandered over to the counter where he saw some on display. He pulled out some money from his pocket and counted it out.

“Can I help you?”

A lady came dressed in a white blouse with frills down the front and with a long black skirt. She had a black ribbon around the neck of her blouse. She smiled and Reuben cleared his throat.

“Is it for a sweet heart, dear?”

“No, Ma’am, its for my Ma.”

She nodded and looked over at another counter, “Over here then.”

The box she showed him was pink and white, roses and rosebuds. “When your Ma has eaten all the candy she can use the box for her trinkets…it’ll always remind her of you, and your visit here.”

He nodded, he liked that idea. He asked her how much it was and he counted out his money onto the counter and she put the box into a little bag which she handed over to him.

“Thank you, Ma’am.” he said gravely

“Wait -” she smiled and pulled out a tray of chocolate candy which she showed him “Take one…on the house.”

“No, it’s alright, thank you…”

“No, it’s alright. My treat…”

He looked at the chocolate covered candy, at the chocolate swirls and curls and picked one which she handed over to him by means of a little silver tong shaped server. “Enjoy and come again…”

He nodded and took the chocolate candy in one hand, the bag in the other. Outside the shop he looked for his father, then retraced his footsteps back to the restaurant, nibbling at the chocolate and trying to make it last for as long as he could.

…………………..

The telegram was sent to Nate as soon as Adam had located Reuben. Reuben with a smear of chocolate over his face. He then went to the Builders who had supervised the rebuild of the cabin and having introduced himself the Manager came down and ushered him , and Reuben, into the office. There was a lot of talking that went right over Reuben’s head. He sat there on a hard leather chair swinging his legs back and forth, thinking of the chocolates in the box. Enjoying the sweet taste of the one he had eaten.

Adam paid for the work done and then spent twenty more minutes discussing the house that was to be built at what was to be the cattle station. He got up and pointed to the location on the map, there was more talk, Reuben nearly fell asleep.

Back on the street he asked his Pa if there was more business to do and Adam shook his head, and smiled. “Thank you for your quick thinking, Reuben.”

“Oh – that’s alright, Pa.” Reuben grinned, he had enjoyed it, freedom, to wander where he liked, to go into a shop and buy something all by himself. In a strange town too….he felt ten feet tall.

“I think you deserve a treat now, and then we need to get your sister and brother a little something huh?”

Reuben felt like reminding his father that he was not a little boy like Nathaniel, he didn’t need ice cream treats as though he were a child. But he nodded anyway and followed Adam into a smart cafe where Adam ordered steak and potatoes with all the trimmings. This was more like it…Reuben sat with a grin on his face. Uncle Hoss would have been delighted.

They strolled down the high street of Carson City. Adam told his son about the Mint, the building opposite them, which took up a huge amount of space. They strolled on, and then Adam went into a large store and bought Sofia a present and Nathaniel a toy.

The Marshall came out of his office and did a double check when he saw Adam. Of course he had to come over and talk, that took another ten minutes. Reuben didn’t realise going for a stroll around town could be so wearying. He swung his little bag with the box inside back and forth. His legs ached. He sighed. Finally the Marshall and Adam shook hands and they were making their way to the buggy – at last.

Splashing through the ford, leaves tumbled down in a myriad colours, and Reuben felt his eyes closing. Everything was hazy, far away, muted….his eyes were so heavy…the little package dropped from his clasp and tumbled to the floor.

When Adam tapped his son on the shoulder Reuben was amazed to open his eyes and find himself outside the cabin. He looked around him, at the trees, golden and red and green..he heard Sofia squealing “Pa, Pa..”

“Sorry, Pa, I fell asleep,.”

“You did..” Adam chuckled and jumped down, turning to pick up their packages. He handed the one for Olivia, from Reuben, to his son, and winked.

Chapter 21

Candy Canaday watched as Ben’s finger traced the line across the map. He had listened to Hoss and Joe often enough to know of the plans the Cartwrights had for the land adjoining the river close to Carson City. Now he was being shown where everything was going to be, “So what would happen to the cabin? If you aren’t using it for the cattle station…”

“Too far,” Joe said immediately, and sat up straighter, “It takes a day to get from the cabin to the area where the cattle station will be…”

Candy nodded. “So what will the cabin be used for?”

Hoss opened his mouth to speak when there was a knock on the door. Glancing around and

noticing no one else was about to stir to check who the visitor was, he scowled and made his way to the door, muttering that it sounded rather an officious kind of knock. The three other men nodded in agreement and watched as he pulled open the door..

Two men, both looking grim faced. Nate Carney Sheriff and Roy Coffee, ex-sheriff. They both removed their hats and stepped inside, ushered in by Hop Sing.

Some of the children came running in to see who it was, and then turned and ran back to where they could resume play elsewhere.

Nate apologised for coming at an inconvenient moment and was assured that it was not inconvenient at all, that he should sit down and it was about time Roy dragged himself for a visit.

“So,” Ben gestured to chairs, and then took his seat, crossed one leg over the other, and gave them the benefit of his broad grin “What brings you here? Nettie? Has she been found?”

The other men immediately stopped what they were doing, somewhere in the house one of the children was wailing, probably lost a squabble for a toy, but they ignored it. Nate shook his head

“No, still no trace of Nettie.”

Joe and Hoss shared a look, raised eyebrows, and downturned mouths, Candy felt awkward and wondered if he should go, but didn’t know how to extricate himself. Ben nodded and rubbed his chin, “Well, what’s on your mind? Not good news I can tell that from your faces.”

Nate jutted out his bottom lip and Roy cleared his throat, “Guess I’m here on false pretences, Ben. Jest that -” he paused and shrugged “Having been the law at one time I kinda took advantage of my position so to speak.”

“What’s happened?” Ben leaned forward, “Has something happened -” he was going to say to Adam or Olivia, but didn’t have the courage to speak the words.

“The dead woman has been identified. Her husband came to town from Carson City and went to identify her. He told us that she had been missing for four months.”

Hoss frowned and shook his head “She didn’t look like she’d been dead for four months.”

“More like less than a day…I mean she was …perfect. Hadn’t even been time for any wild animal to get to her nor nothing…” Joe said in agreement with his brother.

“Yeah, he was surprised too. We asked him about every question we could think of, tried to get him to confess or admit that he had had a marriage that was falling apart, that it was acrimonious and that he killed her, but no, it was all sweetness and light, until about two months before she left him.”

Nate looked from one to the other of them

“She left a note and her wedding ring. Took nothing with her ‘cept the clothes she was wearing at the time. He didn’t recognise the garment she was wearing when she was found…” Roy sighed.

“So why are you here?” Ben asked, rubbing his knees with his hands, hard skinned hands, the evidence of a man who had worked hard all his life.

“We’ve asked him to stay in town for a while, he’s at the Internationale. He says he was one of your Doctors, Ben. When you were in Carson City….Dr Chandler.”

Ben frowned and paused to think “Yeah, I remember him, a younger man. Pleasant enough..”

“May be if you could meet up with him, get him talking, he may open up more to you…tell you more about what was going on in life” Nate shook his head “I know it’s clutching at straws, but we need to know Nettie is safe. If this person who took Mrs Chandler is here in town, and has taken Nettie, like he took Mrs Chandler -”

“You think Dr Chandler’s guilty?” Joe asked looking at the two men sitting there like two book ends.

“Not sure. If he is, then -” Roy glanced again at Nate before looking at Ben “If he is then he may let slip where Nettie is….at present he denies knowing anything about her. He’s very emotional.”

They paused at that point as the sound of a buggy and horses in the yard could be heard. The murmur of voices and then the door opened. Hester and Mary Ann seemed to tumble inside, smiles on their faces, eyes sparkling.

“It’s getting a lot colder out there…” Mary Ann said and to prove it put her cold hands on Joe’s face

“Wouldn’t be surprised if there was snow soon.” Hester pulled aside her bonnet and muffler, and then smiled at her guests “I wondered who was here…have you good news? Have you found Nettie”

“I’m afraid not, Mrs Cartwright.” Nate said and stood up, all 6’7” of him, and Roy, on cue, got to his feet, looking rather short in comparison. “But we do know who the other person is now, and her husband is in town having identified her.”

“Poor man.” Hester sighed, her hands dropping down into the lap of her skirts. “He must have been distraught”

Both lawmen nodded, Candy cleared his throat, “Guess I had better be getting home, Ann will be wondering why I’m so late.”

“We’re leaving too….” Nate said and nodded his thanks to them all as he followed Candy out of the house.

Hester watched them go. Hop Sing stood by the table looking around him with a tray of coffee and everything set out for refreshments. He shrugged and put the tray on the table, wandered back to the kitchen, mumbling Cantonese to himself

“I’ll get the children rounded up, and then we should get home. I’m sorry we’re so late…” Mary Ann cried looking rather wild eyed “But Mrs McCriefff insisted we stayed a little while. She was so very grateful for everything we had taken. She wanted to make us a cup of real coffee..she said she had not had any real coffee for so long.”

“How was Douglas?” Ben asked gruffly, his mind more on the news about Dr Chandler than Mrs McCrieff’s hospitality.

Hester laughed a little bit “Oh he grumbled and fussed, until he saw how proud of their shoes the girls were…you should have seen their little faces. And he was completely overwhelmed when he got the jacket…” she paused “just one of your old ones, Ben.” she bit her lip and pulled a face “I can’t remember the last time I saw you wear it. It fitted Mr McCrieff perfectly.”

Ben’s dark brows lowered, and his face went grim, while his lips thinned. Joe decided it was definitely time to leave, he grabbed his daughter, while Mary Ann caught at Daniels hand, “Say goodnight to everyone.”

Constance ran over to give her Grandfather a hug and kiss, nothing so sweet as a little princess to kiss a grouch and turn him into a soft jelly. Calls of good night, good bye echoed through the house and then when the door closed Ben said very quietly “Which one?”

“Which one what?” Hester asked trying to pull her face into perfect innocence

“Which coat?”

“Oh a brown one that was hanging in your closet.” she replied and turned to leave the room on the pretext of seeing to the children.

She was safe. Ben sat down heavily in the chair and attempted to remember a brown jacket or coat. He could not. He probably would the next morning or when he next went looking for it, but at the present time he couldn’t remember a thing about it

Chapter 22

Nate Carney shuffled the papers before setting them down upon the desk. He glanced up at Hal Chandler and noticed the listless slump of the man’s body, the downcast eyes that seemed to be empty, seeing nothing. He sighed and cleared his throat,

“Dr Chandler, do you want to look through your statement before you sign it?”

Hal shook himself into a form of alertness, shook his head as though to cast off cobwebs or nightmare memories, then looked at the sheriff and nodded. The papers were handed over to him and he leaned back to read what he had written. The clock ticked away the minutes, leaden, before he nodded and placed the papers on the desk and signed each page. He pushed them over to Nate as though they burned his fingers.

Nate leaned forwards, linked his fingers together and cleared his throat again,

“Is there anything, anything at all that you can add to that statement, that you may have forgotten …”

“No, it’s all there, as best I can remember.” a quiet voice, edged just a little with bitterness.

“Dr Chandler, we really need your help here. Your wife had a good reason for leaving you in the manner that she did…and all you have said is that she suddenly went cold on you, as though bored..as though she no longer wanted to be near you.”

Hal nodded, and stared up at the ceiling, “We had been talking about starting a family. She was excited about that…” he scowled “then a few days later she didn’t want to mention it, let alone do anything about it.” he leaned forward, his face only inches from Nate’s “Look, Sheriff, I loved her, I loved Rosemary so much that those weeks were hell. I dreaded going home to see her after my shift at the hospital was over. I longed to see her but dreaded it in case she rebuffed me, turned away from me…and most times she did…”

“And you still don’t think another man was involved?”

Chandler said nothing, then raised his eyes slowly to meet Nate’s they were swimming in tears.

“May be I’ve been fooling myself, may be there was another man, but – but I could not bear to think it was possible. We had been so happy together. How could it have been possible for her to have stopped loving me to love someone else?”

Nate nodded “It does happen, Dr Chandler, to others who thought – as you did.” and he remembered how he had felt when it had indeed, happened to him.”She didn’t object to your work?”

“No she was very proud of being married to a Doctor. It gave her a status in town..” he gave a little twisted smile, again that slight edge of bitterness “She used to tell me how proud she was of me, how important my position was in town.” he rubbed at his face, then seemed surprised at finding his skin was damp, he looked at his fingers with a dazed expression on his face “I can’t believe she’s dead. When I saw her yesterday lying in that morgue, looking so beautiful it was like a dream..as though I were caught up in some weird dream. Like I’d stepped between the pages of a book and if I kissed her she would wake up and I could take her home….”

Nate nodded, and slipped the pages of Dr Chandler’s statement into a folder which he placed into a drawer in the desk. “Please think carefully, Dr Chandler, is there anyone, anyone at all, that could have been in Carson City and who could have – somehow – coerced your wife into thinking he loved her, and -”

“No, I told you before, Rosemary was not like that ….”

“Whether you like it or not, Dr Chandler, it must have been like that, there can’t be any other explanation.” he leaned back in his chair and shook his head “You didn’t beat her, lock her up, abuse her, you never left her short of money, and bought her gifts and showered her with love…” he shrugged “In fact, you were every woman’s ideal husband.”

“I tried to be…” Hal groaned, “But obviously I was not…somehow I failed…”

…………………

Nettie Groom lay on the truckle bed and clutched the blanket tightly in one hand. She stared into the darkness above her head so hard that her eyes ached, and began to water. She didn’t move. She had decided she would just stay there, she would not eat, nor drink. She would fade away to nothing and when someone found her they would marvel at what a beautiful corpse she was…like a fairy tale princess awaiting her prince for the kiss that would bring her back to life

Nettie had never gone without a meal in her life. She drank fine wines and good rich coffee and sweet lemonade whenever she chose. She had never known what starvation was and had no idea how long it would take to starve to death. Even in this dismal place food and water was provided at regular intervals. That grey square in the blackness beyond would open, provide a glimpse of the world beyond her, and someone would come and leave her food and drink.

She no longer attempted to speak to the person. Since she had attempted to break free she had been shackled. A leather strap around her ankle attached to a chain which was in turn attached to the bed.

She didn’t know when it had happened, she had just woken up one time – night or morning was all the same in that black hole – and when she tried to move her legs she discovered how much of a captive she really was….this was her punishment for trying to escape.

She went through the names of all the girls who worked at Amy’s Emporium..the girls with whom she had gone to school. She ran through a list of names in her head of the people she knew in town. Her lips moved silently. She knew if she shouted them out no one would hear. No one would come to help her.

“Mommy…” she whispered…”Mommy..” and that was when the tears began to fall, running down the side of her face into her hair. And then she began to scream…..

………………..

“Daddy,” Sofia pulled at her fathers sleeve to gain his attention.

“Yes,Sofia…” he was frowning, concentrating on attaching the hook to his line. Then flicking the ‘rod’ back and forth. “Yes?”

“Are we going home today?”

“We are, but first I’m going to catch a fish for our dinner…” Adam smiled down at her and nodded.

Sofia nodded back. She was sitting on the bank of the river, pulling on her stockings, her feet were cold, she had spent too much time paddling. Reuben was further up river, already plying his rod, swishing his line over his head and into the water. Nathaniel was collecting stones along the bank, filling his pockets and then emptying them again whenever he saw better stones ahead.

“It was really special wasn’t it?” Sofia now said as she sought for her shoes, “Being here, it was special. I shall call it my happy place.”

“I’m glad you thought so, princess.” he smiled and cast his line into the river, pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. He had to concentrate. Sofia knew that, she had seen that look on his face before when they were fishing back home. She knew she had to be quiet now.

She pulled on her boots and carefully laced them up. Mother had not allowed her to wear her special pretty shoes because she knew where they were going to go this morning and that it would be muddy and wet. She sat still with her arms clasped around her knees which were bent up to her chin. She wondered how long she would have to stay quiet before she could say a single word.

A fish, glittering silver and fighting for its life at the end of the hook. Adam carefully played it on the line until it was on the bank. Sofia joined him to look at it, she nodded “It’s a big fish.”

“We need one more…” he said solemnly, it was serious business fishing for dinner to feed his family.

A giggle behind him, and he turned to see Nathaniel tottering towards them. “Look Daddy..shoe.”

Adam straightened up, and shook his head. His first thought was that Nathaniel had borrowed a shoe from his mother’s room. But then….”Come here…”

“No no no….” Nathaniel giggled and attempted to run away, splashing in and out of the water as he went, sending up spray and soaking himself in the process.

“Nathaniel – stop this minute…”

“Catch catch me..” the little boy shrieked gleefully

Reuben put down his rod. He had caught two fish, smaller than Adam’s but enough to make him happy. As the little boy approached him he stepped away from the water’s edge with his arms wide spread in the same way he would if trying to round up a loose calf or foal.

Nathaniel slowed down, turned, then tripped over to be caught around the waist by his father. Adam frowned and straightened the boy up, and set him down again, and squatted on his haunches to be at eye level “Now then…”

“Now then.” Nathaniel laughed and flung his arms around his father’s neck.

It was Sofia who picked up the discarded shoe and wrinkled her nose up at the sight of it. She was about to toss it into the river when Adam reached out to take it from her. He held it in his hand, balanced across his palm and released a long sigh.

“Where did you find it, Nathaniel.”

The boy shook his head and put his hands behind his back, he fiddled with his fingers and frowned. Daddy was being serious and Nathaniel wanted Daddy to be laughing and thinking it funny..

Reuben joined them and looked at the shoe “Is it one of Ma’s?”

“No.” Adam shook his head.

He dipped it into the water and carefully wiped away the mud, some river weed, until the shoe looked less than it’s best but revealed itself to be a ladies court shoe, high heeled, slim, dainty and rather expensive. For a moment Adam just stood there holding it in his hand and staring out at the trees…

Sofia tugged his arm and pointed to a hollow in the bank. A large stone had been rolled up against it but the force of the current had dislodged it, revealing its secrets …and what secrets!

He drew in a deep breath and then expelled it. “Reuben, get your fish, son…we’ll take them up to Ma to cook for our dinner.”

“What about those things…” Reuben asked pointing to what looked like clothing, another shoe…

“Leave them for now. I’ll get them later ..come along..hurry, hurry….” and trying to put some jollity into his voice he ushered the children up the bank towards the cabin.

Was it a co-incidence? Were these Rosemary Chandler’s clothes? Why hide them here on Ponderosa land? Why was she left – dead – on the borders of the Ponderosa? Was someone playing games? If so, they were not the kind of games the Cartwrights found at all to their liking.

Chapter 23

Olivia was more than pleased to be presented with the fish. She gave Reuben a hug and her husband a kiss, but her face fell when he presented the shoe to her. Nathaniel, expecting a hug jumped in front of them and cried with delight “I find it in river.”

“Oh -” she said and looked at Adam who raised his eyebrows and tried to look innocent. He knew what she was thinking – and tried to look nonchalant about it. Was it his fault that his son had to find – something!

“There’s things there,” Reuben volunteered despite Nathaniel digging his elbows into his brother’s legs as though to say it was his find, he was the one to tell Ma

“Clothes -” Sofia added, “Daddy said he would go and get them later on.”

“Does that mean before or after we’ve eaten.” Olivia wanted to know as she tentatively put the shoe down by the door and thumbed some mud off the heel

“I’ll go now -” Adam said quickly and looked at Reuben “Coming, son?”

“Me too…” Nathaniel jumped forward but Olivia grabbed his arm and said he had to stay where he was, he needed to get his clothes changed as they were wet through.

“Sofia, take care of your brother while I prepare the fish for cooking.” she gave her husband a stern look “Don’t take too long.”

Sofia groaned, and grabbed her little brother and scowled down at him. He looked as miserable as she felt. Typical, being a girl was surely no fun!

“Yes, Ma’am” Adam nodded and grinned a cheeky mischievous boys grin, while he grabbed a box which stood by the door and hurried out.

The box had contained the groceries they had brought for their stay over, and swinging this in one hand he led the way, with Reuben following. The sky was blue, clouds were gathering, but he didn’t notice as his mind dwelt on too many questions. He didn’t notice the way the grasses bent as they passed nor how they sprung up when they were gone; he didn’t hear Reuben chattering. When they reached the river he handed the box to the boy and stepped into the water.

It was cold but he waded through to the hollowed out place in the bank. He glanced over his shoulder as though to confirm that they were alone, unseen, that the person who had dug out the hollow and placed the garments within was not there now, watching as he pulled out the garments, one by one and placed them in the box at Reuben’s feet.

The hollow was dry, it had been dug out above the water line, although the rock that had been placed in front of it had been large enough to sink into the river bed. The recent storms had dislodged it so that it had toppled away, or had it just been placed that way, loosely enough to fall back into the river. Conveniently enough for the clothes to be found?

Each garment had been folded neatly away as though into a trunk for travelling. The other shoe was there, and a purse. They completely filled the box so that he had to carry it back to the cabin, while Reuben followed behind carrying a bonnet, the purse and the other shoe.

When they got back the meal was ready. Olivia had set out the table as prettily as she could, the fish smelled and looked appetising along with the rich crusty bread. Sofia looked at her father and brother as they stepped in and put the box of clothes down by the door. She saw the way Olivia looked at them and then at Adam and wished they had not found them, that there had been nothing to spoil her happy place.

…………..

Marshall Howard and his deputy looked at the garments and the other items spread out on the desk. The Marshall touched each one as though to make sure they were real, set aside the shoes and bonnet. He shook his head and looked thoroughly miserable as he listened once more to how Adam had found them. Adam stood with his arms folded across his chest and watched as the two men scrutinised the clothes, and once he had stopped speaking he just waited for them to initiate any further conversation

Howard walked slowly to his own desk and sat down, indicating with a nod of the head towards another chair that Adam could sit down. He opened a drawer and pulled out a file which he placed on the desk and then he looked up at Adam, his eyes looked like a dog who had seen his feed bowl taken away from him before he had had the chance of a nibble. Deputy Ward busied himself in putting the clothing back into the box, carefully, almost reverentially. Adam was pleased to see that, the job had not yet coarsened the man’s finer feelings.

“Sheriff Carney sent me a telegram about Mrs Chandler. Her husband has identified her…” he looked down at the file and sighed then looked up at Adam “You found her body?”

“A neighbour found her body. He sent for us as we were nearer than town….”

“What was her condition?” he paused and frowned “Not meaning to be callous. Carney’s message was brief. But we do know that the woman had been missing for some weeks…”

“She had not been dead for weeks if that’s what you’re asking.” Adam replied and stretched out his legs, he ran his fingers across his mouth and frowned, “Maybe a few hours, long enough for her body to be brought from where she had been killed to where she was to be found. It had been planned, our neighbours dog had been killed days earlier so the murderer was able to get there unnoticed.”

Howard and Ward exchanged a look, then the Marshall’s eyes swivelled back to Adam “What did you think of Dr Chandler? You said he approached you having seen his wife’s picture in the paper and you had to take him somewhere to talk .. what did he say? What did he look like?”

Adam shrugged and thought of Hal Chandler, the way he looked and then nodded slowly “He looked like a man who had received an almighty shock, as though he had lost all hope…he was distraught.”

Howard passed the back of his hand across his nose, before nodding “He came in here like a crazy man just hours after getting home and finding a note from her with her wedding ring. He demanded we looked for her…of course we could not, had to explain that she had left of her own accord. But he went out searching, knocking on doors, missing his work, generally going to pieces. After a week when no one had seen hide nor hair of her he came back and demanded we did a search.”

“Did you?” Adam crossed one leg over the other, he thought about Olivia and how he would feel if that had happened to her, just gone, disappeared, never seen again.

“Yes, we did.” Marshall nodded, and his eyes glanced over to the box where the clothes had been neatly stacked. “I asked the Doctor if it were possible that his wife had taken off with another man, but he said not. He couldn’t believe it possible, they were in love ..” he lowered his eyes and pouted, thick lips, hair that he had missed when shaving standing out like bristles on a shaving brush.

Deputy Ward stepped forward and leaned against the rifle rack, his arms folded in a similar way to how Adam had stood moments earlier “He left us a list of what he thought to be her clothing.”

Howard nodded and tapped a sheet of paper from the file, Adam had noticed it in his hand when they had been looking at the clothes. The contents of the purse alone confirmed it was Rosemary Chandlers. He waited, there was obviously more to come. Howard cleared his throat, and tapped the paper

“It’s possible that he didn’t really know what clothes she was wearing as some from this list is missing and some clothes ..” his eyes lifted and met Adams “No woman wears two skirts, do they?”

“Not that I’m aware of…” Adam replied quietly “I noticed several items were duplicated. Could just mean that she had packed away extra, she had planned to be away.”

Marshall Howard nodded and settled back in his chair, “May be. Perhaps you should take these things to Virginia City and get Dr Chandler to identify them. He intends to stay there until – this is all over.”

Adam frowned “And what will you do, Marshall.”

He stood up, reached for his hat and looked at the two law men. They said nothing. The Marshall got up out of his chair and walked over to the box and picked it up, handed it over to Adam who said quietly “If some of these clothes do not belong to Mrs Chandler, it means that there is someone else gone missing…don’t you think?”

He left the building with the two men staring after him.

……………………

Hannah sighed and watched as her mother brushed her hair and began to braid it. She watched in the mirror as her mother’s fingers threaded a plait

“Why do I have black hair, Ma/”

“Because you take after your Grandpa and Uncle Adam.” Hester frowned and picked out a ribbon, glossy and silky, a soft pink.

“Why couldn’t I have had hair the same colour as Hope, or the same colour as you?”

Hester shrugged, this was not the first time they had had a conversation about this and why her daughter was so upset at having such dark hair she never could fathom. No one in their right minds would want to be a child at school with red hair, no matter what shade it was, or would become, as far as the school children would be concerned she would be teased, called names – ‘Carrots’ was just one of many.

“Why does Hope have hair different from mine?” Hannah continued to whine

“Because she has the same colour hair as your grandmother, Inger.” Hester picked out another ribbon for the other braid. There was no point in referring to Hoss’ colour hair, he no longer had any to speak off, just a circle of hair like a tonsure that was soft and silvery grey

Hannah frowned and stared at her reflection. “Will Sofia and Reuben be coming for supper this evening? They are coming home today, arn’t they? Why couldn’t we go to the cabin first?”

Hester shook her head and rolled her eyes, “Uncle Adam wanted to make sure that the builders had made all the alterations to the cabin that he wanted, now, stop asking so many questions. Go and get Hope here, I need to do her hair…” and hopefully, do it in silence!!

……………….

Mary Ann Cartwright passed her hands down the front of her skirt. Then very carefully she buttoned up the bodice. Then she stepped back from the cheval mirror and turned this way and that, just to see how well it fitted. It was pretty. A pale cream background with tiny flowers scattered over it, blue forget me nots, pink rosebuds, deep creamy cherry blossom. Her bodice was lined with green velvet piping and had green velvet buttons.

She flounced up her curls and pinched her cheeks to make them pinker than usual. She hoped her husband would like the new gown. She twirled again and the skirts swished out, full and wide.

As she once again soothed down the skirt the thought crossed her mind that Nettie Groom may well have worked on this dress, sewn on the buttons, cut out the pattern …Nettie Groom, still unfound. Mary Ann stood still and clasped her hands together. Mr Groom had told her the previous day that his wife had taken to her bed, vowing not to get out of it until her daughter was home.

She closed her eyes on the memory of that conversation, the way the poor man had placed a trembling hand on her arm, and said in a croak of a voice “She said – whether dead or alive…that’s what she said, Mrs Cartwright.”

Mary Ann released her breath and touched the ribbon at her throat. It no longer mattered what compliments her husband paid her, the smile on his lips and the twinkle in his eyes…all she could think of was Nettie Groom and all she could ask herself was..where was she? Poor girl, what had happened to her?

……………………

Ben brushed his hair with his silver backed brushes. He had a feeling of pleasure now as he picked them up and used them. They felt familiar. He recognised their patterns against the palm of his hands. He looked at himself in the mirror and smiled, that face was getting more familiar now, he could see it and not worry about it looking older than the face he anticipated. He knew who he was and the feeling gave him some satisfaction because the memory of not knowing, of the terror that brought, was at last beginning to fade.

He reached for his jacket and shrugged himself into it. It fitted perfectly, much better than that brown one that Hester had mentioned. He smiled to himself and shook his head, he had forgotten about that jacket until she had mentioned it, mainly because he had never felt comfortable in it. Still, at least he knew it had gone to a good home.

He leaned forward into the mirror to scan his features again..the fierce black eyebrows, the silver grey hair which had once been as black as his eldest sons, his little grand daughter Hannahs…as black as his own fathers had been. He nodded in satisfaction, and stepped away, leaving the room, closing the door behind him.

Chapter 24

“Do you want to wait here? I won’t be long…”

Adam reached behind his wife to pick up the box containing the items found along the river bank. Olivia nodded and smiled down at him, “We’ll stay here, if we call in at Bridie’s we’ll be too long there, and not get to Pa’s in time for supper.”

He nodded, smiled and very lightly touched her hand. He nearly dropped the bonnet that was balanced on top of the pile of garments, readjusted his hold and then strode over to the Sheriff’s office. Nathaniel was asleep, the journey from Carson City on the train no longer held him enthralled, it just put him out – totally. Reuben and Sofia watched their father disappear into the building, the door closed behind him.

Nate and the new deputy Simon Fletcher were leaning over a desk, discussing some paper work when the sound of the closing door caused them to lift their heads and watched as Adam came in, and carefully placed the box on the opposite desk. Both raised their eyebrows and then straightened their backs.

“Presents?” Fletch said and grinned. He had a thin mouth which seemed to stretch too tightly over his teeth.

“I – er – don’t think the bonnet will suit -” Nate smiled and walked over to the rancher who had removed his own hat and smiled rather sarcastically at them “What are they?”

“Clothing that could belong to the murdered woman. Marshall Howard reckoned you need Dr Chandler to check them out.”

Both deputies looked at one another, Nate nodded slowly and frowned, then looked at Adam with his eyes showing a caution in them “Where did you find them?”

“They were hidden in the river bank near our cabin ..”

“By Carson City?” Nate said sharply

“The one…” Adam nodded in confirmation.

Fletcher frowned now, “That’s your property then?”

“It is …”

“So – you found these things on your property?” Fletcher repeated as he reached out to pick up the bonnet

“As I said …”

“And Mrs Chandler was found – dead – not far from your borders ?” the deputy flicked a glance at the sheriff who scowled at him and then looked at Adam.

“Actually some distance from our borders, Deputy, but if you have a problem with that, perhaps you should ride out and check where she was found and then check the distance for yourself.”

Fletcher shrugged “Just saying is all, I don’t like co-incidences.” he stared into Adams eyes and the rancher nodded and muttered that neither did he, so what did he make of this one? Fletcher said nothing.

Nate placed the bonnet on the table and then lifted up the first garment that came to hand, he looked at Adam “No mark on them …not even damp…”

“They were buried above the water line. And fairly recently too…” Adam replied and told them about Nathaniel finding the shoe, and how it led to the discovery of the clothing “Marshall Howard gave me a copy of the list of clothes that Dr Chandler thinks his wife was wearing when he last saw her.” he pulled out the paper from his pocket and handed it over to Nate, “You may find some things in there -” he nodded to the box “that aren’t on the list.”

“Meaning?” Nate asked without raising his eyes from the list

“Just some items that may not have belonged to her -” Adam paused and Nate nodded

“But may have belonged to someone else?” he said quietly and gulped, his Adams’ apple jerked, “another victim?”

“Marshall Howard’ working on that theory too…” Adam nodded and then returned his hat over his head, nodded to them both and bade them goodnight.

Nate waited for the door to close and then looked at Fletcher “Best you get Dr Chandler here…we’ll get this checked out now.”

Adam had just settled on the seat beside his wife and taken the reins from her when Fletcher stepped onto the side walk, they glanced at one another and nodded before the deputy hurried away towards the hotel. Sofia leaned forward “Are we going to GranPa’s now?”

“We are..should get there just before dark.” Adam smiled, flicked the reins and the horses ambled off into C Street and headed out of town.

Nathaniel Carney emptied the box. He put on one side the clothing that appeared on the list that Howard had given Adam. He put on the other side various items that were not on the list and carefully wrote down an inventory of his own.

“One petticoat, lace trimmed, pink ribbon

One bodice – whale bone white, with satin ribbon

One white stocking torn at the foot

One over skirt grey cotton with pink ribbon

One white blouse, lace trimming, long sleeved, pearl buttons, one sleeve torn under the arm.”

He looked carefully at the collars, at the hems, anywhere a monogram or label would have been attached but there was nothing. Like many women of the time every garment had been hand stitched, carefully sewn together, there were no need for labels or such although Nate had hoped that there would have been some thing, some where…

He sat down at his desk and waited for the Doctor to arrive, his eyes on the two piles of clothing, the little bonnet, the shoes…he didn’t envy Dr Chandler having to confront them.

……………..

Olivia leaned against her husband and watched as the horses made their way along the track onto Ponderosa land. Nathaniel was snoring now, little snorts and sometimes he smacked his lips together as though he were enjoying something tasty to eat. Sofia and Reuben were in deep conversation behind them. Snatches of what they were saying floated towards them…Adam looked over his shoulder and smiled “You both alright there?”

“Sure, Pa.”

“Yes Daddy.”

“Did you enjoy your time away in the cabin?”

Both children nodded, big smiles on their faces “Sure thing, Pa. I never saw so many fish, I want to catch some more …”

“What about you, Princess?” Adam flashed a smile at his daughter who dimpled a smile at him,

“In the summer time, daddy.” she said, “When the leaves on the trees and birds can sing…”

“Well, we could go when it’s been snowing. Should think -” he paused to check on the horses and to make sure they were not heading for a collision with any boulders. “ that it will look really pretty then.”

Sofia nodded. She stopped to think about that, imagining the branches of the trees weighed down with thick fleecy coverings of snow. But she only smiled and nodded. Sofia liked to be warm and feel the sun on her face, not have Jack Frost nipping her nose and toes.

Adam returned to pay attention to his driving, Olivia linked her arm through his and leaned closer, he could smell her perfume, mingled with the smells from the train, touched with the clean air around them that brushed against their faces as the horses made good time along the Ponderosa track.

“Did you enjoy it ..” he murmured and smiled down at her, glad to see her smile in return

“I did…” she snuggled in closer, as though she wanted to get right through into his skin, Nathaniel’s head in her lap. “Will Joe go next time?”

“I think that was the plan…” he nodded and glanced up to the sky, it was darkening, nearly 6 p.m and within half an hour it would be night time*

The horses turned, behind them the buggy made the curve into the yard and Adam hauled on the reins and drew them to a halt. He had no sooner jumped down and turned to lift Nathaniel down from Olivia’s arms when the door opened and Ben was standing there, looking extremely dapper.

“Hey, we were about to give you up as lost….have a good time? Come on – hurry now…”

They hurried, Nathaniel woke up and looked dazedly around him and saw Hope, and now little Constance, running to wards him with big smiles on their faces. Cries of greetings, Hoss’ big guffaw of a laugh, Mary Ann’s lilting welcome home …the door closed upon a scene of golden lamp light, and happy people, greetings, hugs and hands shaken.

Outside the darkness dropped down, the clouds gathered, rain began to gently fall.

……………….

Hal Chandler looked at the garments – at both piles – and put a hand to his eyes, swallowed hard. Then he cleared his throat, and looked at Nate like a little boy asking his father ‘Please don’t let me have to do this…’

“Marshall Howard gave Adam Cartwright a list of the clothing you thought your wife was wearing at the time she left home, when you last saw her, if you could just look through them now and confirm what is hers….”

“There are two piles…” Hal said, his feet rooted to the floor. His nerves not helped by the glare he was getting from the Deputy.

Nate nodded and explained carefully how the items were found, where they were found. Hal shook his head and asked how they came to be there to which Fletcher muttered “That’s what we want to know.”

“Marshall Howard is looking into that, Dr Chandler. If you could just put in the box what you feel sure belongs to your wife..” he cleared his throat, he didn’t like referring to her in the past tense.

Hal approached the desk and picked up the bonnet, he held it close against his chest and bowed his head “I bought this –a present – not long ago.”

The two law men nodded as though in sympathy, longing for him to get it over and done with. But no one has the right to hurry grief…. they stood either side of him so that the items could be ticked off from Howard’s list.

He went through the items one by one, placing them almost reverentially into the box, but several he set aside, shaking his head. The petticoat with the pink ribbon he claimed as his wife’s, also the bodice. Several of the garments that were thought to be his wife’s he hesitated over, shook his head and placed in the other pile, saying he had never seen them before but who knows? She may have bought them at some time unknown to himself.

By the time he had finished he was trembling so Nate suggested he sat down and have something to drink. Coffee was poured and a little whiskey added to it, Hal picked up the cup and stared into it, his eyes too big in the hollow of their sockets, glassy, as though the clothing confirmed her death more than her body had done.

“Dr Chandler, do you have any idea who could have owned the other garments?”

“No. Should I? Is it important that I remember?”

“They were found hidden on the Ponderosa, near a cabin just over the river from Carson City. Have you ever been there?”

“To a cabin?” he stared at Nate, incredulity on his face, he shook his head “Why would I want to go to a cabin on the other side of the river?”

“Do you have any reason to think your wife would have gone there?”

“Why should she?” he paused and sighed, bowed his head, stared into the coffee and then gulped down some, “I don’t know, do I? I don’t know where she went after she left me that day….” he drank some more “I didn’t think our argument was that serious though, I expected her to be home when I got back from my shift, instead all that I found was – “ he swallowed more coffee “was her ring and a note saying she was not coming back.”

“And you had no idea that she had another man in her life?”

“She didn’t …Rosemary was the most wonderful wife, she would not have another man in her life.” he hugged the cup into his chest and shook his head, tears rolled down his face and his shoulders shuddered “I’m sorry.” he wiped them onto the sleeve of his jacket “I’m sorry. I just can’t believe it. I can’t….no one said anything about seeing her with another man, no one I asked, for weeks, asking people…waiters in restaurants, hotel managers, anyone – our neighbours and friends – no one said anything about seeing her with another man.”

Nate nodded and glanced over at Fletcher who was chewing his nails. “I know it’s hard for you, Doctor, I’m sorry to have had to ask questions at this time. We just want to help find who did this to your wife, bring him to justice.”

Hal nodded, he just nodded because he thought they expected him to, words floated over his head, echoed in his head. He put the cup down, and stood up. “Can I leave now?”

“Of course.” Nate stood up, towering over the Doctor, he reached out his hand which Hal shook. Then Hal picked up his hat and walked to the door, turned and said very quietly

“Thank you.”

Then he opened the door and stepped out into the darkness. Rain fell upon his shoulders and it seemed as though the heavens were crying on his behalf….so many tears.

Chapter 25

Nate and his deputy tidied the clothing into the box that the Doctor had identified as belonging to his wife., Both were subdued. Fletcher looked at the Sheriff, in his hands he was holding the torn stocking.

“Do you reckon he did it, Boss?”

“Who did what?” Nate frowned, while at the same time picking anxiously at a torn nail

“The Doc.”

Nate looked at Fletcher and shook his head “Get ideas like that out of your head, Deputy. We’re here to collect facts, and to try and trace a killer, not go around making judgements on people.”

“He could be putting on a good act.”

Nate said nothing, he wished one of the other deputies was there, Fletcher was a mean minded man, with a mean mouth. He chewed the inside of his cheek “Go and fetch Mr Groom..”

“Mr Groom…?”

“That’s who I said…”

“But surely you don’t suspect him…”

“Just go and get him will you…”

Fletcher nodded and grabbed his hat, hurrying out into the town. Nate heard his boots rapping down the side walk, he stared down at the clothing and passed a hand over his mouth. He had a really gnawing feeling in his gut and prayed that he was wrong.

In the time that it took for the Deputy to get to Mr Grooms home, convince the poor man about returning to the Sheriff’s with him, Nate had written out his report about the clothing being left with them by Adam Cartwright and the list of contents confirmed by the Doctor. He had just got some fresh paper on the desk when the door opened and Mr Groom stepped into the office.

He did not notice the clothing on the opposite desk as his eyes were fixed on the sheriff, he fumbled to get his hat off, and his breathing was heavy. “Have you some news? Have you – found her?”

Nate stood up and approached the poor man. He shook his head, his fingers played with the pencil in his hand “No, Mr Groom…I am sorry but I have no news for you, i we have not found Nettie. But -” he paused and steeled himself, “we do need your help here.”

“Yes?” Mr Groom nodded his head, a wisp of thin hair drifted over his forehead which he brushed away, “What is it? Anything? Just ask?”

Nate turned towards the other desk and indicated the pile of clothing “This was found recently. I wondered if you could just look through them, just to see if they could possibly belong to Nettie.”

The other man stared at Nate for a moment as though he had to wait for some time to allow the words to filter through his brain to make any sense of them. Then he nodded “Clothing? Nettie’s?”

“We don’t know, Mr Groom. We need your help to identify them..or not…” and inwardly Nate was hoping that Mr Groom would not be able to identify them at all. He didn’t want to see the wretched man more distressed than he already was, nor cause Mrs Groom more heart ache.

He led the older man to the desk and nodded down at the clothes, “If you could just look through them…”

“Women’s clothing though…” Mr Groom muttered as though the whole idea was distasteful, to touch another woman’s garments, and under clothing at that ..he shook his head “I – er -”

“I could ask your wife – if you thought she would be able to -”

“No no, please, don’t disturb her…just that touching under garments, and really I don’t know what kind of clothing my daughter wore…”

Nate nodded, “I quite understand, Mr Groom. Fletcher, pick up each garment and hold it up for Mr Groom to see -”

Fletcher opened his mouth and looked as though he was about to protest, but then he nodded and carefully picked up the top garment. Mr Groom shook his head and shrugged “I don’t know, I never saw what my girl was wearing under her outer clothing…”

Fletcher picked up another garment and then before he could reach for the next item Mr Groom gave a gasp…”That blouse, Nettie had one like that…”

“Are you sure?” Nate asked sharply and turned to look at the torn blouse, the pearl buttons..

“Yes..Nettie bought it recently, I remember she removed the original buttons and sewed on the pearl buttons because she said it would make the garment more to her liking. She used to -” he pulled out a white handkerchief to mop his brow, “She used to sew a little monogram in the corner of her clothes, NSG ..her initials ..Nettie Susan Groom.”

“Did she sew that onto all her garments?” Nate asked, picking up the underskirt and then looking at Mr Groom who nodded.

Nate turned the garment round and round in his hands, down the seams, down to the hem and there he found a neat little monogram, contained very neatly within the shape of a heart picked out in red thread. He bowed his head and looked at the other man who was trembling, the blouse still in his hand as he also found NSG locked within the centre of a red sewn heart.

“It’s Nettie’s, isn’t it? Where’s her body? Where’ have you put her….” and then he began to sob, a sound so mournful that Fletcher had to turn away and bow his head.

It took some time to calm him enough to go back to his home, with Fletcher as an unwilling escort. Nate sat down at his desk and just for an instant covered his face with his hands. Misery, two men, bowed down with grief. He dreaded to think how Mrs Groom would react.

The door opened and he looked over to see Roy Coffee sidle inside. The old man pulled out a chair and sat down, stared at Nate and nodded “I saw Fletcher with Mr Groom. You found the girl?”

“No, some of her clothing.”

“Ah..find any blood on them?”

“To be honest, I’ve not looked for that, yet.”

“Clothing eh?”

“Clothing from two women…Nettie and Mrs Chandler.”

“Complicates things. Where’d they get found?”

“On Ponderosa land…over near Carson City.”

Roy tugged his moustance “Who found ’em?”

“Adam Cartwright…well, to be honest, his children did when they went fishing by the river.”

“Dang..it would be!” Roy shook his head and stood up, “Any coffee?”

Nate nodded and opened the drawer to bring out the whiskey bottle. Roy’s turn to nod, at this time of night it was a good thing to have a dash of whiskey in one’s coffee.

“Why did you say that, about Adam…you don’t suspect…”

“Heck no, jest that from years of experience with the Cartwrights, once they got a sniff of a mystery they’ll be all over the case…telling you what to do, what to look out for, point out this and that…you won’t have a life of your own until that girl is found and the murderer to boot…” he sat down and shook his head “How did Groom take it, them clothes being found …”

“He took it bad…”

Roy nodded, “And the Doctor?”

Nate opened his mouth, closed it and thought that Roy Coffee was as interfering as any Cartwright could be, and as he swallowed a mouthful of coffee he just knew that Roy Coffee was going to be semi permanent member of staff from thereon in.

…………………..

It was early morning of the next day when the three Cartwright brothers rode into town. Separating to go about their different tasks. Hoss was standing on the side walk outside Ridleys Mercantile when the sound of running feet and someone calling his name caused him to stop what he was doing and turn to see who it was so frantically seeking him out. He had been browsing through the shopping list to hand over to the Mercantile and was wondering if Hop Sing had been a bit frugal when it came to ordering the tins of peaches!

“Hoss. Hoss Cartwright.”

The sight of Mrs Groom running towards him startled him momentarily..he was not used to being chased down the street by women, especially women who looked like Mrs Groom with her flyaway grey hair blowing every which way in the breeze, and her eyes looking so red rimmed and raw. Wild eyes. Trembling lips. Hoss did not need to have a Medical Degree to recognise the woman was in deep distress.

He stopped and caught her in a firm hand grip to either arm as she fell against him, gasping for breath. “It’s alright, Miz Groom…”

She nodded, her eyes turned upwards to him, “Did you find her? My little girl? Did you find her yet?”

“No, Ma’am, not just yet. We’re going to look for her again though…”

“They said you found some of her clothes. My husband – he said – but that’s not right, is it? She can’t be without clothes, not now, not in this weather. She’ll be so cold.”

“She probably got some new ones, Ma’am.” he nodded at her, hoping he sounded like he was saying the truth, just to give her some reassurance.

“It’s not like Netitia to be so late, usually she is so thoughtful. Never late you know…” she frowned and clawed at his arm, “Tell her to come home when you find her, won’t you, Hoss?”

“I will do that, Ma’am.”

“She’s a good girl. She should be home, this weather – could be snow soon.”

“Yes, Ma’am, could well be.” he glanced up at Mr Groom appeared behind his wife and gently put his hands on her shoulders, and turned her towards him.

“Remember to tell her to come home, won’t you?” Mrs Groom said, glancing over her shoulder at him, anxious appeal in her eyes as her husband gently led her away while nodding apologies to Hoss who just stood there watching them.

He was startled out of his trance by a tap on the shoulder and turned to come face to face with his youngest brother, Joseph, who stood smiling at him with something like sympathy on his face.

“You were lost, brother, and now you have been found…” Joe smirked, and lowered his hat brim over his face.

“Yeah, sorry about that..”

“Have you handed in that list yet?”

“List? No – not yet.” and Hoss glanced down at his hand where the slip of paper was still clutched between his fingers. Joe snatched it away, and shook his head as he strode into the Mercantile. Hoss followed, his mouth puckered into a pout and still frowning.

“Where’s Adam?”

“He’s waiting …” Joe replied and slapped the list onto the counter where Miss Jensen stood with a smile to receive it. “As soon as possible, please, Ava”

Ava Jensen dimpled a smile, picked up the slip of paper and promptly sasheyed away. Joe turned to Hoss “Have you got the pack horse ready?”

“Just waiting on these things ..”

“Good.” Joe nodded and leaned against the counter, he looked his big brother up and down. In his eyes Hoss had never changed apart from a big more weight than twenty odd years ago and, of course, not much hair, but who noticed that beneath that tall hat he wore

“Once we get the pack horse loaded we can get on with the journey.” Joe muttered, elbows hooked over the counter and lolling back, and at the sound of Ava’s voice turned, straightened himself up and gave her the benefit of a beaming smile.

The box of groceries appeared and Joe nodded at Hoss who promptly picked it up and carried it out. Once outside he joined Joe in strolling down to where the pack horse was waiting. There the food would be stowed away into pouches, enough to last them a few days. He pushed his hat further from his brow and glanced around him, thought of Mrs Grooms wild red rimmed eyes and sighed. He just hoped beyond hope that Nettie Groom would be found this time, alive – and wearing ample clothing.

Chapter 26

Netitia Susan Groom kept her eyes closed as she heard the opening of the door to her prison. The grey patch of light beyond the door tormented her so she was determined not to look, although it was tempting. The waft of clean fresh air drifting into the room was refreshing. She told herself not to move, not at all, although involuntarily her body was shivering.

She could smell the food. A rich beef broth. She could hear the sound of a pitcher of water being left on the small table close by her bed.

‘I’m not going to move. Perhaps if they think I’m dead they will take me out of here and then I can make a run for it.” but even as she thought that she gave a hic cough of a sob, and the chain fixed to the leather strap around her ankle, rattled.

Whoever was there, whoever it was, stood by the bedside looking down at her …she could feel their eyes intent as they stared down, and she imagined the eyes sweeping slowly down her body, from head to toe, inch by inch. She sobbed again, shivered, the chain rattled.

“Eat your food. You need to get strong.”

A kindly voice. Deep. But not too deep. It was an ambiguous voice. After all these days she still could not tell if her captor was male or female. She shivered again…and felt the rough texture of a blanket being drawn over her.

Whoever it was stood there some minutes longer. The beef broth would be cold by the time she ate it, if she bothered to do so. She kept her eyes closed and waited until finally the door clunked shut

…….

Adam stopped flicking the reins too and fro between his fingers. He was, as many had found out, a man of ‘limited patience’ although he had learned to stretch it at times since being at sea, but once he saw Joe and Hoss strolling towards him he relaxed. He put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle, and watched them come closer

“Took your time,” he drawled

“I got tangled up with Miz Groom -” Hoss explained without looking up at his older brother. He began to load the pack horse with the groceries, smoothing it a little by stroking its long bony nose and making shushing noises

“What’s your excuse?” Adam asked Joe who was untying the reins of his horse and turning it away from the pack horse so that he could mount more easily. They were rather hemmed in.

“I had to check things with Mary Ann, she’s at the hospice today. Just wanted to make sure she was alright.”

“Is she unwell?” Hoss asked immediately, the welfare of the womenfolk on the Ponderosa always forefront in his mind

“She’s fine, thanks..” he glanced over at Adam whose brow had furrowed but which was now clearing. He nodded “Anyway, guess we’re all ready.”

“Nate said his posse will be meeting with Marshall Ford mid-way, they’ll be combing that area as fine as they can…” Adam turned the horse aside, not Kami for this adventure, but faithful Sport whom he knew he could rely on for surefootedness and obedience.

“Good.” Joe nodded, tilted his hat a little lower and released his breath “Let’s hope and pray for good results.”

Hoss was in the saddle now, the lead rein of the pack horse in one hand. He nodded, thought of Mrs Groom and prayed that they would have good results. The safe return of Nettie Groom seemed to be the mantra for everyone in town during the past few weeks.

They threaded their way through the traffic, slowly, carefully, passed Bridie and Paul Martin who raised a hand as they went by. Then they were in the open and urged their horses on a little faster, from a walk to a gentle lope. There was a long way to go yet, energies had to be conserved, theirs as well as their horses.

The plan was to scour the river banks, search every clump of trees, every building, every mine workings, of which there were still plenty left derelict and decaying by the river side. Plenty of places to hide a body, whether living or dead. They intended to search until they reached the cabin on the borders of Carson City.

“Do you think whoever took Nettie, and the other woman, could have used our cabin as a hide out?” Joe ventured to ask, looking at Adam with his eyes narrowed as though he didn’t want his brother to reply in the affirmative and rather dreaded that he would do just that!

“No sign of anyone having been there….” Adam replied with raised eyebrows, “I thought that as soon as I found those clothes. Made a quick look around, but -” he paused and shrugged “there’s been men working there for some weeks now, they only finished the work the week before we arrived and Mrs Laws and her sister in law were busy there getting in furnishings and such …if there had been a woman secreted away they would have known for sure.”

“How come?” Hoss asked with a sharp glance over at his brother

“Well, women have a nose for such things…” Adam replied with a shrug of the shoulders and decided to say no more.

The task ahead could be tedious, having to check the river banks, look for sign of disturbance, and then break away to check out any building or mining works that they could see close by. They jogged along in comparative silence, each one there deep in thoughts of their own.

………

Lilith sat beside Sofia with Rosie seated on her other side, she looked at her two friends with a slight frown on her smooth brow, “My Pa tells me that your Pa and Uncles have gone out looking for that Nettie person again.”

“Yes,” Sofia nodded

“My daddy would have gone too but he had to stay back and look after things with Mr Ben.” Rosie volunteered, not wanting Lilith to think her father was in any way ducking out of responsibilities.

“Your Pa was a good sheriff, wasn’t he?” Lilith bit into her sandwich “I heard tell he was really good at the job.”

“Sherriff Carney is too, he’s a real good sheriff.” Rose replied, and looked at Sofia who had remained silent and concentrating on eating her lunch.

“How long will they be away, looking for Nettie?”

“I don’t know, it depends on whether or not they find her -” Sofia sighed, “Poor Nettie.”

Lilith shrugged “I think she’s run off with that man she was seeing.”

“Man? What man?” Rose’s eyes opened wide.

“I saw her one time.” Llith said quietly and then went a little pink around the cheeks “It was one evening, real late. I was reading and looked out of the window …the moon was so big and fat that it reminded me of Jules Verne’s stories, and I wanted to look and see if I could imagine myself up there, on the moon. What it would be like, you know.”

“And you saw Nettie?” Rose stared at her, “Really saw her?”

“Wasn’t anyone else around except her and that man…” Lilith shrugged and bit once more into her sandwich.

“Did you tell Sheriff Carney?” Rose asked, remembering some of the procedures regarding the law that she had heard Candy discussing at the table some days when he had been The Law in Virginia City.

Lilith put down her sandwich, frowned, and shook her head “I clean forgot about it until just now…”

“You should tell the sheriff.” Sofia said, and put her food back into her pail “We should go and tell him right away.”

Rose shook her head “He’s already gone, him and a whole load of men, they’ve gone looking.”

“But he needs to know. He’s The Law.” Sofia replied standing up and brushing crumbs from her skirts. “We can go and tell Roy Coffee, he used to be The Law hereabouts, he’ll know what to do.”

“Do you mean we should go now/” Lilith asked, her half eaten sandwich still in her handkerchief

“Yes, it’s very important information..” Rose replied, very definite, very stern.

“We had better tell Mr Evans that we may be late for class.” Sofia said feeling a sense of responsibility settling upon her shoulders, and she looked at Lilith “Come along Lilith..the sooner we get to see Mr Coffee the better.”

……………

Roy Coffee was feeling disgruntled and grumpy. He was getting old, he told himself, too old to be considered for the posse. Too old to even go riding with the Cartwright boys. Too old to be of any use any more. He felt too disgruntled to even bother to go and open the door. He left that task to his housekeeper, Mrs Boyd.

He slouched down in his chair and glared at the fire which seemed to be as disgruntled as himself. The wood was damp, it was smoking. He gave one log a kick which sent up a shower of ash and smoke. He heard the sound of Mrs Boyds foot steps, the door opening, voices.

Young voices. He sat up straight and leaned forward. Young girls voices. He frowned and stood up, turned towards the door just as Mrs Boyd ushered in two girls. Lilith Martin and Sofia Cartwright.

“Well now,” he said and nodded

“Lilith has something she needs to tell the sheriff, but he’s gone so we thought we should come to see you, Uncle Roy, because you were The Law here once and you would know what to do.” Sofia nodded, smiled. Her pretty face beginning to lose the childishness now, beginning to form the features of the woman she would one day become.

“Well now, come on in, sit down.” he nodded to some chairs and then looked at Mrs Boyd “Some lemonade and cake for our visitors, Sarah.”

“No, it’s alright,” Lilith said politely, “We can’t stay, we have to get back for lessons. I have Maths this afternoon and I can’t afford to miss it.”

Sofia nodded, although she was in no rush to get back to lessons. This was much more exciting. She had a soft spot for Roy, he was like Ben, only not quite as grandfatherly as Ben, but he was kind and gentle whenever she had seen him. His way of putting his spectacles on his forehead and then letting them slip onto his nose amused her; a lot about Roy Coffee amused her.

“Well, best say what you have to say then…” he replied gruffly and was pleased that they both sat down, although Sofia’s feet didn’t reach the floor.

“I forgot that I had seen Nettie the other night..it was really early. I’d been reading and I guess I got too involved with the story and forgot that I had seen her …you know how it is…” she looked at Roy, hoping he would understand “Sometimes when a story is really good when a person sees something – different – it kind of becomes a memory wrapped up in the story, doesn’t it?”

Roy nodded “ I guess it does little lady….so what did you see…or rather ..who did you see with Nettie?”

Lilith released her breath, Roy had already guessed there was someone with Nettie so she was half way there with her confession. “She was with a man. They were holding hands and he was talking to her.”

“Was he – could it have been her father?”

“Oh no, not at all…” Lilith shook her head

“A young man, her age?”

“No, he was older than her.” she frowned “He was standing in shadow, they were standing close together, she was facing him and they were holding hands but not kind of like a courting couple..you know, not sloppy kind of ….”

Roy nodded, he got the idea, not embracing, not standing side by side, or wrapped around each other. Facing each other, sounded more like they were discussing things of a more serious nature than courtship.

“What time was it, Lilith.”

“Well, it was late. After mid night.”

“And can you remember the day?”

Lilith blushed “This is why I should have remembered it sooner, Mr Coffee. It was the day she disappeared.”

Roy leaned back in his chair which creaked, it was almost as old as him, it had a right to creak. He tugged at his moustache, and nodded “Seems like they were arranging things then?”

Lilith nodded “ I guess so. They didn’t kiss or cuddle, nothing like that…it looked more like a serious discussion.”

“Could you see Nettie’s face? Her expression?”

“Not clearly. Only once when moved into the light of the moon….the man grabbed her shoulders and pulled her into the shadows as though he didn’t want there to be any chance of her being seen.”

“Is that right? You sure about that?” Roy frowned, sometimes he could look quite stern, and Sofia felt a little niggle of apprehension, perhaps he didn’t believe Lilith.

Lilith nodded “I’m sure because Nettie -”

“Yes?”

Lilith frowned “Nettie didn’t seem too happy about that, she brushed his hand away, but I didn’t see her face again, she stayed in the shadows like him.”

“And where were they standing?”

“Not far from our house…almost directly across the road, near where the alley is between Rileys and the Gents Outfitters. She wasn’t frightened by him. They talked a while and then they separated…” Lilith frowned,

“They weren’t – huh – kissing or anything ? No embrace..”

Lilith shook her head and gave a slight shrug “I wasn’t looking too closely, just enough to be interested, my head was still in my story. But she did stop at one time and look back over her shoulder, the light from Riley’s window caught her face and I saw her smile…she looked pleased with herself. She wasn’t scared. Then she walked away…”

“In what direction?”

“Why, back to her home I should imagine. I went back to bed to try and finish my book…and then I forgot about her.”

“And are you sure that you have remembered everything?”

“Well, as best I can, Mr Coffee. I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything now.”

“Can you describe the man. Think carefully, my dear, this could be important.”

Lilith went rather red in the face and looked down at her feet, then she shook her head

“I didn’t see him clearly. I couldn’t even tell you for sure what age he was, just that he gave me the impression that he was an older man…not old, but older than Nettie. He wore a suit…well, I think he did, that time when he reached out for Nettie and pulled her back into the shadows it looked like a suit sleeve, light coloured. But there was nothing else I can remember just now.”

Roy nodded and leaned into the back of his chair, he looked at both girls, nodded again.

“You did right in coming to tell me, Lilith. I’ll take this information to the Deputy. You may need to stop by after school and write out a statement, could you do that?”

“Yes, sir, I can do that.”

All three got to their feet and Roy rather solemnly shook Lilith’s hand and commended her for coming forward although mentally he wished that she had come forward a bit sooner. He smiled at Sofia and told her to give her folk his regards. Then he sat down again as they left the room. He put another log on the fire, and smiled, felt a sense of self satisfaction.

“Something to drink, Roy?”

“Not just yet, Sarah. I have to go out….” he glared at the log, as damp as all the others, and got to his feet “I need to see young Mark Watts.”

“Best take off your slippers then and put on your boots. You don’t want them talking about you becoming an old dodderer, do you?”

He nodded, stared down at his feet, realised that one slipper had a hole in it, he could see his sock. He sighed, and then made his way to the hall. “Where’s my boots?”

“Where they usually are….” Sarah Boyd’s voice floated from the kitchen and he nodded again. Good, he smiled, and opened the closet door to reach for his boots.

Chapter 27

Mark Watts had listened to Roy with all the attention he gave most things. He felt his responsibilities heavily and waited for Lilith’s visit with statement papers and pen all ready set out on the desk.

Barbara came along with her daughter and sat beside her while Lilith told Mark all that she had seen, then she answered all his questions before finally taking up the pen and writing her statement out very carefully and neatly. Mark Watts thanked her and had just seen her leave the office when Fletcher arrived.

“Where’s the prisoner?” Mark wanted to know but Fletcher shrugged and then shook his head,

“Acquitted. That Mr Orr is a real fancy talking defence lawyer, convinced the jury that Faulkes was innocent, so they got him acquitted.”

Mark nodded, “Well, there was some doubt about whether or not he did it anyhow, I guess a clever lawyer would have pled reasonable doubt and got him off anyhows.”

“Yeah, that’s what he did, that Mr Orr…if I’m ever arrested for any reason I sure would want him there on my side.”

“You couldn’t afford him..” Mark grinned and picked up his hat, “You take care of the office, I’ve got to go see someone.”

Fletcher asked no questions, after a day in court his head was aching and he was more than happy to stoke up the stove and get the coffee pot boiling.

………………

Mr Groom listened to all that Mark had to say. He sat in the big chair staring up at the Deputy like a man who had lost his wits, mouth open and eyes wet. He finally shook his head and raised his hands in appeal.

“I ain’t going to have no truck with this nonsense, Deputy. You telling me that my daughter had a man she was seeing at some heathenish time of night? That she’s bin lying and cheating on us, her parents? I ain’t going to listen to no more talk like that…Nettie was a good girl. She would no more lie to us, to her Ma, that the moon would stop spinning.”

Mark was not sure whether or not the moon did any spinning but he let that pass. He cleared his throat “Perhaps if I could talk to Mrs Groom….”

“Leave her out of this, she ain’t well enough to talk to you…”

“Mr Groom, this ain’t no social call, and if you insist on preventing me from carrying out my duties then -”

A noise from behind them stopped Mark saying anything further, and both men turned to see Julia Groom on the stairs, holding her dressing gown tightly around her throat and staring wildly down at them. “I heard what you was saying, Deputy, about our Netitia.”

“I’m real sorry about this, Miz Groom, just that this witness swears she saw your daughter and I have to follow it up, it’s part of my duties.”

She nodded and put out a hand to her husband for support to enable her to cross the room to a chair by the fire. She settled herself down and for a moment there was just an uncomfortable silence. She drew in her breath,

“I suppose you are right, Deputy. When you love someone you stop yourself from seeing what you don’t want to see, or hearing what you don’t want to hear. Nettie’s a good girl but she was pretty. I always suspected that she was a little bit flighty too. Noticed boys flutterng around her at the socials, and getting all stupid when they talked to her in town. She enjoyed it. I know, I noticed…any woman would but I was her mother and just felt proud of her being so pretty and getting such attention…”

Her voice trailed off and she clutched more tightly to the collar of her clothing. Then she sighed “I wondered if there was a boy she would be taking more seriously than others, just the way she started taking more care over her appearance, and singing -” she paused and frowned “she used to be humming silly little tunes and I’d say ‘Where’d you hear that -‘ and she would say ‘Oh it’s just going around, one of the girls at work was singing it.’ One day she came home and she was wearing perfume. It wasn’t that cheap stuff they sell in the mercantile, so I asked her where she had got it from and she just shrugged and said she just saw it at work and helped herself to some, but -”

“But?” Mark prompted

“Oh I didn’t believe her, I could smell it on her various other times too….but she never said nothing so I didn’t either. I just pretended it didn’t matter.”

“Did you know she was sneaking out to see this man?”

She shook her head, her eyes fixed to a spot on the wall, “No mother wants her daughter to lie to her. I just wanted her to stay my little girl, so I just ignored it all.”

Mark cleared his throat “And she never -”

“She never said a word about any man or boy – not about anything. I waited for her to say something, I wanted her to tell me – but she didn’t so I told myself it was all in my head, imagining things. I was sure that if there was someone she would tell me. She had – she was – is – an honest girl -” and she gulped back tears, looked at her husband “I need to get back to bed now, dear. Could you take me up?”

………

The seamstresses and sales girls at Amy’s Emporium, previously known as Ridley’s Emporium, stood in a row, hands folded in their skirts and listening to the Deputy as he made his statement and put forward several questions. They had heard it all before, some sighed, some fidgeted but no one appeared to know anything. If Mark had to rely on reading body language then these women were a closed book.

He watched as they were dismissed and returned to their duties, each one of them remaining silent and solemn. Amy Tombs watched them go and turned to Mark with a smile of apology,

“I am sorry, Deputy. Nettie was a dear girl and a very good employee, but she never discussed her private life, only to say her mother was ill and that disrupted her working hours. I could quite understand, my mother is prone to ill health too.”

She walked with Mark to the door and opened it, sighed “I was at school with Nettie, she was a popular girl, and pretty. She got a lot of attention from the boys, flirted a little too, but always good naturedly, and no one took it seriously.”

“Well, seems like someone did, eventually.” Mark replied and then just as he was about to step onto the side walk he stopped and looked at her “Do your girls wear perfume, Mrs Tombs?”

“No.” Amy frowned, and shook her head, “Miss Ridley always told us not to wear perfume, it can get onto the garments, and then when stored away can leave everything smelling – unpleasant.”

Mark nodded and thanked her politely, then trudged away. He looked over at the house where Nettie had lived, and wondered about this young woman who was proving more of an enigma than anyone anticipated.

……………….

The three men dismounted and each one of them stretched, bent their backs and tried to get the kinks out of their weary bodies. Joe took himself off to collect wood, to build up a fire while the others unsaddled their horses and dumped their gear on the ground. Hoss shook his head “Shucks, I feel like I’ve broken every bone in my body…”

Adam made no comment to that, but began to prepare camp, coffee pot, mugs, plates, food. He had got all he needed by the time Joe came and began to prepare the fire

“Seems a wild goose chase to me..” he mumbled “Who’s going to come all this way out here to hide a girl.”

“The same person who would come all this way and more to hide the clothing of two girls….” Adam replied watching as Joe struck a match to the kindling.

“Yeah, seems mighty odd that.” Hoss removed his hat and scratched his head, “I can see someone hiding the Doctors’ wife’s clothing there by the river, but not Nettie’s…”

“Why?” Adam asked “Why Mrs Chandler’s and not Nettie’s?”

“Wal, cos Mrs Chandler was dead and Nettie ain’t…”

“That’s not a certainty,” Joe rubbed his hands together, “One of the reasons we’re out here, brother, is to make sure she don’t get killed. That we find her before it’s too late.”

“Wal, we bin looked at some old places today, ain’t no sign of any disturbance around any of them.” Hoss watched as Adam set down the skillet onto the infant flames and wanted to tell his brother to wait a moment, let them get a hold first before putting anything on the fire and kill it stone dead.

“Doesn’t mean that tomorrow will be the same. Those girls had to be hidden away somewhere.”

“Yeah but, Adam, why along here? Why not closer to town? Or even in town itself?” Hoss argued. The thought of another long days trek with no results did not appeal one bit, and he bit down on his thumb and gnawed on that for a moment or two.

“Mrs Chandler would have been hidden in Carson City, surely?” Joe removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, his scalp itched from the heat created from wearing his hat all day. Mary Ann would have teased him and told him he had too much hair and threatened him with her scissors

“Let’s eat, bed down and get an early start -” Adam looked at his brothers “If either of you want to turn back home then go ahead…”

“No, we need to find that girl.” Joe replied with a stubborn look on his face,”I keep thinking…what if it were my little girl out there, and I know for sure it means the same for you, Adam, seeing what happened to Sofia not so long ago.”

Adam nodded, his stomach always churned over at the memory of that day when he had returned home to find Olivia near to hysterical from the fear of her children being taken from her. He shivered, and not from the cold. That memory was just too raw to go away quietly.

………………..

Nettie Groom opened her eyes and then closed them again. Something was different. She didn’t want to look again in case she was dreaming. She moved her legs and realised that her feet were free, there was no shackle preventing her from movement. She felt warm, pleasantly drowsy, and behind her eyelids she could see the shape of light and dark, instead of the blackness that had surrounded her every day for so long now.

She forced herself to open her eyes now, and blinked. A pleasant room greeted her. A fire was burning brightly, and a lamp was glowing in the middle of a table near by her bed. A quilt had covered her, soft to her touch. She sat up and looked around her and rubbed her eyes. Was she dreaming? Was this a – what did they call it? – an hallucination because she had refused her food for a few days

By the fire were two arm chairs, and in one of them sat a man reading a book, his face shielded by one hand as though the heat from the fire was too much. She sat there and stared at him, and at the sound of her gasp he turned, smiled “So, the sleeping beauty awakes.”

He stood up, tall and slim, and approached the bed, leaned down and kissed her cheek

“You rescued me? You came – found me -” she whispered, and the tears flooded from her eyes and cascaded down her face. “Where am I? Can I go home?”

He sighed and took hold of her hands, shook his head “Not yet, my dear. We are some way from town, I’m afraid. It was by mere chance I found you..a miracle really. But, look, I want you to have some food, build up your strength before we make the journey into town. You need a bath too…” he frowned “Whoever did this to you, Nettie, will pay for it, I swear they will.”

“My parents – they will be worried -”

“I’ve sent a message to them, they’ll be relieved to know you are safe and well. I’ve told them that it will be a day or two before we get you home, but they know they can trust me, and that you are safe now.”

She sighed and leaned back against the pillows, closed her eyes. The tears had stopped, she was reassured of his care for her, his love for her. He held her hands for a while longer, then raised them to his lips and kissed her fingers,

“Come and have something to eat. It isn’t good to go without food you know…your parents would be concerned if I took you home half starved.

They smiled at one another, and she nodded “I can’t believe I’m free at last. I can’t understand who would do this to me…why they would want to hurt me.”

He nodded, “The sheriff has a posse out looking for you, and so are the Cartwrights…they’re searching along by the river…”

She let him help her from the bed, her feet felt heavy, like she was wearing wooden clogs, and her legs were weak, she could barely lift one leg after another, but by leaning on his arm she was able to reach the table and was gently settled into a chair.

He left her for a few moments before returning with a tray, laughing as he called himself a first class waiter. Then he left again, another tray, food steaming from the plates. She watched as he set the dishes out and then sat down beside her, he poured water into her glass, wine for himself.

“You need to eat and line your stomach, then we can enjoy a glass of wine later…together..” he smiled at her over the rim of the glass.

Firelight made the glass sparkle in his hand, cutlery gleamed. She looked at the food and realised just how hungry she was feeling and drank some water to wet her mouth, then looked at him

“I don’t understand what happened -”

“Don’t worry about it just now. You’re free, that’s the main thing.” he served up the food, from the dishes onto their plates. “What do you remember ? Anything at all?”

She opened her mouth, ready to tell him everything she could remember and then closed her mouth, puzzled, confused. It was all there in her head, but nothing made sense. She shook her head, and stared down at the food “I can’t remember.”

“Nothing? Can’t you remember where you were when whoever took you came and – and kidnapped you?”

“Was I kidnapped then? Did they want a ransom -” she stared at him, then smiled, shook her head, “I hope they didn’t ask too much if they did, my parents don’t have a bean between them.”

“So far as I know, there hasn’t been a ransom demand.” he replied solemnly, “Just eat now, and then you must have a bath, change your clothes, sleep and rest.”

She shook her head “Sleep is the last thing I need just now…that’s just about all I did for the past few days…”

He said nothing to that, but forked food into his mouth and began to eat occasionally he would look over at her, smile and nod, his eyes twinkling, just once in a while he would place a hand on her arm as though reassuring himself that she was there, safe by his side. It made her feel that all was right in her world, at last!

Chapter 28

“Lilith did the right thing, didn’t she, Mommy?” Sofia looked up into her mothers face as Olivia leaned down to pull the bed covers over the little girl, time for sleep, but there were still things Sofia needed to tidy up in her mind.

“Yes, she did” Olivia nodded and smoothed a curl away from her daughter’s forehead, “I’m glad she went to see the Sheriff, but wish she had remembered a little bit sooner.”

“Well, she didn’t know how important it was then.” Sofia pouted, ready to make a defence of her friend.

“True enough.” Olivia nodded and stepped away from the bed to turn to the night stand and turn down the flame in the lamp “Don’t worry about it any more, Sheriff Carney will deal with it all now.”

“Will daddy come home soon?”

“Yes, as soon as he can. Although I suppose it depends on what they find, or anything …”

“I hope he finds Nettie. Then she can come home and everything will be alright again, won’t it?”

“Yes, perhaps..” Olivia smiled but her eyes looked anxious. She dropped a kiss upon her daughter’s head, smiled again and slipped out of the room, closing the door very quietly behind her.

As she went back down the stairs she wondered about Nettie and the Grooms. She wondered if it would be possible for Nettie’s life to resume as though nothing had happened; she wasn’t a little girl like Sofia had been, and incidents such as this left scars, deep scars because with such events there were always more than one victim. That, she knew, only too well.

……………….

“Something does not feel right.” Adam muttered as he cradled a mug of coffee into his chest and stared into the flames of the fire “This whole thing – it doesn’t feel right.”

Hoss winced as though his brother had physically struck him, then looked over at Joe who shrugged and shook his head

“All right,what doesn’t feel right.” Hoss asked, knowing full well that if he didn’t ask then Joe would, and as far as he was concerned the whole thing had not felt right from the moment they had set out on the journey. Joe stretched out his legs

“Go on, say what you have to say…” he yawned and leaned back against his saddle.

“The McCrieffs homestead is some distance from here, isn’t it?”

“Sure, about half a days ride east from here.” Hoss nodded, wriggled his toes inside his boot and wondered if he was developing gout like his father, there was a niggardly pain in the big toe.

“Why would someone hide a girl hereabouts ..” Adam shook his head, and stared down at the ground, “Joe was right, who would want to hide anyone this far -”

“Closer to Carson City though.” Hoss reminded him and looked longingly at his bed roll, he was tired, what with his big toe paining him and his back aching.

“No, Joe’s right..” Adam bowed his head and sighed heavily enough to make Joe look really pleased with himself.

“Why? What did I say that was so plumb useful? All of a sudden you saying we’ve been riding in the wrong direction?” and he ended the sentence with a chortle “If we have been I just might have to strangle you with my own bare hands, brother.”

Adam could only shake his head now and rub the temples of his skull with his fingers, “All along I was thinking about those clothes, and when Fletcher -”

“Fletcher? That dumb fool of a deputy…” Joe snorted and perched himself on the log upon which Adam was seated “What did he say?”

“Kind of intimated that it was odd how the clothing was found on our land, and that Mrs Chandler was -”

“Yeah, not to far from our borders.” Hoss muttered, and shook his head as if he were trying to rid himself of the memory of that pretty woman lying there just waiting to be found.

“And there was the dog…” Adam said quietly, his eyes staring out into the shadows, seeing shapes in his mind, questions and answers and thick mist!

“The dawg?” Hoss snorted “What dawg?”

“The McCriffs dog, of course.” Adam replied with more heat in his words than intended. He pouted, eyes narrowed “Where did the dog fit in?”

“You mean – because it was killed some days before Mrs Chandler was found?” Joe suggested, hoping that his suggestion would meet with favour and feeling some gratification too, that his meanderings earlier had prompted this change of mind in his brother.

“Exactly.” Adam nodded and slapped his brother affectionately on the arm, Joe grinned and shared a wink with Hoss who nodded but remained confused. “So – I think who ever is behind all this is playing some kind of game with us. The clothing is just a distraction…leading us away from where we should be looking.”

“So – we forget about Carson City?” Hoss muttered and shook his head “All this way fer nothing then?”

“Not to late to turn around and backtrack,but instead of heading for Virginia City we go east, towards the McCrieffs. There must be some kind of place thereabouts, near enough for the dog to be killed days before Mrs Chandler was shot and left there…”

“But she did come from Carson City, Adam.” Hoss intoned

“Yes, but she didn’t die there, did she?” Adam retorted, he shook his head, “Let’s sleep on it. Things may be a little clearer in the morning.”

“But we are back tracking now…” Joe said thoughtfully

“We are -”

“Well, I was thinking – there are quite a few long forgotten homesteads up along that way.” Joe rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his eyes glittered with the reflection of fire light “We could check them out .”

Hoss nodded “That’s right….long forgotten is a good word for it, Joe, folks moved out during that time we had trouble with the drought some years back. That was when you was away from here, Adam. There’s the old Fullerton place….”

Joe nodded and snapped his fingers “Yeah, that was a fair sized spread and there was the Hamiltons homestead.” he frowned “They were a good family ….”

Hoss nodded, his mind briefly dwelling on those long ago neighbours. Adam smiled slowly, although his eyes were sombre “We’ll check them both out..and any others that we come across along the way, we just might find something that will save Nettie’s life.”

“Yeah, here’s hoping so…” Hoss sighed and wandered to his bedroll before sinking down with a relieved grunt

“Adam?” Joe placed a hand upon his brother’s arm, preventing him from turning to his own bed “What’s on your mind, brother? You thinking that Mrs Chandler was kidnapped and brought to a place hereabouts?”

“I don’t think she was kidnapped. I think she went willing, Joe. Then whoever she was infatuated with brought her to -” he shrugged

“And then after a few weeks just let her run off? Or did she escape and she got shot -”

“Well, to my thinking I don’t think she escaped. Because of the dog….”

“That dog again?” Joe smiled but sadly, his eyes downcast.

“The dog got shot days before Mrs Chandler was killed. It was all planned out by someone who knew the area – it was murder, pure and simple, Joe.” Adam nodded “And whoever killed her, may be planning to do the same with Nettie. He was playing games with us, hiding those clothes where he did …leading off on a wild goose chase.”

“Well, I’m thinking he had a reason for that -” Joe said very slowly and he shook his head, then looked up at his brother “Don’t you?”

Adam nodded, “That’s why we have to find Nettie as soon as possible, Joe.”

His brother drew in a deep breath, patted his brother on the arm as though for reassurance and left him standing by the fire.

Chapter 29

It took some hours of hard riding to reach the first of the homesteads that Hoss had referred to…some rough riding too, as it took them away from the more pleasant meandering route along the riverside. Each of them had fallen into a sombre mood, melancholy. The anxiety for Nettie was made more intense now, each one of them feeling the need to find something, something tangible that would lead to her discovery.

The Fullerton place was collapsing onto itself. As they walked their horses along what once had been a wide sweeping driveway to the property, each one of them felt sure that this was not going to be where they would find Nettie. The grass was so long and untrammelled, no horse or buggy had ventured that way in years. When they came upon the house they looked at one another and shrugged, shook their heads.

“They were a pleasant family, hard working.” Joe muttered and looked around him, “Doesn’t look like anyone has been here in years. What do you think, Hoss?”

“Wal, we come along by the main drive, let’s go see where else anyone can reach the house, could be another easier direction …”

They dismounted slowly. A few birds crowed down at them, swept across the grey forbidding sky. Clouds were gathering. Adam paused by the porch and looked around him, the views were expansive, but also forbidding. He tried to imagine who would have lived here and why they would have chosen to build a house here. He shook his head and followed his brothers to walk around the buildings perimeters.

Broken shingles were scattered about their feet, lost among grass and the stems of long dead wild flowers. Windows had broken, or were cracked , some frames hanging at odd angles. Cobwebs blew back and forth in the breeze that wafted through the ruin. They scoured the area, carefully looking for signs of a horse, a buggy or human feet. After long enough time had sufficed they came to a common agreement that the Fullerton place was not going to yield any clue to Mrs Chandlers abduction or Nettie’s disappearance.

They rode on keeping their eyes watchful for any sign of recent human presence anywhere along the way. They inched around what had been a pleasant garden at one time, edged their way through the more rugged terrain of open land and found a track, long disused that led them away from the house. Adam looked back over his shoulder, and then with a sigh turned back to view his brother’s backs. The thought of the futility of it all kept nibbling at the back of his mind and he could tell from the slope of his younger brothers shoulders that Joe was feeling much the same.

Hoss however was single minded about the whole thing. This was about finding Nettie. His sole thought was that during the hours of riding they would find something, and if they did not, then they could honestly tell the Grooms that they had done everything they could to have found their girl.

The signs of what had once been human occupation were once again becoming obvious…what had been a large slab of wood with the legend Box H burned into it was half buried among rocks and grass where it had obviously fallen during some storm, or perhaps an accumulation of storms. The house loomed up before them in reasonably good condition compared to the Fullerton property.

They looked at one another, then rode on to the house, dismounted and then stood awkwardly in front of the building. “Kinda makes ya feel ya need to knock on the door.” Hoss mumbled.

“Take a good look around first…”Adam suggested

They split up going their three separate ways, scouring the land, the grass, looking for tracks , for levelled down grass, anything. They met later at the front door, each one of them shaking their heads. It was Adam who pushed open the door and was first to step inside, brushing aside cobwebs as he did so.

What an air of desolation hung about the house. Damp and mould had done its damage, black mould roamed over the walls. They could see from the dust on the floor and the amount of cobwebs festooning the ceilings that no one had passed through those rooms in all the time since the Hamilton family had gone. Joe said more than once “A shame they left, they were a good family.” which did not lighten Adams mood or make Hoss feel any happier.

They stepped outside just as the evening was drawing in, the promise of rain was fulfilled…the skies opened and the deluge began

They brought the horses into the building seeing that there was no reason why the animals should suffer the rain when there was ample room for them in the house as well as themselves. They found old furniture and were able to haul it into one room, light a fire in the chimney and settle down for the night. They had enough food to last them some days yet, so leaned back upon the musty smelling chairs and divans and ate their supper.

…………….

That afternoon the Cartwright women with Ann Canaday among them had a quilt sewing session. It had been a while since they had last met together, time and unforeseen occurrence as the good book reminds all, prevented them working to a better routine. Now they gathered chattering, laughing and smiling, arms full of their sewing equipment, overflowing with the work they were about to undertake.

They were enjoying the light from the windows that shone through Mary Ann’s sitting room…the children were playing amicably together, the smaller ones already sleepy eyed and ready for their afternoon naps. The quilt was spread out and each of them took up their section to work on it, needles flashing and silk threads glistening all manner of different colours as they were set to work.

“When do you think Adam, Joe and Hoss will be back?” Ann asked eventually as she paused to rethread her needle

“When they have found something worth reporting back.” Mary Ann replied quickly, and she looked up at her sisters in law to ensure she had said the right thing, they both nodded.”They want to find Nettie and bring her home.”

“Everyone does,” Ann replied, “That is all you hear about when you go to the store each morning….is there news of Nettie? Has she been found? And now of course, they are all curious about that poor woman who was found at McCreiffs.”

“Mrs Chandler?” Hester said and frowned, “Has her husband taken her back to be buried?”

“Yes, at last.” Ann nodded and frowned “It is all very strange isn’t it?”

“Yes, very.” her cousin replied and snipped her thread with some small scissors that she kept in her pocket to make sure little fingers did not find them.

“Some talk is circulating that the McCrieffs may know more about the death of that woman than they are letting on.” Mary Ann said quietly, “I over heard some one saying that Nate should look closer around there than haring off like he has…” she sighed and rested her hands in her lap, looked into space and shook her head “I feel so sorry for them..”

“Who? The McCrieffs?” Hester asked

“Yes. They have had a rough time of it, and now people talking rubbish about Mrs Chandler being found there…”

“People like to talk…” Olivia murmured and finished the perfect red rose bud before looking up “But talk like that can be dangerous.”

“It is certainly unpleasant.” Ann replied.

They worked on commenting on Roy Coffee having yet another new housekeeper, that Lucy Garston now known as who knew what was expecting a baby and Mrs Garston is furious about it as she thinks her son in law is a gigolo. They all giggled about that…

“It will destroy Mrs Groom if Nettie isn’t found,” Olivia suddenly observed, “I feel so sorry for her.”

“Would it be better for Nettie to be dead and found, than not found at all?” Ann asked, and they all looked at her with some degree of horror on their faces. They may all have been thinking it, but only Ann would have the temerity to mention it.

The subject was changed and the matter of Sofia and Hannah’s spelling bee at school suddenly became the main topic for conversation.

………………………

The storm broke shortly after the children had returned from school, thankfully having held back until each one had had their outer garments removed and were taking off their boots. “Just in time” Sofia said with satisfaction and tossed her boots into the cupboard

“Tidily….” Olivia admonished and Sofia sighed, pulled out her boots and aligned them neatly just as mother preferred.

The fire was burning in the hearth and there was a ruddy glow in the room, Nathaniel looked up and saw them both, then returned to studying his book. Big bold pictures and very colourful ones too. He loved his book of sailing ships even if he didn’t understand a word that was written.

“Mommy -” Sofia trailed around behind Olivia as her mother began to lay out the table for supper, an earlier meal than usual as Adam was not home and the children were cold after their trek from town “Mommy, please can you listen to my spelling…I have my spelling bee tomorrow and so does Hannah…”

“In a moment, dear.”

“Ma, I was thinking -” Reuben frowned and when Olivia looked up at him she found herself thinking “Oh he looks so like Robert when he does that…” “Mr Evans was talking about courage today and wanted us to write about some experiences – he said we all showed courage in some way or another. That’s true, isn’t it, Ma?”

“Very true.” she nodded and thought how it took courage for her to clean the basement where there were the biggest spiders in the world, she had never been able to conquer her fear of the wretched creepy crawly things

“Do you think -” he paused as though he were about to announce something that was bound to cause some turbulence but hopefully not “Do you think I could take Pa’s medals in to show the class, Mr Evans would like to see them…he said he didn’t know of anyone who had received two Medals of Honour – except George Custer.”

“George Custer’s brother, Thomas*, dear, George Custer did not receive any medals*” Olivia smiled briefly at her daughter who was pulling a piece of paper from her bag. “And no, I don’t think it would be a good idea to touch anything of Pa’s unless you get permission from him.”

“Aw, I just knew you were going to say that…” Reuben scowled and tossed his school work onto the settee, just missing Nathaniel who glanced up and gave his brother a dark look.

“Then why did you ask me?” Olivia replied “Sofia, we’ll go through your words after supper…”

Sofia nodded “I know where Daddy’s medals are, mommy. In the big box upstairs in the attic room”

“And that’s where they are staying…” Olivia replied testily.

“And there’s a big sword…” Sofia said and then cast her eyes down when she saw Reuben’s face glowering over at her, she coughed and blushed, then ran into the other room in order to put as much distance between them as possible.

Olivia looked at her son “You’ve been up in the attic looking through Pa’s things?”

“Well, we were just looking, we didn’t touch anything…”

f“You must have touched something, Reuben, to have found the medals…”

“Yes, but we put it all back together again. I promise you, Ma.”

She nodded and sighed “Very well. Get your hands washed, And don’t go there again without your father’s permission.”

…………….

Hannah Cartwright pushed back a braid of thick black hair and shrugged out of her coat, “Ma, I’ve got my spelling bee tomorrow…”

“So you have…don’t worry I had not forgotten.” Hester smiled and hung the coat up on its hook, then looked at her daughters pale face, “Are you feeling alright?”

“Yes, Ma. Just cold…”

“Go and sit by the fire then….supper won’t be long.”

“Will you go through my words with me?” big blue eyes opened wide in appeal;

“Of course, after supper.”

Hope ran up and gave her sister a hug, then ran off to play. Life was full of play and joy for Hope, no long rides on cold mornings and evenings to school…Hannah quite envied her, having dim memories when she also had nothing to do but her little chores first thing, then play, and read and just enjoy her warm lovely house.

Ben strolled from the office and smiled at her “GrandPa, I have a spelling bee tomorrow.”

“So I just heard..”

“Will you go through the words with me…please?”

He smiled and nodded, patted her on the head and was touched to the heart when her little hand folded around his, and he was dragged towards the big chair by the fire. Within minutes he had a list of words in his hand and was listening to a little girl earnestly repeating each word, standing upright, hands clasped behind her back and her eyes staring out into the room as she grappled to put each word in its proper place.

Chapter 30

There was sleet falling when they left the house, and each of them shrugged the collar of their coats higher, tightened scarves around their faces, jammed their hats lower. The bite of winter was never pleasant but this particular morning it seemed to echo the despondency of their reason for being there.

They walked their horses for some distance, climbing higher, their eyes on the ground, searching for clues, any sign possible to align the area with the missing girl, or the dead woman. Hoss said with the rain overnight and now the weather they were experiencing the chances of finding anything at all was slim, Joe hoped that meant they could go home, Adam felt miserable in that they had failed.

“What’s that?” Joe suddenly yelled, and pointed to an outline, a dark yawning mouth some distance ahead of them

.

“Shucks, I forgot about that -” Hoss muttered and turned Chubb in the direction of the mine entrance “Old man Harrison said he was going to open up a mine, was convinced he had gold on his property. His sons thought he was mad but they agreed to go along with him, guess when everyone else was finding gold they must have thought they had an even chance of doing the same.”

Adam and Joe looked at one another, nodded in mutual agreement to follow Hoss towards the mine entrance, both doubtful that they would find anything. The sleet came down more heavily now, settling upon their shoulders, upon their hats.

They sat in the saddle and stared at the entrance to the mine and then looked at one another, Adam sighed “What do you think?”

“What? Ain’t ya even going in to look?” Hoss scowled, and without a word he dismounted, and led his horse along with him into the entrance of the mine

Joe shrugged and ventured to say that a kidnapper would surely keep his prisoner in some degree of comfort in one of the houses, for instance. Why pick an old mine shaft to keep her, but Hoss shook his head and muttered “Because she was a prisoner, not a guest!”

Adam nodded, it made sense put that way, but he just walked his horse into the mine shaft, followed by Joe. The packhorse was allowed to wander in or out depending on how it felt about the weather. As for the Cartwrights they had no intention of exploring the mine and then having to sit on a wet cold saddle afterwards.

The mine shaft was everything they expected, cold and damp with that permeating smell of rotting wood, and stale air. Adam and Joe dismounted and followed Hoss, taking the only way forward, a single shaft. Hoss was like a bloodhound, he stood for a moment and hauled in his breath, sniffed in long and hard, then narrowed his eyes.

“You got an itch?” Joe asked, a slight sarcasm edging his voice.

“Nah, we ain’t been followed, but – can you smell anything other than what you would expect in a mine?”

Adam and Joe grimaced, looked at one another and then sniffed, hard. They looked at one another again and then at Hoss, shook their heads.

“Well, I can. I tell ya – someone’s bin here recently. I reckon this is where she was hidden.”

“Was?” Adam bit his lip, ‘was’ sounded ominous.

“Yeah, keep looking, I reckon we’re going to find something, or someone…” he drew in his breath and then cupped his hands around his mouth “NETTIE. NETTIE GROOM.”

His words bounced back. The three of them stood there in silence, each one hoping, expecting, some response, something, anything.

But there was nothing else, no sound expect the movement of the horses, the dripping of water down the walls of the hollowed out cavern. Hoss set his jaw and walked on. “We need some light”

“I’ve matches…” Joe said and started searching for them in his pocket.

“We’ve a lamp -” Adam added and turned on himself a little way, stooping to pick up a discarded lamp that his foot had kicked against earlier. He picked it up and nodded “It has a candle…”

The rasp of a match and within minutes the candle was flickering a brave little flame. They looked at one another, Hoss pouted “That ain’t old…”

“It’s been used …” Adam nodded “I’d say quite recently.”

They walked on and stopped when the tunnel came to an end. For a moment they stood there, Adam holding the lamp aloft, looking around him. “They didn’t dig far, did they?” he muttered and pulled a face.

“Mr Harrison was kind of like that, given to wild enthusiasms…..” Joe sighed and then pointed to a deeper shadow within a shadow “What’s that?”

They lowered the lamp nearer the ground and then sighed collectively, nodded and stood up. “Well, what do you think?” Joe asked quietly as he fingered the old blanket that was cast upon the ground, and followed with his eyes the light of the lamp which revealed other detritus of someone having been there. “Look -”

He had taken the lamp from Adam’s hand and walked to where the gleam of metal had caught his eye, and each one there inhaled a breath at the sight of the chain and shackles, Joe’s shoulders slumped “Do you think this is where Nettie was kept?”

Hoss leaned down and pulled at the blanket, shook it in case it would reveal some of its secrets. He smelled it, holding it close to his nose and inhaling then looked at Adam and Joe “Womans smell, reckon she was here a while….”

“Mrs Chandler?” Adam ventured

“I’d say so, Nettie ain’t here. ..may never have been brought here.” Hoss replied

Adam nodded “Yeah, that was what I was thinking.”

Joe screwed up his eyes and shook his head “So? What are you saying? That whoever took Mrs Chandler – didn’t take Nettie? Or that Nettie was kept some place else?”

Hoss rubbed his chin with his fingers, his blue eyes were troubled, and he shook his head “I reckon he found a different place for Nettie. Once Mrs Chandler was found …”

“He planned it all out -” Adam said, looking at the flickering flame of the candle “He had Mrs Chandler here, because of the McCrieff place. He planned for her to be taken there, hunted down and left to be found. So he killed the dog …killed it some days before she was allowed to go free, and then hunted down.”

“Like an animal?” Joe winced, and shook his head “Adam, this gives me a sick feeling… “

Hoss’ grip on the blanket tightened “Do you reckon it’s the same person? The same man who got them both?”

“Is it just possible that Nettie just left town, went some place – with someone – and is too afraid now to come back?” Joe whispered.

“Too much of a co-incidence,” Adam said “And those clothes – they were Nettie’s as well as Mrs Chandlers.”

“Yeah, but -” Joe swallowed and cleared his throat “That means that there’s some kind of crazy guy hereabouts, someone who kidnaps women and hunts them down when – when he gets tired of them?”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t get tired of Nettie too soon then.” Hoss muttered and flung the blanket down on the ground, then paused, stopped down and picked up something that had fallen from the blankets folds. He held it carefully between his fingers, and brought it to the light “An ear ring.”

Adam brought the light closer and peered down at it, “Expensive.”

Joe shook his head “Is that blood there -” he pointed to the gold loop that would go through the pierced ear, and the brothers scrutinised it and then nodded “She must have got it caught in the blanket and torn her ear lobe.”

“Poor woman…” Hoss shook his head “Lets take a good look around here and see if we can find anything more.”

“Yeah, and lets not take too long about it, the whole place is making me feel ill.” Joe groaned and inwardly his heart was beating fast. Having a vivid imagination he could almost feel the terror of the poor woman imprisoned here, the pain of the torn ear lobe, then the feeling of – what? Fear as the was told she could go? Wearing just a flimsy chemise, and no shoes…told to run for her life perhaps? How must she have been feeling?

They left not long after having found nothing of any significance. There had been no evidence of her being fed during her incarceration, no evidence of any kind at all that her toilet requirements had been met. There were no foot prints on the ground to indicate whether she had walked there or run, whether her captor had been there to see to her needs, or to release her on the day she was to be the victim of his mad game of hide and seek. Apart from the discarded candle in the lamp, there had only been the shackles, the blanket and the ear ring.

The remounted their horses and walked them out of the mine and collected the pack horse. Joe looked at Adam “Where now? We haven’t found Nettie?”

“No.” Adam breathed the word in a sigh

“Do we keep looking?” Joe asked and looked wild eyed at his brother Hoss who shrugged.

“Let’s ride down to the McCrieffs…try and imagine where she would have run…where she could have been killed.”

It had stopped sleeting. The sky was grey with black clouds hovering. Heads down to scan the ground the three horsemen began their trek away from the mine shaft…then spread out in order to cover as much ground as possible while still maintaining close contact. They had ridden half an hour before Joe raised a hand and gave a shout “Here…over here.”

They joined him by some trees, and peered down at what he had found .. Hoss nodded “She must have leaned against this tree after he got her in the leg. The blood from the wound seeped into the wood.”

For a while they searched in that area, spent time looking for who knew what and then Hoss found another clue. He held it aloft “Look? The other ear ring… she was clever, she put it where someone would find it, if they were really looking.”

And he was right. The ear ring was carefully hooked over a thin branch, even now the breeze caused it to sway back and forth, catching the light. Adam plucked it free and put it with the other one, in his pocket. “Whoever our hunter was he missed this – careless of him – “

“He must have got more involved with the hunting to notice..” Joe said quietly.

They continued on, until finally there came the barking of a dog, warning the McCrieffs that they had visitors. The three of them drew up their horses, standing together in a group and looking down at the homestead. Una came out, the open door behind her, she shielded her eyes to see who would be approaching her home, making her feel vulnerable.

“He had it well planned” Adam muttered. “Once he had caught her, he killed her and then brought her where she would be found…”

“Doesn’t help us find Nettie though, does it/” Hoss growled.

“No,” his brother agreed, and shook his head “No, it doesn’t.”

Joe frowned and then realised Una was waving to them, “Best go settle her mind. Give us a chance to thaw out.”

Chapter 31

Douglas McCrieff approached the house from the far side, a rifle over his shoulder, two rabbits hanging from his free hand. Each of the Cartwright brothers recognised the jacket and each one thought it looked better on him that it had on their Pa. Adam cleared his throat and stared past him, Joe raised his eyebrows and grinned while Hoss nodded and grinned which made Douglas think the poor man was addled.

Una was more than happy to see them, the children clustered around her like chicks cluck around a mother hen, then seeing who the visitors were, retreated to the far end of the cabin to pursue their own little tasks.

“Saw you up there, at Harrisons old workings.” Douglas said as he put the rabbits on a hook, so that the blood dripped from the furry little bodies into a bucket. “Still looking for that little girl, are you”

“Still looking.” Hoss nodded and sat down, smiled at Una.

Adam was rubbing his hands over the stove and looked thoughtfully at the other man who was removing his jacket “Do you have a good view of Harrisons place then?”

“Not at all…well, you would have noticed that yourself when you were looking around the other day when you found the lady.”

Adam nodded, “True enough…yet you saw us there just now?”

Another nod of the head, Douglas pulled off his boots and tossed them into a corner where they fell in among a pile of other foot wear. “I did. I had a notion to look around there myself.” he took a mug of coffee from his wife and smiled at her, then sat down at the table, “I heard in town that the lass was still missing, so I told Una that when I was out hunting this morning I would go around and check the old places out. They seemed – “ he paused and shrugged “Well, logically thinking it out, kind of thing, it seemed if the lady was brought here, then whoever carried her or -” he shrugged “ could not have been wandering around too long or too far with her body in full view.”

Hoss sighed, gulped down some of the coffee “Yeah, that was logical thinking, and we clear missed out on it that first time round.”

“We did what Nate tol us to do,” Joe pointed out, “He’s new around here don’t forget, he wouldn’t have known about the Harrisons place.”

“ I don’t think Nate or anyone else thought Nettie would be far from town, to be honest.” Adam muttered and pushed his mug away, then stood up, “Thank you for that, Mrs McCrieff.”

A smile from them all, and a nod of the head, they retrieved their hats and stepped back out into the cold. “Well, best get back to town and tell Nate what we found…” Hoss said and looked at his brothers, “I keep hoping that Nettie is hiding in town some place and that she’ll stroll back home as large as life…”

Adam shook his head “I don’t think so, Hoss.”

“Adam, you just got a mean streak in ya, why not try seeing things in a better light, huh? It is possible, ain’t it?” he turned to Joe “What do you think, Joe?”

Joe removed his hat, pushed his fingers through his hair and resettled his hat down upon the unruly mess he had left his hair in, “I figgure that we’re already too late.”

“Aw, don’t say that -” Hoss exclaimed, one foot in the stirrup and ready to heave himself up into the saddle.

“I just got a feeling, that’s all.” Joe muttered and he slanted his eyes at Adam “So have you, haven’t you?”

Adam nodded but said nothing. Within minutes they were in the saddle and riding in the direction of town. None of them spoke, but they were thinking, and all of them thinking about the same thing…or rather..person.

……………

Nettie Groom woke up and felt cold. She shivered a little and groped for the blankets which she pulled carefully around herself. She looked around the dark shadows surrounding her and frowned wondering where he had gone. She had fallen asleep wrapped in his arms, her head upon his shoulder, his breath soft and warm upon her face. He had explained certain things to her, things that meant she needed to remain where she was for a little while longer…then, when it was safe, he would be able to take her home.

He had promised her other things too, like security and marriage. She thought over the words now as she fell back to sleep, holding tightly to the blanket, holding it close because it still bore his smell. Marriage – he had promised her marriage. That would mean a home of their own, and later there would be babies…she would never have to work in that sewing shop ever again.

He had told her not to worry, not to feel frightened because she was in a strange place but she was safe . She had to remember that fact, she was quite safe. She just had to do what she was told for the time being…keep quiet, stay where she was, and be patient

………………..

Nate Carney was beyond tired. He suffered badly from an aching back, the curse of all tall men, and he took his chair behind the desk wearily. Every man there felt the same, the deputies and some of the posse who lingered just in the hope that someone would have gleaned some good news. But there was nothing. Not even a ghost of anything substantial.

“Someone somewhere must have seen something..apart from the sighting Lilith Martin gave us, there’s been no sign of a clue to where that girl has gone..” Nate groaned and rubbed his face and leaned back in his chair so that it tilted on its two back legs.

Mark poured out coffee, gave most of the men there a nod and jerk of the head to indicate that they may as well return home. There was nothing to see, nothing to say. Nate rolled a pencil back and forth across the desk, “Do you think the Cartwright will have found anything?”

“I wouldn’t like to say, Boss.” Mark Watts sipped his coffee, “May have to wait a while before they get back with a report seeing how they were going to ride further afield than us.”

“I don’t want to feel that we have failed.” Nate stared at the murky depths of his coffee and his mouth set in a firm line, “What’s the connection between those two women?”

Mark and Matt shared a glance, Matt shrugged and Mark said “A man.”

Nate nodded and cradled his hands around the mug “Yeah,a man…but who?”

“Are you thinking that the same man is involved in both -” Mark paused, he was going to say murders, or killings, but remembered in time that Nettie was not yet a corpse, not so far as they knew anyway.

“It seems an odd co-incidence for two women to have been abducted at around the same time..it is possible I suppose, but -” Nate shook his head, “I think it is the same man.”

The two deputies looked at one another, Matt heaved in a sigh, while Mark scratched the back of his head “So- this man kidnaps -”

“No, he didn’t kidnap anyone, he played on their feelings…first Mrs Chandler, lured her away from her husband and home in Carson City…keeps her somewhere, safe ..” Nate frowned

“Do you think she was safe? I mean, did she feel safe? Or did he stick her down a hole somewhere before deciding to kill her?” Matt swallowed the coffee and then walked over to the stove to pour himself another cup full

“She was gone weeks….” Mark murmured, and doodled patterns on the desk “Weeks …but she must have been fed, looked after for a while at least…”

“Perhaps he gets tired of them…” Matt looked at Mark and then Nate, “You know, tired of having them around”

“Her – not them – just the one woman so far as we know.” Nate snapped sharply.

“Well, exactly, so far as we know…”

The three men looked at one another and leaned forwards “I think -” his eyes darkened as he scowled at them both “I think we need to start thinking more about who this man could be…what kind of man we are looking for…perhaps then we have more of a chance of finding Nettie.”

“Where do we start?” Matt asked pulling his chair around and straddling it, resting his chin on his arms which were folded across the back of the chair

“Well, he has connections with Carson City and Virginia City…” Mark suggested “With the train taking passengers and it being such a short journey, it wouldn’t be difficult for the man to live in one town and work in the other, or perhaps just -” he paused, and ran his hand over his head, balding sadly, “stuck at the first point.”

“Not necessarily,” Nate replied, and wrote down the suggestions…”Both could be valid, we’ll work on one theory until we can rule it out.”

“Alright…let’s say he works in Carson City, because he needed to have the time to get to know Mrs Chandler and kind of court her….”

Matt nodded in agreement “That makes sense…then that means Dr Chandler might know him. He may be a colleague in the hospital”

Nate wrote the suggestion down and then frowned “I think the best thing would be to go and talk to Dr Chandler. Darn, we should have kept him here for a while longer, instead of letting him go off like that!”

“He could be – “ Matt raised his eyebrows suggestively, but met with a blank look from Nate and a shake of the head from Mark.

“We’ve already discussed that, it wasn’t him.” Nate sighed, “But I think we need to talk to him again. Ask him some more questions. Now that he has had time to bury his wife, he may be feeling clearer headed, able to think more -”

The sound of horses stopping outside the building, then footsteps, and the door opened as the three Cartwright stepped into the building. It was Adam who closed the door behind them. Nate half rose from his chair before settling down again “Find anything?”

Hoss nodded “We found where they – he – kept Mrs Chandler.”

“On Ponderosa land?” Matt asked with a trace of disbelief.

“No, on land belonging – or rather land that had once belonged to a family called Harrison. They had a homestead some distance from the Moncrieff place. They also had an old mine that Harrison thought would be the next big bonanza…’cept it wasn’t and he got sick anyway so couldn’t work it. She was kept there…” Hoss removed his hat and clasped it against his chest as though he needed the moment to catch his breath.

“You’re sure it was her?” Mark ventured to ask, leaning towards them, hoping for more evidence than just their word for it

“How many others do you want it to be?” Joe snapped, “Yes, it was her, we found whereabouts she had been shot in the leg, there were blood stains ..” his voice trickled away and he watched as the three law men looked at one another, nodded and took that information on board.

“We need to think more about the man -” Nate said slowly, “We need to find out more about him, that’s the only way we can save Nettie.”

Matt nodded and stared at the writing wriggling its way across the white paper on Nate’s desk, “Yeah, if she’s still alive.”

Nate stood up and stretched his hand to shake each one of the Cartwrights hands, thanking them for what they had found “Look, we’re all real tired now…why not get on home and rest up. We could all do with a good sleep, clear our heads.”

Adam nodded “We’ll see you tomorrow morning.” then turned to leave the room, Joe and Hoss nodded agreement, and followed their brother. The door closed behind them leaving Nate to stare thoughfully down at his paper. He picked up his pen and started writing, Matt leaned forward to look over his shoulder and read

“Local man? Knew about the Harrison mine property.”

He glanced over at Mark, then walked over to pick up his hat “See you both in the morning.”

Chapter 32

Adam was first at the Ponderosa ranch the following morning. Hoss was still eating breakfast although Hannah had already passed Adam on the wagon, heading out to school. Ben flipped down his napkin and nodded over to his eldest son and pointed to the coffee pot.

“Thanks, Pa. I suppose Hoss told you what we found yesterday?” he leaned forward to take the cup from his father, smiled at Hester and swallowed some coffee

“Seems to me you could be looking for a local man..someone who knows the area.” Ben sliced some ham and speared it on the tines of his fork, put it into his mouth and began chewing.

“Probably. Nate thinks we should be working on that theory too.” he frowned and swallowed more coffee until the cup was empty. He placed it down on the saucer and looked at his brother “We haven’t all the time in the world, Hoss.”

“Sure, sure, sorry, I kinda overslept.” Hoss mumbled and wiped his mouth on his napkin “Joe ain’t around yet….”

“Yes he is…” Joe quipped as he came from around the corner into the dining area, “Sorry I’m late too..”

“Do you want some coffee to wake you up?” Ben grinned and gestured to the coffee pot but Joe shook his head and declined the offer

“I’m sorry we’re going to have to neglect work again today, Pa…” Adam sighed and looked at Hoss, who raised his eyebrows and mumbled about getting ready no need to rush him. .”We’ll get back to the normal routine as soon as possible. Preferably before the bad weather really sets in.”

“Preferably once Nettie has been found.” Joe muttered and leaned forwards to take some bacon from a platter which made Hope giggle. He winked at her as he munched on the crispy bacon and then looked at Hester “Mary Ann said she’ll come down later.”

Hester nodded and smiled, then stood up and began to leave the table. Hoss was struggling into his coat and with a shake of her head she went to help him. He grinned, kissed her cheek, called her honey and put his hands in his pockets. His face fell serious and he said “Oh!”

“Oh?” Ben frowned “What do you mean ‘Oh’?”

“I forgot to give these to Nate…we found them where Mrs Chandler was being kept..” and he carefully drew out the ear rings.

“Hoss, fancy forgetting to leave them with Nate, they’re evidence.” Joe groaned and slapped his forehead much in the manner his father had been doing for years.

Hester reached out a hand to take them from her husband, Her face was paler and her eyes wide as she turned the glittering ear bobs one way and the other. Then she shook her head as though in disbelief “Ingrid.”

“Ingrid?” Joe said and looked at Hoss who was staring at his wife in confusion “What do you mean?”

“Who’s Ingrid?” Adam asked and reached out a hand into which Hester dropped the ear rings,

“She was my sister in law.” Hester replied, then frowned “They belonged to her.”

“That ain’t possible, honey, they belonged to Mrs Chandler.” Hoss said gently.

“Maybe, but they were Ingrid’s.”

Joe leaned closer and took them from Adam, he held them up to the light, Hope said in a little whisper “Ooo pretty”

“I’ve seen these on Ingrid…well, some similar perhaps.” he looked at Hoss, then Hester “I can’t be sure.”

“I can.” Hester replied, “They were part of a set. Ear rings and a pendant which could be worn as a brooch. I have that item upstairs. I know they were hers. Milton – my brother – had them made up to her own specific design for their first wedding anniversary.”

“Yeah, but…” Hoss crinkled his brow, and shook his head

“I tell you, Hoss, they were hers…I have the brooch upstairs, I can prove it …” she turned to Joe, her sapphire blue eyes wider than ever “You remember the brooch, Joe? She gave it to some cowboy as payment for killing you…”

“Yeah, killed Cochise instead.” Joe sighed, there was a little wobble in his voice and he swallowed, “Best ever horse …”

Adam frowned and looked at Ben, shook his head “When did this all happen?”

“You weren’t here..” Hoss said abruptly “You were on your boat out in Egypt.”

“Yeah, sailing down the Nile and riding camels.” Joe shrugged and put the ear rings down on the table where they lay upon the white tablecloth, looking beautifully delicate.

“I remember now…” Adam nodded “Hoss wrote me some quite eloquent letters about her.”

Ben rubbed his chin and then picked up the ear rings, nodded “I can remember seeing these on Inger…I mean…Ingrid. Beautiful woman. She told me she would die rather than part from them, they were a gift from someone she loved.”

Hester made a rather rude noise in contempt, Ingrid had never loved Milton Buchanan, it had been a business merger pure and simple, between two of the largest banking organisations in New York.

Any love Ingrid had for Milton soon disappeared, like snow confronted with a blazing fire.

“You remember her then, Pa?” Joe said with a slight smile and Ben nodded, a sad reflective look on his face,

“Oh yes, I remember her. A heartless piece of baggage. She was so beautiful she made a man feel uncomfortable…most men anyway. Some other men were drawn to her like bees to honey.” and he looked rather directly at his youngest son who sighed and shook his head.

“John Martin would recognise those ear rings too.” Hester said in a snappy tone of voice, as though the fact they doubted her word had hurt her, especially when it concerned Ingrid.

“Why would John Martin-?” Adam’s voice trailed off, and he sighed, raised his eyebrows and said once again “Oh?”

“She was having an affair with him in New York.” Hester said unreservedly, hands on her hips and her chin raised defiantly “The only reason she agreed to visit us here was because John had left New York, in order to escape from her. Ingrid was not the sort of woman who liked to let go of her men that easily….”

Joe coughed, shuffled his feet, his near encounter to being entrapped by the beautiful Ingrid made him squirm, even though it was just before he met Mary Ann again, but the infatuation had been there, and with hindsight, could have led to serious consequences. As it was, his rejection of her, had nearly seen him dead!

Adam drew in his breath and shrugged “Well, they may once have belonged to Ingrid but the question now is how did they get to belong to Mrs Chandler. I can’t see her husband being able to afford jewellery like this?”

“They cost a small fortune. Milton insured them because they were so expensive and because they were a unique design” Hester was calming down now. Her fingers gently touched the jewels on the ear rings, a softening of her face, memories drifting across her mind.”Milton loved her at first, she just constantly rejected it ..”

Erik called out to his mommy, he wanted attention so she sighed, shook her head to dispel the memories and went to attend to her child. Hoss scooped the ear ring up into his hand and slipped them back into his pocket, “Guess we had best go..”

In silence his brothers followed him, Joe deep in thought remembering the time Ingrid had caused so much distress , so much turbulence. Adam deep in thought wondering how the jewellery got from Ingrid to Mrs Chandler.

Ben walked to the door with them, he also was remembering the time with Milton and Ingrid Buchanan, the attempts he had made to help her, the way she had repaid that by trying to kill Joe, to kill Hester and her cousin, Ann.

“I remember when she left, after Milton’s death, she still had all her jewellery then..if I recall rightly, she returned with barely nothing. Said she had been robbed …”

Joe nodded “That’s right, so she was, but she kept hold of some jewellery -even when she was a working girl in the saloon.”

“Perhaps if the man who stole her jewellery could be found? May be there’s a link to him…” Ben suggested and received a smile from his son, Adam, a smile that made Ben feel quite proud of himself for having contributed something practical to the discussion.

“We’ll certainly bear that in mind, Pa.” Adam said quietly and turned to go.

“Another thing to consider -” Ben stepped out onto the porch, and placed his hands on his hips, his dark eyes penetrating into theirs “By the time she died she didn’t have any jewellery at all.”

“Yeah,” Joe sniffed “Probably paid a whole town full of cowboys to kill us all off….”

“She hated you all that much?” Adam asked innocently.

“She was a hateful woman, she didn’t know how to survive without hating..” Joe almost spat and strode out to his horse, his face clouded with the bad memories Ingrid had invoked.

Ben watched them ride out of the yard, their backs straight, the collars of their coats raised to halt the cold breezes down their backs. He sighed, and turned back into the house, then closed the door behind him.

Hester was tidying the table now, piling up the plates and she saw him and smiled “I’m glad you didn’t go with them, Pa, this weather is too big a risk just now…”

“I know, I appreciate that but I feel like a bird with its wings clipped.” he looked fondly at her, and placed a gentle but firm hand on her shoulder “You are alright, aren’t you? These memories, Ingrid …not too much?”

“Ingrid? Oh -” she shrugged “She’s like a constant nightmare. I always wondered, if, after her death, she would ever drift back into our lives again.” she pulled a slight grimace “Now it looks like she has …”

“Only slightly, dear. Don’t let her become a problem.”

Hester nodded and leaned forward to kiss his cheek, “Thank you, Ben.”

He liked it when she called him Ben, made him feel like a real person.

……………….

Nate Carney held the ear rings in his hands as carefully as a child would hold a soap bubble..Mark Watts stood beside him, both men said nothing for a while but listened to Joe telling the story about Ingrid Buchanan, sister in law to Hester Cartwright, who became a reasonably wealthy widow and left town loaded with jewellery and to all intents and purposes was bound for France where her husband had left her a fancy house in which to live out the remainder of her days.

They sat facing the big desk where Roy had presided for so long, Roy who had known Ingrid, would have appreciated the reason why the story about her had to be told. Nate listened, Mark poured out coffee, cups were pushed towards everyone there.

“So – she left Virginia City bound for Europe, but came back again?” Nate intoned, placed the ear rings carefully in a small box which he placed by his side, when the Cartwrights were gone the box would go into the safe.

“She met a man who swindled her out of her jewellery and from what she told – Pa – because he was the only one she would talk sense to, he also ran off with the title deeds to the property and everything she owned in France. She worked as a saloon girl in the Bucket of Blood -” Joe coughed and cleared his throat, swallowed some coffee, “Anyway, she still had some jewellery with her, those ear rings were hers – “

Hoss took up the story “She left before she was arrested for attempted murder …”

“Attempted murder? What was she? Some kind of crazy woman….” Nate looked from one to the other of them, Adam shrugged, and muttered that he never knew her but from what he had heard that just about summed her up

“Yeah, well, she tried to kill Joe, then she tried to kill Hester and Ann Canaday, and last but not least she stabbed John Martin and nearly killed him. Guess she panicked …”

“Panicked!” Nate exclaimed and shook his head, then turned to Adam “Where were you when this was all happening?”

“Oh safe and sound in Egypt admiring the pyramids.” Adam said, and gave Nate the benefit of a blank stare.

“She got on the stagecoach for Placerville, but on the way they had to stay over at the way station – Mr and Mrs Muellers way station..” Joe frowned “Seems she had an accident and was killed.”

“What kind of accident?” Mark asked, perched as he was on a desk close by

“A fatal one.” Joe muttered.

“She went out during the night, must have missed her footing and fell, crushed her skull…” Joe gulped “We had to identify her and collect her belongings. There was no jewellery ..” he frowned and looked at Hoss “There wasn’t any jewellery in her bag and she wasn’t wearing any, was she?”

“No.” Hoss pouted his lips, leaned back in his chair “John Martin swears there was jewellery on the dressing table, that was what made him realise she was leaving town. She left with some …”

Nate raised a hand, palm out ward to halt any more speech. He drew in his breath, rubbed his brow, and then looked at each one of them “This is getting complicated…”

“We just need to know who gave Ingrid’s ear rings to Mrs Chandler, is all, Sheriff” Hoss looked from one man to the other. “Once we know who it was we’ll know who killed Mrs Chandler.”

“And who has Nettie….” Joe looked at Nate, his hazel eyes wide with pleading, “We need to treat this as evidence, and move fast on this, because I feel that time is running out for Nettie.”

Nate bowed his head and nodded “Sadly true, Joe, I got the same feeling.”

Adam leaned forward “Mrs Chandler was missing for weeks before she was found, and she had not been dead for very long. Nettie has only been gone a few days in comparison…we may still have a breathing space.”

“Depends on the man, doesn’t it?” Mark replied “I mean – what if he killed your sister in law, Joe? So he can get the jewels? He could have killed a number of women for all we know.”

Hoss closed his eyes, bowed his head and then looked up at the deputy “Ingrid died from a fall…”

“And you never wondered where her jewellery had gone until now?” Mark raised his eyebrows and shook his head “Seems suspicious to me.”

“And me.” Nate replied and tapped his fingers on the desk as though it would help concentration.”Mark, send a telegram to Dr Chandler, tell him we need him urgently here. If he doesn’t come we’ll go get him. We need to know where Mrs Chandler got those ear rings. I’ll go and see Dr Martin.” he stood up and picked up the little box which he held in his hand for a moment. “Thanks – perhaps you could write your statements down over there..”

“Huh?” Hoss wrinkled up his face, his nose and then his eyes

“What?” Joe exclaimed “Isn’t there something else we could be doing…like ..like…er…finding the killer.”

Adam stood up “I didn’t know anything about this, sheriff, so if you don’t mind I’ll leave these two to their scribbling.”

Nate narrowed his eyes “Where are you going?”

“I thought I would go and visit Roy as I’m in town…”

“What else ?” Nate walked round the side of the desk, and collected his hat

“Oh, maybe go for a ride somewhere, check out this place where Ingrid fell and cracked her skull.”

he paused “I’ll take Roy if he feels up to a ride.”

Chapter 33

Roy was more than pleased to open the door to his guest and waved Adam into the sitting room as the younger man removed his hat

“Saw you ride in last evening. Thought you would be scouting round for a few more days yet…”

“We found what we were looking for, Roy.” Adam glanced around for somewhere to put his hat, then decided to hold onto it, after all, he didn’t intend to be there for very long “Look, I need your help.”

“Fire away….” Roy hovered, unsure whether to sit down or to stay standing, he waited until Adam had explained their discovery, nodding occasionally, when Adam reached the point of mentioning Ingrid, then Roy did sit down

“Ingrid Buchanan….also known as Lisa Faulkner.” he shook his head “You know, if ever there was a woman born under an evil cloud she was one ! Sly as all got out, didn’t care who she hurt either…”

“So I heard…”

“Hester was expecting her first baby when that minx decided to get her killed! Imagine that…no care about anyone but herself.” he sucked on his teeth for a moment with his brow furrowed while he thought over the events in which Ingrid featured, then he looked up and nodded “What do you want me to do?”

“Take a ride with me.” Adam said and seeing the way Roy’s eyes lit up he smiled, “To the Mueller’s way station”

“You reckon on finding Nettie there?”

“No. But I need to find out some facts about Ingrid Buchanan’s last journey.”

“Where she died you mean?”

Adam nodded, Roy gave him a sharp long look before telling him to wait a moment while he got his boots and informed his housekeeper of his absence. Adam was more than prepared to wait, he listened to the sounds of the old man shuffling about getting his boots, calling out to his housekeeper and then Roy was there, booted and shrugging on his old coat.

……………….

Eddie in the Telegraph Mail Depot waited until Mark had finished writing out his telegram and took it from him with a nod of the head. He paused a moment before asking if he were right in thinking that the Cartwright’s were in town,

“Sure..I’ve got two of ’em in the office just now.” Mark lounged against the counter that divided the public from Officialdom, “Why?”

“I got their mail here, perhaps you could take it over to them.”

Mark shrugged “Sure, can’t see why not…”

Eddie nodded and smiled, a thing of beauty when it happened, lighting up his thin haggard face.

…………..

Hoss threw down his pen and scowled “Shucks, I don’t see no call for us to be sitting here writing this dang fool thing out, Joe.”

Joe stopped chewing the inside of his cheek and nodded “Yeah, me too…reckon we should be doing something -”

“Could join up with Roy and Adam.” Hoss leaned forward closer to his brother “After all we know exactly where Ingrid fell – remember?”

“I try to forget most things about Ingrid….” Joe sighed and scratched his head, then put down his pencil “C’mon, let’s go.”

Both men grabbed their hats and hurried from the building, slamming the door behind them and rather anxiously looking from left to right to ensure no one wearing a badge would see them. They were soon in the saddle and loping their way through the traffic to where Roy lived, just in time to catch the other two men mounting their own horses.

“I thought you had something to do….” Adam admonished, glowering at them under dark brows

“We done it.” Hoss replied “Anyhow, you need us -”

“I don’t see how, or why…” his brother replied as he settled into the saddle and turned his horse round in order to edge out of town.

Joe just shrugged and smirked, but there was little point in Adam saying anything, he knew his two brothers well enough to know that they would stick to him like barnacles would stick to the underside of a ship Within minutes they were making their way out of town and heading for the way station over which Mr and Mrs Mueller had presided for years.

………………

Nate Carney entered the surgery and looked around him, saw Jimmy Chan and removed his hat. He had a great respect for the Chinese Doctor, and assured him that he had not come for medical treatment “I needed to speak to Doctor Martin, John Martin.”

“Ah, at home. All night in surgery, very tired.” Jimmy replied, and smiled, he still looked like that young man from long ago, when the Ridleys had planned to see him hanged rather than admit to their own part in a death. His sloe black eyes gleamed “Can I help?”

“Not really. I’ll go and see if he’s available for a brief – er – talk.”

Jimmy nodded and watched as the tall sheriff left the building, his head grazing the top of the door despite bending down.

John Martin yawned as the door opened and he nodded blearily at Nate who removed his hat and asked if he could come in as he had something he needed to discuss privately.

“I’m on my own, Sheriff, so come on in. Had a long night. Delivered twins -” he yawned again, “Not an easy delivery.”

Nate frowned, paused a moment wondering whether this was really the best moment to discuss the matter of Ingrid Buchanan but then shook his head and the doubts away, he followed the Doctor into a well furnished sitting room.

“Coffee?” John asked and smiled, “I need something strong if I’m not going to get any sleep….”

“I am sorry.” Nate removed his hat and lowered himself down into a chair that looked as though it would be comfortable enough to take his height, without having to crease himself up too much. “It is rather important…”

“Sounds ominous.” John replied and made his way to the kitchen.

For a while Nate sat just looking around the room. He had been here once or twice when it had been Widow Hawkins domain, and realised that without all the circus paraphernalia with which she had littered the room it was a really very well proportioned, with doors leading out to what in the summer must have been a very colourful garden. He could not imagine anything not being colourful where Clemmie Hawkins was concerned.

John reappeared looking slightly less weary bearing a tray of steaming coffee…he set it down on a table and then pulled up a chair so that he was facing Nate. He smiled “Help yourself to sugar.”

Nate nodded, ladled in two spoonfuls and stirred slowly. He cleared his throat as he picked up his cup, “Dr Martin…”

“John.”

“Ah, yes, John.” he frowned, and gulped down some coffee. Strong as the Doctor had promised, and sweet which was how he liked it, “Right. This is rather delicate…”

“Go ahead. I’m a Doctor, I’m used to delicate matters being discussed.”

“Not a medical delicacy..”

“Oh!”

They looked at one another over the brim of their cups, John lowered his cup back into the saucer and smiled “Then what is it? It is about Nettie?”

“No – well – it could be.”

“That’s a rather cryptic reply, Sheriff.”

“Nate – call me Nate.”

John inclined his head and smiled “Well, say what you have to say.”

“It’s concerning a woman called Ingrid Buchanan.” Nate looked at the other man’s face, and saw a creeping redness mount Johns neck above his collar

“Ingrid.” John intoned and sighed. “I often wondered if – well – if she would ever entirely fade away. She’s like a black cloud – I mean – her memory is like a black cloud hovering over anyone who regrettably came into contact with her.”

“You knew her before she came here with her husband?”

John smiled slowly “Someone’s been talking to you already -”

Nate inclined his head “Without malice, John. In our search for Nettie something was found…some jewellery.”

“Ingrid lost a lot of her jewellery, she was robbed by some man of most of what she had…”

“But she still kept some safe -”

“Yes, she did”

They lapsed into silence, Nate from curiosity and wondering how to find out more, and John from memories, some good, some bad. Both sighed at the same time.

“Ingrid was a very beautiful woman, you know.” John leaned forwards, his elbows on his knees and chin cupped in his hands, his face took on a dreamy expression “Once she set her eyes on you – well, she was like a very expensive wine, quite intoxicating.”

“And you were one of her conquests?”

“One of many” John smiled slowly and straightened his back “So I came here to help my Uncle and escape from her, I didn’t like cuckolding my friend Milton. He was a very decent man, didn’t deserve what he got from her.”

Nate inclined his head “But she caught up with you?”

“Yes, but there had been enough time for me to break free from the idiotic infatuation I had with her, and she didn’t like it. Anyway, after she lost most of what Milton had left to her in his will, she came back, worked as a saloon girl -”

“Did you ever see her jewellery?”

“What she had left you mean? Yes, a brooch or pendant thing, that she used as a bribe – “ he frowned “two young men, such a waste. Then she came to me and told me she was leaving town, I saw her jewellery on the dresser..”

“Can you describe it?”

“What? Now? After all this time?”

John sighed and saw the stern features of the sheriff looking back at him, he closed his eyes in an attempt to recall what he had seen, then gave a wry smile “Oddly enough I had a good close up of what was there as I was falling to the floor. She had stabbed me with a pair of scissors would you believe? Begging me to leave with her because she loved me, then stabbing me when I wouldn’t go.” his lips firmed, he narrowed his eyes “There were some bracelets, diamonds and sapphires. A necklace…I think rubies…they were red stones anyway..and some ear rings…sapphires and diamonds…oh, and the pair that were her favourite. I do remember them because she often – when we were together – she often wore them, said she would die rather than lose them. Opals and diamonds, on gold. Rather delicate.”

He blushed, leaving Nate in no doubt that John Martin would have plenty of close up views of those ear rings in their more intimate moments. He wondered why no one had seen fit to get rid of the woman years before, surely there had been plenty of times, plenty of means.

“I’m surprised she lived as long as she did…” he muttered laconically.

“Like bad wine, drink too much and you always end up with a hangover..” John smiled slowly.

Nate nodded and stood up, he looked at John and was about to speak when the Doctor asked how this had anything to do with Nettie, were they anywhere closer to finding her?

“In confidence, Doctor, all I can say is that I hope so….but everything we have is – well – frustratingly circumstantial. We’re chasing -”

“Ghosts?” John allowed a small smile to play over his mouth, after all, what else could one say about Ingrid, whatever she had been, that was all she was now, a memory, a ghost from their past now back to haunt them.

“This man who stole her jewellery and deeds to some property she had been left…did she ever tell you anything about him, what his name was ..anything at all?”

John rubbed his chin, shook his head “Nothing. I rather liked him, whoever he was, he beat Ingrid at her own game.”

“But he did go to France…”

“So far as I know…” he gestured towards the door and followed Nate, opened the door and watched as the tall sheriff stepped out into what had been Clemmie’s front garden. “He had a son, or nephew..I remember her mentioning that … she planned to track him down and -” he shrugged

“She didn’t, did she?”

“If she had, we would not know about it.” John replied and then stifled a yawn, “I am sorry, Nate. If there is anything else?”

“No, that’s all…for this morning anyway. If you could call in and just confirm that the ear rings I have in my possession were the ones you remember ..”

John nodded, he was so tired he almost fell asleep on the doorstep, nodding!

Chapter 34

The Muellers had been the caretakers of the way station at Goat Springs since old Toby had been shot. That long ago needless murder that had led to the exposure of a seemingly respectable businessman, and the duplicity of his pretty wife.

The four horsemen were welcomed by Mrs Mueller standing at the open door with a smile on her face, wiping her hands on her spotlessly clean apron. Laundry was already pegged onto a line and flapping about in the damp air.

“Good to see you folk again.” she stepped forward and nodded to each one of them in turn, gave Roy a friendly punch in the shoulder “How you doing, you old goat?”

Mrs Mueller was not the most feminine of women, considered herself more as one of the boys, but then in the business she and her husband were in, one could not afford to be a dainty miss, a ‘shrinking violet’. She had to be able to see to the horses if her man was ill or absent, manage to change a team and harness a new team to the stage, plus have food prepared for the passengers, keep the rooms clean for those who would have to stay overnight due to circumstances.

She slapped Hoss on the shoulder as he passed and observed that his wife obviously didn’t keep him on short rations, then added that she had stew and fresh bread ready, as she and her husband were about to eat.

“Why the visit?” she closed the door as they trooped in, cast off their hats and stretched their backs to get rid of the kinks in them.

“We’re looking for a missing girl…” Roy said and pulled out a chair “A young woman, about 17, 18, pretty girl, name of Nettie Groom.”

Mrs Mueller shook her head, and frowned, “Ain’t seen no pretty girl here, missing or not. None like that on the recent stages from town either..”

“We had kinda hoped you would have noticed if she had been on the Placerville stage…” Roy sighed “Where’s your husband?”

“Outside … we are running a business here, y’know, Roy Coffee -” she paused and frowned “Hoss Cartwright, you come away from that thar pan, you hear?”

“Jest checking, ‘Tilda.” he grinned like a small boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he had only lifted the lid to sniff at the stew, the smell had been tempting to a hungry man, and Hoss Cartwright was hungry.

She ambled over to where the plates were stacked and began to count out the number she required, bread was taken from the crock and placed on a large platter, put onto the table along with rich yellow butter. “Sit down, Fred will be here any minute and expecting his food on the table…”

Even as she spoke the door opened and Fred Mueller stepped inside. A large florid faced man, he was such a sharp contrast to the woman who looked like a bag of birds bones wrapped in a floral sack. He nodded to them all and then pulled out a chair, sat down and then asked them what was the reason for the visit.

“Eat first, Fred Mueller, and we’ll talk later.” his wife said as she began to ladle out stew onto the plates and place them down for each man there.

Adam and Joe shared a smile, a wink, and set to with an enthusiasm that matched Hoss’. Roy pulled at the bread and pasted it with butter. For some while there was only the sound of men eating heartily, the scrape of cutlery across the plates. From the stove came the hiss of the coffee pot as the coffee brewed, Matilda, at the head of the table, refilled plates and watched as the men satisfied their hunger. She picked at what she had on her plate, food had never held much appeal to her.

Finally plates were pushed aside, the men leaned back in their chairs, there were a few gratified burps. Fred stood up and moved to the chair by the fire, reached out a hand to get his pipe, and thumbed tobacco into the bowl. Matilda was on her feet clearing away the dishes and after some moments Roy, who as the older man and an ex lawman to boot, explained why they were there.

“Going back a bit, Fred. Need to get some information from you both.”

“Uh, what about?”

The three Cartwrights remained seated, each one struggling to suppress their impatience. Joe and Hoss now wondering whether they should have stayed in town, and Adam wishing that Roy would not beat about the bush so much. The old man stood up and reached for the coffee pot, poured out more coffee and then strolled over to where Fred was seated.

“1874 -” Roy announced

“What about it?”

“You had a passenger, a widow by name of Ingrid Buchanan. She died here, from an accident…”

Fred stared at the far wall, removed his pipe from his mouth and said nothing. Matilda refilled the coffee pot and began pouring it into the cups, she carried one over to her husband “The lady who fell and cracked her head open. I remember that all right, so do you, Fred.”

Fred nodded “That’s right, never had an accident like that happen before…but then why was she wandering around in the pitch black like she was?”

Roy nodded “Her body was sent to Placerville -”

“That’s right, along with her possessions. Sheriff Garvey was sheriff there at the time, and he dealt with it all.”

“Was she the only passenger..” Adam now asked, getting a black look from Roy as a result, “And when her body went to Placerville, did anyone accompany it?”

“Not customary to carry dead bodies like that, but Sheriff Garvey insisted.” he puffed on his pipe and shrugged, frowned and looked at his wife “It’ll be in the record book. We have to record all our passengers. I don’t know if there were any other passengers though…”

“You wouldn’t,” Matilda grumbled as she went to a large cabinet in the corner of the room “You were totally dazzled by that woman.” she unlocked and glanced over the slim red spines of many books that held the records for the way station, finally she leaned forward and plucked the relevant one out “”She was beautiful, you know. The kind of looks that would quieten down a crowded room. Fred was fair smitten, weren’t you?”

He raised his shoulders in such a high shrug that they reached his ears. He stabbed the air with his pipe, “I recall we had one passenger, don’t know if he was the only one but he was the one that couldn’t take his eyes off’n her. Went and sat down by her side if I recall rightly.”

“What was he like?” Adam asked, leaving Roy with his mouth open which he promptly shut.

“Can’t recall..” Fred said, “See a lot of faces, they come and go, you know, drift into our lives and then ride on out.”

Joe sighed audibly, and glanced over at Hoss. This, he felt was going nowhere, and a waste of time . He picked up a cup of coffee and cradled it between his fingers.

Matilda opened the book and thumbed her way through the pages, running her eye down each page . Silence grew heavy as they waited. She finally passed the book over to Roy and stabbed at the relevant section

“We had to write down all the details about the accident. But as you can see there weren’t no other passengers. I made a note here that the driver had dropped off a couple on the way to Goat Springs because they were meeting someone who was going to take ’em to their new home. That way the records in Virginia City would not seem out of kilter with what we had here..only two passengers here, you see, but in town they would have put down as four passengers leaving for Placerville.”

“Uh-huh,” Roy nodded and stabbed his finger at a name “David McArthur.”

Matilda nodded as she stared at the writing over Roy’s shoulder, “David McArthur.” she said to Fred, who nodded as though he hadn’t heard it the first time, then they looked at one another. Roy cleared his throat “What do you remember about him, apart from being smitten by the widow.”

“Was he fat, thin, old, young…?” Joe said, wishing they would get a move on, wishing that he were back at the Bucket of Blood saloon having a beer with Hoss.

“Young. Good looking.” Matilda said, “Not that I recall his looks, just that when I saw him talking to her so attentive like, I thought what a good looking couple they made.”

“I don’t recall ..” Fred shrugged

“You wouldn’t, you were too busy looking at her.”

“Yeah, well, she didn’t look so pretty when we found her the next morning, and that’s a fact. That young chap was nearly in tears. Yes, I recall now he was young.” he got to his feet and arched his back, then straightened up, “I thought he was a preacher, he had a Bible with him, seemed to be talking to her about something from the book.”

“That’s right, so he was…but she wasn’t having anything to do with it, got up and demanded to be shown her room.”

“How did he react to that, was he annoyed?” Adam now asked and watched as the older couple stared at one another, tried to recapture the evening before Ingrid Buchanan died.

“I went out to talk to the driver and co-rider. Ain’t my affair the social side of things…” Fred muttered and puffed his pipe again.

“I don’t recall.” Matilda said

“Can you give a better description of him, Matilda. Was he good looking, did he have – well – a scar on his face or a wart on his nose?” Joe glanced as Roy just rolled his eyes at him.

“He was young, not bad looking, as I said they made a pleasant looking couple. But it was some years ago, I can’t remember all the faces that come and go here any more than Fred can…only the regulars, and he wasn’t a regular. He just went on to Placerville with the body.”

“Was she wearing any jewellery?” Joe now asked and Roy humphed and muttered under his breath as he saw his investigation being taken out of his hands.

“No.” Matilda looked blank faced for a moment as she struggled to remember once again some features from the past of a couple that had only mattered because of a tragic death. “I don’t recall..I’m sorry.”

“She had a bag with her though….?” Joe continued

“Yes, she did, wouldn’t let it out of her sight either. I do recall that, kept it close. I remember nearly tripping over the darn thing one time, but she didn’t move it.”

They lapsed into silence as though they had exhausted every avenue they could. Each of them drank their coffee and then stood up, Matilda followed them to the door and watched as they picked up their hats, and then left the building.

“If I remember anything I’ll give a note to the driver to bring in for ya.” she promised as they trooped by her and made their way to their horses.

Fred stood close to the corral where the horses for the stage were kept, each one standing at the fence to watch the other horses, perhaps they had had a conversation about the hardship of life on a way station, for horses were curious animals. He raised a hand as the Cartwrights and Roy trotted out of the yard, and into the main road leading back to town.

Matilda shook her head, frowned. She had always thought that night when the lovely lady died would come back to haunt them, and now she was proven right. She stood there and watched the horsemen ride away and tried to recapture the features of the man called David McArhur but it didn’t help. All she could have said was that he was just nice looking, ordinary, didn’t stand out in crowd.

……………….

Nettie was tired of the room she was sleeping in even though it was a hundred times better than the location of her last confinement. She had freedom to move about, the bed was comfortable, the furnishings attractive, the view from the window of trees and nothing more. But she was still locked in. The door rattled when she shook it, but it didn’t open.

She was hungry too. He had said he would bring her some food later but the time was ticking away and there had been no sign of him. He had kissed her and loved her, told her how much he cared, but – and that was it really, that ‘but’.

He had said it was because who ever had taken her was still ‘out there’. Her parents were in fear of her life, had begged him to keep her safe. Despite her pleas to be taken to her home he had told her he couldn’t, he was under orders from the Sheriff, from her family…her life was in danger, did she not realise ? The whole reason he had brought her to ‘safety’, to this house, was to protect her.

Nettie could not see it that way. Finding the door locked had frightened her. She had given way to panic and screamed. Screamed until no sound came from her throat and she had just crumpled down onto the floor and wept.

Chapter 35

The sky seemed to hang heavily over the town as Roy and Adam made their way to the Sheriff’s building. They had parted from Hoss and Joe earlier, reaching Ponderosa boundaries the two younger men made their way to where there was still work to be done. As far as Joe was concerned going to the Mueller’s had been a waste of time, although Hoss reminded him that they had enjoyed a good meal while there.

Nate Carney was more than pleased to see them both and rose to his feet to shake their hands, then beckon to some chairs.

“Dr Chandler will be here soon. I’m glad you’re here, Adam, you can tell him more about what happened, he’ll no doubt have questions – “ he smiled tightly, lips drawn across his teeth, and he lowered himself into his chair with a frown “Did your journey reveal anything?”

Adam and Roy exchanged a glance. Adam rubbed his nose and grimaced while Roy rubbed his knees with his old man’s hands and wished they didn’t ache so much. It was Roy who spoke up,

“We found out some details that could be linked to Nettie, and Mrs Chandler. Whether it will help with the search for her – for Nettie – is another thing altogether.” he bowed his head, and stared at the papers on Nate’s desk. He recognised Hoss’ scrawl, and sighed.

“We have another name that could be a suspect -may be not – could be our imaginations have run away with us, or it’s just a case of living in hope, but the Muellers told us about the only other passenger on the stage from Virginia City to Placerville was a man, young, good looking, seemed like some kind of preacher…”

“Why would he be relevant..?” Nate asked immediately, seeing time being consumed on another futile search for another invisible entity.

“Because when Ingrid Buchanan left here she had valuable jewellery in her bag, she died seemingly from a fall onto some boulders, in the dark in the night and when she and her possessions arrived at Placerville, her bag no longer contained any jewellery.” Roy’s voice, his words, were punched out, staccato fashion, as though he couldn’t understand why Nate had been unable to see the obvious, and had to have each word nailed into place.

Nates eyes locked onto Adams, both raised their eyebrows, and then Nate leaned back into his chair,

“The ear rings were among the things she had taken with her -” Nate said quietly.

“Never to be seen again until found where Mrs Chandler was imprisoned, killed….” Roy pursed his lips, “I’ve been trying to recall a preacher here at that time by the name David McArthur, but can’t for the life of me recall a face, a person. But he was on that stage…and at the Muellers …when Ingrid Buchanan died.”

Nate caught his breath, a sharp intake, and his eyes widened “Do you think – just perhaps –

that Ingrid Buchanan’s death was not as accidental as it seemed?”

Roy narrowed his eyes, removed his spectacles and raised his eyebrows. His eyes were suddenly piercingly blue, and he nodded “Wouldn’t surprise me one bit …”

Nate turned to Adam and was about to ask the same question of him when the door opened. Dr Chandler accompanied by Marshall Howard stepped into the building. The three other men rose to their feet, acknowledged the newcomers with a nod of the head, a shake of the hand. Roy muttered that he would leave them to it, and wandered off. Both Adam and Nate knew he would be cross examining all the pastors and preachers in town.

Dr Chandler sat down, rather collapsed and folded himself onto a chair as though his legs could no longer support his body. The Marshall pulled a chair closer to the desk and nodded at Adam and then sat down, a heavy man landing heavily.

“You found – you have some – information – about Rosemary?” Chandlers voice came in a series of words pushed out in short bursts as though he lacked the lung capacity to complete a full sentence.

Nate nodded and pulled open a drawer from which he withdrew the box in which he had placed the ear rings earlier. He placed the box onto the desk, and seeing the two pairs of eyes fasten upon it he carefully raised the lid

“Dr Chandler, do you recognise these?”

Hal Chandler gazed down upon the ear rings, as beautiful at that present moment as the day Milton Buchanan presented them to his betrothed. But Hal’s expression was wooden, he stared, and then raised his eyes “Why? Are they significant?”

Nate frowned, he had not been expecting that answer and flashed a glance over to Adam who cleared his throat.

“We found one at the location where your wife had been kept a prisoner …the other at the location where she was killed. From what we could see she had been kept alive, for some weeks, a prisoner before -” he sighed and frowned “One of the ear rings had blood on it, the way it had been positioned for someone to find, appears deliberate.”

“She knew she was going to be killed?” Howard muttered, and bowed his head.

“She had no where to go, Marshall. She had been shot in the leg, weak, unable to run any further.

But she tried to let us know by leaving the jewellery.” Nate glanced from one to the other, his gaze settled on Hal Chandler “So, as I asked earlier, did you recognise these ear rings?”

Hal shook his head “No, I’ve never seen them before in my life.” he leaned in for a better closer look, “Are they real diamonds?”

“Opals and diamonds .” Nate murmured

Hal shook his head again “I could never afford anything like that, probably cost a years salary.”

He looked at the Marshall, then at the Sheriff, rubbed a hand over his eyes. They were blood shot and red rimmed, he obviously still felt the loss of his wife deeply, the pain was still raw.

“I didn’t know she had a lover, another man, but this jewellery…I could never have afforded anything like it, and I don’t know anyone of our acquaintance who could have done.” he licked his lips, and rubbed his face again, “This is turning into a nightmare.”

“The other girl,” Marshall Howard asked “has she been found yet?”

“No” Nate shook his head, drew in his breath and put the lid back onto the box, slipped it into the drawer. “Dr Chandler, you said you didn’t know anyone who could have afforded these ear bobs? But if you think hard enough….is there anyone at all in Carson City that you could think of, who could have done? Not a friend or acquaintance, someone you didn’t know well, if at all…just a man who lived in town whom you would have passed in the street and made you feel that – well, just perhaps he knew you better than you realised.”

Hal stared at Nate, then slowly shook his head , “I can’t think of anyone .. no one who would be interested in us, in Rosie.”

“But yet, someone was..enough to give her those ear rings as a gift?” Nate pressed forward, and his eyes glared at Hal to such an extent that the poor man blushed, shook his head and then looked plaintively at the Marshall.

“Where was she? Where had she been kept?” Howard now asked and Nate nodded over to Adam to give the details which he did, as honestly as he could without making the victim’s husband break down into tears.

There were questions, inevitably so, which Adam answered with his full sympathy for the Doctor. After half an hour had passed Howard stood up, followed by Hal, “Well, if that’s all, if we could go? We may be able to catch the next train back to Carson City.”

Nate glanced at the clock, nodded and apologised, “I needed verification about the ear rings, I’m sorry to have -”

“No,” Hal picked up his hat and shook his head “No, don’t apologise. I would move heaven and earth to find who killed my Rosie. A mere train journey is nothing…. “ he paused “Why would anyone give her such an expensive gift and then do what he did to her? He must be a mad man!”

The door closed upon them, a gust of cold air drifted into the room riffling the papers on Nate’s desk. He looked at Adam who was staring at the door as though he could see through it and was watching the two men walking down the street.

“Well, is he right? Do you think our killer is a mad man?”

Adam hauled in a deep breath, shook his head “I don’t know, Nate. I don’t know.”

Nate threw down his pencil and stood up, he walked around the side of his desk and glared at the territorial map, then looked at Adam “Mark out the place for me ..and Mueller’s way station too ..”

Adam marked the relevant areas and then both men stepped back to observe the map, Adam tapped at where the McCrieff’s cabin and land was positioned “Whoever he is, he knew the territory well enough to have rid himself of a dog some days prior to killing Mrs Chandler. He knew it well enough to know about the old mine at Harringtons place. It’s as if he has paced out the area well before hand.”

“A local man then?”

“Could be,” Adam nodded.

“And – do you think that this David McArthur from years ago could have returned? Come back to start picking off young women hereabouts, and in Carson City.”

“I don’t know, Nate, but the train certainly cuts down on time, it makes a murder and a getaway far easier.”

“You don’t feel in your bones that it could be the good Doctor?”

Adam shook his head “Nope.”

“No, nor do I. Poor man, he’s suffering agonies..” he drew in his breath and coughed “This man, the one at Mueller’s way station, do you think he could possibly be here?”

“Nate, I don’t know. I’ve heard how some murderers like to return to the scene of the crime, but always thought it was earlier on, to make sure they had not left any incriminating evidence …” he paused and looked at Nate “Do you think he would be wondering what happened to those ear rings by now”

They looked at one another, then Nate nodded “They usually return to make sure they’ve not left any clues behind. I’ll get Fletch to keep a watch on the place.

“As for a connection with McArthur – it has been some years since Ingrid Buchanan was here, and died at Mueller’s way station. Roy may find out more, then you can speculate about that and see if it fits the puzzle.”

………………………

It was dark by the time Roy Coffee pushed open the door of his house and closed it carefully behind him. He placed his hat on the hall stand along with his jacket, unbuckled his gun belt, and wrapped it slowly, thoughtfully, round so that the holster was snug within its centre.

The lamp was glowing a warm welcome and he made his way slowly into the sitting room where the fire still burned. He was tired. Most times he did not like to give way to his age, he knew that Ben Cartwright would be doing the same, resisting the inroads ageing made, but just sometimes one had to submit to its cruel authority.

He sat down and stretched out his legs. He removed his spectacles and placed them carefully on the table nearly, then he closed his eyes. He rubbed his face and sighed, he could smell the food that his housekeeper had left in a warm oven ready for his supper. But, for now, he had to think …

Nate was a good sheriff, he told himself, he had ‘the nose’ for the job, and the gut too. A good lawman had to learn to rely on his ‘gut’ It seemed to Roy’s gut that David McArthur, whoever he was, had returned to town. For some reason he was walking the streets of Virginia City. Whoever he is, or was, he was still out there.

The next question had to be – why? After all these years, why had he come back?

Surely not to pluck a young obscure seamstress from her home?

Chapter 36

A week had worn itself away, minutes remorselessly ticked down the hours, days, and brought them to the weeks ending. Despite renewed efforts to locate Nettie there had been nothing found and now Nate was beginning to turn his thoughts to the passenger who had accompanied Ingrid Buchanan on her last journey.

He stretched out his legs towards the fire and bowed his head. Deep in thought though he was he could hear Roy moving, his breathing. The fire crackled and a log split into pieces sending sparks glowing up the chimney as it did so.

“Did you find out anything about this David McArthur, Roy?”

The old man looked sharply over at the Sheriff and frowned, the listless tone of his voice was a clear indication that the man was giving up, feeling that everything he did had been a waste of time. Roy knew from experience it was not good to give in to negative thinking. He hauled in a deep breath, his lungs wheezing as he did so, the colder air was affecting his chest.

“I asked around to everywhere I’d have thought a Preacher man would have gone, but no one had seen nor heard from him, not then up to now. I was sheriff here then, but can’t for the life of me recall a man of that name hereabouts.” he frowned and tapped his mouth with his forefinger, “But there was a lot going on then you have to understand. He could have been here for weeks and we would not have known.”

“Do you think it was a false name, an alias?”

“Possible.” Roy now tugged at his moustache, which remained as wiry as the bristles on his housekeepers scrubbing brush “I asked the stagecoach depots to look back in their records too…”

“And?” Nate raised his eyes and felt guilty, he had not as yet thought of doing that and wished that he had.

“There was a man by that name left here for Placerville, on the same day as Mrs Buchanan. But he came from San Francisco, this was just a pass through point.”

“Which explains why you got no information on him ..” Nate pulled a downturn of the mouth and sighed, his chin rested upon his chest “I had hoped to have found her by now.”

“Do you think it possible that she could have left town, gone away from here?”

“Do you, Roy?”

“I do wonder. By now there should have been something but all we got was some other young dead woman. Nary a sign of Nettie…”

“No….” Nate shook his head. “And I’m no further along with that enquiry either ..”

They stared into the fire for a few more moments and then Nate heaved himself up, “I’m getting too comfortable here. I’m going to cable Sheriff Garvey, see if he has any information there about this McArthur.”

Roy nodded, and leaned further back into his chair. He folded his hands over his stomach and pursed his lips, nodded again but continued to stare into the fire.

……………..

Adam Cartwright set down the letters and spread the pages of each one of them across his desk. Answers to the enquiries he had sent out some while back. There were still one or two outstanding, and he wondered whether to send a telegram to each of them to remind them that he needed answers.

He sighed and moved them as one would move the cards that had been dealt out from a pack. Which one would be giving him a best advantage, which was the Ace, which the Jack? But there had been neither one or the other of those among the letters he had received about Christopher Orr.

Comes from a good family background. Financially sound. The years here at college were not brilliant, but he was a good stolid worker, and always punctual.

Pish, as though time keeping were of any importance.

Christopher Orr had a small group of friends, apart from them he kept himself much to himself. He was very popular with the young women and there was one time when he got involved in a duel. It was quite a scandal and his father succeeded in covering it up, and removing him for the rest of the semester. He returned duly chastened and concentrated on his studies.

A duel over a lady, huh? Not surprising…but Adam ground his teeth at the thought, even though it recalled a moment in his own life when he had been equally as stupid and rash.

I recall Christopher Orr as a diligent student, not exactly a brilliant one but he got results from a dogged determination to succeed. He has a sharp intellect, can be witty and charming. I always found him a very likeable guest, although he had his dark moments. I believe he was good friends with Booth Phillips at one point. There was a scandal but it was covered up by his father. He was if I recall rightly, a wonderful actor. Always took the lead roles and was part of the Dramatic society at College. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more about him, but there were far more illustrious students than Christopher Orr ”

Someone had their facts wrong, by all accounts he was friendly with Robert Phillips, not Booth. He picked up the page and read it through again, then with a shrug of the shoulders let the paper drift back to fall among the others.

Not one of his informants could give him any facts about Orr from the moment he had left college. His information was useless. He walked to the window and stared out, to dull grey skies and the miserable reminder that winter was making its chill inroads upon them.

……………….

Hester held Erik in her arms and looked around the little house, no longer a ramshackle cabin now.

She smiled at Hoss who was looking proudly at her, as though he expected to receive a medal of some sort for actually managing to prise them all away from the Ponderosa for this weekend.

Hannah and Hope stood side by side, little fingers curled around the little finger of the other, it was their secret way of solidarity, of knowing that they were together, sisters through thick or thin. Both were feeling a sense of excitement, and both wore wide smiles on their faces. This was a weekend of adventures and exploration.

“Can we go outside now, Pa?” Hannah asked with her blue eyes sparkling and hoping that she and Hope would not have to take Erik with them. Of course they loved him, but he was still only a baby, well, a toddler, but it made dull play when they had to stop and pick him up, or not go so fast because his legs were too short to catch up.

“Please Pa, Ma?” wheedled Hope and she tightened her little finger around Hannahs’ because she was thinking just the same thing, about Erik, who always slowed down their play

Hoss nodded and flapped his hands at them as though shoo-ing away a couple of hens and they laughed, turned and ran out of the door and into the leafless woodland beyond. They didn’t hear Hester call out ‘Be Careful’ although they both knew that she would because she was a mother after all, and she always did warn them to be careful, because she knew that things could happen and in a way saying those two words seemed to assure her that her little girls would come home safe and sound.

Erik did not protest, he was comfortable and warm. He allowed himself to be set down in a chair and proceeded to watch as his father and mother embraced, held each other close and tenderly kissed. He yawned and was nearly asleep by the time Hoss decided he would make a fire and Hester took things into another room to unpack.

…………………

The man had kissed Nettie’s cold lips and told her she was going to be alright. Things were working out well, and soon she would be able to leave the room.

“Have you been comfortable here?” he had asked and she had bowed her head and whispered “I just want to go home.”

Well, if that was what she had wanted that was what she would have…so when he left her, after he had kissed her and politely thanked her, he had left the door unlocked.

Now he waited with his rifle in position, the stock against his shoulder, his eyes looking down the sights and waited for her to emerge, got a sight of her caught within the cross-hairs.

………………

Reuben had enjoyed his time with Jimmy C Evans. Now they sauntered through town with their hands in their pockets, Jimmy was whistling and Reuben was thinking of the fuss his sister had created because he had been brought into town when she had had to stay home. He had ridden Max jouncing along the track beside his father who was riding Sport, an old favourite of the family.

It was a bit unfair, Reuben thought to himself, that his sister missed out coming to town with them, but she had woken with a sore throat and a headache so Olivia had decided to keep her in the warm, where she could sit by the fire and get better.

Reuben was not sure how just sitting by a fire doing nothing could get rid of sore throats and headaches, but perhaps it would work. Cheng Ho Ling had promised to make the little girl some special cordial that would make her feel so much better very quickly. It had not sweetened Sofia’s mood and she had burst into a bout of tears which Olivia said was silly of her as it would make her head ache worse.

As usual, Mother was right.

Now the two boys sauntered through town, jingling coins in their pockets which their obliging fathers had given them, with the admonition not to cause any trouble. Well, that loomed as soon as Davy Riley appeared from a side alley with a grin on his face, “Where ya going?”

“Oh no where in particular,” Reuben replied and looked at Tommy who had remained silent.

“I’m going fishing down by the river. Want to come?”

The other two boys shrugged, Jimmy asked where had Tommy got to as he was usually with Davy but the undertaker’s son just pulled a face and said he didn’t know. The three boys made their way through town to open country, Davy observed it would have made things quicker if they had been able to go on Reuben’s horse, but he got no response to that so had to just continue on ‘shanks pony’.

………………………

The man liked to pose his victims. He had a creative mind after all, whether he imitated art, or poetry, all was the same for him.

He lifted Nettie into his arms and carried her to the little vessel and very carefully settled her into it, draping her garments just so, and crossing her arms over her chest. He lifted up her curls and allowed them to drop upon her shoulders, then stepped back and observed her for a moment.

Long ago he had visited Italy, and been charmed by the beauty of Florence, where he had read the short noveletta Donna di Scalotti, a hundred short stories in which one had been inspired by the tragic story of Elaine of Astolat, stranded in a tower because of her love for Sir Lancelot Now he looked down at her and wondered if Nettie Groom was as beautiful as he imagined the fated lady in the turret.

He was sad at the thought that there were no flowers at this time of year to cast around her, or garland her pretty hair which he had arranged so prettily. Still, enough was enough, he gave the boat a little push and watched as it slowly, very slowly, left the bank of the river and was caught up by the current into mid stream. He watched it for a while and then turned his feet into the direction of the house. He had to check his tracks, remove traces of their presence there. It had been bad enough finding out about Mrs Chandler (dear Rosemary, so pretty in her last moments) and her last resting place. He had to hope that nothing significant, nothing at all could lead back to him, could be found there.

He would make sure there was nothing found in the house that had once belonged to a pompous mine owner who had been murdered in the very same room that had been Nettie’s resting place for the past few weeks.

……………

Jimmy kicked a pebble too and fro, passing it over to Reuben who kicked it back. Davy’s plan to go fishing had, as usual, fallen awry. For a start he had no rod, and then he discovered he had forgotten to bring a knife so was unable to cut a branch from a shrub to even make one..plus no string. Jimmy had told Davy he was hopeless which had resulted in Davy losing his temper and sulking. Reuben had decided that he would have been better off without Davy and wished the other boy would just ‘clear off’.

Now they started skimming stones across the water. Davy was quite good at this, not as good as he had been in the spitting contest, but pretty reasonable. Jimmy and Reuben were quite equal at it, and took time to pick out good flat stones that would bounce and skim farther than any Davy would find. Of course Davy got annoyed about that too, and stalked off to find some stones of his own that would be better than theirs.

Time passed and Reuben was about to suggest that they went back to town, and spend some of their money when Davy appeared running across the tussocky grass and waving his arms “Come and see what I found…”

The other two boys groaned inwardly, looked at each other and then followed him, He pointed to the old boat drifting down, sometimes caught in an eddy and spinning a little to the left, to the right.

It’s just an old boat.” Jimmy said and sighed, put his hands in his pockets and jingled his money as a reminder to Reuben that they had other plans.

Davy declared it was not any old boat, and threw some stones at it, they all missed of course. But then Reuben and Jimmy did the same, cheering if they heard a clunk sound as a stone hit the side of the vessel.

Deputy Fletcher was passing close by and heard them yelling, and cheering. He smiled, recalling times when he had himself been just another wild towns boy. He walked towards the sound of the boys and being on an incline was able to look down at the boys so that he could identify them should any damage be done. He smiled again at the sight of them skimming, or throwing stones.

Then he raised his eyes and looked at the boat. From his vantage point he could see that there was someone in the boat, just lying at the bottom, he could also see that it was slowly filling with water.

He panicked, what was he to do…he was on his own, no one else in sight but those boys….he began to run down the bank, yelling and shouting “Stop that..stop throwing those stones.”

Yah, it’s only old Fletch.” Davy sniggered and with a hoot lobbed another stone across the river.

It went thunnk against the boats side, the currant caused the boat to spin a little, dip a little …

Stop that…Reuben, go and get the Sheriff…go now…Riley, if you throw another stone I’ll get your Pa to give you a thrashing…get the Sheriff, there’s someone in the boat….”

His hat was rolling haphazardly as the wind caught it, as he ran he was pulling off his boots, one flung to one side and then to the other. He saw Reuben and Jimmy running towards town, running pass him with anxious frightened faces. Billy Riley was standing open mouthed and as he passed Fletcher yelled “Go and get a doctor.”

The next thing he knew was the cold water embracing him, he gasped for breath, swallowed water, spat it out….he looked around him, fixed his eyes on the boat and began to swim like a crazy man

Chapter 37

There was quite a small crowd in the waiting room of the ward where Nettie had been taken. Mr and Mrs Groom sat side by side like a pair of bookends without any books between them so that they leaned one against the other. Both red eyed, both haggard and grey faced and holding hands as tightly as they may have done when courting. Now tears trickled endlessly down Mrs Grooms cheeks which she scrubbed at every so often with an increasingly soggy handkerchief.

Daniel deQuille stood in a corner in an attempt to conceal himself, his notebook and pencil ready for any comments the Doctor would be making. Nate paced the floor, hands behind his back and his chin resting on his chest. He kept glancing over at the Grooms and feeling embarrassed, awkward. They should have found Nettie before this …he knew it, and he felt that they knew it too.

Bridie was there with a comforting hand on Mrs Grooms shoulder. She had hurried from the Hospice as soon as she had noticed the small crowd gathering around the hospital, and heard the whispers “Nettie’s been found.” “Nettie’s dead, found on the river”

But Nettie was not dead. Had she been so then they would have taken her to the morgue, not carried her carefully to the hospital for attention and medical care. Deputy Fletcher had been escorted into the hospital as well. Was he a suspect ? But no, it seemed he was suffering from the effects of jumping into the freezing cold water and swallowing more than he should have done while he swam to the boat and attempted single handedly to manoeuvre it to the bank. Several men had come in response to the boy’s yells and shouts. They had waded in and given all the assistance he needed for the last push.

The boys had done well, running to get the necessary help, so that Dr John Martin was soon by the girls side after she had been lifted gently from the boat and laid upon the wild grasses that grew along the river bank. They had all made the same assumption, that she was dead, after so long away died from malnutrition perhaps? When John had said that she was breathing, that there was a pulse, a ripple of a sigh trickled through those gathered there and it was John who had lifted her into his arms and carried her, all the way from the river to the hospital.

A pulse. And breathing. Other than that she could have been a corpse.

……….

Reuben, Davy and Jimmy sat uncomfortably in the Sheriff’s office. All of them felt nervous, but only out of excitement . They couldn’t keep their legs still, their feet clattered on the floor boards as a result and Mark Watts had to tell them to keep still while he took down their statements.

They were annoyed at having to stay inside and give the Deputy a statement of events. They would far rather be outside and finding out what was happening. Reuben wanted to find his Pa so that he could tell him all about what had happened, about Nettie and how she had looked like some picture out of one of Sofia’s fairy stories. He heard Jimmy tell Mark Watts that Nettie looked like the sleeping beauty and winced, but then that was what he had thought too, just that he would not have said so, not to a Deputy!

………….

Adam leaned back in the chair and tipped it as far as it could go against the wall. He had sent off his telegrams to several other contacts he had, and had been to the hardware to order more barbed wire. He had been to the Hospice and chatted to Barbara and had coffee with her, Lilith had appeared and they had discussed Jules Vernes ‘Mysterious Island’ which he had loaned the girl as he had promised.

Now he sat back and prepared to enjoy a glass of beer. He was half smiling to himself at some vague thought, at the memory of Hoss and Joe arguing about who was going to the cabin that weekend and finally ending up with the short straw – or in this case the shorter match – . Joe gave in gracefully and said Mary Ann would enjoy taking time off the following weekend. Adam had ruined that idea by reminding him that Pa had decided that weekend to be used to secure the bridge over Miller’s Creek.

May I?”

He glanced up, a lazy sweep of the eyes and his half smile tightened as Christopher Orr looked down at him. He straightened himself up, the chair clamped down on all four legs and from under the table he stretched one leg to push forward the chair opposite him. He nodded and indicated the available chair. Orr raised his eyebrows and pulled the chair further away from the table and sat down. Adam signalled to Fargo, the barkeep, to provide the drink, and then waited.

Orr leaned back and smiled “Good to have this chance to talk, Adam …or should I call you Mr Cartwright? Have I been here long enough to step over the line and call you Adam, after all, your wife does not object to my calling her Olivia.”

Adam turned to look over at Fargo as the man brought over the glass of beer, it gave him the chance to control his face, although his cheeks reddened at the mention of Olivia. Fargo set down the glass upon the table “Anything else for you, Captain?”

About the only man in town who preferred to call him that, and the only man in town that Adam didn’t object to doing so. He shook his head and Fargo ambled back to the bar. He then turned back to Orr and gave him a smile, it didn’t reach the eyes but the man couldn’t expect everything !

“How long have you been here now, Mr Orr?” he picked up his glass and hugged it against his chest, almost mentally erecting a barrier between himself and the man opposite.

“Long enough to realise that you don’t like me very much…” Orr replied with studied nonchalance as he picked up his beer

“Hmm,” Adam sighed and drank some of the beer, “I don’t know you enough to know if I like or dislike you, Mr Orr.”

“Oh, but, Mr Cartwright, I think we both know that isn’t true. You’re a man who sums up a person pretty quickly, and judges accordingly.”

Adam pursed his lips and lowered his glass, in the past he had trusted his instincts and been wrong, but – he shrugged – perhaps not this time.

“Oh, I’ve been told I’m not a very good judge of character.,” he looked at Orr again, intently, and narrowed his eyes “I think I must have been away when you first arrived here?”

“I believe you were.” Orr half closed his eyes and studied the man opposite beneath hooded lids, he drank some beer. “Have to say, business is booming. As a Defence Lawyer I’ve been kept pretty busy here. Seems things have been a trifle lax in the legal sense, but not now, I like to keep – what you would call – a tight ship.”

“Hmm.” Adam replied and emptied his glass, he raised his eye brows and was about to speak when the bat wings were flung open and Mr Garston burst inside “She’s been found. Nettie Groom has been found.”

A clamour of noise. Yells about whether she was alive or dead. So much noise that no one heard what Garston said at first but the cheers indicated a positive response. Now the saloon began to empty as people trickled out to gather around the hospital or the sheriff’s office.

Adam stood up, and leaned across to pick up his hat “If they ever find her killer, Mr Orr, you may miss out on defending him. .. could be something of a lynch mob instead…”

Orr smiled, a cold bland smile, that didn’t reach his eyes either. “That’s what I mean, Mr Cartwright, the law around here has been allowed to get sloppy. If you ever find the killer, then I’ll defend him, that’s my job.”

………………

The Doctor pushed open the door of the room where they had taken Nettie. Mr Groom was on his feet like the proverbial jack in the box. Mrs Groom’s legs were shaking so much that she wasn’t sure if she could put any weight on them.

“You can go in and sit with her if you wish….” the Doctor said quietly and opened the door more widely for the couple to pass through. The door closed immediately upon them.

“How is she?” deQuille asked just as Nate had opened his mouth to say the same

“She’s alive – but only just, and to be honest I can’t guarantee that she will survive the day, then again she may do, and – “ he paused “There was a gun shot to the leg, beneath her knee. It passed clear through the flesh. But there was an attempt to strangle her. It failed to kill her but there was enough pressure to prevent oxygen reaching the brain, which is worrying because if she does recover, its possible she will have no memory of the event. She may not even have a memory left of anything, depends on how badly starved of oxygen the brain has been …” he released a sigh, “In layman’s terms she is lucky to be alive, but it won’t be until she regains consciousness that we will be able to see just how lucky !”

“Apart from that, any other injuries?” Nate asked and then wished he hadn’t…he shot a glance over at deQuille who was paying close attention.

The Doctor just shook his head, excused himself and strode back into the ward room,. DeQuille smiled and closed his note book, glanced at Nate and asked him if he could tell him where Fletcher was so that he could be interviewed. The hero of the hour…

………………

Nate returned to the office deep in thought. So she had been found at last, but where had she been?

Whereabouts had she been shot, and whereabouts along the river would she have been placed in that boat?

He stepped aside to let three boys run past him, heard them yell and whoop as they jumped down into the road, and ran, scattering here and there like mice when a cat had been let loose. He watched and smiled, then closed the door.

Mark Watts glanced up and vacated the big chair, he tapped the desk where the statements of the boys had been left and strolled over to make some coffee. “Good thing they were there…”

Nate nodded and flicked his hat onto the hat stand, then sat down, loosening the buttons on his coat.

“She would have died if those boys had not seen her.” he said quietly

“It was Fletcher who saw her, the boys couldn’t see anything, it was only when Fletcher came down running and shouting about someone in the boat…they’d been throwing stones at it. But yeah, she would not have lasted much longer, either the boat would have sunk or she would have hit the rapids further along …”

“We could have been looking for weeks more before her body would have been washed up down river.” he sighed and picked up the statements, nodded his thanks to Mark for the cup of coffee placed on the desk. He read each page and then frowned, “Sleeping Beauty.”

“What?”

“That’s what one of the boys said…she looked like sleeping beauty, and another says she looked like a picture from a story book.”

Mark nodded, and sat down opposite his boss. He narrowed his eyes “So?”

“So she was posed. Someone took time to arrange her body, set it adrift….” he frowned “She was meant to be found otherwise all that display would have been for nothing. She was not meant to go down in the river or over the rapids…she was meant to be found, just like Mrs Chandler had been.”

“So -” Mark drew in his breath “We’re looking for someone who reads fairy stories?”

“which makes one wonder who was Mrs Chandler posed to look like…” Nate sighed and shook his head, “One thing for sure, we need to catch him before he finds another victim,”

“You sure he’s responsible for two deaths? Could be that they arn’t linked….”

“Three deaths…at least three deaths.” Nate murmured and buried his face in his coffee mug.

He had to think…

Chapter 38

It was Jimmy who saw Adam first, stepping from the Silver Dollar Saloon and onto the side walk

and standing, looking around him as though the discovery of Nettie Groom had somehow shifted the planet on its orbit.

“There- Reuben – your Pa!” he yelled and grabbed his friend by the elbow, pointing over to where Adam stood.

“Pa. Pa.”

Adam turned with a slow smile lingering on his lips as he saw his son and Jimmy running excitedly towards him, eyes shining, faces ruddy with excitement “Pa ..Pa..you’ll never guess what happened?”

“We found her, Mr Cartwright, we found Nettie Groom.” Jimmy yelled and drew in his breath, as the smile slipped from Adams face to be replaced by a more serious look, the brows furrowed over dark eyes

“You found Nettie?” he said quietly, and squatted down a little so that he could look them both in the eyes, “Whereabouts?”

He placed a hand on each of their shoulders, and they nodded and grinned up at him, Reuben swallowed in order to say as much as possible before Jimmy could butt in

“We found her in a boat. We went to do some fishing and then we were skimming stones on the river and then this boat came along and we started throwing rocks at it.”

“It was just an old boat, Mr Cartwright. “ Jimmy explained quickly

Adam nodded, switching his eyes from one boy to the other, Reuben nodded “Yeah, it was just old and it had holes in it anyway so we threw stones at it.” he frowned “I guess we didn’t really find her, because if we knew she had been in the boat we would not have thrown rocks at it, it was Mr Fletcher who saw Nettie and he ran into the river and told us to get the sheriff and the Doctor.”

“That’s right, Mr Cartwright, if we had known Nettie was in the boat we would have gone for help right away. But we couldn’t see her ‘cos we were on the bank and Mr Fletcher saw her because he was on the road and looking down”

“She was asleep anyway.” Reuben said, “If she had been awake she would have sat up and told us to stop, wouldn’t she?”

“We told the Deputy. We had to give our statements.” Jimmy added for good measure.

The man standing behind Adam smiled and nodded “That’s what I like, an honest witness.”

Orr stepped forward and looked at the boys then glanced at Adam, “Seems like there was no killer after all, Mr Cartwright.”

Adam straightened up, and didn’t look in Orr’s direction, instead he looked thoughtfully at the two boys “Who else was with you?”

“Davy Riley.” Reuben said quietly and frowned as the other man nodded, and now stood shoulder to shoulder beside his father. He nodded, gave a small smile then turned back to Adam “Can I go with Jimmy now, Pa?”

“Go ahead, try not to get into trouble…” and Adam gave a wry smile and winked, then watched as the two boys ran off, excitement giving wings to their heels as they threaded their way through the traffic towards the Evans’ home.

Orr sighed and stepped forward so that he could glance sideways to see the expression on Adam’s face “He’s a good looking boy.”

“Yes, growing too fast.” Adam replied slowly.

“Takes after his mother more than his father I think…”

Adam said nothing in reply, gave a nod of the head and straightened his hat, before walking on. If Orr had intended his remark to act as a burr under the skin, he had succeeded.

………………….

Sofia coughed, her eyes watered and she gave a little moan. She felt hot but shivery, her teeth ached and her eyes just wanted to stay shut tight against the light in the room. The wintery sun was low and seemed to reach further into the room. She leaned against the pillows and gave a little hiccup

Olivia was leaning over her, a cup in her hand and an anxious look on her face. The sun light had gone, replaced by shadows. Sofia was feeling dry mouthed and her stomach rumbled

“Do you feel any better?” Olivia asked gently. She carefully sat down n the chair that she had pulled up against the side of the bed and placed the cup on the night stand. A cool hand touched Sofia’s brow and made the little girl shiver again “You’re still quite hot.”

“Mommy, it isn’t fair. Reuben (cough cough) is having fun in town with the gang and I’m

not even allowed to be in town either and ( cough cough) I could be with Lilith…and anyway as well as that Hannah is away at the cabin ..” she coughed again and blinked, the coughing was making her chest hurt.

“Enough talking, young lady, now drink this up, it will help take away that cough. Go on, it’s sweet – you’ll like it.”

“I don’t like medicine.”

“No one likes medicine, but Cheng made this especially for you.” she brought the cup over to Sofia’s lips and waited for the child to take hold of it and begin to sip. After a while and making sure that the cup was empty, she plumped up the pillows, turned then over so that the cooler side was there for Sofia to lean back on.

“Try and get some more sleep. Later on you can have something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.” Sofia replied and licked her lips to taste the sweetness of the honey that had been in the drink, “I can’t sleep. I’m not tired.”

“Hush now…” Olivia placed a finger to her mouth and raised her eyebrows.

Once Sofia had slid back upon the pillows she pulled the covers up to the daughters chin and then leaned down and kissed her on the brow. “Try and sleep.”

Sofia nodded, closed her eyes and tried to look as though she really would go to sleep right away. After a moment or two Olivia quietly left the room.

Nathaniel had seen the bottle on the table, a bottle he had not seen before and that Mommy had said was for Sofia because she was sick. He reached out for it, but it was too far into the centre of the table. He looked around for a chair and finding the one that would not be too heavy to push managed to propel it towards the table.

It took barely a moment to clamber onto the chair and then reach across and to snatch up the bottle and draw it over to him. It took a while to get the stopper off, and he had to wriggle it about, nearly falling off the chair in the process. Finally the stopper popped off, and the aroma of something sweet floated up out of the bottle so tantalisingly that he had to hold it to his nose and sniff. Whatever was in there made his eyes water.

He decided the next best thing was to take a good long swig so he up tilted the bottle and took a long swallow. After which he swayed about a bit on the chair, and his eyes watered. He stared at the bottle and put it back down, very slowly. For some reason the surface of the table wasn’t quite where he thought it was, so that the bottle hit it with a thud and rolled from his hand.

Nathaniel rolled too. If Cheng had not been passing the boy would have landed on the floor with a whack that could have caused some harm to the lad, but Cheng caught him in time and swooped him up into his arms. He was carrying Nathaniel to the sofa when Olivia came into the room the empty cup in her hand.

“Boy drink medicine.” Cheng said quietly “He will sleep long time.”

Olivia could only shake her head, looked down at her little boy who looked so angelically innocent upon the cushions. “It won’t do him any harm will it?”

“No, boy will just sleep and may be have head ache.”

There was a quick knock on the door and it opened before either Cheng or Olivia could attend to it. Mary Ann stepped into the room, a smile on her face as she did so. She paused though at the sight of them both standing beside the sofa looking down at Nathaniel who was fast asleep, and the smile slipped away “What’s wrong? Is he ill as well?”

“No, he’s just sleeping.” Olivia replied “Did you come for the socks? I’ve knitted some other things too, mittens and scarves. I think the McCrieff children will be warmer this winter than they have been some other times.”

“Oh thank you, Olivia.” Mary Ann came further into the room, “I promised Hester I would take them to Una this weekend. It’s a pity you could not come with me this time, but with Sofia unwell…”

Olivia said nothing, but hurried to a box in which all the things she had carefully knitted over the past few days had been carefully folded and stored away. “I hope they like them. I knitted the socks in every size that I thought would fit the smallest to the biggest. There’s a pair for Mr McCrieff too..although his size is just guess work.”

“Thank you, Olivia.” Mary Ann took the box and carried it to the door, paused and sighed “I’m having to wait for my weekend away in the cabin. Unless Joe can wheedle his way around Ben and get out for the bridge repairs next weekend I can’t see us being there for a while yet.”

Olivia slipped her arm through that of her friends and together they made their way to the buggy, where Daniel and Constance were waiting. Big smiles and greetings from them to their Aunt, before Mary Ann clambered up beside them, the box carefully at their feet. Calls of goodbye floated across the yard, the scrunch of the buggy wheels and the clop of the horses feet as they wheeled their way around the stable and up onto the road.

……………………………

Hal Chandler paused outside the Mercantile to look over at the big man who was standing outside a Milliners shop, a modest display of wares, both colourful and attractive, had obviously prompted him to stop. As the Doctor watched a woman stepped through the doorway and with a beaming smile on her face and a hat box in her hand she joined the big man, who looked delighted to see her and leaned in to kiss her cheek. Three children suddenly appeared behind the womans skirts, much like chicks suddenly freeing themselves from mother hen’s wings.

He hurried across the road and called out “Mr Cartwright ?”

Hoss stopped and frowned, then smiled as he nodded a greeting and extended his hand to shake that of the Doctor. Introductions were made after which they stood looking at one another for a moment before Hester said that as they were going to have some refreshment in the little tea room near by perhaps the Doctor would care to join them.

Hal nodded, indeed he would and he stepped in line with them as easily as could be, although the tension in him was almost palpable. Hannah and Hope skipped along, hand in hand, but Erik clung to his mother’s skirts and kept flashing a look over at the sad looking man walking with them. He was a sensitive child, perhaps it was the Irish in him, but he felt a sympathy for this stranger even though he was such a young age.

“How are you getting along, Doc?” Hoss asked once they had settled down on chairs and the Management could see that the chairs would not collapse under Hoss’ weight.

“I don’t know, tolerably well, I suppose. I was a bit annoyed having to go to Virginia City again, but Marshall Howard explained how important it was . “

Hester glanced over at the young man and then asked if it had anything to do with the jewellery that had been found on Mrs Chandlers body. Hal nodded,

“I could never afford things like that, I could not understand why or how she would have got them, but afterwards, on the train homewards, I realised that – “ he stopped talking, a good excuse as the waitress placed their order before them, and it gave him time to collect his thoughts, “I mean, I could tell just looking at them that they were for real, I could not even have afforded them if they had been ‘paste’ gems. Whoever bought them for Rosie had a good eye for the stuff, they were lovely, beautiful.”

Hester nodded, she knew too well how lovely and beautiful they were, she also knew how much they had cost her brother to have had them made. She glanced over at Hoss who just slightly shook his head, a warning for her to say nothing.

“I thought then, that if she could leave me for a man who could afford to buy her things like that, then obviously she didn’t really love me, did she?” he picked up his cup and sniffed the coffee before drinking some, as he replaced the cup onto the saucer he looked up at them “In a way, it helps. Knowing that she was like that, shallow …” he swallowed and looked down at the table, his eyes misted, were moist, “It helps a bit, not entirely, but it stopped me from thinking about killing myself and – and thoughts like that.”

Hester sighed, and looked at the young man with empathy, she wanted to reach out and touch his hand, reassure him that he was among friends. But Hoss spoke first

“Mr – I mean – Doc, you thought any more about anyone who could have been friendly with your wife, rich enough to afford them ear rings.”

Except, Hester thought, whoever it was had not bought those ear rings they had been stolen, stolen from Ingrid Buchanan. Thoughts of her sister in law caused her to think again about that last visit from the wretched woman, the way she had looked, had spoken. It made Hester angry, so angry that she felt her hands shaking.

“No, we didn’t move in those kind of circles. Well, I didn’t anyway…Rosie obviously did, but she never mentioned anyone to me.”

Hester cleared her throat, “Excuse me for interrupting, but – well – I was thinking how women sometimes talk, without even realising it, they drop little clues about people they are spending time with, or whom they like, or would like to spend time with …I mean, was there anyone at all that your wife began to mention in conversation at all? Someone she had not previously mentioned at all?”

Hal looked at her blankly, then shook his head “I don’t think so….but I will mull that over, it is possible, isn’t it? I mean, it could be, couldn’t it?”

“It’s just something that women tend to do….it’s how another woman knows when a woman is interested in someone else, or -” she blushed, and lowered her eyes, concentrated on the cake on her place, “Perhaps she spoke to some of her friends …you could ask, couldn’t you?”

Hal nodded, a smile drifted across his lips “Yes, I will ask, thank you. Mrs Cartwright.” he nodded again “Yes, I certainly will do that.”

Chapter 39

Christopher Orr watched as the rancher walked away from him, crossing the road to where Roy Coffee’s home was located. He stood and watched as Adam pushed open the gate, walked up the path and knocked on the door, and then disappeared inside. The Lawyer stood, watched and smiled. Just a slow almost lazy smile. Then he sighed and shook his head as though shaking off a dream, he then turned and made his way to his office.

His clerk stood up as the Lawyer entered the office and waited to be addressed, waited to be instructed. But Orr said nothing, just walked past him and into his own office and closed the door.

…………….

Sarah Boyd bustled into the kitchen to prepare coffee. She may not have been Roy’s housekeeper for very long but she had been in Virginia City long enough to know of the special bond this Cartwright had with the old ex-sheriff. She remembered exactly how he enjoyed his coffee and was bringing it to him before Adam had even settled into the old leather chair by the fire

She accepted the murmured thanks from both men with a smile and then promptly disappeared. She was a woman who knew her place and was contented with it.

“Well, so -” Roy pursed his lips so that his moustache balanced on his upper lip like a dead mouse.

“So Nettie’s been found.” Adam nodded and sighed, lowered his head so that his chin rested on his chest, “So – ?”

He didn’t look at Roy but leaned forward to pick up his cup and sniffed at the coffee. It was a good rich brew. Nothing like the mud like substance Roy used to provide.

“There’s something bothering me about this,” Roy said quietly, his watery blue eyes glanced over to his younger friend, “But you tell me what’s bothering you first..”

Adam smiled slowly, not a smile that reached his eyes, he was too worried to provide that kind of smile, “You reading my mind, you old fraud?”

“Dunno til you says.”

“Very well. This is what worries me…” Adam sipped some coffee, pursed his lips and drank some more, by the time he set down the cup it was empty. “According to Dr Chandler his wife left home some months before her body was found …”

“S’right, that’s what I heard too….”

“But -”

“Ah – but?”

“Nettie has been gone only a few weeks.”

Roy nodded and sighed heavily, there was a significant weight behind the words, and his subsequent sigh, he picked up his coffee and drank it. “So what do you reckon on that?”

“I reckon that whoever killed Mrs Chandler, and kept her hidden until her death, must have really liked her”

“Enjoyed her, you mean…”

“Yes.” Adam nodded and stared glumly at the empty cups sitting in their saucers on the table “Yes, but – “

“He was not so happy with Nettie so decided to get rid of her sooner.”

“Much sooner.” Adam said quietly

“What do you – hmmn- read into that?”

“Perhaps he has already seen someone else that he prefers over Nettie.”

“A replacement?”

Adam nodded. A frown creased his brow, he gave a slight shrug “Or perhaps – just perhaps – he realised his error in taking a young girl and has decided to reform.”

“Reform?” Roy snorted and shook his head “I don’t see that happening. I reckon it won’t be long before some other young person will be missing from home. Mark my words, Adam, he will already have someone in mind.”

“And so – what do we do? Wait until he takes her? Bearing in mind it could be anyone…any young woman …”

“I think we need to think about this, and Nate – he needs to really check this out…all the possibilities, all the probabilities. All the links..”

Adam narrowed his eyes “Ingrid Buchanan.”

“What about her?”

“Well, you were here when she was in town. What was your opinion of her? I missed the pleasure of making her acquaintance at the time.” he gave a twist of the mouth, a wry comment on the events of that time.

“She was trouble – I’d say without a doubt – she was born under an evil star.”

……………………….

With the family absent from home Ben had saddled up his horse and taken the trip over to Adam and Olivia’s house. It was good to be out and in the saddle again, the clean fresh air blew away cobwebs and he jounced along feeling an contentment steal upon him that had been missing for some while. Once again he was reminded that life was good, there may be a long road behind him, and not quite such a long one ahead, but he was determined to enjoy every inch of the remaining journey.

He dismounted and led the horse into the stable to enjoy the warmth there, plus some hay from the hay bag hanging from a hook in an empty stall. Buster, Sofia’s plump little pony, turned his horse and gave a equine scowl from under his mane and shoved forward to lay claim to the food before realising that he could not reach it.

Olivia opened the door and gave her father in law a wide smile, leaned in for a kiss and then tucked her arm through his “Oh Pa, it is good to see you here. Adam and Reuben should be back soon. You are staying for supper, arn’t you?”

He nodded and smiled, looked at the sleeping little boy and frowned “Unlike Nathaniel to be sleeping this time of the day.”

“He – er – had some help.” Olivia sighed and shook her head, before leaning down to add two more logs to the fire. “Sofia isn’t well, and he got hold of some of her medicine, but just swallowed it down – Cheng Ho Lee caught him just before he fell off the chair.”

Ben shook his head, and smiled at the boy before turning to her “What’s wrong with Sofia?”

“A chill. She’s still in bed, recovering. Well, I hope she is – recovering that is.” she frowned, “She isn’t happy at being ill on a weekend as you can imagine.”

“Still hates school, huh?”

“Not as much as she did. Now that she has a little group of friends of her own, she has seemed to settle more.”

“I’ll go and see her, if I may?”

“She’d like that…be prepared to read a story, or three.”

Ben smiled again, and then slowly made his way up the stairs. When he pushed the bedroom door open it was to see Sofia sitting up, waiting to see who was coming up the stairs and when she saw Ben her face broke into a wide smile “Granpa”

“Well now, little lady, I hear you have been unwell.”

“I am – “ she nodded and waited for him to pull up a chair beside her bed, get settled so that he was quite comfortable for her to begin her tale of woe.

Ben nodded at all the relevant points, sympathised and nodded some more. The child certainly looked unwell, with heavy eyes, dark shadows, a pale clammy to the touch skin and a temperature.

She finally sat back against the pillows “And it’s Saturday, Granpa…not even a school day.”

“But you like school now, don’t you?”

“Ye-e-s a little bit.” a downturn of the mouth indicated that that little bit didn’t amount to much.

“You have friends there now – Lilith Martin? She’s a very pleasant girl and -”

The sound of the door opening downstairs and the thud of feet on the stairs “Sofee, Sofee -” and Reuben burst into the room breathless with excitement. “Sofee – you’ll never guess what?” he paused, noticed Ben and calmed a little “Hello Granpa…”

“Hi Reuben, so what has been happening that’s caused all this excitement?” Ben said and rose to his feet, preparing himself for some momentous news that needed him to be standing rather than sitting.

“Well, you’ll never guess what “ Reuben repeated and drew in his breath “Well – there was this old boat on the river, see, and we – Jim and Davy and me – we was throwing stones at it because it was just old and broken kinda and then -” he hauled in his breath “Nettie was inside the boat.”

“Nettie? Nettie Groom?” Ben said quietly

“Yeah, Nettie Groom.” he nodded “And Deputy Fletcher saw her and jumped into the river to get the boat to shore while I ran to the Sheriff – with Jimmy – and Davy had to go and get the Doctor.”

“And – “ Ben cleared his throat “And how was Nettie?”

“Oh , she’s alright, she’s alive – but it was me and Jim and Davy found her…” the little peacock boasted, thrusting out his chest and looking almost red in the face with delight

Ben nodded thoughtfully, and Sofia stared, her mouth went totally 0 and then she burst into tears

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair…”

Her wailing was too much for Reuben. As an anti-climax to his wonderful story it was a total dampener. He shrugged, said ‘Humph’ very loudly and left the room, his foot steps could be heard thudding one by one down the stairs. Ben looked at his grand daughter “What’s so unfair about that, sweet heart. Arn’t you glad Nettie is safe now.”

Sofia sneezed, coughed and coughed and fell back against the pillows. Ben sighed and was about to say something when Olivia appeared a bottle one hand and a spoon in the other. He backed away and made for the stairs.

…………….

Olivia lavished praise on her son. She stroked his head and nodded attentively as he went into every single possible detail of his adventure. She did an excellent job of massaging his burgeoning male ego. Adam sat in his study and listened, smiled and finally pulled out a notebook.

In Virginia City the Sheriff was writing down details of what he considered ‘the case’ in a notebook of his own and in a cosy old house Roy Coffee was doing the same.

………………

Joe Cartwright pulled at the lobe of his ear as he listened to his brother telling him about Reuben’s adventure, the discovery of Nettie. He scowled rather and rather like Sofia resented the fact that his nephew had found Nettie and also that after so many man hours spent looking for her she just happened to come gliding down the river in a boat. How annoying was that?

“And she’s alive?” he said quietly now picking at thumbnail.

“Just about.” Adam nodded, and frowned “Same thing though…shot through the leg to disable her, feet torn and bleeding, wearing a camisole -”

“A what?”

“A camisole -” Adam scowled at his brother now and shook his head “A flimsy thing – “

“Oh.”

“Whoever tried to strangle her – for some reason failed to complete the job. Paul said that there is a possibility that when she recovers consciousness she may have no memory of what happened…in fact, there’s a strong chance that she will have no memory at all.”

“Poor Mrs Groom.” Joe muttered and stood up, “Well, I guess I had better get back home. Mary Ann should be home by now, she was visiting the McCrieff’s.”

Olivia stood up and said that Mary Ann had called in earlier to collect some knitting for the family, she looked at her husband who seemed miles away, his face blank and stern while Ben sat there staring into the fire with a dark frown on his face.

“Anyway…as I said ..I’ll get back home now.” Joe said in a louder voice and his father then turned and smiled, nodded.

Adam stood up and joined Joe at the door, as he put his hand on the door to open it he looked at Joe and raised his eyebrows

“What?” Joe muttered “What are you looking at me like that for?”

“Just – “ he shrugged “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Joe frowned and shook his head “Nettie’s found, she’s alive – just about – and you look like its the worse ever news…so what’s going on, what have I missed?”

Adam shrugged, shook his head and stepped back, pulling the door open for his brother to step through and out onto the porch. By the time Joe had pulled on his coat he had reached a conclusion and looked at his brother with narrowed hazel eyes “You think it will happen again?”

“No doubt about it.” his brother replied

Joe didn’t move for a second or two, then he nodded “I’ll see you tomorrow. We need to talk about this….”

Chapter 40

Placerville 1879

Dear Sheriff Carney

With reference to your recent enquiry concerning the events of 1874 …I made enquiries with regard to the dead woman – a widow of the name Ingrid Buchanan – and a male passenger, David MacArthur.

Firstly the woman …dead and killed by a fall on some boulders at the way station at Goat Springs. I enclose the Death Certificate and Doctors comments.

From my own personal observations I can confirm that she was a well nourished woman, what was seen of her face, would confirm that she had been a very attractive one. Rigor mortis had passed by the time she arrived here. She wore no jewellery.

As regards her personal possessions . . there were some garments in a carpet bag, a purse containing a small amount of money. There was no jewellery. Although the clothes she wore and the clothes in the bag were very good quality, it was difficult to see how she would sustain such a style with the amount of money she possessed.

Mr Joseph and Mr Hoss Cartwright paid for her funeral and did not claim the money or clothes back so the money was put into the Town’s poor box. The clothing distributed among the poor of our town.

You mention the possibility of her having been murdered? In the circumstances…a dark night, a single candle, and rocky terrain..one has to ask oneself just why she was wandering around the area anyway. When I mentioned it to the Doctor who examined her (medical report enclosed) he could not recall thinking of murder, just that it was an accidental and careless death.

Onto your second point…the male passenger David MacArthur. As he was at the way station on the date of the woman’s death he wrote out a brief statement – (enclosed), he confirmed that she was an extremely attractive woman. He did not see her alive after she had gone to her bed. He was still quite shocked when he arrived in town, having had to share the journey with a corpse.

Description: from memory, and not too clear, he was medium height, dark haired, dark eyed, everything looked darker because he was so pale. I recall him as pleasant looking but neither handsome nor ugly, no distinguishing marks. Simple clothing, I would say he was a clerk of some kind, I recall his hands were soft, nails clean, although bitten. I asked him his profession but do not recall his answer. As for age – anything between 20-25

Whereabouts of this person remains unclear. He went on to Jacksonville on the mid-afternoon stage. If you wish to confirm his whereabouts there then I suggest you contact Sheriff C. Mahoney.

My regards to Roy Coffee…”

Nate put the letter down and picked up the Death Certificate for one Ingrid Buchanan…it was quite clear, answers in a box, neatly ticked off, name, approximate age, gender, married / single in which comment was made “Vagina non intacta” Cause of death – skull cracked open due to a fall in which the skull made contact with a rock.

Nate stared at it, there was no ambiguity, although he himself was now inclined to think it more a case of rock made contact with skull.

David MacArthur’ statement was next. It was brief and written in his own hand. Neat careful writing, so Nate drew the conclusion that the man was educated and from how the sheriff had described him, possibly a clerk

This is the statement of myself, David C. MacArthur this 20th day of June 1874

I met Mrs Buchanan when leaving Virginia City by stagecoach. I had broken the journey from San Francisco en route to Jacksonville. Mrs Buchanan did not speak much. She was very subdued, sad. At times she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. I made several attempts to get into conversation with her but she rebuffed every time.

At the way station after the meal, during which she ate very little, I once again tried to give her some comfort from the Bible. She laughed at my attempt to encourage her and left for her room. I never saw her again . Alive.

She gave no indication as to her future plans, just that she could take care of herself. She was very beautiful. That is all I can tell you about Ingrid Buchanan’

He leaned back in his chair and swivelled it back and forth a few times, before gathering the papers together and slipping them into a folder. Once again he opened the safe and withdrew the little box and looked at the ear rings nestled within. He had got the jeweller to give an indication of their value and then quickly returned them to the safe. They were the only link to Rosemary Chandler.

But were they a link to Nettie as well?

John Martin opened the door and gave the Sheriff a nod of the head before pulling out a chair and sitting down. He cleared his throat “Nettie has regained consciousness.”

Yes? And?” Nate’s eyes widened, he felt a pulse beating fast in his throat, “And?”

John shook his head “Nothing – she opened her eyes, and stared around her, started crying. Just lay there with tears rolling down her face. Thankfully her parents were not in the room at the time so I was able to see her, talk to her…”

They were both silent. John bowed his head and bit his bottom lip, frowned “I’ve seen it before, during the war, people so traumatised they can’t put their thoughts into words.” he cleared his throat again “I asked her if she knew her name. She said nothing. She said nothing to any of the questions I put to her. Then her mother arrived…”

Oh!”

Oh indeed…more tears from her, and from Nettie” he stroked his chin, his frown deeper, causing furrows between his eyes, “Nettie didn’t move, just lay there, while Mrs Groom hugged her, and wept over her. Its as though she’s alive but -”

Nate nodded, he had seen men and women in that state before during his time in law. Sometimes the victims came through, maybe with their memories intact, mostly not though. Sometimes they did not survive at all, somewhere inside themselves they turned off the light so to speak, and died. He never knew whom to feel more sorry, them or their families, if there were any families.

They sat in silence for a while and then Nate folded his arms on the desk top and leaned forward,

Do you think whoever did this to Nettie, was the same person as Mrs Chandler’s killer?”

Yes. The whole thing bears his hallmark..the shot in the leg, an attempt to strangle her which failed..although he obviously didn’t realise that, and of course, he had her hidden away for a period of time.”

And do you think he will try again?”

Well, maybe..”

Maybe isn’t a good enough answer, John. I’ve most of the women in town scared to go out..” he sighed, “Well, those around a certain age – “

John said nothing and was about to get up from his chair when Nate pushed the Death Certificate for Ingrid towards him “What do you think about this? Would you have just dismissed her death as an accident, a careless mistake?”

John read the details and grimaced, then shrugged “It leaves her death rather ambiguous. I would have put it down as an open verdict.”

So would I -”

What are you saying then?”

I don’t know – I’m not sure – the ear rings are the only things that link her death to Mrs Chandler, therefore to our murderer…but I don’t know if it can be linked to Nettie.” he fingered MacArthurs statement “But then there’s enough similarity to Mrs Chandler and Nettie to say that they are linked.”

John nodded and stood up “Well, I wish you well, Sheriff, and if I can do anything to help, let me know.”

As he reached the door, his fingers on the door handle he turned “That means he could be responsible for three deaths.”

Yes – “ Nate nodded, “That we know about….”

John drew in his breath, inwardly he felt a shiver coil around his stomach.

Hester bounced into the room with a giggle, her hair seemed to bounce along with her while her blue eyes snapped like sapphires. Hannah and Hope ran into the house, hand in hand, smiles on their faces while their Aunts opened up their arms to hug them, and cousins came to claim them..

Did you enjoy your time away? “ Olivia asked as she helped Hester out of her coat

I had a great time. Although really I was still cooking and so forth – except when we went into town yesterday.” Hester was all smiles, she kissed Olivia on the cheek and then leaned in to kiss Mary Ann, “It was such a pleasant time. The children loved it.”

Joe said we were going next weekend,” Mary Ann declared with a determined look on her pretty face, “He reckoned that as Hoss had time out this weekend then he can do the work of two men along with Adam…”

Adam chuckled and pecked her cheek, to receive a warm kiss on his own “We decided to call in Candy’s help.” he smiled “Snow isn’t too far away, and Pa reckoned that Joe and Mary Ann deserved a weekend away before it came and blocked us all in.”

Oh I hope it isn’t going to be one of those winters…” Hester groaned “They just seem to go on and on….”

Hannah wanted to know where Sofia was and when told asked if she and Hope could go and visit her. “It isn’t anything infectious is it?” Hester asked anxiously but Olivia assured her that Sofia was suffering nothing worse than a cold and missing out on an adventure.

She’s sulking.” Olivia said with a downturn of the mouth, and her eyes twinkling “She missed out on finding Nettie.”

Really?” Hester exclaimed and opened wide her eyes “Safe? Alive?”

As the women chattered and the children played Ben stood back to observe…little clusters dotted around the room, Hannah and Hope skipping up the stairs, Reuben reading a book in the far corner lost in his imaginary world, a shame to be the eldest by so many years, but one day they would all catch up. Ben smiled and glanced over at Hoss, Adam and Joe, and he knew that the topic of their conversation would be the same as the one between the women. Only the children, the little ones, were blissfully unaware and playing contentedly. He nodded to himself, smiled and strolled over to sit beside his eldest grandson who looked up at him, smiled and closed his book. Talking to his Grandpa was much more interesting.

Sofia opened her eyes as the door creaked open. Two faces peered into the room, two pairs of twinkling eyes, and two mouths upturned into broad smiles.

Are you sick?” Hope asked as she ran into the room and hoisted herself up onto Sofia’s bed

Just a bit. I keep sneezing and coughing.” Sofia said very solemnly “Did you have a great time away in the cottage?”

I kept thinking it was just like Hansel and Gretel.” Hannah smiled, and sat, cross-legged, on the floor beside the bed. “It was nice and cosy.”

I had to share the bed with Hannah.” Hope giggled.

Sofia smiled and leaned back into the pillows, she had a bed all to herself. Poor Hannah. She was sure that Hope would wriggle a lot.

Did you find anything in the river?” she asked her cousins who looked at her and then looked at one another

Only fish. Pa caught two big fish for supper”

You didn’t find anything else?”

Hannah and Hope looked at one another, shook their heads, Hannah said valiantly “Sometimes there are tadpoles in the rivers. But I didn’t see any there….”

What did you catch, Sofee…was it an alligator?” Hannah giggled, hand over her mouth still a little self conscious about making such ‘witty’ comments

No. Just some shoes…and clothes…” Sofia frowned, “Reuben and Jimmy found Nettie…she was in a boat.”

On the river? On the river where we were?” Hannah breathed.

No, not there…in town…” Sofia frowned, and coughed, she closed her eyes, her head ached again, she coughed some more.

Was she full of maggots like Davy said?” Hannah whispered

No, Reuben said she looked like sleeping beauty, just asleep….” she pulled herself upright, and took hold of Hannah by the hand “When we get back to town, we’ll go and find out where she was -”

What do you mean?” Hannah whispered back, a little anxious now

She was hidden away, wasn’t she? And someone put her in the boat..and we’ll go and find out where….you and me … and Lilith.”

Hannah frowned and withdrew her hand, she was about to speak when Olivia came into the room, looked at the three of them and then ushered her nieces away. She felt Sofia’s forehead and then her throat and smiled “Do you feel well enough to come downstairs now?”

But Sofia shook her head, closed her eyes rather dramatically, and turned her head to the wall. Now that she had said what had been said, she had to start formulating a plan!

Chapter 41

What do you want?”

The old man gave Nate a scowl from beneath dark bushy eyebrows, his bulbous red nose almost glowing with indignation. His snapped out growl of a question was both defensive and aggressive, so Nate and Vinny stayed where they were, close to the door of the old man’s property, removed their hats and attempted to appear less threatening.

Twitch, about your boat -”

I heard about that ..” the old man humped his shoulders and continued with his task, cutting chips of kindling with what looked like a very sharp knife “What I want to know is what’re you doing about it?”

Well, that’s -”

You’re the law, you should be stopping folk stealing other folks possessions. No one gave anyone permit to steal my boat…”

Vinny and Nate exchanged looks, rolled their eyes and then looked again at the old man who had not looked up at them since they had first appeared. He seemed intent on cutting away his wood.

We wanted to know if the boat was actually yours, Twitch.”

What do you mean? Someone else claiming it to be theirs are they?” swish swish the knife went, flick flick the chips fell to the ground, a small pile forming neatly at the old mans booted feet

No, no one else is claiming anything, Twitch. Now that we have established that it’s yours, perhaps you could give us an idea as to where you kept it – tied up – “ Vinny smiled as he spoke, hoping that he looked friendly enough for the other man not to decide to use the knife on him.

I ain’t used it in a while, but it was a good little boat when I last checked on it. No holes or nothing, now I see’s it got dents and holes all over. Someone will have to pay for damage -”

We’ll see that you’re reimbursed, if you could -”

Re-imbur- what? It’s cash for the damage, that’s what I want.” he tossed down the last piece of wood and stabbed the knife into a scarred old table at which he had been seated. “And who gave any one permit to go using my boat, putting bodies in it and just setting it off down river like that? Could have killed the girl.”

Just tell us where you had left the wretched boat, Twitch. Then we can find out who took it…” Nate snapped, too frustrated now to be playing word games with the old man.

I keeps it under cover further up river, out of town. Don’t like folk around here knowing my business.”

So ? You keep it under cover …what with?”

What with? Not what with, I keeps it in a shed. Down river close to the old house where McGarthy lived. He had some good old out buildings put up by side of the house. It’s beneath the trees, good sheltering there too.”

The house has been empty some time, hasn’t it?” Vinny asked, leaning in closer to catch a glimpse of the old man

Seems to be….”

What does that mean?” Vinny asked now, “You seen anyone about there?”

If I hadda, then my boat would still be safe and I wouldn’t be wanting you Deputies to go out and find who took it, would I?”

Well, we’ll go and check the place out, Twitch. We’ll let you know if we find out who stole your boat.” Nate assured him and stepped away in time to hear the growling comment which sounded like a threat of a long drawn out death to whoever the thief happened to be..

The two deputies turned and walked away from the damp old building that Twitch called home. Both men were deep in thought, until Nate asked Vinny for the history on the Mcgarthys old house. As he listened to Vinny’s drawled out account Nate wondered if it were possible for Nettie to have been hidden away there, perhaps closer to home than they had imagined.

It must be a local man with some background knowledge, Boss? What do you think?” Vinny looked at Nate who had his head bowed low, to all appearances a man with a lot of worries on his shoulders.

Maybe” Nate replied without much conviction.

I don’t reckon on that other situation having anything to do with this…”

Which situation do you mean?”

That one with the woman who got killed in the way station. I mean, a Doctor knows if a persons been murdered or not, don’t they?”

You’d expect so, but -” Nate frowned more deeply. “I think there is a link, we need to know more about that David McArthur.”

Vinny shrugged “I never heard of a man by that name, and nor have the other Deputies.” he put his foot into the stirrup and heaved himself into the saddle, “Nor has Roy”

Nate said nothing, sniffed loudly, and shut himself off from the Deputies further remarks. He needed to think.

……….

Nettie opened her eyes and felt relief at not seeing her mother sitting beside the bed. Her eyes were still blurred, nothing looked quite as it should but she could see the shape of a woman close by and supposed it was a nurse. She remained as still as possible, and waited for a thermometer to be produced and thrust into her mouth.

Bridie Martin had no intention of producing any such thing, but sat patiently by the young womans bedside. Once she saw the eyes flicker open she drew closer, and then slowly extended a hand which she placed gently over Nettie’s

How are you feeling, my dear?”

The soft Irish voice of the old woman was soothing, reassuring. For a moment Nettie lay still, closed her eyes and tried to think who was the owner of such a voice. If she could remember that, then perhaps she could remember other things. Did she want to remember other things? She shivered. Bridie felt the tremor that trickled through Nettie and just squeezed the girls hand a little more.

Nettie, I’m Bridie Martin. I thought I would just come up and spend a little while with you. Is that all right?”

Silence. Nettie closed her eyes. The darkness behind her eyelids reminded her of that first prison in which she was kept, so she opened her eyes again. Sliding her eyes to the left she saw the anxious concerned face of the woman who was sitting near by, and realised that, yes, she did know her. Bridie smiled and her blue eyes twinkled , “You don’t have to say anything at all, my dear, nothing at all.”

That was good, Nettie did not want to speak. She did not want to say a word. Then, without intending to she cried out “Don’t let him hurt me, will you? Don’t -”

No one will hurt you, dearie. No one at all….”

no no, keep him away…keep him away…”

I will, I will, don’t be frightened, Nettie, you’re in a safe place now.”

He said that, he said we were in a safe place, but we weren’t – we weren’t -”

What place was it, Nettie? Where did he take you to keep you safe?”

She closed her eyes “Dark. So dark.”

Then she screamed, and Bridie held her hands as tightly as she could until the nurse came and pushed her aside, then a Doctor hurried into the room, and still Nettie screamed.

……………

Sofia had been a little dismayed at not being able to get to school that morning. Olivia had said her temperature was still too high, and she needed to stay home until fully better.

She had, however, been allowed downstairs and watched as her mother had passed by with her arms full of her bedding. She watched as Nathaniel played, pulling his red truck back and forth along the rug and then finding his little horse and galloping it over to where the truck was so that he could then attach the little horse to the truck.

She fell asleep, the fire was burning and the room was cosy and warm. Olivia had placed a quilt over her which made it all the better. She was still asleep when Nathaniel decided to join her and curled up on the blanket at her feet.

She had had such plans for today. Lilith, Hannah and herself …. when lunchtime came they could go to the river and walk along until they found where the boat had been on the bank, waiting for someone to put Nettie inside. Of course, once they had found the boat they would be able to find the house where she had been hidden. So much for Reuben and his gang! She’ll show him…..

…………….

Adam and Hoss dismounted, looked around them and nodded to each other. They had their designated tasks and had planned to meet up at the Bucket of Blood for a beer later. As he trudged along Hoss searched in his pockets for the list Hester had given him and finally pulled out a bedraggled piece of paper which he scanned carefully before continuing on his way to the Hardware Store..

Hoss? Hoss Cartwright?”

He paused, looked around and then nodded as Nate strolled over. Hoss sighed, Nate’s long legs made one of his strides equal to two of most other folks. He waited for the Sheriff to reach his side

You alone?” Nate asked which was to Hoss’ way of thinking a stupid question as there was no one else close by.

Reckon so…”

Can you spare me some of your time?”

Hoss sighed, stuffed the paper back in his pocket “What do you want me to do?”

Nate turned to the side and began to return to the Sheriffs office, Hoss walking beside him and happy to see his stride matched that of the sheriffs.

The McGarthy place…” Nate slid his eyes sideways to check out how Hoss was looking, “I was told the man was murdered there and your family was involved?”

Oh that McGarthy. Yeah…well..kinda.” Hoss nodded, and followed Nate into the office, the door closed behind him and Nate indicated a chair for Hoss to settle into. “So what do you want me to do?”

We think Nettie was kept there – “ Nate sat down and pulled out his notes, foolscap size pages, some pictures, Hoss glanced down at them and then at Nate “Could use your help in looking around and checking the place out. Just so we can be sure we’ve got something definite about this case.”

Hoss nodded, “Yeah, sure…it’s been empty for some time so if there has been any activity around the place then it should be pretty obvious.”

Nate smiled and nodded, “We just need a break through, Hoss. At the moment everything seems to be spinning in different directions.”

Roy used to get like you, all edgy, and worried that nothing will fall into place..but it will, Nate, it surely will.”

Nate said nothing, inwardly he groaned, Just for one he did not want to be compared with Roy…he just wanted to solve this case and be done with it before any other girl went missing.

………………..

Daniel deQuille looked at the papers on the table before him…one by one he pushed them into a tidier order. Then he picked one up and looked at it again before putting it into a different place. Then he thumbed through an old notebook that contained scribblings from over the years..he located one particular year and re-read what he had written

Satisfied that he had got things in order in his mind, he pocketed the note book and left the building. The first person he saw was Adam Cartwright, who was just stepping out of the bank. He hesitated, wondered whether or not it was worth involving him but then decided that sooner or later Adam Cartwright would be involved anyway.

He raised a hand and called out to the rancher, who paused, looked annoyed – which was normal when Daniel deQuille suddenly appeared from no where and disturbed his thoughts – and then began to cross the road towards him

Yes? Good day, William.”

deQuille forced a smile which was tantamount to a sneer, he nodded “What do you know about the events that took place in Jacksonville in 1874?”

Jacksonville in 1874?” Adam repeated and stared at the man with eyes as dark as coal mines. “Daniel – I was in Egypt then, what can you tell me about events that took place in Cairo in 1874?”

Aw, for goodness sake, Adam, I’m being serious here.”

Well then, speak plain! How am I supposed to know of events that were taking place in – what? – Jacksonville in 1874, I don’t even know what’s taking place here in 1879!”

Daniel smirked and tapped Adam patronisingly on the chest “Well, then, that’s where a good journalist can come to your aid. Come along with me…”

Why? Where?”

To the Sheriffs office. I saw him hauling your brother in there just now, so it should be quite a merry little party.

Chapter 42

Nate, Vinnie and Hoss were about to leave the building when Adam arrived at the door with Daniel, who pushed past Adam to reach the sheriff before the law man had a chance to close the door

Not now, Mr deQuille. It will have to wait…” Nate snapped, and scowled over at Adam as though the journalists presence was entirely due to him.

It’s important…” Daniel blustered and waved a note book in front of him as though it were some form of weapon “About the investigation.”

Vinnie rolled his eyes and shrugged, shook his head, but Nate paused, then stepped back “This had better be worth my time, Mr deQuille.”

It is…” the journalist nodded, his beard drifted and his cheeks reddened as though he could not believe that anyone would think him capable of wasting anyone’s time.

Well, go ahead -” Nate perched himself on the corner of his desk, while everyone else seemed to drift around the room finding somewhere to sit, perch or lean.

Jacksonville, 1874 -” Daniel said as though it was some magical formula that would open numerous doors. No one moved, no one took their eyes from him, he blew out his cheeks “I know you have contacted the sheriff there, but you need to ask him about what happened to Molly Taylor

in 1874”

Vinnie leaned forward, his brows fierce over dark eyes “I remember Molly Taylor, she was a waitress at the Bluebell, disappeared some summers day – no one knew where.”

Molly Taylor was one of my – “ Daniel paused, cleared his throat “She provided me with information for which I paid her. She was an orphan, but she was intelligent, bright. So when she disappeared and I heard via contacts that a young woman of her description had been found in Jacksonville I made it my business to see if it was her.”

Go on” Nate nodded, a sharp jerk of the head, while his eyes narrowed and remained focused on Daniel’s face.

It was Molly. Her body was found in the church – “

Each man there shifted, as though wires had suddenly twitched them alive, Nate cleared his throat

Why do you think this has anything to do with our investigation, Mr deQuille.”

Molly left here for Jacksonville three days after Ingrid Buchanan had been found at Goats Spring way station. The man who was there went to Jacksonville.”

So?”

There’s a connection … can’t you see it?” Daniel threw his arms in the air in exasperation, “Molly was a good looking girl, but she wouldn’t have gone to Jacksonville for no reason. She never even told anyone that she was leaving town. No one would have thought anything more about her then, any more than they do now.” he scowled darkly at them all, his eyes scalding them with contempt, “She deserves better.”

Alright, Mr deQuille. What more can you tell me about her death … you say she was found in the church?”

Four months after she left town. No one knew who she was, she just appeared, dead, on the altar . She had been – arranged – that was how Sheriff Mahoney described it – arranged as though she were just sleeping. Looked, he said, quite beautiful.” he glanced down at his notes, before looking up “She wore very little, but her hair and the ways her limbs had been composed suggested that she had been posed deliberately for someone to find her. She was dirty, her feet cut and bruised, there were the marks on her wrists and ankles as though she had been tied up for some time. No one knew who she was, where she had come from.,…if I had not gone on the basis of that tip off she would have been buried with no marker to identify her.”

Had she been shot?” Hoss asked, stepping forward and asking before Nate could,

No, when I asked the Doctor he said that she had died of malnutrition and heart failure.” Daniel looked at them, stared at each one there “Well, don’t you find that significant?”

Nate nodded, his handsome face more sombre than ever, “Did Mahoney mention any man, any suspect who could have killed her, or put her in that church?”

Because they didn’t know her they weren’t sure who to look for. They carried out door to door enquiries of course, a picture of her – but no one had seen her since she had stepped off the stage.”

And no passengers identified her?”

Daniel shrugged “Mahoney sought them out but time had passed and those who did remember her just commented on her being shy and quiet. Nothing else…and because there was nothing, the case just dropped out of sight.”

Nate hauled in a deep breath and then nodded again, “Well, I guess I had better give Sheriff Mahoney a nudge and see if he can give me some more information about it. Thanks, Mr deQuille.”

I think – “ Daniel paused and tugged at his beard, “I think there’s a connection with her death and the others. The man who killed her is here, in Virginia City, he tried to kill Nettie…”

Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Mr deQuille.” Nate said calmly, although his mind was turning over and over with thoughts on a similar course “We’ll check it out.”

“Molly Taylor was a pretty girl,” Vinnie said quietly, “I tried to spark her once, but she turned me down. Thought herself too good for me, and her, just a waitress.”

“Well,you weren’t much better back then,” Daniel retorted sharply, and turned to leave the office, pausing at the door “Mark my words, Sheriff, the man who killed Molly is here in town, and I’m going to find him.”

Nate shook his head “I’d rather you left it to us, Mr deQuille. If you don’t mind….”

“I do mind, very much so. Molly didn’t deserve the death she had, nor did those other girls…” he frowned, and then quickly slammed the door behind him.

The remaining four men stood still as though movement would break the spell that deQuille’s disclosure had cast around them. It was Vinnie who spoke “I remember her telling me not to bother her, she said she had better things to consider than the likes of me.”

He shrugged as though it didn’t really matter, but at the time it had clearly rankled. Nate nodded and cleared his throat, reached for his hat and put his hand to the door,

“Vinnie, send a telegram to Mahoney in Jacksonville, tell him to let me have all the information he has on the Molly Taylor death, and -” he paused, stared into the air as though clutching for inspiration “Ask him if there were any other cases of missing girls who turned up dead.”

“What about the McGarthy place, Boss?”

“I’ll take the Cartwrights with me, but I want you to send that telegram and – for good measure – send one to Garvey as well, ask him the same.”

Vinnie nodded, cast a reproachful glare in the Cartwrights direction and waited for them to leave the building.. The sound of their footsteps had long receded before he followed their example, leaving the Sheriff’s office unlocked and unattended.

………………

Olivia came into the sitting room just as Sofia woke up, stretched and began to rub her eyes. She smiled at her daughter and then reached out to lift Nathaniel off the settee, he was still asleep. She felt his forehead to make sure there was no temperature, and then looked at her daughter

“Remember when you went upstairs into the attic and opened the trunk where Daddy’s uniforms were?”

Sofia nodded, rubbed her eyes again. After she blinked several times she nodded again, “There were lots of things in there…”

“I thought we could go up there again now, and explore.”

“Explore?”

“Why not? This is the best time to do it, when no one else is around, and all my chores are finished. I’ve an idea for a present for Daddy…do you want to come?” she smiled and extended a hand, her eyes twinkled, and Sofia giggled

“Is it going to be a surprise?”

“Yes, a big surprise.”

Nathaniel yawned, rubbed sleepy eyes and mumbled “Me too…”

He was quickly hoisted up and carried on Olivia’s hip, her arms secure around him, while his arms wrapped around her and held onto her tightly. Sofia followed behind, she still felt a little light headed, but her throat no longer pained her when she swallowed and she didn’t have that over whelming desire to cough any more.

Up the stairs and along the landing, and onto the door that led to the stairs that would take them to the attic. Olivia was smiling and she gave her daughter a conspiratorial wink, “Don’t forget, this is a secret, Sofia.”

Sofia nodded solemnly. She couldn’t help but wonder exactly what the secret could be…but said nothing, but followed along behind her mother, a slight smile on her face. Olivia placed Nathaniel down and told him to be good, he could run around and play, but not touch anything. Nathaniel was puzzled, there was nothing to touch, and therefore nothing to play with…he settled down beside his mother, sitting on the floor his legs folded beneath him and watched as she opened the big trunk, the one he associated with secrets and mysteries…even though he never yet understood the meaning of the words.

Olivia knew exactly what she was looking for and carefully lifted out the uniforms, gently caressing them as she did, before placing them on the floor. Nathaniel ran his fingers through the fringes of the gold epaulettes, and touched the brass buttons onf what was once Adam’s dress uniform. The sword in its sheath came next. Placed down carefully and this time Olivia raised a warning finger to her son and said the words “Don’t touch, it’s sharp.”

Other things appeared and were set down and finally Olivia smiled with delight and closed her fingers around several small velvet covered boxes. “Perfect” she whispered

“Daddy’s medals.” Sofia breathed

Olivia nodded, and opened each box in turn, Sofia and Nathaniel both craned forward to look more closely at the medals that shone as brightly as the day Adam received them. It was always a puzzle to Olivia as to why her husband chose to hide these away, she had asked him once but he had just shrugged and muttered that they weren’t that important, not really. But she had noticed a look on his face, faraway, distant for just a moment.

“Now then…not a word, remember?” she looked at them both, Nathaniel looked at Sofia and when she nodded, he did likewise. “Promise?” both nodded their heads and watched as Olivia began to close the trunk.

She paused and then stopped herself closing the lid down, instead she reached out for a box that she had forgotten existed. It had not belonged to her, nor to Adam but to Abigail Phillips, and for a moment her fingers traced the letters that had been written in old fashion calligraphy on the box. Abigail…her mother in law …and just perhaps, there were things inside that would be of some interest, to herself, about Robert.

Now she closed the trunk firmly, the little boxes in one hand and the larger box under her arm. She took the lead out of the room, and then stepped aside to let the children take the stairs, before following them and closing the door.

“What are you going to do with the medals, Mommy? Can I help? What can I do?”

“Just be very good and help me pick out some material, velvet of course, that would be best. Go to the sewing box and see what you can find.”

Sofia was only too happy to do as she was asked, Nathaniel came and leaned against his mothers knee and looked plaintively up into her face “Mommy – I’m thirsty.”

She nodded, ruffled his hair and put down her treasures. “Come along, we could all do with some thing to drink, that attic was dusty wasn’t it?”

Nathaniel nodded, looked at the boxes and put his finger to his lips “Shush” and she laughed, picked him up and hugged him before carrying him out to the kitchen

Sofia came back with the sewing box, it was quite big for a little girl, although she thought at 8 she could no longer be classed as a little girl any more. She set it down by the chair in which her mother would sit, and then picked up the boxes with the medals. She knew they were important and special, she heard her Grandpa telling Reuben and herself how proud they had been when they had arrived for Adam … medals that meant the President of the United States thought her Daddy was a very brave man, a hero. She felt her chest swell with pride as she looked down at them..her finger lightly caressed each one and when Olivia returned with a tray laden with drinks and cookies she was feeling so excited about their project that she could have burst.

………………………

“What’s on your mind?” Adam asked the Sheriff as they made their way towards the house that had led to McGarthy’s downfall, among other things.

Nate shook his head, his face as solemn as they had ever seen it, “My mind is totally confused, to be honest with you. I’m trying hard not to think too much about this Molly Taylor, and hoping that it has no connection with – with David McArthur. I just get an awful sick feeling in the gut though that it is, and that we’re dealing with a mad man, or someone who is just plain evil.”

Hoss nodded, he looked over at his brother and then stared ahead to the road that would lead them to the big empty house with the trees and a path that led to the river.

Chapter 43

The three horsemen paused their horses at the entrance to the driveway each one of them dwelling on thoughts of a man who would have kept a young woman captive in such a building. Nate had never known either of the McGarthy brothers who had owned one of the biggest mining consortiums in Nevada, but Adam and Hoss had plenty of memories to mull over ..the McGarthy brothers had done everything they could to ruin the Cartwrights, to bankrupt Ben, to get land for more open cast mining. Well, they were both dead now and the empty house stood at the end of the driveway, as dead as its owners.

An empty house resembles one of the bleakest sights with its empty windows staring down the entrance like sightless orbs. Memories of what it had been like just a few years earlier when McGarthy was having extra work carried out on it, the exterior painted bright, and the windows gleaming. Now it sat like a squat toad glowering at them and daring them to gain entry.

Adam and Hoss exchanged a look, which covered all the memories they had of the two men who had caused so much harm to so many. Then they nudged their horses forwards and behind them, Nate followed. They had been on a similar mission several years ago, but Candy had been the Sheriff then and they were investigating McGarthys murder or suicide, a man so loathed that his employees were drinking in the saloons in celebration of his death, irregardless of cause.

The driveway was overgrown with weeds, grass grew in wild patches, the trees crowded closer than they could remember, casting a damp and dismal enclave about them. They dismounted and stood by the steps that led up to the now less than impressive door.

“Aint’ no one been to the house from this entrance, Sheriff” Hoss muttered, “No sign of any vehicle, or horse bin here for a very long time.”

“I reckon if a man was wanting to keep hidden he would prefer the back entrance, close to the trees, wouldn’t he?” Nate replied, trying to keep his voice modulated, so that it would not show his irritation.

Both Cartwrights nodded and then all three turned and walked slowly around to the side of the building where some masonry had fallen in a crumbled mess into the path running alongside. It was the wall closest to the trees, and the most damp as a result. They stepped around the debris and continued on, avoiding low hanging branches until they came to the back entrance to the house.

The wood had swollen due to the process of too much heat in summer and too much damp in winter. Of course, it would have helped to have collected keys along the way but Nate had not thought of that, he was only thinking of getting into a house that would provide him with clues, an identity to a man who stole away young women and killed them.

They stood there for a moment, Hoss and Adam knew what they would have liked to have done but it would have been breaking the law so they waited. Nate scowled and kicked the door, then looked at Hoss, “Put your shoulder to it, Hoss.”

Hoss nodded, looked at Adam and raised his eyebrows and then slammed his shoulder into the wood. The door shivered under the onslaught. It remained firm. Hoss muttered “Doggone” and tried again.

Adam stepped forward and leaned into the door, peered through the glass panel and nodded, then as he turned away his jabbed his elbow into the glass which shattered, then he put his hand through the opening and fumbled for a moment. He withdrew his hand holding the key.

Hoss awarded his brother a slap on the back which rocked Adam on his heels, Nate took the key and inserted it into the lock. It clicked and the door swung open.

Their booted feet crunched on the broken glass from the door as they stepped inside.

The smell of damp and decay drifted towards them, cobwebs festooned the walls and ceilings, somewhere close by a mouse squeak and there was the sound of tiny claws skittering across a tiled floor.

“It doesn’t look like anyone has been here since McGarthy’s wife came and cleared the place out.” Hoss muttered.

Neither of the other men answered, but continued to walk into the wide entrance hall. On their left was the door which led to the staff quarters, which had been the home of Victor Ford and his young daughter Jenny. Black cobwebs span across from door frame to door, undisturbed. They continued onwards leaving their own footprints in the dust behind them.

Nate felt disappointment settle in his stomach. He had had such confidence that this was where Nettie had been hidden, and that had led to an optimism that now seemed premature. He took the door to the right and pushed it open, ignoring the cobwebs that swung down in tatters behind him.

Empty except for rubbish, balled up papers cast into the hearth, or strewn across the floor boards. Dust and debris, mouse droppings, everything one would expect from a long vacated building.

Now they wandered from room to room, taking their time but knowing it was a futile exercise. Their steps on the stairs were staccato and over loud, somewhere a door slammed back and forth

“Did you notice an open window?” Nate asked them and both shook their head, “Why is there that noise then? What’s causing the draught?”

Through each room, one by one. Nothing varied one from the other. All empty, devoid of life and no sign of there having been any for a long time. The door that had been swinging, creaking and slamming, had been the door to McGarthy’s study, where he had shot himself or so it had been initially assumed. A small window had been left open, not too widely, just enough to create a breeze.

Nate slammed the window shut and looked down into the trees. From this height he could see the bare branches, and beyond the branches were the outbuilding that Twitch had mentioned, and beyond them the river looking grey and cold from this distance.

Nothing. Just empty rooms in an empty house. Nate swallowed disappointment and led the way out of the building. The door was relocked. Adam regretted the broken glass and promised himself to get the window boarded up.

“We should check the out buildings,” Hoss said, “If whoever took the boat from one of them -”

Nate nodded, hope re-ignited. They hurried to make their way to the big sheds that had once provided stabling for the horses, and cover for the fine carriage in which McGarthy had taken so much pride.

“Someone’s been here.” Hoss said immediately, pointing to the disturbed earth by the doors, “Could have been Twitch, of course, checking on his boat.”

No one said anything but opened the big doors which created shafts of light into the dark interior. Hoss sniffed “Someone has been here “ he repeated but with more conviction in his voice, “Can you smell that?”

A mixture of smells…they sniffed the air and looked at one another and nodded. Smells that indicated human habitation, of food, coffee, unwashed bodies and urine. “Over there -” Hoss grabbed Nate by the arm so tightly that the Sheriff winced.

“Mmm, whoever it is doesn’t seem too worried about what he leaves behind…” Adam observed as he leaned forward and picked up a blanket from a mattress.

Nate nodded, located a lamp and lit it although the light from the door was ample, there were still too many shadows. He lowered it over the bedding, swung it round to take in the soiled plates, the empty cups, the coil of rope that was thrown across the floor.

They spent an hour scouring the place, looking in every conceivable corner, mounting the ladder to where the hay had been stored, and then finally meeting back at the doors and looking at each other.

“You weren’t expecting him to have written his name and address here were you?” Adam asked cynically, his eyebrows raised.

“No, but I had hoped for more evidence of Nettie having been here, of him -” Nate sighed and bit down on his bottom lip, “All this could have just been where Twitch chose to stay to look after his wretched boat.”

“Let’s take a closer look outside,” Hoss said quietly and placed a hand on the Sheriff’s arm, “It just requires patience.”

“Patience requires time…and I don’t have much time, Hoss. He could be picking out another victim already -” Nate choked on the words and shook his head, then walked away with his shoulders stiff and tension rippling through him.

“Hoss,” Adam turned to his brother “Go take another look inside, examine and check out everything”

Hoss nodded and looked over at the Sheriff, he shook his head “Guess he’s carrying quite a burden.”

“Yeah, he’s trying to find a murderer, and trying to prove he’s a good sheriff.”

Hoss nodded, and then picked up the lamp to return to his task inside the building. Adam walked to where the sheriff was standing, and upon Adam’s approach he pointed to the earth. “This is where he dragged out the boat.”

Adam glanced down and nodded, the signs were clear enough. He squatted down on to his haunches and carefully examined the prints left in the soil, then the score marks of a boat being dragged from the shed, they led all the way to the river bank.

“Did Twitch say the boat was inside the shed…he had never taken it to the river himself?”

“No..he said he had left it in the shed.”

Adam nodded, then stood up and walked alongside the footprints with his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the marks “Seems careless to have left these prints ..”

“Perhaps he had intended to come back later -”

“Mm, maybe.”

Hoss called, his voice cutting through their thoughts, and making both men turn towards the other man who was standing by the door. Hoss extended his hand “Found this -”

Strands of long hair, Nettie’s colour “On a pillow. Also …best come and see …”

He led them back to where the mattress had been laid upon the floor and pulled it away from the planks that formed the wall, then pointed to the scratched letters. They had to peer closely as they were faint imprints, marks more than anything. ‘Help me’

Nate nodded, “Her finger nails ….she must have scratched this with her fingernails…”

He took out a handkerchief and folded the strands of hair within it, “Anything else, Hoss?”

Hoss shook his head, looked at Adam, then scratched the back of his neck. Adam cleared his throat

“I reckon you should bring Mark Watts along, Nate. He’s a good tracker, knows how to check things out…”

“Yes, but you and Hoss…”

“We’re not deputies, Nate. We have no rights to trample all over your investigation…Mark is a good deputy, and he knows what he’s doing.”

Nate nodded, frowned “But you always -” he paused then sighed “I see, of course, you’re right, I could swear you both in -”

Adam shook his head “You’ve a good team working along with you, Nate. Having us riding shot gun won’t do their confidence in you any good.”

“I hear what you’re saying,Adam. Thank you.” he turned to Hoss “Thank you, Hoss.”

They shook hands, and if Nate was wishing he could have sworn the two men in as deputies he could see the sense of their words. A fleeting memory of Vinnie’s disappointed face nudged him, and he nodded “Let’s get back to town.”

Chapter 44

The sound of the horseman entering the yard made Sofia tingle with excitement. Daddy was home. The secret between her and Olivia bubbled away under the surface of her smiles and twinkling eyes ,but a warning glance from her mother reminded her that a secret was as binding as a promise. As Olivia quickly gathered her materials and the medals away into her sewing box, Sofia quickly sat down in the chair and picked up a book as though she had been reading all the time.

Nathaniel was first at the door when Adam walked into the room and so it was Nathaniel who got the first hug, got tossed up to the ceiling and got the first chuckles. Sofia sat very still and looked so angelic that Adam was immediately suspicious. He gave her a quick glance and frown,

“How’s my Princess today? Feeling any better?” he was smiling as he approached her and leaned down to tweak her nose and kiss her brow.

“Yes thank you, Daddy, much better.”

“School tomorrow then?” he looked at her, his eyes questioning and brow furrowed

“Yes, Daddy” she replied demurely.

She didn’t mind school quite so much now, and he had got used to her not complaining any more so he just nodded and approached his wife, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, then kissed her gently on the cheek “Been busy?” he murmured in her ear as his lips brushed against her cheek

“Yes, a lot to do.” she smiled, and kissed his nose “Go and wash up, I’ll get things ready. Sofia, could you get the table set out please.”

“Yes, Mommy” Sofia replied meekly and solemnly did as she was told, leaving the book open

Adam put his head to one side and watched her then turned to Olivia “Is she all right?”

“Yes, she’s fine. Much better.” Olivia replied in a no nonsense manner and moved away from him to take the sewing box into the next room

“Daddy” Nathaniel tugged at his fathers pants “Daddy. Went up da stairs.”

“Did you now.”

Adam squatted down and looked at his little boy who was beaming from ear to ear, ignoring his mother’s shake of the head Nathaniel wrapped his arms around Daddy’s neck “Saw fings.”

“Did you now?” Adam repeated and narrowed his eyes

“Big knife and shiny buttons ..”

“Aah, mmm.”

Olivia moved forward “Nathaniel, go and wash your face…I mean, Adam, go and wash up, dear, Reuben will be home soon and want to eat. Nathaniel…let go of daddy now.”

Nathaniel shrugged and released his father, then ran off, hopping as best he could on one leg. Adam watched him go and then looked at Olivia

“You went into the attic?”

“Yes, there was something I wanted to find there.”

At the table Sofia froze and stared wide eyed at her mother, then glanced at Adam who was smiling

“Oh and what was that?”

“Abigails box…” she half turned and indicated the box that was on the side table by her chair “I wanted to rummage through old letters and catch up on some history.”

Adam slightly frowned, old history, Abigail Phillips equated to = Robert. He nodded and turned away, “I’d best get cleaned up.”

Olivia watched him go without any idea of the hurt she had aroused in his mind. Sofia looked at her and was confused, but then Olivia winked and nodded her head. The secret was safe.

………………

Olivia took Hannah and Sofia into town the next morning, collecting Rosie Canaday along the way. The buggy was just big enough for the four of them to be comfortable. Reuben rode past them on the way, Max had long legs and loped at a good speed. He would be in the livery before Olivia and the girls arrived, and Reuben would be in the yard with his Gang.

Lilith saw them coming and waved, she was hugging her books against her thin chest, looking dreamy eyed. She was growing up, her face no longer that of a child, more the contours of the young woman she would become, a pretty woman like her mother had been. She paused at the gates and waited for the three girls to clamber down

“Good morning, Mrs Cartwright”

“Good morning, Lilith, Is your mother at the hospice today?”

“Not until this afternoon.”

Olivia nodded, kissed the girls, even Rosie, and waved them goodbye as they mixed and mingled with the other girls at the school gates.

Her next stop was the jewellers. Mr Coutts opened the door to the jingle of the bell and greeted her with a smile

“You’re early, Mrs Cartwright.” he said as he turned the notice from Closed to Open

“I wanted to ask a favour before I went to the hospice. “

He nodded, he had a soft spot for Olivia, he found Hester intimidating with her loud voice and flaming red hair and the blue eyes that could skewer him to the wall at a glance. Mary Ann he thought was a little flighty, too pretty for her own good. But this Mrs Cartwright was sensible, and kind, and had a gentle way about her. Apart from anything else, Mr Coutts could remember Martha Dent, Olivia’s mother, and had, as a young man, formed many day dreams about her. Of course, this he would never mention to anyone, it was his secret and as Sofia had begun to realise many adults had many secrets.

“What can I do for you?”

Olivia carefully produced the two medals and placed them upon the counter. He took them up, one by one and held them in his hand, read the inscription sighed “Your husband is a very unique man, Mrs Cartwright.”

“Yes….” she nodded, she knew that, she knew the scars that this unique man had garnered which were more like medals than the two held in the old mans’ hands now.

“What do you want me to do with them?”

“I would be grateful if you could mount them for me…or if you knew anyone who could do that? A glass box, and mounted on velvet. I’ve brought some samples..” she pulled out several swatches of velvet, purple, dark blue, violent red…

“Leave them with me, dear. I’ll do what I can…and…both together or each in a box of their own?”

“Whichever you think best.” she paused “It’s a secret. I want them to be a surprise gift.”

He nodded, smiled and took the materials from her hand, “I’ll have something finished by the end of the week.”

“Oh thank you Mr Coutts.”

He watched her go, sighed a little at the memory of lost dreams, and then slipped the medals and materials into a drawer.

Olivia hurried her way along to the hospice. From a window deSousa watched her, a scowl on his face. Those women, he shook his head, those women had caused all this fuss, all this trouble. He felt a wriggle of anger stirring inside him every time he saw one of them entering ‘his’ building. As for Bridie Martin, he shook his head, he despised her more than anybody.

Nate Carney saw Olivia just before she entered the building, calling out to her as he hurried with long loping strides to catch her up. They exchanged pleasantries before he asked her if Adam was going to be in town that day and if not, would it be convenient to ride out later to talk to him.

“Well, he won’t be back until this evening, Sheriff.”

“Very well, I’ll call by later this evening…”

She smiled and nodded, then paused, “Why not come and have dinner with us, Sheriff…”

“Why not start calling me Nate?”

They smiled and then laughed together amicably, “I know, I’m sorry, one gets so used to the formalities -” Olivia said with the laughter still in her voice

“I know. And I appreciate the offer, I’ll see you later…”

They parted with Nate touching the brim of his hat politely and she smiling as she watched him turn away.

From a window in another office overlooking the street a tall dark haired man watched the couple separate and go their differing ways. His eyes followed Olivia into the hospice and then trailed back to watch as Nate approached his Office, his head bowed as he perused a telegram that he had pulled out of his jacket pocket.

……………..

Sofia had not heard the conversation between her parents that previous evening. She was totally unaware that the hiding place of Nettie Groom had been located beyond reasonable doubt so when she ventured to suggest to Lilith that they explored for themselves to see if they could best the boys by finding the location she was somewhat deflated to learn that it had already been found.

“But didn’t you know, Sofia?” Lilith asked, and her solemn face looked anxiously at her little friend, “Your Pa and Uncle Hoss found it, with the Sheriff.”

“They did?”

Her eyes went round and she blinked, fancy that, her own father had found what she had hoped would be her very own discovery, with Liliths help of course.

“I suppose he didn’t think to mention it because he would have had other things on his mind. Sheriff Carney and Deputy Watts went out again later and checked it out. There’s no doubt about it, not now, they found evidence.”

“Evidence!”

“I only know from what I overheard them saying when I was going past them back home yesterday. But -” she paused “they still don’t know who it is.”

Sofia nodded, she looked up at the sky and then frowned “It must have been awful sad for her, when they – those ladies – took me away from Mommy and Daddy at least I could see the sky, and I had lots of toys to play with…the most beautiful dolls house.”

Lilith nodded, she had heard all about this ordeal of Sofia’s, they had stayed awake several times when Sofia had been staying with the Martins and exchanged the moments in their lives that had scared them long enough to gouge memories in their minds that would never be forgotten.

Lilith slipped her hand into Sofia’s and smiled “We came through all right though, didn’t we? You have your Mommy and Daddy, and I have John and Barbara, so we’re all right, arn’t we?”

Sofia nodded, “Do you think Nettie will get better? Will she go back to her parents do you think?”

Lilith shrugged “Daddy doesn’t talk about it, being a Doctor you see?” she sighed dramatically, “They have to keep things secret.”

Sofia nodded, “Oh, I see….” but she didn’t really, so she sighed and nodded and when Lilith suggested a little lesson on their signing she was almost happy to comply.

………….

Christopher Orr was talking to a young woman when Olivia left the hospice to return home. She paused a moment to watch the couple, noticed how he smiled at her and showed a sincere interest in what she was saying. She was unsure who the woman was at first but eventually recognised her as Miss Lucille Agutter the young lady Orr had escorted to the performance of Romea and Juliet all those weeks ago.

She watched as Lucille playfully tapped Orr on the arm and pretended to scold him, and Orr just laughed, very pleasantly, before taking hold of the offending hand and lifting it to his lips, kissed the fingers.

Olivia smiled, nodded to herself and hurried onwards to get the buggy and return home. She passed Mr Coutts and waved to him, then she reached the livery where Armstrong hitched up the horse to the buggy and actually took her elbow to help her get aboard. She thanked him and then took the reins between her hands and was soon riding down the centre of C Street, a smile on her face, dreamy and content.

There was no sign of Orr and his companion as she drove on. She didn’t give them a second thought, but was wondering whether or not to visit Mrs Groom. Even that decision was taken from her as she noticed Mrs Garston and her husband striding down the path to the Groom’s door, looking determined rather than sympathetic, so she nodded to herself and told herself that there would be another day, perhaps a better one too, when Nettie would be well on the road to recovery.

Chapter 45

Nate Carney arrived at the Cartwrights house not long after Adam, so that as he dismounted in the yard the rancher stepped from the stable to see who had arrived.

“Nate?” He lost his frown into a welcoming smile “What brings you here?”

Nate returned the smile despite feeling a trifle uncomfortable, he rubbed his chin with long fingers, an action that made Adam smile recognising it as one if those giveaway signs that the sheriff was feeling self conscious.

“Whatever the reason, you’re more than welcome. You should know that by now”

“Actually I saw Olivia in town and she invited me to supper so that I could discuss something with you..”

“Ah,” Adam rocked slightly on his heels and pursed his lips

“It concerns Nettie, and a whole lot more …I appreciate what you said about you not being deputies but there’s some background Information that you and your family can give me that my men can’t” He stopped there, leaving the intention of his visit hanging fire.

Adam nodded, smiled again and placed a reassuring hand in the sheriffs arm, “Quite understand,” he nodded towards the house “Go in in, I’ll see to your horse”

Nate nodded, and turned to the house unaware of just how obviously the relief he felt had shown on his face. Adam took the reins of the other man’s horse and, deep in thought, led it into the stable.

As the door of the ranch house opened Nathaniel jumped to his feet “Me first me first “ he yelled as he catapulted himself across the room and threw himself at the man as he was coming in “Daddy ..Daddy”

Sofia giggled, hiding her smiles behind her hand as Nathaniel almost bounced off Nate’s long legs and peered up .. and up ..to take in the full length of this newcomer. The little boys mouth opened his eyes widened and he stared around for someone to reassure him that all was well.

Olivia swooped him up and then smiled at Nate “I’m glad you came, Nate ..”

“Thank you, Ma’am, Olivia I mean…that was quite a welcome I jest got..” he grinned at the child who was hugging into his mother “I saw Adam outside, he’s just seeing to the horses”

Olivia nodded, her face twinkling with smiles as she put Nathaniel down. Sofia was still giggling and grabbed her little brother by the hand “Do you know who that is, Nathaniel? Its the sheriff! If you are a naughty boy he”ll arrest you and put you in jail”

“Sofia ..no teasing,” Olivia warned with a shake of the head and a look of reproof at her daughter

“I doubt if I’ll have cause to arrest any one tonight..” Nate said in his deep slow drawl and with an equally slow but pleasant grin “And thank you. Little man, for such a warm welcome.”

He leaned down and placed a gentle hand on Nathaniel’s head, smiled and then broke away. Reuben approached and stood by watching as the sheriffs unbuckled his gun belt. The star on his vest caught the light and shone

“Have you always been a sheriff?” Reuben now asked,

“Quite most of my working life” Nate replied “I was my Pa’s deputy for some time”

The door opened and Adam stepped into the room, removed his hat and smiled at everyone, gave his wife a wink before picking Nathaniel up for the little boy had sidled over to his father quietly in order to get his attention.

“I’ve sent for Pa and my brothers to join us later, Nate…best we all get our heads together on this ..”

The sheriff nodded “Certainly saves time, I won’t have to repeat myself …” he smiled again at Olivia “Thanks again, Ma’am, Olivia ..”

They pretended they hadn’t noticed him blushing.

…………..

The table had been cleared and the children in their beds when Ben, Joe and Hoss were heard in the yard. Nate immediately rose to his feet and walked over to where his long coat was hanging. By the time the Cartwrights boots were heard on the wooden planks of the verandah he had extracted a handful of papers which he took with him to the table. He looked over at Adam who just nodded as he also got to his feet.

Olivia answered the door, pulling it wide for the three men who removed their hats and began to unbutton their coats, each one leaned in to receive and bestow a kiss for Olivia.

“I’ll get you some coffee and then get to my bed..” she said smiling at Ben who was looking thoughtfully at the sheriff now, thoughtful and suspicious. “I think you gentlemen are in for a long night. Nate, I’ve made up the spare room, please feel welcome to stay over.”

Nate gave her the benefit of his lazy smile and thanked her saying that if it proves as long as she thought he would be glad to know he wouldn’t have to take the long ride back into town.

By the time coffee was brewing and the tray brought in and set down all four men were deep in thought as Nate placed various papers down, and what was obviously a long telegram lay in its centre. They bade her goodnight and turned their attention to the items on the table.

He picked up the telegram…”You can read it for yourselves but Mahoney confirms the murder of Molly Taylor. He is sending all relevant case notes via courier. Also ..” he paused “shortly after her body was found a woman went missing. Her name was Leanne Darcy. She was engaged to be married to a young lawyer in Jacksonville. Her body was never found but her clothing was ..”.He picked up a newspaper cutting “deQuille gave me this along with newspaper articles he had found over the years that had been of interest to Virginia City readers.” his long fingers touched each of them before he returned to what he had been saying.“Leanne was never found alive, or dead, but all her clothing was found in a neat pile on a bed in a hotel room, her engagement ring and other jewellery placed on top.”

“She may have just left town…” Joe said quietly “run out on the boyfriend ..”

“When they examined the clothing there was blood on some garments…and ..one shoe .. was soaked in blood” the sheriff murmured in reply to Joe’s suggestion

They were quiet and each man sighed before Hoss said “One shoe? Reckon she was shot like the others?”

“The heel of the shoe was broken, as though it had snapped as she fell”

“Any suspects.” Ben asked quietly

“Several .. her fiancé obviously but he suffered a nervous collapse as a result and the longer the search took the worse he became,,.two other men..cleared with good alibi’s .. and a man who had only been in town a few months. Mahoney confirmed he had arrived from Placerville not long before Molly Taylor was found. He worked in the Pharmacy. He was young, good looking, pleasant and thought to be religious…his employer said he was always reading the Bible. His name was…”

“David MacArthur.” Joe said immediately but Nate shook his head

“No, he gave his name as Milton Buchanan!”

There was silence. Joe scrunched up his eyes and shook his head, Hoss bit his lips and rolled his eyes while Ben raised his head to stare at the ceiling. Adam rubbed his jaw and frowned at the papers still on the table, but it was Ben who broke the silence

“ That links the murders in Jacksonville to Ingrid …it just isn’t possible for there to be someone by that name..”

“So..I’m right in thinking Milton Buchanan was connected to this Ingrid.” Nate asked

“The real Milton Buchanan was Ingrid’s husband and Hester’s brother, ” Hoss muttered with his face creased into a scowl “So? What happened to him? Was he arrested.”

“He had an alibi…and of course as they didn’t link him with Mrs Buchanan and the incident at Goat Springs they accepted what they were told. He left a few weeks later and went to Genoa..or rather, he boarded a coach for Genoa.” Nate leaned over to pick up a paper. “Mahoney went to check on him, the suddenness of his departure aroused his suspicion. When they examined his rooms they found two boxes..which contained hair…that had been cut from Molly Taylor and Leanne Darcy”

“Why would he leave such evidence behind? He was asking to be caught!” Joe said, staring without seeing the words written in the articles in his hands

“I’ll know more when I get the case notes from him”

Ben finished reading the papers he had picked up, and put them back in the table

“So we have a link to Ingrid’s death, to the man who was with her in the stagecoach, and…to Mrs Chandlers death …”. he paused “is that right?”

Nate nodded “And to Netties abduction…” he paused “The clothes tie them together of course…”. He paused before restarting “With regard to Nettie, she was not shot in the location of the boat or those outbuildings. There was no blood found anywhere.”

“But I ..” Hoss began and stopped “but that means she was taken there afterwards..”

“But what about the scratches on the wall, the proof we found …that she had been there” Joe now asked and glanced at Adam “You’re being very quiet, haven’t you anything to say?”

Adam just shook his head, and turned away “Coffee, gentlemen?”

Silence greeted that comment, he poured out the black steaming liquid and picked up his own cup. The others one by one did likewise. Then they turned back to the table “So he didn’t go to Genoa.” Adam asked and Nate shook his head

“Mahoney made enquiries, no one of that name or description arrived in Genoa from Jacksonville or Placerville at that time nor any time thereafter. He disappeared”. He pushed some papers together into a neat pile Then picked up a newspaper cutting “deQuille … found this ..”

They read it. Almost familiar writing … a young woman called Monica Danone had been abducted from her home, anyone with any information etc etc. Another article dated several months later, which Ben read out

‘The body of Miss Monica Danone was found this morning. The Marshall has released the following information…Miss Danone’s body was found lying at the bottom of the ravine at Cutlers Bend. She had been shot twice although they they were not the cause of her death, the injuries sustained in her fall were contributory to it. Miss Danone had been missing from her home for three months and despite thorough searches being made to trace her whereabouts there had been no sightings of her until the recent discovery. This is being treated as a suspicious death and the Marshall would appreciate ..” Ben sighed and out the paper down “18 months ago ..a town just outside Sacramento.”

“Just how many ..girls ..is that ..”. Hoss murmured

“That we know of ..” Joe added

“Fact is, gentlemen,’ Ben said with his voice gruffer than usual “ at present he is here, in this locality…and we have to find him before any more young girls suffer at his hands.”

Adam carefully pushed the papers into separate piles, then put a finger on one, looked up at them “So, we’re agreed he started this journey with Ingrid at Goat Springs, continued on to Jacksonville and then onto Cutlers Creek …” the three other men nodded and watched as Adam pushed the papers into some form of order, he tapped each in confirmation “Jacksonville. Cutlers Creek. Carson City. Virginia City.” he looked up at each of them “Perhaps we should contact Marshall Duggan and see if there were any missing girls prior to Ingrid and Molly Taylor.”

“Why?” Joe asked and then raised his eyebrows “You think he could have – started all this even before – Ingrid?”

Adam nodded, glanced at Joe and could see the emotion in the younger mans’ face. He knew it was hard to hear all this, he knew that none of them understood how another human being could cold bloodedly kill for whatever reason, but to kill like this …and Joe would wear his heart on his sleeve, he would no doubt have nightmares.

“He’s an arrogant person, educated if he worked in a pharmacy.” Nate drawled slowly and frowned “Do you have a map of the territory, Adam?”

A map was found and spread out, obscuring the scraps of paper. They leaned forward and watched Nate trace the journey the killer had taken, Adam marked a x at each town…Nate paused and frowned “There are three directions he could have gone before Carson City.”

“Seems he’s going in a kind of trajectory…my guess is he went there…” Adam tapped a town called Huntersville.

“Or here …” Hoss pointed to a town called Jefferson Point.

Ben shook his head “He has a pattern, doesn’t he? Best contact the law in Huntersville…see if anyone went missing during the past year.”

“deQuille may have had something about it, but -” Nate shook his head “He’s been pretty helpful. Maybe the killer decided to just go to Carson City from Huntersville….”

They looked at each other, and Ben shook his head again “Then came here, to Virginia City. I wonder why….”

Adam nodded, glanced at Joe and could see the emotion in the younger mans’ face. He knew it was hard to hear all this, he knew that none of them understood how another could cold bloodedly kill for whatever reason, but to kill like this …and Joe would wear his heart on his sleeve, he would no doubt have nightmares.

Chapter 46

The night was quiet and all that could be heard was the gentle cadence of the horses feet upon the hard packed earthen track home. Joe parted from his father and brother at the fork which would lead them to the Ponderosa ranch house and take him to his own home, the house behind the hill.

As he slowed the horse to a walk Joe thought over the things they had discussed with Nate. It went beyond his understanding that anyone could kill a woman, let alone abduct one for weeks before killing them in the manner of this madman. He had raised the opinion that the man must be mad, surely no one sane could commit even one of these crimes, let alone a whole string of them.

Nate had looked at Ben and raised his eyebrows at that and the older man had shaken his head,

“This is not the work of a mad man, Joe. A mad man may lash out, kill in a frenzy, or he may even plot out a revenge killing for some grievance but this goes beyond madness. This is evil.”

“What’s the difference?” Hoss had then asked and Ben had sighed and shaken his head before answering,

“An evil person – you would never know they were evil, not until they acted, when they took off the mask. They can appear charming, inoffensive – but behind that, behind the eyes, they are always looking for another victim, or another means to satisfy their lusts. We all have a measure of good and bad in us, we often wrestle with them but our conscience usually steers us in the right direction, but when a person is born evil, then there is no conscience. It either never existed, or they killed it as soon as they were able to walk!”

Nate pursed his lips and had bowed his head, then nodded “I reckon so…” was all he had said and that had caused Joe’s flesh to creep and a tremble of fear trickle up his spine.

Now he dismounted and approached his home. He led the horse into the stable and unsaddled it, took care of its needs before stepping out and closing the door behind him. Somewhere an owl hooted, there was the sound of its wings close by and he glanced behind him to watch as it disappeared into the greyness of the night.

The moon peeked out and shone down just as he reached the door, he paused again and looked over his shoulder. Then he pushed the door open.

Mary Ann was waiting for him, a shawl over her shoulders and the fire dying down. At the sound of the door closing she stood up and turned to wards him, smiled a welcome and hurried over to hug him. He held her tightly, more tightly than he had intended so that she stepped back and looked up at him,

“What’s wrong? Is it Nettie? Has she died?”

“No, she hasn’t…” he released her a little, giving them both breathing space, but his arms still held around her waist, “No, she’s still – as she was.”

“Then – what’s wrong, Joe?” she stepped back, beyond the circle of his arms now and took a deep breath “What’s happened?”

He said nothing but put his hat and coat away, unbuckled his gun belt and then looked at her. He managed to give her a smile and asked if there was any coffee

“Yes, but – “ then she nodded and turned away, into the kitchen area aware that he was following her. She listened to the sound of a chair being pulled away from the table as she collected two cups from the shelf and poured out the still hot if slightly stewed coffee, and by the time she had finished he was sitting there, watching her.

“Mary Ann, there’s been some developments.” he frowned and turned the cup round so that he could grip the handle, swallowed a gulp “They aren’t – they don’t make for pleasant hearing just that it seems -” he paused again, should he tell Mary Ann all the knew, what little that amounted to really, he cleared his throat again “There have been other victims. Nate’s going to check with some towns further out…to make sure….”

“More killings? Women?”

“Yes, women.”

“Like Nettie?”

She meant that they had been young, pretty …Joe nodded again, “Yes.”

“Oh Joe…that’s – that’s terrible.”

They sat in silence for a moment or so, then Joe picked up his cup, “Look, sweetheart, we don’t know where this person is, or who he is, so -” he stared down into the dark liquid, steam still rising from its surface “So when you go into town, I don’t want you to go alone. I want you to take Ezra or Hank, or Lee..” he raised his eyes and looked at her face, a pale oval in the dusky light of the room, “Please do that for me.”

“Don’t you think, my dear, that’s going a little – well – a little extreme?”

He swallowed again, put down his cup and reached out to take hold of her hand “Mary Ann, you don’t seem to remember what it was like that time Billy took you and – and I couldn’t find you. Do you think I want to risk something like that happening again?”

“But Billy – “

“Billy was just muddled and confused and got everything twisted around in his head, but this – this person – isn’t like Billy. He’s -”

“Mad?” she asked simply, her grey eyes darker now, and looking directly at him

He thought of what his Pa had said, wondered briefly if she would dismiss his warning if he said what he was thinking so he hauled in a deep breath “Sweetheart, just think of something worse and just do what I ask.”

………………….

Ben dismounted outside Adam’s house and looked around him. Strange how a single conversation can make everything appear less innocent, less beautiful, How it makes a man look over his shoulder all the time. He strode over to the door and pushed it open just as Adam was buckling on his gun belt. They exchanged a glance, Ben nodded “Ready?”

Olivia came and smiled as she leaned in to kiss him “Are you going to McManus’, Pa?”

“I am, as soon as your husband is ready.” Ben replied as he returned her kiss, “Hoss’ has the wagon ready, he’s waiting at the top of the track.”

Adam nodded, kissed his wife and looked rather meaningfully at her so that she nodded, and kissed him again. Nathaniel ran to them, his whip and top in his hands, and held them up for Ben to admire, which he did of course. Adam reached out and gently caressed the curve of her face, “Don’t forget?”

“I won’t -” she assured him and stepped back, grabbing at her little boy to make sure he didn’t run out and get in the way.

“Bye Grandpa, Bye Daddy.”

Both men turned to wave a farewell to the woman and the boy standing in the door way. Ben glanced at Adam “Hester wasn’t too happy when Hoss asked her not to go into town on her own. She can be fiery when she wants to be…”

“Well, I can understand that,” Adam replied, one foot in the stirrup and then into the saddle, he turned the horse round “Olivia thinks we are being over cautious.”

“She didn’t throw anything at you, did she?” Ben asked with a sigh in his voice which made Adam look twice at him before deciding that discretion was the better part of valour and who was he to argue with The Immortal Bard!

“Where’s Joe?”

“Going into town. He said he’d collect the mail.” Ben raised his eyebrows “Nate get off alright?”

“Left early. He’s got a list of names to contact…hopefully there’ll be some light at the end of the tunnel before too long.”

“A name and an arrest would be better…” Ben grumbled.

………………….

Joe stood on the side walk of C street for a few moments just watching as people entered the Pharmacy. Through the large plate glass window he could see shadowy figures passing too and fro. The window display consisted of the traditional trio of large glass orbs filled with different coloured waters. It had always fascinated him as a child, to look at the waters through the window and see his reflection, distorted, grinning back at him.

He looked at the list that he had got Hop Sing to write out for him and then pushed the door open and stepped inside. Applebys Pharmacy was owned by Thomas Appleby, a pleasant man slightly stooped over from his many years of bending his tall frame in order to roll pills, and pound powders for his many customers. He had arrived before Comstock had made his famous discovery, standing on a platform by his wagon extolling the virtues of some tincture or other. Now he had several pharmacies in the territory of Nevada, scattered about in various towns and employed a number of fully qualified pharmacists and chemists.

He straightened himself up as the bell tinkled as the door opened and nodded over at Joe.

“Something from Hop Sing?” he smiled, a moustache, large and fluffy and white hung over his upper lip.

“Yes, Mr Appleby.” Joe glanced around “Working alone?”

“No, no, not at all.” Appleby turned towards a door which was at the back of the building. “Ah,

Mr Sutherland. Mr Sutherland, this is Joe Cartwright.” he smiled at Joe, “I don’t think you’ve been here since Mr Sutherland arrived to help. Mr Sutherland is an expert chemist, Joe. You’re in safe hands…”

Mr Sutherland looked at Joe thoughtfully, and gave a slight shrug and a smile as though he and Joe were complicit in dismissing Mr Applebys’ vague comment. Joe handed over his list and grinned

“I’ve always meant to ask you about the difference between a pharmacist and a chemist. Aren’t they the same ?” he leaned against the counter, placing both hands down upon the glass top.

“Certainly not.” Appleby replied “I’m a pharmacist…I dispense drugs in a hospital or pharmacy, whilst Mr Sutherland here is a specialist in the science of chemistry at a professional level.”

“Oh,” Joe nodded, his eyes and mouth rounded and his eyebrows raised at an acute angle indicating that he was none the wiser.

Mr Sutherland was strolling back and forth with the list in his hand, opening glass doors, unlocking some and removing small cachets, then relocking the door, placing a small pyramid of drugs and bottles on the desk. “I think that is everything Mr Hop Sing has on the list…”

He smiled, a pleasant smile while his eyes were gentle beneath heavy lids and a fringe of thick lashes. He was a handsome man and when he smiled Joe was convinced that none came more sincere than this man. He watched as the man placed everything in a bag before handing them over to him.

“Give Hop Sing my regards, won’t you? I hope he found the salicylic acid of some help with his tooth ache.”

“Tooth ache? Oh yes, thanks ..” Joe paused “Have you been here very long. I can’t recall seeing you around town before?”

“I can’t recall seeing you around town before either, Mr Cartwright.” Sutherland replied, “But I’ve been here some time now, a good few months.”

“Months?” Joe frowned and nodded “Not long then?”

“Mr Sutherland got a transfer from my Pharmacy in Cutlers Creek” Appleby said and smiled “He’s a first class chemist. An improvement on old Browning.”

Joe nodded, and muttered something about anyone would have been, Browning was a disaster.

“Well, Mr Sutherland -”

“Gil – Gil Sutherland” the young man smiled and extended a hand which Joe shook, with a smile

“Next time I’m in town I’ll treat you to a beer…”

“A pleasure, Mr Cartwright.”

Joe nodded, as though to confirm the arrangement, then nodded to Appleby before turning to take himself and Hop Sings supply of drugs out of the store. He was aware of Sutherland watching him with a quizzical look in his eyes.

Chapter 47

Joe stood opposite the Pharmacy for some time with the bag of drugs in one hand and the other hand toying with the toggle on his jacket. He was a local boy, one of the sons of the first man to settle down and raise an empire and as such everyone knew him, a man who had been in the territory all his life long.

There had been a time when it had been claustrophobic, people knowing him so well, knowing what drinks he would order when he entered a saloon, what women he had dated before he married Mary Ann, knew all about his mishaps and misadventures. He had been angry at the time, angry at his brother for leaving the Ponderosa, for leaving – him – and going to sea, while he stayed where he was, living in some kind of goldfish bowl, seeing the same people, doing the same things, going round and round and round.

He sighed and turned his feet away and walked slowly back to where he had left his horse. He had had an idea but now, he felt as though, once again, he had made an error of judgement. Like that time when he had sought freedom, and found himself caught in a tragedy of huge proportions, and, as he looked back now, he had to admit even some of those would now be deemed historical .

“You look like a man who lost a dollar and found a nickel”

He glanced up and smiled at Roy who stood so close to him that their shoulders brushed against each other, “I was just reminiscing.”

“Ah is that what they call it. Well, you looked as though you were about to fall over your own feet.” Roy smiled, his eyes twinkled friendly and warm “How about a drink?”

“Don’t see why not…” he replied and glanced over his shoulder. “You know Gil Sutherland?”

“Gil? Sure, pleasant young man. Friendly.”

“Mmmm, not been here long.”

“No, he hasn’t.” Roy slid his eyes sideways, frowned “Meaning ?”

Joe shrugged and at the door to the saloon he stopped to look once again over his shoulder, then looked at Roy “Have you seen Nate this morning?”

“I have. He told me about your late evening discussion – and he’s been firing off telegrams all over the state since he got back.”

“Oh, well, that’s good.”

“If you say so…”

“Don’t you think there could be some truth in what we suspect, that those girls – all those girls – could be connected to the one person?”

“Could be.” Roy walked to the counter and nodded to Zack, “Two beers…” he nodded to a free table, “Over there…”

Roy sat down slowly, he hated to admit it but most things he did lately were done slowly, or at least more so than in the past, more so than he would like to have admitted. He looked at Joe

“Got any facts to support your theory?”

“I haven’t – just -”

“Can’t go making accusations without solid facts, son” Roy nodded to Zack as the two full glasses were placed in front of them on the table,.

“Have to base facts on some form of assumption though, Roy” Joe said quietly as he picked up his glass and sipped at the beer.

“True, but you can’t go around looking at everyone and suspecting them jest because they’re new to the town. Sides which, Gil has been employed by Appleby for a very long time.”

“Really?”

Roy nodded, Joe could see the through the thin strands of hair that were still clinging stubbornly to the old mans scalp which were carefully combed over each morning. “Appleby owns a number of Pharmacies through the territory, Gil works for Appleby, some months here, another few months elsewhere. It’s an arrangement that suits them both fine.” he swallowed down some of the beer and looked at Joe, shook his head “Don’t go spinning ideas on that, Joe. “

Joe just shrugged and looked thoughtfully at the old man. He knew that at one time Roy would be yanking flimsy ideas out of them and building cases around what they came up with..and quite a number of times they were right. Roy had had a sharp instinct for the wrong type of person, he claimed he could smell them, but if he did he must have lost his sense of smell since he retired. Joe frowned “But don’t you think he could be the perfect person…I mean … travelling about the territory, like he does, and getting to know people – young women for example …”

A shadow loomed above them and looking up they welcomed Nate with a smile and nod, Joe signalled to Zack for another beer, while the Sheriff pulled out a chair and sat down. He placed his hat on the table and inclined his head to one side “You both looked very conspiratorial.”

Joe shrugged and Roy blew out his cheeks, fluffing his moustache out as he did so. Nate nodded, and thanked Zack for the beer “Well, any other Cartwrights in town?”

“No, they’re at the lumber camp, got to get planking for the work they have at the weekend.” Joe leaned forward, fingers cradling his glass as his eyes fixed on Nate “You sent those telegrams off?”

“Yep, just waiting to hear from any of ’em.” Nate frowned, brows lowered over attractive eyes, “I’m hoping that there’s no connection, I can’t bear the thought of other young women – “

All three nodded, words did not need to be expressed. They turned to look at the doors as they were swung open and two men entered, deSousa was one and Christopher Orr was the other. They looked over at Joe, Nate and Roy and Orr nodded, smiled a greeting while deSousa rounded his shoulders and turned his back on them. Having placed their orders the two men strode over to a table as far from the other three as possible, deSousa keeping his back to them in his determination not to acknowledge a Cartwright.

……….

Sofia listened with some attention to what David Riley was saying. It interested her to know that the house where Nettie had been ‘found’ had not been the actual place where she had been hidden away, and Davy was spinning his own theory on it while the boys were listening, nodding as though he were an authority on the matter. She shook her head, and walked away, it wouldn’t surprise her if he came up with some suggestion of some other house or some such, he was so full of ‘hot air’ as Jimmy had said.

Reuben stepped away from the crowd and caught up with her, so that together they walked a little way to where they could sit down and eat their lunch time snack. “Davy likes showing off…”

Sofia nodded “Yes, he does and one day, he could get into trouble, couldn’t he?”

Reuben nodded and looked over at the little group of boys “Yes, but I don’t think he realises he shouldn’t speak so free. His Pa would tan him good if he heard how he talks like that,”

“Where do you think Nettie went, Reuben?”

Her brother shrugged and bit into a sandwich “I don’t know, perhaps somewhere in town, because she had to be taken from wherever it was to the boat, didn’t she?”

Sofia nodded “In the dark?”

“I don’t know.” Reuben shrugged, his shoulders reaching his ears, he didn’t like thinking about it, didn’t like remembering how Nettie had looked as she had lain in that boat as though she were dead.

“There’s lots of empty houses in town now, and stores, and barns ..”

“Yeah, she could have been hidden away anywhere, in any of those places.”

Sofia ate her sandwich carefully, staring out at the boys, watching Davy gesturing, flinging his arms out wide and looking as though he were about to take off in excitement. She shook her head

“There’s no point in him getting all excited as though he knows everything,” she frowned “He just makes things up.”

“Yeah, but the other kids think he’s great even though sometimes they make fun of him behind his back.”

Sofia nodded again and licked her fingers carefully, “If the man who had Nettie kept her in town, then – perhaps – someone saw him. Kids here at school may have noticed – don’t you think so?”

“Noticed? What? A man carrying a woman about the street?” Reuben quirked an eyebrow, and shrugged “He’d be crazy to try that … everyone would notice.”

“Sometimes kids notice things though, don’t they? Like an empty house with a light shining….or shadows moving about or ..”

“Sofia, this isn’t a fairy story, you know?” Reuben shook his head “I keep telling Davy his mouth is going to get him into trouble one of these days, and if you’re not careful, it will get you into trouble too”

.”What? Davy’s big mouth?” Sofia giggled, her eyes slanted to where the boys were splitting away now, and she put her hand over her mouth

“You know what I mean.” her brother said with another shrug, he dipped into his box and took out a slice of cake, “Don’t go around asking questions.”

“Pooh ..” Sofia tossed her head and wrinkled her nose

“I mean it.” he put down the cake and selected an apple instead “Don’t be nosy.”

Sofia said nothing but nibbled on her sandwich and glanced around her. Homework this evening would consist of writing down the names of all the children she knew in town, who lived near an empty property, who may have noticed something, even if they didn’t realise the significance of it themselves. Of course, she couldn’t put it in those words, but she knew what she had in mind…and when Lilith came and sat down beside her, she didn’t even notice until Lilith had joggled her arm and said ‘Hi’.

Reuben had got up and joined Jimmy, they ran together to join some others, their hair tousled by the wind and their jackets flying while the breeze blew through their shirts and stung their cheeks into a rosy red ruddiness.

Sofia turned her blue eyes to Lilith and observed her friend thoughtfully. It seemed to her that Lilith was the kind of girl who would notice things. She was sharp eyed, clever and knew how to work things out, in fact, just the kind of person who would be curious if she saw something out of the ordinary.

“Do you know yet how Nettie is?” Sofia asked, nibbling on a small piece of cheese

“Just the same. Pa doesn’t think she’ll ever recover.”

“Has she said anything about where she was being kept?”

Lilith shook her head “I don’t know”

“Doesn’t she talk?”

“Pa says not, well, nothing sensible anyway. She cries mostly. She has medicine to make her sleep.”

Sofia nodded, just as she thought, Lilith knew things, she really would be a great help in finding out just what had happened to Nettie. She leaned forward

“Where do you think the man kept her prisoner?”

Lilith heaved in a deep breath, released it and shook her head “Could have been anywhere. Your Pa and Uncles, the law, the Deputies and half the town have no idea, and they have looked and looked, haven’t they?”

“Well, they looked in the wrong places, didn’t they?” Sofia leaned back against the stone of the step behind her, shivered as the cold in it seeped through her coat.

They ate a little more in silence, then Sofia said very quietly “If you were going to take someone prisoner where would you hide him or her.”

Lilith shrugged again, then stared up at the sky, “Well, there’s enough empty places in town, and all those mines…and think of the caves out in the mountains, like the one where those Spanish soldiers had died all those years back” Lilith smiled and her face suddenly looked sharp and vixenish “There could be all number of bodies hidden away out there – in those mines, and tunnels.”

Sofia nodded and tugged at her ear, she hadn’t thought about all those mines, those tunnels. She looked at Lilith “Empty houses seems interesting, we could start looking for clues there couldn’t we?”

Lilith shook her head and looked at her little friend thoughtfully “I think, Sofia Cartwright, that we should leave it to the Law. They do know what they are doing…and we don’t…”

“Just looking at old empty houses won’t hurt…”

Lilith said nothing but bit into her cake and stared out at the gate and the people who were passing by as though no one had a care in the world.

Chapter 48

Nate was the first to leave the table, bidding them goodbye with a nod of the head as he picked up his hat and strolled out of the saloon .Roy leaned further into his chair and tugged at his moustache, then looked at Joe who had become much quieter.

“What’s on your mind, son?”

“Nate’s hoping that there will be no further victims to tie in with Mrs Chandler and Miss Mollie ..but …”

“But somehow you think he could be wrong?”

“I think he could be whistling in the wind.”

Roy sighed and turned the glass round in his hands “He’s not afraid of the work involved, he’s a good law man, but he’s scared of the thought of young women , more young women, being killed in the way that they are “

“Do you think whoever is doing this could be mad.”

“I’m not a doctor, don’t pretend to understand what goes on in any man’s mind..or woman’s either come to that ..” he pushed his glass away from him, it was empty so he turned to beckon to Zack for another. “Guess we all think a mad man is obvious .. we’d recognise the signs … but Adam didn’t see it with young Ross Marquette, and Clem never saw it in the young woman he got engaged to until she nearly burned the town down,”.

“Pa said this was beyond madness…he said it was evil!”

Roy nodded and was about to:speak when Orr seemed to suddenly appear at their table, he placed a hand on the back of a chair “May I?”

Roy and Joe said nothing and Orr smiled, and settled down into the chair just vacated by Nate. Behind him deSousa was seen to slam his way through the doors out into the street.

“I”ll take it that you agree, legally no comment is taken as consent!” he glanced from one to the other “I overheard what you were saying about the person responsible for Miss Grooms abduction.”  his eyes slanted in Joe’s direction “you think the person responsible is mad.”

“Don’t you?” Joe responded quietly, his face tight with frustration

“Well, legally I can’t pass an opinion on that, it would have to be verified by a medical practitioner.”

“You think someone who abducts young women and then stalks and hunts them down as though they were animals is normal?” Joe scowled, the green in his eyes flashed “You would defend a person like that?”

Orr frowned and looked thoughtful “If I believed him to be guilty then no, I would refuse to act on his behalf.” he gave a slow smile “I have never defended anyone who I felt was guilty.” he pushed the glass a few inches away from him “it is not acceptable for me to defend anyone who has committed a crime, and thinks they can fool me into getting free from the punishment they deserve.”

Joe and Roy said nothing, but looked at one another before looking back at the lawyer. Joe finally nodded and rise to his feet. “Well, I guess I had better get back to work.” he nodded to both men and made his departure.

Orr and Roy watched him leave and the lawyer leaned back, smiled “One very angry young man!” he looked at Roy “Are all the Cartwrights like that?”

……..

Eddie from the telegraph office looked up as Joe stepped up to counter, he reached out for the box containing the Ponderosa mail and handed it to him with a smile “Good to know the little Groom girl got found safe, isn’t it, Joe?”

“Very good.” Joe nodded, flicking through the mail, “A pity she’s still so unwell”

“But she can be cured in time..” ever optimistic Eddie replied “Better that than dead”

Joe nodded, then noticed the brown envelope on the counter that Eddie used for the telegrams . He pointed at it “Is that for Nate?” he picked it up “I can take it to him if you want?”

Eddie hesitated, the bell tinkled above the door to admit Mrs Garston and Widow Hawkins. More customers, he thanked Joe as he turned to attend to the two ladies.

Nate tore open the envelope even as he muttered his thanks to Joe. His eyes scanned the words, his hand lowered and he allowed the slowest of smiles, of relief, flick over his face “The sheriff at Huntersville says there have been no such murders, or missing women there”.

Joe nodded then frowned “I wonder if there’s a pharmacy there…”

Nate looked puzzled, shrugged “Possibly …” he frowned “it’s a large enough town, population over 11000.” .. he put the telegram down “Why do you ask”.

“Just .. a thought …” Joe murmured, “Nothing more.”

He left the office and walked slowly back towards the Pharmacy, then stood for a moment staring in at the window. He was about to turn away when Mr Appleby stepped out of the store, closed the door carefully behind him and crossed the road, turning left in order to make his way to the Mercantile.

“Mr Appleby …”

The older man paused and turned to look at Joe “Everything alright, Joseph?”

“Yes, sir…” Joe nodded and then glanced over to the Pharmacy. He could just glimpse Gil through the window, a moving shadow, “ You have a number of pharmacies in the territory don’t you?”

“Yes, fortune has smiled down at me, I’ve done well . It’s a highly competitive business you know, people get sick no matter where they live, and a well qualified chemist can do well if he takes the chances that come by”

“Do you have a pharmacy in Huntersville.”

“Huntersville. No,.,” Appleby looked pensive and shook his head “I missed out on that one, one of my competitors moved in there. But, “ he shrugged “ it would have made things difficult in other ways, just that bit further out than the others, takes it out of the loop. I like things to be tidy ….” he smiled “and economical. This way all the pharmacies can be reached easily, all in one tidy loop.”

“And does Mr Sutherland go to these other businesses regularly..”

“Not really! Only if we become short staffed.” He frowned “What’s going on, Joe, this is sounding rather like an inquisition.”

“I’m sorry ..” Joe felt himself colouring and he coughed to clear his throat “I was just curious…”

“Well, boy, you just leave the questions to the sheriff,. Alright.”

Joe nodded meekly enough, but as Appleby hurried back to his errand Joe couldn’t help but glance back to the pharmacy where he saw Sutherland staring back at him through the distorted contours of the glass urns full of coloured water.

Chapter 49

Nathaniel had worn himself out with play..making mud pies had been fun, but messy. He had washed his hands very carefully in the horse trough, then up his arms which somehow made his sleeves wet. He wondered if he should take the jacket off, which he did, throwing it down on the ground. But he had splashed a lot so the jacket landed in a muddy puddle. Better to wash it clean and save Cheng Ho Lee having to do it. He had a great time trying to get the mud from the jacket, water went everywhere.

With so much water splashed about it was only natural for him to need to pee. He ran around trying to stop the need to ‘go’ but it came anyway.. He was about to climb into the horse trough in the hope of removing evidence of a wet patch on his pants when his foot slipped and he ended up totally immersed in water. This was not an unusual occurrence but it did mean he was now soaking wet. He carefully hauled himself out and dripped his way to the kitchen door where he was greeted by Cheng Ho Lee who had been watching, and silently chuckling to himself, for some time.

He was duly stripped, and wrapped into a warm towel, while Cheng grumbled good naturedly in Cantonese, much of which Nathaniel now knew by heart having heard and understood the phrases many times before…such things as “By the ancestors, you will be the death of me/your mother/.the family” or “One of these days you won’t be able to bob up to the surface then what will happen.” he knew the answer to that one, in Cantonese too 我會淹死

Olivia dressed him in clean and warm clothing and told him to go to his bed, he must be tired out, and he was…he hadn’t realised just how tiring making mud pies could be..and all that laundry too.

Snuggled under his quilt the little boy grabbed at his piebald horse, and cuddled it close, and while his mother watched from the doorway he slowly slipped away into sleep, a charming sweet smile on his lips.

She shook her head and smiled, goodness what a scamp this child was ..Reuben had never been so naughty! But then Reuben had never had the chance to be, not really, living as they were with Roberts’ family and then, of course, Roberts death had changed everything.

She turned away and went to her writing bureau, unlocked the lid and rolled it back. For a moment she hesitated as to what to do next and when Cheng asked if she would like some coffee she just muttered ‘Yes, please;’ without even thinking.

Abigail’s box was Chinese lacquer, beautifully decorated, slightly worn from use over the long years Abigail had owned it. Olivia lifted the lid and began to slowly remove the items one by one until she reached what she had been seeking…letters from Robert to his mother when he had been in college. She was surprised to find there were not as many as she had expected, perhaps Abigail had passed them to her husband who had thrown them away as a load of sentimental nonsense.

She flicked through each envelope one by one, then put them in chronological order. By the time she was ready to read through them Cheng had placed the steaming coffee within her reach and then left the room.

She didn’t read through the letters, just scanned down them. Roberts handwriting was round and neat, every word chosen carefully in order to please his parents. She noticed that he would mention the weather, the food served each day, and various activities he was engaged upon. It was only when she reached the third letter that she came across reference to Christopher Orr.

A fellow student called Christopher Orr has moved into my corridor. He seems a decent enough chap. Very quiet and polite. He is studying to become a Lawyer, so his head is full of legal stuff. I don’t really know what to make of him as yet, he is too quiet for most of us, and too aware of his own worth so that it makes some less confident ones bristle a little.

The other day he asked me if I was any good at acting as he had joined the drama course. Always good if you want to skip lessons. But he reckons that a good lawyer needs to learn how to act. I had not thought of that before, but I suppose he’s right in a way.

He’s only been here a few weeks, for some personal reasons his start to the semester was delayed.

She put the letter away and went through two others before coming to another reference to this late comer.

Chris and I have become quite good friends now. He asked if he could bunk in with me next semester. I think he hopes that by doing so he will avoid being stuck with his cousin, a Philip Manser, about a year younger than him, but Chris says he’s not the best of company. He didn’t elaborate, and didn’t seem to want to discuss it further so I just left it.

Although I didn’t enrol into the Dramatic Society here, I have enjoyed some of the productions and have to say that Chris is a brilliant actor. He said that learning to act not only will help him when he is a lawyer, but it helps him to read people, know from how they sit or stand what they intend to say or do. Well, I don’t know about that, perhaps he is right, but he says if it gives him an edge over the other side, and helps him win over a jury then any case will be easily won. So much for justice if that is all people go by to condemn or excuse anyone from their crime.

There were only brief references to Orr after that, nothing that could ring alarm bells in her head. She stood up and walked about a little with a letter in her hand, one that described Roberts first meeting with her all that time ago, how he felt uncomfortable with her father but thought she was heaven sent. She sat down for a while by the fire, holding the pages of the letter in her hand, looking at the words and remembering all that time back when the Cartwrights were just another family and nothing important to her life. How she had felt about Robert Phillips and how that feeling had swept her away and into his arms.

The next letter and Robert was describing a trip he had made with Olivia shortly after they had been married. There had been a ball held in the Mayors home, somewhere she could not recall now. But very grand, with chandeliers dripping from the ceiling. Mirrors reflecting everyone there as they swirled to the music or strolled back and forth chatting. She had felt miserable and out of her depth, scared of saying or doing the wrong thing, dressed in a pale pink and white dress that Robert said made her look magnificent, but she just wanted to look and feel her usual self.

Roberts letter to his mother extolled her appearance, she hardly recognised herself in the words he had written about her and then she found reference to Orr

I was just leading Olivia from the dance floor when there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned and found myself looking at someone familiar to me but I couldn’t place the face at all. Then he laughed, and said “Am I so easily forgotten then?”

Christopher Orr. I had indeed forgotten him, which is shameful really for we had been good friends at college. He was quite smitten with Olivia. I could see the admiration in his eyes as soon as I introduced them.

He filled me in with how things had been with him since leaving college, hos well he was doing in his work as an articled clerk to a very important firm of Lawyers. His father had not been too happy at his choice of career but then he had always felt that way, so that was nothing new. Orr did say rather regrettably that he thought his father was going to make Philip his heir, which was annoying. I asked if that was because of the scandal that they had got into which had nearly seen them both expelled but he shrugged that off and started to tell me how grateful I should be in having such a lovely wife, and that I should look after her before someone comes and steals her away. I thought that a trifle over familiar…..”

Olivia put the letter away and sat back against the cushions as she tried to remember that first meeting with Christopher Orr. After shaking her head in dismay at her lack of recollection she picked up the last letter and scanned through it…

Orr came to my offices today and suggested we got together for a chat. He had a client that had been charged with murder, and he wanted me to give a referral for him. I did know this person but I could not in all honesty give him any recommendation at all. Orr said it was just a character reference which may help influence the jury but I had to tell him I wanted no part of it. He seemed alright about it and left in good humour

I saw him later that evening when Olivia and I went to the concert. I have to admit he is a handsome man and came over very civilly to us, greeted Olivia with many compliments, all richly deserved I have to admit. When Olivia left to talk to the wife of a friend of mine Orr once again told me that I have a very beautiful wife and that I should take care nothing happened to her. I didn’t know if he was warning me or what, it made me feel uncomfortable, but when Olivia returned he spoke to her most graciously.

I tried to avoid him thereafter, but I did catch him looking over at us, or at Olivia, and I didn’t like how he seemed to – well – look at her with something that I found distasteful. I felt sad, but resolved not to go out of my way to meet up with him again.”

Olivia thought about that, she remembered now meeting Orr when married to Robert but the looks Robert noticed – well, she had no recollection of any such thing. Perhaps she had been too naïve.

She slipped the letter back into the envelope and placed it with the others. With a sigh she placed them in the box and lowered the lid, turned the key and pushed it to the back of drawer.

She finished her cup of coffee and sat down by the fire and stared into the flames. What had it done having read those letters? Reminded her of happy times with a man she had loved before she ever really knew Adam? Made her feel sad, regretful…for what? She shook her head as though to cast off the feelings reading Roberts letters had given her. Upstairs in a drawer of her writing desk she had a small collection of letters addressed to her in that self same writing…dear to her and familiar.

But it was all a life time away. She closed her eyes and allowed the memories to drift away. That was all they were, memories.

It was only as she stood up and picked up the empty cup and saucer to return them to the kitchen that the thought crossed her mind…her husband Robert had the same feeling towards Christopher Orr as her current husband Adam! It surely was not a co-incidence? Or were both men so alike, more alike, than she had thought them to be

Chapter 50

 Joe Cartwright was a happy man now that he was finally on the train to spend some time with his family at the cabin in the woods. Mary Ann sat beside him with Constance close by her side watching the countryside slip past her. The old mine works meant nothing to Mary Ann as they were not really part of her history. But they were Joe’s and he sat with Daniel pointing out the different ones and spinning a little story about each.

Mary Ann noticed the slight softening of his voice when the Julia Bullette mine shaft came into view, and she listened as Joe told them of the vivacious woman who had courageously helped the town through a very difficult time when sickness could have wiped many people out. She was, Joe said, a very special woman and when he looked over at Mary Ann she just gave a slight smile and turned to look at the view opposite.

The hired buggy and horses were ready for them at the station. Once Mary Ann was settled in her seat Joe swung Constance up into her arms, where the little girl wriggled into a comfortable position and waited for Joe to lift Daniel up before boarding himself.

The sun was weak and the breeze blew against them from the mountains. It was cold, and Mary Ann hugged Constance closer to her.

I don’t envy Adam and Hoss working on that bridge in this weather,” Joe muttered as he carefully steered the buggy through the traffic. “Candy didn’t seem too happy to take my place either.”

He glanced to a building with the familiar dark green paintwork and gold lettering above the door and on the plate glass window, Appleby’s Pharmacy. in beautiful calligraphy. He looked over his shoulder and frowned, then gave a quick reassuring smile at his wife when she asked him if he were alright. He pulled on the reins and stopped the horses “I think I”ll go get some laudanum in case my tooth starts getting painful again.”

She gave him a sharp look and frowned “Your tooth …”

It’s been kinda painful …if it flares up while we’re in the cabin ..” and without another word he jumped down, wrapped the reins round the hitching post and paused “will you need anything, honey?”

She shook her head and watched as he hurried into the store. She heard the bell tinkle and cuddled her little girl closer. If she didn’t know better she would think Joe was up to something!

There were two men in the dark interior of the pharmacy. As was customary the three glass vessels with the different coloured waters were in the window distorting the view of passers by, and Joe could see his wife through a rather lurid orange halo which was rather disconcerting. He turned to the man who had shown more interest in attending to him

A small bottle of laudanum.” he asked as he looked from one to the other of them

Certainly sir” the pharmacist nodded, a man of grave demeanour, which didn’t seem to match with his rather rotund exterior and ruddy cheeks. He turned away to open glass doors and pick out what he needed from a various assortment of bottles.

The other man looked pleasant enough, no doubt twenty years younger than his work colleague. He smiled rather absent mindedly at Joe and continued to roll pills.

Been working here long.” Joe asked in a friendly manner while pretending to rummage for some money

The younger man looked up, frowned “Who? Me?”

Joe nodded, the strain of smiling making his cheeks ache…the other man shrugged ‘Some months now.”

Replaced Mr Sutherland did you?”

Mr Sutherland? No.. .. “

The pharmacist bustled up, the laudanum in a bag in his hand “Make sure you keep it out of the reach of young children, shake the bottle before use, some people forget this is an opiate and the opium will settle at the bottom if you don’t shake it. What are you using it for?”

Toothache” Joe replied quickly

Ah! then put a little drop in your finger and rub it on the affected area. You would be just as well off using a clove… would you like a bottle of clove oil?”

No, thanks anyway?” Joe shivered, he remembered as a child chewing a clove, as a result his mouth had gone numb with a tingling sensation, and he had bitten his tongue without realising it until Ben asked where the blood was coming from!

You know our Mr Sutherland then, sir?

Ah yes..” Joe nodded “Hasn’t been in Virginia City long”

No, I believe not. I’ve not met him yet but Mr Appleby thinks very highly of him. .Mr Bogart started working here shortly after Mr Buchanan left.”

Mr Buchanan…Milton Buchanan?”

That’s right…very pleasant gentleman. Very popular…especially with the ladies if you get my meaning”

Joe just nodded, pocketed his change and left. The bell jangled as the door closed behind him. With the bag containing the medicine tightly in his grasp, Joe clambered onto his seat and picked up the reins. Mary Ann looked at his face and decided to say nothing.

There were no leaves now on the trees, their stark nudity making the area appear strangely sad, as though the dark lichen covered boughs were imploring the passers by to mantle them once again with greenery

The fleeting glimpses of deer could be seen, nimbly trotting through the undergrowth, or bowing their elegant heads to graze on the foliage still available to them. Mary Ann hugged Joe closer and smiled up at him “Next time we come it will be spring .. and then we can come again in the summer. We will have to see it in every season..” she sighed contentedly and in her arms Constance shifted her position to be less cramped between them

You really do like it here don’t you?” Joe grinned

Ever since we first came ..I can’t wait to see what changes Adam has had made to the cabin. Hester said it was more like a real cottage now ..”

Joe nodded, smiled and sent the horses weaving their way through the trees, those sturdy bastions that guarded the entrance to the little house in the woods.

A two seater rig with a grey horse nodding over the horse trough was stationed in the yard and made Mary Ann sit upright and frown rather fretfully “Who’s that?” she looked at Joe for an answer but he only shrugged as he turned the buggy very neatly into the yard

Mrs Laws opened the door to the sound of the approaching vehicle. She stood there waiting for them, tying the strings of her bonnet beneath her chin while watching them clamber down. Daniel ran up with a grin, hazel eyes twinkling

Hi, I’m Daniel”

G’day Daniel, good to meet you.” She smiled, shook his hand and then nodded over to Joe and his wife, “I thought I would come by and get the fire going for you. It’s a cold damp day, thought as the place would need warming up.”

Thanks were duly made, the kindness appreciated “You’ve probably brought your own food but there’s fresh bread, and a stew ready ..save you having to bother, you can just rest up and enjoy the day.”

More thanks, and then she was bustling away, pulling her shawl around her shoulders. They watched her clamber onto the rig, wave her hand and then carefully turn and make her way through the trees

Well,” Mary Ann sighed and smiled “What a lovely start to the weekend”

Joe nodded, picked Constance up and tossed her in the air “She probably feels forever indebted to the family for what happened..” he said and led the way inside with Daniel demanding to know what had happened, who was the lady, when were they going to eat!

……………

Sofia was staying with the Martins for the weekend, but Reuben had promised to look after Joe’s precious horses, particularly Karim! He had loved that horse from the moment he had first set eyes on it. As compensation for his not being able to spend time in town Jimmy C Evans had come to stay and was going to share in the joys of time on the Ponderosa.

The little girl had enjoyed her time at the Martins. Being in town was so different from being on the Ponderosa. Here the buildings crowded in all around her, and people were out on the streets, bundled up against the cold wind. Even the school children she saw every day seemed different, more natural, more like the children that they were.

Sitting beside Lilith on the swing seat on the Martins’ wide verandah, she swung her legs too and fro and stared around her, then she looked at Lilith, who was absorbed in a day dream of her own.

Lilith?”

What?”

Do you think Nettie was here in town all the time…you know, in one of the empty houses?”

Lilith frowned and shook her head, “No.”

Why not?”

Because if she had been, then Sheriff Carney would have found her, wouldn’t he?”

Sofia nodded, frowned “S’pose so.” she stood up, and stretched “Can we go to the store and get some candy?”

Lilith put down the book immediately and smiled at her little friend. No denying it, Lilith had a sweet tooth. They strolled down the street, pausing occasionally to look in at the windows, stopped too abruptly once and Mrs Sherwood who was coming out of the store collided with them, sending both girls spiralling off the side walk. A corpulent lady, more than a match for two little girls.

Silly girls! Look where you’re going.” she screeched in a high pitched voice before making her way to a wagon where her husband sat on the seat, calmly smoking his old pipe and gazing at nothing in particular.

Mark Watts was stepping into the sheriff’s office “Even the sheriff doesn’t know where to look.” Lilith said quietly and sighed.

Sofia watched the door of the Sheriff’s office close, she looked at the buildings on the street, the clap board stores with tall frontage pretending to be bigger than they really were, at the opulent Whitney Hotel. She had woven a story in her head, of how two little girls found the house where the young girl had been hidden. Then they went to the Sheriff who praised them for being so smart, smarter even that Davy and his gang.

Lilith, if you were a bad man, where would you hide anyone away?”

They were standing in front of the store where the best candy was sold, all of their favourites, they stood with their noses against the window, leaving smears on the glass. They went inside and Sofia paid for a little packet of candy, smiling sweetly at the lady behind the counter.

Outside again and the sky was clouding over, Lilith sighed “Shall we go back now?”

We could go and look, just a little peek at the house over there…” Sofia pointed and smiled and blinked, “It’s a very small house.”

I don’t think so…” Lilith rummaged in her paper bag for a candy and popped it into her mouth but Sofia was already striding off and turned, smiled and said

C’mon, Lilith, then we can go back and have some hot chocolate.”

Chapter 51

Lilith was not happy with this idea of Sofia’s, even though in all honesty, she only had the vaguest notion as to what her young friend wanted to achieve. They strolled through the main street, passing round other pedestrians, seeing school friends from a distance and waving greetings to them, or pausing occasionally to admire something in a shop window that caught their attention. But Sofia was relentless, she had made up her mind she was going to find a clue that would be like hidden treasure and lead to a great discovery. ..a discovery that would reveal everything to the Sheriff and to her Pa.

Sofia had no doubt whether this adventure would work out to her advantage. She wanted to prove she was as good as any of the boys, she wanted to show that even at her tender age of 8 she was clever and bright and could work wonders. She firmly believed that if she wanted something hard enough, wished for it long enough, that she would get it. Regardless of any opposition.

She paused in front of a house that had been empty for some while. It was a neat tidy house with a pleasant well kept yard and as she put her hand to the gate, Lilith put her hand down on hers to stop her “Do you really think we should? Isn’t it what they call ‘trespass’.”

Sofia frowned, she had no idea what Lilith was talking about, but looked at the house and frowned,

But it doesn’t say anything like that, I mean, all we’re going to do is knock on the door.”

Lilith nodded and followed her young friend up to the house, they stood on the steps and Sofia had to stand on tip toe to reach the brass door knocker which provided a very proficient rat a tat tat.

No one’s home…” Lilith said after several attempts at knocking, and Sofia nodded “what do you want to do now? Find another empty house and knock on another door?”

If Sofia picked up on the sarcasm it went over her head. She just turned away and started to walk around the house, peering in at the windows, at the dust sheets that covered the furniture. She could hear Lilith sighing all the way around the building until they reached the front door again. She stopped there and looked at Sofia, eyebrows raised “Well?”

Jennifer Higgins said that the house had a light shining in a room …”

In this house?”

Yes, in this house. She said she woke up one morning and saw it, and thought that perhaps the owners were back but when she asked her Ma she said that it was not likely they would be back because they had gone to Chicago.”

They could have come back….” Lilith said hopefully

Well it doesn’t look like they did, or the furniture wouldn’t be covered over.”

Lilith conceded that point. She stared up at the sky for a moment, “Well, what do you want to do now? Try another house?”

We could try that house old Mrs Lambert used to live in. That’s been empty for a long time.” Sofia prompted and smiled, “I think it would be the best place of all to hide anything, or anybody”

It’s been empty for a very long time.” Lilith conceded. She looked around her and sighed, “Well, just one peek, and then we get back home because my Ma will be wondering where we are…”

Sofia nodded even though she was disappointed at her friends lack of interest, she had hoped for some excitement from the whole adventure but having Lilith’s attitude was having the effect of cold water on a fire. Sofia sighed and together they left the empty house, closed the gate behind them and continued on, taking a left turn down to where the house was that had once been Mrs Lamberts

It looked desolate and lonely and empty, very empty. Sofia smiled and nodded, looked at Lilith and pushed open the gate to an untidy sprawl of a yard in which the wind tossed the grass and weeds and debris that littered the place. The two girls stood there together for a moment and stared up at the building.

It was a two storey property and in Mrs Lamberts time had been one of the finest in town, but it had fallen sadly into a sorry state and looked rather delapidated. They walked to the front door and then looked at one another as though doubtful as to what to do next.

We’ll just look around and see if any windows are open.” Sofia whispered, because the empty house had that effect on them, made one think that anything louder than a whisper would make the house shudder and collapse around them.

Or perhaps, if there was someone in there who shouldn’t be there at all…..Lilith shivered and then looked at Sofia,”Do you think we should?”

We’re only looking…”

So they wandered around the house, stopping to peer through the grimy windows as rooms with furniture covered in sheets, odd shapes draped with white covers that both knew would have been very frightening if they had happened to be looking like this at night time…Lilith leaned down and whispered “They’re just ornaments and statues and things…”

Yes, I know..”

They look a bit scary, don’t they?”

It’s alright, though…they can’t hurt anyone.”

Lilith nodded, and glanced over her shoulder. They were at the back of the building now where the trees grew closer to the building. Sofia pushed at a window, but it was sealed solid to the framework. As they walked around the back of the house she tried each window in turn but there was nothing, no giving way to any pressure. Lilith felt a sense of relief and gave her friend a slight smile “There, nothing….and we can hardly break a window and get inside, can we?”

Sofia had to agree. Their first attempt was a failure, yet she was convinced that the old house had secrets, and one of them was that Nettie had been here. She frowned “Shall we come back later, this evening?”

No, don’t be so ridiculous.”

Sofia blinked, she had never heard Lilith speak so harshly. It occurred to her that Lilith was scared, that the house had something about it that frightened her. Or perhaps she was just scared of the whole thing, of finding something, or someone…and then Sofia remembered that Lilith had been to see the sheriff because she had seen something, someone. Perhaps, Sofia reasoned, Lilith had a reason for being scared.

She nodded and turned away from the window against which she had been leaning . She could understand now that she had remembered what Lilith had seen, and she wondered if her friend had remembered anything else about that couple but she was afraid to ask.

They left the trees and found themselves back in the unkempt yard, and began to walk towards the gate when someone said “What are you girls doing here?”

Mark Watts was standing by the gate, looking neither amused nor particularly friendly, and both of them froze to the spot. Lilith thought of trespass and what it meant, while Sofia thought just simply that they had been caught doing something wrong and were about to be arrested.

……………

Despite the chill in the air and a slight drizzle of rain, Joe had taken the children out to explore the woodland beyond the cabin. They were bundled back into their coats and scarves, and with Constance hoisted onto Joe’s shoulders they left Mary Ann to her cooking.

It was a joy to tramp through the wood, threading his way around the trees, shuffling feet through the duff that was gathered upon the ground. Daniel ran ahead, whooping and occasionally jumping into the air and just throwing out his arms in sheer exuberance. Constance clung to her daddy and giggled when the hugs got too tight and he had to remind her to loosen her grip. They paused when a magnificent stag suddenly seemed to rear through the mist created by the mizzling rain and heat from the trees. Joe kept the children close, although this was not rutting season, it was still possible that a young stag may get ideas to attack.

At the same time Joe was glad he had not brought a rifle with him. Then again, he wondered if he would actually have made any attempt to make a kill. The young stag was so handsome, so fearless as it stood between the trees staring down at them. He asked himself why it was that man had this compulsion to shoot anything that moved, even when their bellies were full! He lowered his head and when he raised it again the stag had gone.

They walked down to the river, more turbulent now since Adam and Olivia’s visit to the cabin some weeks earlier. There was now no sign of the hollow in which clothing had been hidden away, or had it just been placed there in the hope that it would have been found? The river was high, flowing up to the banks and he held Daniel back to prevent him from wading in…the current was strong enough to sweep a child away, spin him into mid stream and then tumble him to his death.

In the cabin Mary Ann hummed a tune beneath her breath as she carefully placed the pastry lid over the fruit. It was almost a novelty now to bake her own pies and stews because Lee was proving to be such a capable chef. She trimmed the edges and primped them neatly. Then stabbed the top with little incisions so that the steam could pass through. She paused to think…sugar now or wait until later, when she took it out of the oven?

As she stood there, looking down at the uncooked pie with its very pale appearance looking back at her, she was quite unaware of the figure looking through the window at her. For a while he stood there watching as she slipped the pie into the oven and then turned her attention to clearing away the remains of the pastry which she put into a bowl. Then he knocked, a sharp rat a tat tat on the door.

She nearly dropped the bowl from surprise and turned with wide eyes to look at the door. Then she decided it was obviously Joe, playing tricks, so with a smile she went to the door and threw it open, while brushing away flour from her cheeks with her free hand.

The man standing there instantly removed his hat, and cleared his throat “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Well, you did and -”

Is your husband here? Is it possible to talk to you both for a while?” he was hesitant, she could see he was nervous and anxious but even so she felt no desire to talk to a stranger so demanded to know his name “Hal Chandler, Dr Hal Chandler. I remember seeing you at the hospital when you were visiting Ben.”

Of course, I remember you now, I’m sorry…I – well -” she glanced around at the woodland beyond the cabin, over his shoulder, aware that this was a lonely area, and that Joe had not said when he would get back.

She also remembered that Hal Chandler was the name of the man whose wife had been murdered, she also recalled that Nate felt confident in the man innocence . So she stepped aside and invited him in, and walked to the fire to place some more logs more securely onto the dying embers.

Would you like some coffee? I know Joe will want some when he gets back …” she didn’t mention when she expected his return, wanted Chandler to feel that her husband would return at any time, just so that he would know that she would not be alone, and vulnerable for long.

That’s very kind of you, Thank you.”

He sat down and watched as she put the coffee pot onto boil, then took down three cups from a shelf. He watched and remembered the time he would have watched his wife do the same things, little things, inconsequential until they were not being done again.

The silence dragged but he said nothing, quite content to sit there, and watch. She checked the pie, stirred the stew, pondered on what to say that would not be the cause of any kind of reaction, of grief or anything else…what if he had wanted to talk about the murder. Occasionally they looked at each other at the same time, their eyes locked, they would smile and she would return to her work.

Mr Cartwrights doing well I hear?”

Yes, very well.” she turned and smiled, nodded, “He still has memory lapses…”

He may have that for some time to come yet…”

Yes, I think so, my husband had an accident a while ago and lost his memory, not entirely, not like Ben…but he still can’t remember everything that happened at the time of the accident.”

After some time I doubt if he will remember anymore than he has done ..”

Yes.” she nodded and returned to paying attention to the coffee.

Sounds of children laughing, Joe’s voice. The door opened and Joe stood there, Constance on one arm, a smile on his face and Daniel pulling off muddy boots.

Just in time for coffee, Joe…” she said, and gave the first genuine smile since Hal had arrived, “We have a visitor.”

Joe nodded acknowledgement of the Doctor who had risen to his feet upon Joe’s arrival. They shook hands, “Good to see you again, Hal.”

And you. I hope you don’t mind this intrusion. I just wanted to see you…” he paused and glanced at the children who were staring up at him, as though wondering what he was doing intruding on their time with Daddy, this special time together.

He squatted down to their level and asked their names, paid attention to what they said, about the stag, the river, and Daniel said he was hungry and had smelled pie cooking …which made Hal, quite surprisingly, chuckle aloud. They ran off to their room at Joe’s telling them to find something to do., and once they had disappeared Mary Ann poured out the coffee, then returned to get the children something to drink which she took into the other room for them.

I wasn’t expecting to see you here, Hal.” Joe observed as he sat down at the table opposite the other man,

I saw you arrive.”

He drew the cup closer, the gesture of a nervous or lonely sad man. Perhaps he was both. He looked down at the coffee as the steam rose up into his face.

The Marshall hasn’t told me anything. It’s as if they don’t want to be bothered about Rosemary anymore” his voice was listless, and he shrugged and drew the coffee cup closer.

I guess other things happen, that may seem like a distraction but …”

I know, I understand. Did they find the other girl, the one missing?” he raised his eyes and when Joe nodded, he gave a brief frown “Alive?”

Yes, she was found alive, but – “

I see.” he nodded, putting his own interpretation on the matter, then he sipped the coffee and sighed again, “I know I should leave it to the Marshall and to your sheriff, but I feel so useless. I can’t work, I can’t concentrate, they’ve put me on sick leave.”

I’m sorry, Hal. It’s hard for you…I don’t know what I would do in your position.” and he glanced nervously at the door to the room where Mary Ann was telling the children a story, the sound of her voice a soft cadence in the background.

A log disintegrated in the hearth. Joe drank some coffee and then looked at the young man, “Hal, do you see much of the chemists in your work?”

Some…if I’m on duty when there’s some prescriptions being delivered.”

Would your wife have seen him at all?”

Hal sighed, his shoulders went up and down as he did so, “I don’t know, maybe…”

Who was working at Applebys at the time before she disappeared?”

Applebys?” he frowned, “We didn’t always get the presciptions from Applebys, sometimes it was from Hifliger.”

Well, I was thinking more about the chemist from Applebys Pharmacy ..” Joe paused and then decided to drink more coffee

Hal nodded, looked vague for a moment as he thought back to the time when his wife was alive and well, and seemingly happy. He switched his mind to the pharmacies in town and frowned “There were several chemists, or pharamcists. Mostly a bit like Mr Appleby himself…I see him sometimes, if they happen to be short staffed

Does that happen often? Being short staffed I mean?”

I don’t know. I don’t really have much to do with them.”

A Mr Sutherland never worked there, did he?”.

No, never heard of him. Mr Bogart – he’s been there a few months. His wife is an invalid.” he crinkled his brow “I think the man before him was a Mr Buchanan”

Joe felt that ripple of adrenalin again, Buchanan, that name …a Mr Buchanan who had worked at a chemists ..elsewhere but he couldn’t recall where..he remembered the comment about Mr Buchanan being popular, with the ladies and he tentatively asked Hal if he remembered what Mr Buchanan looked like, ‘Only, I heard, that he was quite popular -”

Hal nodded “Yes. He was. He didn’t stay here long. I thought he was one of Appleby’s substitutes, you know, when they’d been short staffed.”

Did Rosemary know him?”

Hal stiffened, he didn’t like the direction this was going although he must have thought along those lines himself surely. Joe waited and then Hal nodded “She liked him, thought he was very charming…but then so did a lot of other women in town.”

Do you know where he went afterwards?”

Hal tightened his lips, shook his head “I’m sorry, it was about the time Rosemary left and ..” his eyes watered, he blinked and drew in his breath.

Mary Ann came from the other room and hurried to the oven. The pie crust was golden and the smell filled the room, sweet apple pie .., the children ran out of their room, Daniel loud in yelling his hoorays he loved apple pie, Constance seeking her father’s lap. Both men just sat looking at one another, wondering if they had discovered something significant.

……………..

Lilith had to have piano practice. On such occasions Sofia would sometimes sit with her, and even join the lesson because Lilith was a grade behind her and she could follow the direction easily. At other times she would go into the town, perhaps wander into the candy store, or go and visit Bridie.

She was walking down C street thinking, deeply thinking, when someone yelled her name, and there was a yank, a tug, on her braids.

Where y’are headed?”

She spun round and scowled at Davy Riley, standing there with hands on hips and legs spread out, as though he owned the whole street.

None of your business.”

Miss Hoity Toity!”

She clenched her fists and turned her nose in the air, tried to stare him down but failed. He grinned, “You’re in the wrong direction if you’re going to Mrs Martins.”

Who said I was going there….”

I know where you’re going.”

No, you don’t”

Yes, I do.”

She tossed her head, and turned around but took her steps more slowly, glanced over her shoulder and he was still there, grinning at her.

Go away and leave me alone.”

Why? Afraid of being arrested again by old Mark Watts?”

It’s none of your business” she repeated.

I saw you and Lilith Martin earlier…snooping around the old empty house weren’t ya?”

None of your business” she repeated again, but quieter this time, and a glance towards where Bridie lived, wondering if she should just run across the road and enjoy a slice of Tillie’s cake.

I’ll come with you, if you like. Would be fun if we found a clue, wouldn’t it?”

A clue?” she said like some idiot child.

Yeah.”

She stayed where she was, stared at him but he still grinned at her, “You scared?”

No.”

Well then, come on…..what are you waiting for?” he started to walk towards the empty house further down the alley, and she watched him, faltered and then shook her head.

Yeah, well, typical girl, aint’cha..”

He shrugged, and continued walking

Chapter 52

For a moment the two children faced one another, hands in hips, faces creased in a scowl. Then Davy laughed “ Yah, you’re yella, typical girl!”

He turned then and ran a few paces before turning to look over his shoulder at her, “Coming or not?” he grinned, and she knew he expected her to follow him.

She was soon running alongside him, the breeze blowing against her face, braids flying behind her. When she paused, just by the gate, he looked back at her and shook his head “Why are you stopping?”

Sofia opened her mouth to reply but he just shook his head “Typical girl! Look, when we want to get inside an empty house we don’t knock on the door, or go through the gate into the yard. That way people notice, and if something happens, they’ll remember seeing you walking up the garden path:”

He had carried on walking then, leaving the house and taking the turning into an alley that led to a track that ran behind the houses. He stopped by a wooden gate that had several planks missing. “C’mon, no one will see us from here.”

The garden was a mess of weeds, the grass squelched beneath her feet from where the rains had fallen and gathered into puddles. Long dead flowers threw out rotting stems to slow her progress as she followed behind Davy Riley. It had seemed much easier when she had walked around the house with Lilith, it hadn’t seemed so ..wrong…before, but now she felt sneaky, and uneasy. Coming through the back entrance made her feel as though she were committing a crime!

When she reached him by a window that was semi concealed by a large bush he had a knife in his hand, he grinned and waved it her “Got to get in some how ..”

The windows are all locked. We tried all ready. Perhaps we should just leave it now and..”

That’s why I got the knife.” he smirked, his eyes narrowing as if knew she wanted to back out but was too frightened to turn around and leave. “A good knife will get this open in no time ..”

She glanced over her shoulder, there was no one about to hear if anything went wrong, if she had to shout or scream. Davy had the window open now, she heard the crack as old paint and wood splintered. He pulled it further open and turned to her, the knife in one hand “Do you want to go in first,..”

She could see the furniture covered in sheeting. They looked like ghosts in the gloom of the room, ready to rise up and swoop upon her for spoiling their peace. She watched as Davys thin body slid over the window sill and then he was there, grinning at her from inside the room.

C’mon” he said and disappeared into the shadows.

Sofia out her hand on the sill and then stopped. She knew she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t go into the house and go looking for clues, because she would have had to tell her parents what she had done. Even if they found the best ever clue to prove Nettie had been there, she would still have had to tell them..and what if they found nothing but Deputy Watts arrested them for breaking into the house. She couldn’t lie to Pa or to Ma!

She heard Davy yelling her name as she reached the broken old garden gate..then his voice faded away as she ran to Bridie’s house and knocked on the door. She almost fell into Tilly’s arms when the door was yanked open, catching them both in surprise.

I was wondering if you were coming today.” Tilly grumbled, “And there was that cherry cake all going to waste ..”

……….

Davy swaggered about the rooms, it didn’t matter if Sofia were there or not, he still enjoyed being in a place where in better times he would never have been permitted. He peeked under dust sheets, and sneezed often. He passed a mirror and nearly yelled in fear before realising he had just seen his reflection following him, nothing of substance so nothing about which to worry.

He went up the stairs and peered into the rooms. All covered in the sheets, until the last room; It was different. The only sheets were those on the bed, tumbled about and untidy. A jug of water, glasses, soiled plates lined up on the dressing table, “Heck, Sofia Cartwright, you sure missed out here …”

He stepped further into the room. Pillows were scattered about, some on the floor. He pushed one aside with his foot and was about to stoop down to pick something up from the floor when he heard a sound.

He stayed still. Perhaps Sofia came after him, had changed her mind, and he grinned as he picked up a little gold initial N

Footsteps.

He paused, was about to call out Sofia’s name when he heard a voice, a man’s voice. Shucks, that was sure to be the Deputy back again. Mark Watts would arrest him as quick as a wink! He shoved the golden initial into his pocket and hurried to the window, it was sealed shut.

Another voice. Another man. Davy glanced around him, instinct warned him that two men didn’t come to an empty house for any good reason. He shivered, listened, and heard a man demand to know why he had had to meet “him” there…and Davy could tell the man was angry.

He looked around the room, and hurried as lightly as he could to where he felt it safe to hide. By the time he felt safely hidden he was almost wetting himself.

…..

Why here?”

Why not here? It’s empty…no one can see us..”

How sure can you be about that?”

In his hiding place Davy could detect the anger in the cold clipped voice of the first man who had spoken. The other man had a softer voice, as though hoping to calm the other into a more relaxed mood. He could hear footsteps, one of the men was pacing the floor, he thought perhaps it was the angry man He peered out to see if they were anywhere close to his room, to where he was hidden. They must have been standing in the main hall of the house, their voices carrying up the stairs.

Well, what’s this all about, David? You know I’m busy, I don’t like these sudden emergencies you spring on me, demanding to meet you … in places like this!”

It’s not that often ..I try to keep as low a profile in your life as possible, you know that ..”. the voice had a pleading tone to it, Davy thought it would annoy the other man more than ever and he was right, a few expletives were spat out before the supplicant, David, apologised and lapsed into silence.

More footsteps, pacing up and down.

This is where you brought her, isn’t it? That Groom girl…you brought her here before taking her to the boat shed…”. Silence stretched over minutes, there was some shuffling sounds “Well, did you or didn’t you?”

It may surprise you to know, Uncle, I liked Nettie. I liked her a lot. I … I just wanted her to be happy..”

Happy? Are you delusional? You stick her in a hole for days, then bring her here… what did you expect her to have done? Huh?” a cruel bark of a laugh, “You are sick in the head, boy. Always have been! “

Why? Because I didn’t want her to think I was a monster? I wanted her to be happy like we were before …before you started giving the orders again!”

Another silence, more profound as neither man moved. Davy imagined them facing each other. Waiting for the other person to speak first

I really liked her, she was sweet, innocent. Not like some others I could name …”

For heavens sake, man, pull yourself together.”

You wouldn’t understand, you don’t feel the way I do, the way real men feel…”

Shut your mouth before I shut it for you…d’you hear?”

Sharp words from one man, the sound of sobbing from the other. Footsteps ..Davy could tell there was anger in the abruptness of them, while the crying man blew his nose.

Have you someone else in mind?” a calmer voice now, perhaps he had walked the anger out if his system. “Or are you moving on? Do you think it’s safe for you to stay here.. that Groom girls still alive..”

I didn’t want to kill her ..”

Silence and then a short laugh, “Good gracious, man, you really did care for her ..”

I told you – before – how I felt for her, I didn’t want … what you do … to happen to her. “

So you hope she’ll recover?”

Yes, I do.”

And tell the world you were her abductor?”

Davy crawled out from under the bed and tip toed closer to the door, if he could just get a look at the two men he would be able to tell the sheriff who they were, and get a reward.

The Doctors don’t think she’ll ever remember what happened, that’s if she recovers, she’s still comatose..”. he cleared his throat, “It’s not likely she’ll ever remember …”

A tapping sound like that of a man with a walking stick or cane, jouncing it up and down on the floor.

So you don’t think it’s time to move on…!”

No..it’s too soon, I won’t be able to keep up the pretence much longer. It could ..it may arouse suspicion.”

Has it! .Has it aroused suspicion? Is that what you’re saying..”

Silence, it hung in the air so heavily that Davy was afraid to breathe

No, I don’t think so..”

What does that mean exactly?”

Just that Joseph Cartwright was asking questions ..nothing important, nothing to get anxious about ! Nothing more ..”

The Cartwrights …” words drawn out in a hiss, “You let me know if any one of them comes asking any more questions, you hear?”

There was a sound now, Davy couldn’t describe it, a scratching sound and he craned his head forward to try and figure out what it was…he soon found out when the man referred to as Uncle said “Where’s that draught coming from?”

Davy froze, looked around him, saw the window was closed in that room and then remembered he hadn’t secured the window through which he had entered the house. He scrambled back to his hiding place, cringed as far into the darkest corner he could reach

Footsteps, slow, heavy…one by one mounting the stairs.

Look in that room..if you find anyone, deal with him…or her !”

Davy stuffed his fingers in his mouth to stop from making a sound, daring not to let out a single breath. Now someone was in the room with him. He couldn’t see him, but he was very aware of his presence, of his smell and the ice cold anger contained within him.

…………..

Sofia was glad to get to the Martins house, where she unbuttoned her coat and removed her bonnet to place on the hooks. Lilith opened the door to the parlour and smiled, a pleasant smile from a friend who looked pleased to see her. “Did you see Grandmother?”

How easy it was for Lilith to adopt Bridie as her grandmother..from a little girl who craved love she found an abundance in the little Irish woman now and had been more than happy to adopt her just as John and Barbara had happily done the same for her. Sofia nodded

Tilly gave me some fruit cake. Bridie was out though, so I didn’t stay so very long. Did you enjoy your lesson?”

Yes, I enjoy music. We will have to play duet sometime, Sofia.” Lilith linked arms with her younger friend and led her into the parlour.

The fire was warm and wintry sun shone through the windows. Sofia sat down and thought of Davy. Without realising it her face lost its smile, replaced by an anxious frown and lowered eyes, a face that Lilith interpreted correctly “What’s wrong? Has something happened?”

Sofia tried to shake off the feeling but Lilith was too perceptive. So she nodded.

Did you go back to the house?” Lilith whispered, coming to sit closer to Sofia now as though to reassure her that she had a friend in whom she could confide.

Davy -”

Not Davy Riley”

Sofia nodded, with all the gravity of a little girl caught up in something she didn’t quite understand, but which she felt was serious. “He saw us at the house and wanted to know why, then he went there…”

You didn’t go with him, did you?” Big eyes and a slight redness in the cheeks, Lilith blinked

Yes, but only to the house. I didn’t go in, I just couldn’t …I got scared ..and besides..it was wrong.”

Lilith nodded and clasped Sofia’s hand tightly “Did Davy go in? “

Of course. You know what Davy is like…he had a knife…”

They were quiet for a little while, then Lilith said gravely “I think I should tell Pa…or …perhaps we should go and tell the Sheriff.”

But it’s only an empty house, Lilith. Davy will be home by now…” she glanced at the clock ticking away the moments “He’ll be bragging about what a feeble girl I am and how he was so brave…”

Lilith forced a smile and nodded “Sounds like Davy…”

Chapter 53

Mr Coutts was standing in the doorway of his establishment talking to the Lawyer, Christopher Orr, when Olivia came into his line of vision. He inhaled sharply and excused himself from his conversation with Mr Orr and stepped onto the side walk in order to catch Olivia’s attention by calling her name and waving his hand.

She caught sight of his tartan jacket more than anything else for she had left her glasses at home, feeling more and more confident that the need for them was unnecessary. As she walked towards him Mr Coutts became more and more obvious and she smiled, nodded, looked at Mr Orr and hoped her smile and nod would suffice for both of them

“Have you a moment, dear Mrs Cartwright?”

“Certainly I have, Mr Coutts.” she smiled more broadly, more genuinely “As you can see, my husband is not here to find out …” she paused, perhaps that could amount to an inappropriate thing to say, especially in front of a Lawyer and particularly so in front of Orr

“All to the better, come on in….” Mr Coutts bustled himself inside and kept the door open for her to enter.

Out of curiosity Mr Orr followed Olivia into the store and seemed impressed by the selection of jewellery, so he wandered off to the left in order to look over some necklaces and bangles. Olivia sighed and looked at Mr Coutts, then smiled at the little mans eagerness to show off what he had achieved.

“Now, I wasn’t sure if you wanted them to be stand alone wall mounts, or perhaps have them mounted together ..so I thought it best to show you, and let you select your preference.” he leaned below the counter and produced two velvet padded cushions enclosed behind glass. The velvet was dark rich blue. He ducked down again and produced the medals, one of which he placed on the smaller of the two, lifting away the glass surface to place the medal centrally upon the velvet. He held it up for her to view.

Olivia nodded and tried to imagine two of the same side by side on the wall of Adam’s office. Mr Coutts took her silence as a hint to place both medals on the larger cushion and then smiled as Olivia nodded,

“I thought perhaps you would choose this…the framework is good rosewood, varnished to a very high standard. Now, I can mount these right away if you would like me to do that…”

“Thank you, Mr Coutts. “ she paused, aware of Orr standing close behind her, watching the transaction take place.

“Very pretty.” he murmured. “Your husbands medals?”

“Yes.” she nodded, she didn’t want to explain anything to him, so kept her eyes on the Jeweller who was carefully placing each medal at a strategic position on the velvet cushion. Then, when satisfied, he placed over the glass so that they were contained neatly without the rosewood frame.

She took out her purse, paid the amount due and waited for him to wrap the gift which she took with a grateful smile. “Thank you, Mr Coutts.”

“I’m sure your husband will be most pleased with them, Mrs Cartwright.” he dimpled at her, eyes twinkled and he nodded until the door closed behind her.

Christopher Orr watched her as she walked away, her face pensive as though deep thoughts perturbed her. He smiled and wondered, just briefly, if she were really happy in her marriage.

He gave a swift glance around the store, at the jewellery sparkling and gleaming on display and without a word left the building

……..

Nate half rose from his seat when the door opened and Adam, with Ben, stepped into the office. He nodded and resumed position on the old leather chair and placed his hand almost protectively over the papers on his desk.

“Just came by, in case there was any further news.” Ben explained as he removed his hat and nodded over to Mark Watts who had turned from the rifle rack to see who was coming in.

“Nothing more to what we already know.” Nate sighed and eased his lean body into a more comfortable position.

His long fingers picked up the telegrams and he flicked through them slowly “Marshall Duggan claims there were no missing women at the time we referred to, none that he could give an account of anyway. Everywhere else…” he flipped them onto the table and shrugged. “I’m waiting for some information from Jefferson Point. If there’s nothing from there we may have to widen our search perimeter.”

Adam nodded in agreement and was about to speak when Mark moved forwards “Saw your girl earlier, with Dr Martins daughter.” his eyes glanced from Adam to Ben, back to Adam “They were acting rather suspiciously -”

“How do you mean?” Adam stiffened, Mark was a good deputy and wouldn’t have brought up the matter if he hadn’t reason to do so.

“They were hanging around an empty house… used to belong to Mrs Lambert. She died some years back and Lawyers are still waiting to hear from her son as to what to do with the place. It’s falling into disrepair…”

“You’re not planning on buying it yourself are you, Mark?” Ben asked with raised eyebrows

“No, sir, why’d you ask?”

“Seems you’re showing a lot of interest in it!”

“No more that those girls were…and they jumped almost out of their skin when I asked them what they were doing there.”

“Doing what precisely?” Adam asked now

“Peering through the windows, walking around the house, knocking on the door….” Mark shrugged, then shook his head, “If you ask me…”

“Mrs Lamberts house, did you say?” Nate now asked getting up and pushing himself away from the desk.

“That’s right, and -”

Nate looked at Adam, then nodded “Shall we go and take a look?” he paused “Just in case….”

Ben wasn’t sure what was going on exactly but he followed along with his son and the Sheriff, with Mark Watts keeping a wary distance bringing up the rear. The house stood there in all its dreary glory, shadows creeping over it now, the bare boughs of the trees looked skeletal and dark against the cloud laden sky.

It wasn’t difficult to get into the house with the special set of keys that Nate possessed, keys that were of all shape and sizes and seemed to fit all manner of objects, doors, safes etc. They stepped inside.

Adam sniffed, and looked around him “Someone’s been here, recently.”

Nate nodded in agreement. Ben stepped forward and batted aside a cobweb. “Why would Sofia and Lilith look around here?”

No one answered, each stood still and then took tentative steps forwards ..Nate pointed to the left, where Ben and Mark branched off to search the rooms there. Adam glanced to the stairs and nodded, while he took them one by one, Nate went into the living room where the sheet covered furniture seemed to mutely accuse him of trespassing upon their solitude.

Adam reached the landing. A floorboard creaked. He paused and stood still with one booted foot slightly raised before placing it back down. He had gone into one room now and found nothing of any note. By the time he was going to enter the other room Nate was already on the landing, he had heard the creak of the floorboard and found Nate standing at the doorway of the room where there were no sheets.

An unmade rumpled bed, pillows on the floor, plates, cutlery…a jug of water …the two men looked at one another “You don’t think he hid Nettie here, do you?”

Adam pursed his lips “Right under your noses…” he whispered

“Can you smell anything?” Nate whispered back.

“I can hear something ….” Adam replied and looked around the room.

Some furniture had been covered by sheets and looked like spectres watching them as they stepped further into the room. A pleasant room in its time. Adam nodded “Someone’s here…”

Then they heard it..a soft whimpering, like a lost puppy, coming from the direction of the bed.

They leaned down, lifted the sheet that concealed the gap between floor and bed, looked at one another

“What are you doing here, son?” Nate asked gently and put out a hand to wards the boy.

Davy Riley was crouched in a foetal position against the far wall, as close to the darkest corner as he possibly could get. Hands clasped together beneath his chin, knees up against his chest, every attempt to make himself as small as possible, invisible, but having recognised the voices of the sheriff and the rancher, he had relaxed enough to release his innermost fears and now sobbed,

sobbed and wept, so that when Nate finally managed to extricate himself from the hiding place he was a mess of tears, shuddering, crying ,sobbing and sometimes too scared to release his breath, so that it caught in a shuddering gasp in his throat before being released in more tears.

“He’s scared to death” Adam observed in a gentle voice and put his hand on the boys shoulder “It’s alright, Davy, no one’s going to hurt you.”

But Davy just screwed his eyes up and shuddered.

“How long has he been here? Maybe that’s why Sofia was hanging around, trying to find him?” Ben suggested

“I’ll go get the Doctor” Mark Watts said “He looks in a bad way.”

“Hysteria.” Ben replied, “He’ll be alright in a while, just needs time to relax and get to know he’s safe.”

Nate brushed back some hair from the boys brow, it was sticky with sweat and tears, and stuck to Davy’s skin. “Davy, it’s alright now, you’re safe. Do you want to go home now and be with your Ma?”

Davy blinked. His Ma? Whatever gave the sheriff the idea he would feel better being with his Ma? He shook his head, the tears slowed down, the sobs ebbed away. He just sat in the chair in which he had been placed, huddled over like a little old man.

“What were you doing here, Davy?” Nate asked

“I – I -” the boys eyes flashed over to Adam, “Sofia and Lilith were looking for clues” a shudder of breath, a struggle to get the words formed, he licked dry lips, rubbed his hand over his face, “But she was too scared to come in with me, said it was wrong and ran off.”

Adam and Ben looked at one another. Sofia and her ideas! They returned to look at the boy, while Nate told Matt to go and get some water for the lad to drink.

“How long have you been here?” Nate now ventured to ask, “Very long?”

“I – I don’t know. Seems like hours.” the boy glanced over at the window, the light was disappearing in that blue purpleness of dusk, a soft patter as rain was falling upon glass. “I didn’t mean no harm, I just wanted to find clues.”

“About what?”

“About Nettie. I did find something – look “ and he rummaged in his pocket and pulled out the golden letter N and dropped in gently into the palm of Nate’s hand.

All four men straightened their backs and looked at one another. Nate nodded “Yep, right under our noses…like you said.”

“How are you feeling, Davy? Do you feel well enough to -” Ben paused at the look of terror that passed the boys face, the way he frantically shook his head form side to side

“What’s wrong? What else – who else did you see here?” the Sheriff asked now, his eyes scanned the boys face, prepared for a boys lies, excuses, anything to say in order to get out of any trouble. Davy’s face worked nervously, his eyes twitched, he looked beyond where Adam was standing, beyond the doorway

“There were two men here.” he whispered and cringed slightly, as though instinctively trying to be smaller than he was, protected by the four men surrounding him,

“Two men?” Nate said quietly, “Do you know them? “

“No.”

“Weren’t they familiar to you at all?”

“No. I don’t know how they didn’t find me, they knew I was here, somewhere…but the older man said he had to go, he had things to do, and he said if he found whoever it was he would -” he shuddered and swallowed, “He was the worse of them….”

“Two men, one older than the other…much older, Davy?”

“The younger one was called David. And he called the other one Uncle.”

“David? Nothing else?” Ben asked quietly and the boy shook his head,

“He was scared of the – Uncle – but he said he didn’t want to hurt Nettie, he really cared for her..he brought her here because he wanted her to have a happy memory or or something like that…but the other man, Uncle, he was cruel, his voice was – cold – there was no feeling in it. It was like he was dead already – inside.”

They were quiet again, Mark repeated about getting the boy some water, but Nate said he would take the boy to the office, he could drink whatever he liked there.

Davy tried to stand up but his legs were weak, they wobbled. He hadn’t realised he had been so frightened that he would have wet himself, got into such a state as he was in. He thought how Sofia would laugh at him now, and he looked at Adam with such a pleading in his eyes that the rancher could just nod, whether he understood or not, but at least Davy was able to have some reassurance.

Nate lifted the boy up into his arms, surprised at how little he weighed, and he carried him out of the house into the gloom of the evening. Mark followed. It was left to Adam and Ben to close the house up. They left, walking towards the gate, in silence.

“David McArthur.” Adam said quietly.

Ben nodded, “Yes, that’s whom I thought of as well…..”

Chapter 54

Davy Riley shivered even after he had been wrapped in a warm blanket and sat by a fire in his own home. He shivered from a coldness that had touched to his very bones, like a finger of ice that had scorched the vitals of him. His mother had sat on the other side of the fire and held his hand, but he had shrugged her off so that she sat there, speechless for once although the amount of times she had moaned ‘Oh Davy, Davy’ were times beyond number.

Nate Carney and Mark Watts entered the room, respectfully leaving hats and outer jackets in the hall. Mrs Riley jumped up and muttered about making a hot drink and as she passed Nate she said “He hasn’t said anything, just sat there shivering and shaking all the time.”

She said it as though it were Nate’s fault after all he was the one who had carried the boy into the house, and Mr Riley had cursed and sworn because his son was always in scrapes. It had been Mark who had taken him to one side to explain, calmly, what had happened, and where they had found him.

Now Davy looked at the two lawmen as they sat down opposite him, Mark took out a notepad and pencil and balanced them on his knee while Nate leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and hands loose between them. His eyes scanned the boys’ face

“I know you’re frightened, Davy. But I promise you, no one is going to hurt you now. You’re quite safe…”

Davy said nothing, just a slight jerk of the head as though denying the claim. He didn’t feel safe and he couldn’t put into words the reason why.

“Can you tell us again what happened…right from the beginning when you saw Lilith and Sofia at Mrs Lamberts house….”

Nate’s voice was calm, reassuring. Davy took some deep gulps of air into his lungs and looked a the two lawmen, at Mark with his pencil poised to write down every word, at the sheriff with his pleasant face, kindly eyes.

Davy was renowned for getting into trouble. Sometimes he even scared himself, like the time he and the gang were lost in those tunnels in the cliffs and found all those dead men. Of course they had been dead for hundreds of years but it had still had the effect of scaring them all, even him.

But this time…he blinked and a tear welled up in his eyes and slowly trickled down his face. He blinked again in an effort to stop them forming and then sniffed, wiped his face impatiently of the wetness, and heaved in another deep breath.

He explained how he had seen the girls looking at the empty houses, and he had overheard them talking about finding a clue to take to the sheriff so that they could find where Nettie had been and maybe find the killer.

“It wasn’t right for them to do that, it was me and the gang, we should be the ones and so when they went back to the house I thought I’d do it myself before Sofia Cartwright found anything. What does she know, she’s only a girl!”

He looked down at his hands and then pulled the blanket closer around him, the shaking had stopped but in the silence it had started again. He looked at Nate “I dared Sofia to come with me but she got scared, ran off so I went in on my own. I just looked around, I looked under dust sheets and stuff like that. Then I found the bedroom that had been -” he paused and frowned “Well, someone had been there, been in that bed and eaten food and I reckoned that I had found it, where Nettie had been hidden. I found the letter N as well, and I remembered it was hers, I’d seen it before…”

He stopped then and bit down on his lip, glanced over his shoulder and Mark sat with his pencil poised over the paper. Nate nodded “You’re doing really well, Davy. Was this when you saw the two men?”

“I didn’t see ’em. I was upstairs and heard them come in and they were talking … I crept over to listen ..” he stared into space, into the area beyond Nate as though calling to mind what had happened, he blinked and his breathing went faster “I know it was only two men talking, that was all…but they were talking about Nettie and the one called David said he was fond of Nettie and didn’t want her hurt, he brought her to the house so she would have a happy memory…and the other man, the one called Uncle, was angry. He swore a lot. I guess they must have heard me because they came upstairs looking…I hid under the bed, right in the corner…there was no where to hide, not really”

His eyes darted from one to the other of them, as though willing them to understand, his lips trembled.

“What happened, did they look in all the rooms for you…” Nate prompted carefully

Davy nodded, “The man called Uncle came into the room where I was hiding, he had a walking stick, he kept tapping it on the floor. He said he knew I was there. He came right close up to the bed, and I could see his shoes…” he paused, “I was so scared. I don’t know why ‘cos it was just a man. But – it wasn’t – just a man I mean – it was something about how he talked, about how he made the room feel – and I know if he finds me like if he had found me then – he would have -” he stopped and clenched his teeth, his breathing faster

“The man called David, was he scary too….”

“In a way, but then he was scared of the Uncle. I was expecting them to grab me and pull me out from under the bed, but instead they left me alone, just walked away, and the older man said he didn’t have time to waste as he had an appointment -”

“Did he say what kind of appointment? A Doctors appointment perhaps?”

“He didn’t say, but he stopped at the door and said that when he got hold of me he would cut me to ribbons, and there’d be nothing left of me – so there was no point in hiding – “ Davy swallowed a gulp and blinked “I know he was just a man. I mean ..” he brushed his face with one hand as though to make sure there were no tears on his cheeks now “But when he had gone I couldn’t move, just in case he was really still there, waiting for me. I – I was scared.”

Nate nodded, and put out a hand which he placed gently on the boys knee, before withdrawing it and stroking his chin, as though deep in thoughtful

“What kind of voices did they have…were they rough, did they sound like miners or cowboys? Were they foreign?”

“No, they just sounded normal – well, I mean, they talked like they came from – “ he stopped and thought hard “like Mr Edwards, they talked like gents.”

Nate nodded, in a way he was not surprised at that, he looked at Davy again, and leaned forward “I know you didn’t see them, but what about what you did see…did you notice anything about how they walked? You said one had a walking stick, was it because he limped?”

“No, they walked normal … the man with the stick …I reckon he walked real quiet, didn’t tramp about like David did, and he seemed to just suddenly appear in the room, I didn’t hear him coming, I’d just got under the bed in time and then he was there.”

“You saw his shoes…”

“Black leather, and polished good. Not the kind of shoes my Pa could ever afford to buy.”

“His pants? Were you able to get an idea of colour, or type…”

“The kind you’d expect a man like him to wear, grey suit trousers.”

Nate nodded and smiled “You’re very observant, Davy. Considering how scared you were, you’ve noticed a lot.”

“I didn’t dare take my eyes off him…it was like he could have appeared right there bedside me if he had wanted and I’d have been caught out…”

Nate nodded again, and asked Davy if he had anything else he would like to say but the boy just shook his head and burrowed down into the blanket.

……………

Lilith and Sofia had sat very quietly as Adam and Ben talked over the matter with them. They were frightened by the fact that things had taken such a serious turn, and that Adam and Ben were talking to them in such a stern manner. But neither of them could give any information other than that they had been walking around the houses and peeking in at the windows.

“We wouldn’t have gone inside the houses,” Lilith had said, “Because that would have been trespassing, but we just wanted to see if there was a clue – but we never found any and I had to get back anyway for my piano lessons.”

Sofia shrunk back in her chair and looked at her father and Grandfather, she heaved a sigh and bowed her head “I – I -”

“Go on -” Adam raised his eyebrows and nodded so Sofia cleared her throat and told them how Davy had more or less dared her to go with him

“But when he had a knife and opened the window I knew it was wrong, I told him it was so I came home and he called me names.” she looked at the two men “Did something happen? Is Davy hurt?”

Adam stood up and for a moment wondered if he should bring his daughter home, as a punishment but for what? He looked at his father and wondered what he would have done had it been Joe in this situation, but Ben was looking at him, leaving him with the responsibility of making a decision which was right after all, Sofia was his daughter.

“The sheriff may want to talk to you both, so as to save him a trip to the Ponderosa, you can stay here as planned, but, Sofia…don’t go wandering around trying to find clues in future, do you hear? Leave it to the sheriff.”

She nodded, and glanced at Lilith who was nodding as well…Adam shook his head and sighed, then bade them both good night, thanked Barbara for her hospitality and apologised for the intrusion. She followed them to the door and handed them their hats as they shrugged on their outer coats. As Adam took his she smiled

“And will you, Adam? Will you leave it to the sheriff?”

He raised his eyebrows in mock severity now, but there was a smile lurking around his lips as he said “Of course, like all law abiding citizens should…”

……………………..

Mary Ann reached out a hand and touched her husbands cheek, a gentle tender caress. The sleeping man sighed and the eye lashes fluttered but he didn’t move, didn’t turn over to take her in his arms and whisper words that would make her melt into him. She smiled and settled back into the cushions and thought over the day, at the visitor who had stayed far longer than any of them had expected. She had almost got to the stage of wondering if they were going to have to make up an extra bed for him.

But her heart ached for what Dr Chandler was going through. She could not more imagine life without Joe, and to lose him in the way Hal had lost his wife, she knew would render her inconsolable. How did people survive such trauma in their life?

And Rosemary Chandler had seemed so loving and kind, which would mean that whoever had taken her from her husband must have had a very strong personality, what was the word she was looking for – charisma? He must have known her long enough to work on her, entice her heart away from her husband whom she had loved …

She thought then of Nettie – how the man with whom she had been involved must have had charisma too, because Nettie had kept any information about him secret from those she had loved. The frightening thing was, Mary Ann, surmised, was that whoever the man was, remained in Virginia City. He could be known to them, and she shivered involuntarily.

Unable to sleep she left the warmth of the bed and made her way into the little living area. The fire was still alive, still glowing red embers so she stirred it with the poker and watched the sparks fly up the chimney. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn’t hear Joe coming into the room until he was standing right beside her. He leaned down and took the poker from her and placed it on the gridiron, and smiled as he shook his head “Little girls should not play with fire.”

She stood up and leaned into him, her head resting upon his shoulder “I was thinking of Hal.”

Joe smiled, the movement of his lips upon her hair so light that she wouldn’t feel it.

Suddenly a stranger and now on first name terms..but sympathy makes for friendships at times such as this. “He’ll get over it….”

“Do you think so? I don’t know…but … I would hate anyone to dismiss the loss of a loved one so casually, Joe. His hearts broken…”

She looked up at him, she hadn’t wanted him to say that, to say ‘He’ll get over it’. What if she was taken from him, she would not want her death, her parting to be so easily dismissed.

He must have picked up on how she was feeling for he leaned down and kissed her, then took her by the hand and led her to the settee, “I didn’t mean to sound callous, or hard when I said that…it is just that human beings have a way of handing such heart breaks. A day will come when Hal will realise he is not quite as broken, that things are mending, and that there is still life to live…”

She didn’t say anything, but clung to him. So true the saying that men think, women feel. That was the difference. She placed her hand upon his chest and felt the beat of his heart, thump thump

strong as always. Her Joe.

“Why did you ask about the Chemist? You sounded as though you thought he was involved …”

“Did I?” he frowned, perhaps he had, perhaps it was because he had a feeling deep down that somewhere there was a connection, “Well, I guess it could be anybody, really.”

“That’s what frightens me,” she replied, “It could be anybody, and it could be someone we know…”

Chapter 55

“Wow, Mr Cartwright…” Jimmy C Evans looked with big round eyes at the framed medals hanging on the wall of Adams’ study “Wow!”

“Yeah, Pa, what did you get them for? I know it’s for being brave but what adventure were they for?” Reuben straddled the arm of a settee and tried to look the proud possessor of the man who won two Medals of Honour from the President. He was thrilled at that fact, but better still that Jimmy was here to share the glory

Adam smiled and shrugged, hugged his wife a little closer to him, “Well, it was just for doing my duty, son. That’s all….”

“Must be more than that, Pa….” Reuben protested, hoping that Adam would spin out a yarn before they retired to bed, something that he and Jimmy could talk over before going to sleep.. and brag about the following day at school.

“Well, mm,” Adam tugged at his ear lobe and looked at his wife who shook her head and laughed at him, then kissed his cheek, “I’ll tell you about it another time. “

“Aw, Pa…” Reuben scowled and from behind him Nathaniel said “Aw, Pa.” in such a good mimicry of his brother’s voice that everyone laughed.

“I guess that there was a lot of horrible things happened during your adventures, didn’t they, Mr Cartwright?” Jimmy said quietly, his eyes still on the medals before they slanted to Adam.

“Yes a lot of horrible things, Jimmy. A lot of brave men were involved in those adventures, they all deserved medals…” he sighed and released his wife so that she could get on with getting Nathaniel so that he could be put to bed.

“Whereabouts did you go, Mr Cartwright, when you were on those ships?”

Adam smiled and sat down, crossed one leg over the other and looked at the two earnest faces looking expectantly at him, he nodded “Well, I went to Alaska one time, got stuck in the ice and had to use an old seaman’s trick to free her, but it was hard work…” his eyes drifted to the far end of the room as though seeing once again the ship, encrusted with icicles, the frozen floes threatening to crush through the hull of the ship, his men either in boats when the water was free of ice, or actually on the frozen bergs, guy ropes stretched taut as they hauled the big ship inch by inch through the black frozen waters.

He spent a little time telling them about that adventure, how cold it was, how beautiful, about the aurora borealis and the great pods of whales that made the ship bounce on the waves as they passed. He told them nothing more, nothing about the traitors on board that nearly saw him and O’Brien dead! Nothing about the court martial because his ship had come home safely but been burned in San Francisco harbour with the loss of nine lives. Sometimes he thought back to those times and it felt as though he were talking about someone else’s life.

But he was grateful for Olivia’s thought, pleased that she was proud of him and wanted to let others see how proud, but had he had his way, the medals could have stayed in the trunk…when he looked at them it reminded him of how many letters of condolence he had had to write during his years of service, of how many lives had been lost…

……………….

Lilith turned on her side to look at Sofia’s face in the gloom of the bedroom they were sharing. These weekends when Sofia could stay with her and then go into school together on Monday, were the closest Lilith knew to having a sister, or a cousin. And despite the age difference they were so much alike. Sometimes she pretended that she and Sofia were really sisters, and that Adam Cartwright really was their father. Because she knew it was just fantasy she did not feel any disloyalty to John, whom she loved, but she was a girl with imagination and wove her own castles in the air.

“Do you think Davy will be at school tomorrow?” she whispered and Sofia turned her head and sighed, “I don’t think he will be, Pa said he was really ill.”

“I don’t think he will be either, I think something awful happened..I wish Daddy had told us what had happened. Just saying that Davy had had a big shock could mean anything…” sheets rustled as she shrugged her shoulders.

“Maybe he found another body. Another girl’s body.” Lilith paused, and turned onto her back, stared up at the ceiling, “Do you think there was another body in that house?”

“I don’t know. Do you think there will be any more people going missing …” Sofia paused “Perhaps Davy saw who did it”

Lilith was quiet for a moment and then turned her head, her pillows shifted slightly, “Sofia, that man I saw with Nettie that time, when she went missing, he may have been the killer.”

“Yes. Maybe…”

“Well, if he knows I saw him, will he come looking for me?”

Sofia gave that some thought, chewed on her bottom lip for a moment “Well, I think he would have done by now, it’s been a while since you told the sheriff about it.”

“I sometimes wonder what it was like, for Nettie I mean…” Lilith closed her eyes, drew in her breath, “Where she was kept, and why…”

Sofia didn’t like to think about it too much, it reminded her of when she was taken from home, and woke up to strange people, strange places. She rather thought that Nettie woke up to places and people far worse than anything she had suffered. It made her shiver and she pulled up the sheets over her head and whispered “Good night, Lilith”

………………………..

It was dark by the time Joe and Mary Ann disembarked from the train, and carried their children to the waiting buggy. Joe thanked Dougie for getting the horses and buggy ready for them, and gave him a tip, the old man scuttled off, heading for the nearest saloon.

“That won’t last long,” Mary Ann chuckled as she settled onto the seat and leaned down to pick Constance up out of Joe’s arms and place her gently on her lap

“He’s a good old chap,” Joe smiled and lifted Daniel up to sit beside his mother, then he got on board and sat beside Daniel so that the little boy was, once again, wedged in like a sack of potatoes between the two of them.

“It was a pleasant weekend, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I’m sorry about Dr Chandler..”

“Poor Hal. No need to feel sorry, he needed someone to talk to, and if it helped him, then that was good, wasn’t it?”

“You’re right, of course you are, “ and he leaned down to give his pretty little wife a kiss.

The buggy trundled down the Main Street, into shadow and into light, as they passed buildings that were shut for the night and buildings that were brightly lit up, like beacons. He noticed that there was a light on in the sheriff’s office and wondered who was working the evening shift…possibly Nate who never seemed to need sleep, and one of the deputies.

“Next time we go I shall have to take you through the woods to where the meadow is, where we will have the cattle station..”

“Not a stud farm?” she smiled and glanced at him and he laughed, and shook his head

“I would love a stud farm. Karim has sired two beauties already…there’s been a lot of interest in them, and in any others but it’s getting Pa to agree ..”

“Surely he will, it’s a good idea, Joe.”

“The cattle station is too, and Pa is more into cattle than horses … “ he sighed and then smiled at her, “But there is a lot of land there…and it is lovely. We could go in the spring…”

She nodded and watched the few late evening pedestrians, some couples, arm in arm, an older man striding along with a purpose, two drunks holding one another up, a young woman walking alone …

Mary Ann turned her head to look at the lone walker, strolling along as though not a care in the world. The light from a saloon passed over her and Mary Ann recognised her immediately, then sat back, puzzled. Now she asked herself why should she be puzzled a the sight of Lucille Agutter strolling through town at this time of night. Everyone had a right to walk where they wanted to, didn’t they?

“Anything the matter?” Joe asked, the reins loose between his fingers and as he spoke he turned to look at the Pharmacy.

The light was on there, making the coloured glass bowls look somehow rather sinister. He shook his head, and told himself that he was imagining things, getting ideas just because …he bit his lip, and turned to Mary Ann, who had not yet answered his question

“No, nothing…” she replied as soon as she realised he was looking at her, and then she leaned down to attend to Daniel who had fallen asleep and looked about to fall off his seat.

Joe glanced again at the Pharmacy, a tall shadow passed across the window. The lights went out. It was now dark and he slowed the horses just long enough to see who would come out of the building. No one did but a light went on upstairs, above the store. Joe nodded, just a thought flickered through his head, along the lines of now knowing where Gil Sutherland lived.

He flicked the reins and the horses ambled onwards, getting up speed now, eager to get home.

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Mr Riley put down his money on the counter and waited for Solomon to pour out the whisky into his glass. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and scowled. He had a good business, he was never short of customers even though there were two other undertakers carrying out the same work as himself, so he felt satisfied in that respect. What annoyed him was that the Nobs never gave proper attention to Undertakers..it was as though handling the dead meant they were sullied in some way, that they couldn’t be Mayors or Councillors because they were too intimately involved with their line of business.

He sighed, and now this business with young David. Why on earth did they have to have a son like him! Always in trouble, always causing problems. But this time…he downed his drink fast, spluttered and thumped the glass down onto the counter. “Another …”

Solomon poured out two fingers of whisky into the glass “You alright, Mr Riley?”

“No, not at all alright…” Mr Riley replied “My son was nearly killed today and nothings being done about it, nothing….I know, I know he was somewhere he shouldn’t have been but lads his age like to explore, don’t they​”

He spun round and hooked his elbows on the counter to ensure he kept upright. He stared out at the customers there, seated at tables, playing cards, flirting with the girls, crowded round the wheel that was spinning red and black balls.. he sighed and shook his head.

Daniel deQuille was suddenly at his elbow, nodding at him with a smile hidden somewhere in his beard, “I heard about young Davy. How is he now? Has he recovered from the shock?”

Another voice asked what shock was it this time? There was a ripple of laughter, Davy Riley was renowned for his antics, most times he shocked other people but there were the occasional times when he got a shock too. Mr Riley often regaled an audience with tales of his son, someone said they were better than Mark Twains stories about Huckleberry…

Deputy Fletcher stood up, picked up his hat and wandered over to the Undertaker, placed a hand on his shoulder “Time to get home, Mr Riley.”

“I was just going to tell folk here about Davy’s latest escapade…” Riley paused and frowned, “Made him ill. He’s real sick. Won’t be at school tomorrow…got to keep him home, safe.”

“Come along, Mr Riley. Time for your bed…” Fletcher said in an attempt to unlatch the man from the counter, he leaned in and whispered “You don’t want to get arrested do you?”

Riley looked at Fletcher in amazement, shook his head and stood upright. Fletcher handed him his hat, and he stared at it as though he had never seen it before then slapped it onto his head.

“My boy didn’t deserve what happened to him, all he was doing…”

“Come along, Mr Riley…before you fall down and hurt yourself.”

Daniel deQuille watched them leave the building, the bat wings swayed back and forth. He sighed and turned, almost colliding with the gentleman who was standing behind him.

“Wonder what that was all about, don’t suppose you would know, would you, Mr deQuille.” he raised a hand to Solomon “A glass for -”

“I don’t drink..” Daniel said quickly and without another word hurried after the two men who were still trying to reach the Undertakers house.

Chapter 56

Nate read one page of the report that had been sent to him from Marshall Duggan in San Francisco. He read it and then laid it down on the desk before picking up the next, and this was then set down with the first. He picked up the third page and afterwards that was added to the pile. Marshall Duggan had obviously been conscientious enough to contact Marshalls from other districts of the city and been sent several reports which he enclosed with that of his own.

For some reason the reports he had sent on had prompted him to look into a case that had often intrigued him, it had not involved a murder, or an abduction, but it had lingered in the back of his mind as ‘unsolved’ and a conundrum.

It may not have been a murder, or an abduction, but it was a case that rather intrigued me and involved the Cartwrights in a kind of oblique way. Your mention of jewellery was what sparked off this memory and got me hunting through some past records”

That had been enough to arouse Nate’s curiosity as well, it was jewellery that was connection two women and was, perhaps the link to the abduction and murders of several more.

A woman reported the theft of a large amount of jewellery and documents relating to property in France that had been left her by her husband.

The woman was called Ingrid Buchanan, recently widowed. Her husband was Milton Buchanan, a partner of Buchanans Banking Empire in New York. They had been spending time on the Ponderosa with Mr Buchanans sister, Hester Cartwright, on the Ponderosa.

Mrs Buchanans husband had left her property in France that amounted to a considerable sum, plus jewellery of an equally impressive amount, and some money. But while in San Francisco booking a cabin for the crossing to France she met a man

This man introduced himself as Philip Manser, He had a youth with him whom he referred to as his nephew, en route to college. The widow and this gentleman became friendly to the extent that he was soon spending more time at her hotel suite than anywhere else. The inevitable happened…she awoke one morning to find her documents and most of her jewellery and money had been taken.

A search was immediately made for Philip Manser. It was thought that he may have taken the booking to France but it was discovered that was cancelled in her name. The documents taken from her gave him legal entitlement to the property in France, and all her possessions there that had been bequeathed by her husband

There was no information forthcoming since then about Mr Philip Manser. His nephew – of whom she had no information to hand – never emerged. No other ship crossing to France had a passenger by the name Philip Manser. Our enquiries drew a blank.

I believe Mrs Buchanan returned to her relatives on the Ponderosa. As there was no later information regarding this case the file was closed pending further notice.

From what witnesses told us Mr Philip Manser was a well dressed gentleman, tall, broad shouldered, dark haired, dark eyed. He had an educated accent, and was described by the female witnesses as handsome.

Mr Manser seemed to have appeared from nowhere, and he has disappeared back to where he came from.. .. apart from that brief interlude relative to Mrs Buchanan it was as if he never existed at all.”

Nate looked around the office and stood up, put the papers into a file and placed them in a drawer which he locked.

“Mark, have you seen any Cartwrights in town today?”

“Joe and Adam – about half an hour ago.”

Nate nodded, looked at his desk and was about to speak when Mr deSousa entered the building, closed the door and stared at them. His face was flabby, the colour of chalk, and his lips were trembling. He forced himself to walk with a straight back to the chair by the desk and almost fell into it. Nate resumed his seat on the other side and gently asked Mr deSousa what had happened?

“My daughter…”

Nate and Mark stared at him, looked at one another. No one knew deSousa had a daughter, well, no one who lacked a long memory, so fas as the two law men were concerned the man had never been married.

“Your daughter?” Nate queried, his eyes round, he gave a slight shake of the head “I didn’t know..”

“My daughter – she’s missing from home – my –er – her mother came to see me this morning. My daughter’s been gone two days.”

“Two days?”

Nate sat down, his shoulders slumped, his head beginning to thud in a familiar dull fashion, he gave deSousa a look of mingled sympathy and irritation “ Why was not this reported much sooner…two days…” Nate bunched both hands into fists, two valuable days, gone, time wasted.

“Mrs Agutter was too scared to admit it, kept waiting for the girl to come home, thought she was with friends…”

“Mr deSousa, let me get the facts …”

“Find her, find my daughter…”

“Facts first, Mr deSousa.” Nate stared the man down, no doubt the fear of Nettie’s fate hung over them, but questions had to be answered before anything else could be pursued “ Your daughters name?”

“Lucy – Lucille – Agutter.” deSousa wiped around his face and neck. It may have been a cold day but he was sweating as though it were the middle of summer

“Lucy Agutter.. but …mmm…” Nate raised his eyebrows just slightly, and then looked at deSousa “And she is your daughter?”

“Yes, Mrs Agutter and I – we got rather friendly some time back – “ he paused “Lucy doesn’t know,

she thinks Agutter is her real father but – “ he shrugged, a man of the world, these things happen all the time don’t they? But girls disappearing from home – that shouldn’t happen all the time, not to him, not to his daughter. He pulled out his handkerchief and mopped around his face, around his two chins and neck,

“Lucille Agutter…age and other personal details…colouring, height and so forth.”

“You’re wasting time…” deSousa shouted and thumped a fist on the desk “Dumb fool questions..don’t sit there wasting time, do something….”

Nate just stared at him and sighed, “You’ve already wasted two days, Mr deSousa, now, if you don’t mind, just answer the questions.”

………………

Adam Cartwright was in the Hardware store, leaning against the counter with his hands splayed out, fingers tapping as he looked around him, he whistled a tune under his breath, and waited for the Manager to bring out the items that were on the order. They had almost completed the bridge now, it had taken longer than expected due to the heavy fall of rain over the weekend. Now it was Wednesday and once he had taken these nails, screws and everything else they could finish the job and get back to other duties.

Carson appeared with tins and boxes balanced in his arms and off loaded them onto the counter

“There you are, Adam, everything you asked for…” he smiled and rubbed his hands on the back of his breeches.

Adam slowly and methodically lined every box and tin up in order and then nodded, put his hand to his wallet and smiled “How much do I owe you, Mr Carson.”

The transaction completed Adam swept everything into a box and carried it to the wagon. Joe was lounging against the wagons sides, his eyes staring over at another building across the road. He looked at his brother, and frowned “Finished?”

“Almost.”

Mr Appleby came out of the door of the Pharmacy with a box in his hands, he paused at the sight of Joe and Adam, and ambled across the road to them. The box was full of medicines, tubes, pill boxes, bottles of different coloured liquids.

“I’m just taking these to the hospital.” he nodded, smiled and then looked at Joe “You know, Mr Cartwright, your coming into the shop the other day was very beneficial, your asking about Huntersville. Well, a property has just come available that is quite suitable for us to open up a branch there. I’ve sent Mr Sanderson to check it out for me.”

“Mr Sanderson isn’t here now?”

“No, no, he left a few days ago. A very capable young man, he’ll know exactly whether or not the property is suitable. If it is, that will mean there will be an Applebys Pharmacy in every direction from Virginia City.” he grinned “What a good thing you came that day, you nudged me in the right direction…”

Nodding his head and beaming with pleasure the little man hurried off, the bottles clinking together, and the pills bouncing about in their little boxes.

Adam glanced at his brother and pushed his hat to the back of his head “What was that all about?”

Joe frowned, thinned his lips and watched the Pharmacist, or was he the Chemist, disappear around the corner “Nothing.”

“Are you sure? You don’t look as though it were nothing.”

“Just an idea I had…I need to think it over…”

“Think what over?”

“This idea I had…” Joe bit down on his bottom lip and blew out his cheeks, shook his head “I have a feeling – like someone walking over my grave! Ever feel that way, Adam?”

“Yeah…sometimes.” Adam glanced around him and shook his head “I’ll just get what else Pa wanted and then we can get back to work.”

Joe nodded and was about to say something when the town alarm bell pealed out, a strident call for help, usually a fire, or the need for men to take part in a posse. Joe and Adam looked at one another. Joe shook his head “They won’t need us, let’s get on with this – “

Then they saw Mark Watts striding across the road towards them, a hand raised, demanding their attention.

“What’s wrong, Mark?”

“Nate wants you both inside. There’s been some developments – “ he glanced over his shoulder, “And another girl missing.”

Joe went pale, looked at Adam and bowed his head, “Who is it?” he asked, his voice a soft mumble

“Lucille Agutter.”

Adam and Joe looked at one another now, both recalled the evening of the theatre outing, seeing her on the arm of Christopher Orr, smiling, preening herself, looking pretty and excited. Both of them sighed and without a word followed Mark to the sheriffs office

Vinnie Tyler was shouting at the crowd, demanding attention, calling for men to form a posse, letting them know another girl had been taken from their town.

……………….

deSousa had gone by the time Mark and the Cartwrights arrived, Nate was standing by the desk, fingering some papers, when he saw them a look of relief passed over his face. He hauled in his breath and shrugged

“deSousa’s daughter, she’s missing, been missing for two days.”

“I thought it was Lucille Agutter -” Joe queried but Adam nudged him, gave him a nod of the head to shut him up.

“Lucille Agutter, missing for two days. She went out sometime early Monday morning, or could be late Sunday evening, never came home.” Nate frowned and pursed his lips “Her mother didn’t worry at first, seems Lucy likes to stay over with friends but when Monday came and went without a word from her, panic set in…she went to see the friends, went to the work place where Lucy was reported absent since the previous Friday, although Mrs Agutter said Lucy was home Friday, with a cold.”

“Any idea if she had a man friend/” Adam asked politely

“Seems she had several…” Mark volunteered in his deep voice, “Mr Orr was one of them…”

Adam and Joe nodded, looked at one another, Adam confirmed having seen them together at the theatre but, as he added, that was some months back along now.

Nate nodded “Well, we’re do the usual checks. I’ll go and see Mr Orr, there were several other men on the list…”

“Is Gil Sanderson one of them?” Joe asked, his voice sharper than usual “Only – Mary Ann saw

her leaving the Pharmacy Sunday evening, when we were on the way home.”

“He isn’t on the list, Joe. Are you sure you or your wife actually saw her leaving the building, or going into the building, with Mr Sanderson?”

Joe shook his head “No, it may have been co-incidence that she was walking away from there, but -” he stared down at the floor boards, at the stains there, some darker than others, he shook his head again “I just got a feeling that she had been seeing him. When I looked back he was in the shop, the lights were on, then they went out and he went to the rooms upstairs….”

“Not much to go on, Joe.” Nate said gently, “We have to deal with facts, not how we feel about things…”

“I know, but -”

“If she had a cold she may have gone in for something to help – some medicine.” Mark said and widened his eyes, looked at them both “I mean, she could have done, couldn’t she?”

“I guess…” Joe agreed glumly, but he glanced over at Adam who was watching his brother thoughtfully, his eyes narrowed.

Nate watched as Joe flashed a glance at Adam, then at him “Well, then, that’s where you’ll find her, somewhere on the road to Huntersville…or even in Huntersville by now…”

The sheriff perched himself on the corner of the desk and looked at Joe thoughtfully, “You put forward that theory the other evening too…”

“Well, there were pharmacists interviewed in some other towns where women have gone missing…and I said then that its like a loop…now he’s going to Huntersville and that completes the loop. Don’t you see? Every time Appleby sends him to one of those pharmacies something happens..”

“But Sanderson hasn’t been at all those pharmacies….wasn’t one man called Milton Buchanan..” Nate’s voice drifted and he stared at Joe as though he had fallen into a mental hole “Milton Buchanan…”

He turned and opened the drawer in his desk, pulled out the file and heaved in a deep breath, “I don’t understand what’s going on here…but I don’t like co-incidences …”

Before he could say another word Vinnie came in, “What do you want us to do, Sheriff, got some men organised..do we ride out?”

“No,” Nate shook his head “Not yet, split the men into pairs and set up a house to house enquiry.” he frowned “Check out all empty houses….particularly any where there have been lights noticed, or smoke from a chimney, it’s cold, they’d need a fire.”

He shook his head, would they though? Would they need a fire or were they, as Joe surmised, on their way to Huntersville now. He turned to Mark “Check the passenger lists for trains or stages going to Huntersville….or the town en route to that, Jefferson Point.”

Chapter 57

The Sheriff eased back into his chair and placed a hand on the papers on the desk, his long fingers splayed over them as though acting as a paper weight. He looked at the two Cartwrights

“Do you recall ever hearing of anyone called Philip Manser?”

His eyes flicked from one to the other, both of them shook their heads, looked at one another and then back at him “Who is he?” Adam asked

“He’s involved with this situation with Ingrid Buchanan. He got friendly with her and then went off to France with most of what she possessed.”

“I wasn’t here at the time, “ Adam said with a slight shrug of the shoulders

“ I never had anything to do with Ingrid especially after she left the Ponderosa. You could ask John Martin, he may know. Oh, and Hester…I recall a time Ingrid went crawling around to Hester trying to ingratiate herself back into the family.”

“She sounds quite a first class act…” Nate muttered with a scowl and then he looked again at them both, turned his attention to Adam “What do you think about Joe’s theory about this Pharmacist?”

Adam shrugged again and looked at his brother before looking back at Nate “It makes sense…”

Joe gave the briefest of smiles, and then looked at Nate “I can check it out -”

“You’re not a deputy…” Nate intoned and then looked at the door as it opened and Vinnie Tyler stepped into building, he nodded “But if we need a posse -”

“Sure, you can rely on us.” Joe said with a nod of the head and without a word they turned to leave.

They walked down to the wagon in silence, both immersed in thought “Fancy deSousa having a daughter.”

“Mmm, it’s old history.” Adam muttered with very little interest “ I guess most had forgotten the gossip about him and Mrs Agutter…”

“Yeah…I guess.” Joe paused and looked over his shoulder, “Look, I need to go and see Mary Ann, she’s at the hospice today, so I’ll ride in with her later.”

“Oh no, Joe, this equipment has to get to the bridge,we need it to finish the work…”

“You don’t need me for that…”

“We need you to help finish off the work on it…”

“Look, I’ll get Mary Ann to bring me back early -”

“Pa won’t be happy..”

“Aw, Adam, we ain’t kids any more.” and he paused again, pouted, “I’ll get a horse from Armstrong…”

Adam stopped, looked at his brother and frowned, “Joe, don’t do anything stupid.”

“As if?” Joe laughed, but something in his face sent off warning signals to his brother who placed a hand on his arm, squeezed it tight

“Remember, Joe, don’t do anything that puts you in trouble. Remember what you just said, we ain’t kid any more, we can’t afford to meddle in things that are none of our business. Was a time we did, but now we have kids of our own, so whatever you are thinking up in that head of yours, forget it.” he frowned, lips thinned, “Best idea is for you to get on that wagon with me and get back to work.”

Joe nodded “Yeah, yeah, I hear what you’re saying. But as I said, I need to see Mary Ann…”

and before Adam could stop him Joe turned around and strode down the road towards the hospice.

Adam watched for a moment, instinct told him that Joe was up to something but at the same time he knew Hoss and Candy were waiting for the equipment he had in the wagon. He shook his head and turned back to where the wagon was waiting, the two horses looking as jaded as he felt.

…………….

John Martin opened the door to the sharp summons and looked thoughtfully at the Sheriff and his deputy, Vinnie Tyler. He nodded and stepped aside for them both to enter.

“Anything wrong?” he ran fingers through his hair, having been on duty during the night he had returned home to try and catch up on some sleep. He looked bleary eyed and stubble adorned his jaw and chin, “Mm, anything I can help you with?”

Nate nodded and removed his hat, twisted it round and round between his fingers, “Recall how I came by the other week to ask you about Ingrid Buchanan?”

John nodded “Sure – you showed me some of her jewellery”

“I think we have the name of the man who stole that jewellery from her. Did she ever mention anyone called Philip Manser to you?”

John screwed up his eyes in concentration and thought back to that time, he shook his head, “No, once she returned from San Francisco she changed her name and got work as a saloon girl. I never saw her again…not to have any conversation with.”

“She never told you who stole her belongings, even legal documents to the property in Europe?”

“Not a word. I’m sorry, Sheriff, wish I could help but I really do not think she ever mentioned that to me. She had been in Virginia City a few weeks before I even knew she had come back…”

Nate nodded and sighed, replaced and hat and thanked John for his help, then paused to ask how Davy was and if he had said anything more about his experience in the empty house.

“David Riley – no, it has certainly shaken him up, he’s not a well lad just now, but I have a feeling he’ll bounce back.”

Both Law men nodded at that remark, then left the house. Vinnie looked at Nate “What now, Boss?”

Nate didn’t reply, his eyes lingered over the people going about their daily business, townsfolk he had been getting to know well over the past years, and he wondered, who was David? Who was David’s Uncle? He paused and looked over to where Christopher Orr was about to step into his office, and wondered yet again “Who was Philip Manser?”

…………………

The side entrance to Appleby’s Pharmacy was down a side alley, a dark green door which Mr Appleby kept freshly painted every year. Joe looked at it and then at the handle, which he tried to see if the door was open. It was locked and he gave a tchah of annoyance, so gave the door a push with his knee.

It wasn’t the strongest of doors, and gave a slight bounce from the the frame, so he knee’d it again, several times in quick succession until it finally bounced it self open. Looking up and down to make sure there was no one in the alley Joe slipped inside and closed the door behind him. It thumped shut.

Stairs faced him leading up to the rooms where Gil Sanderson lived. Unsure as to whether or not Mr Appleby had returned to the store, Joe crept very carefully up the stairs, hand on the wall as though to steady his feet and deaden any sounds that could be heard in the lower half of the building.

Ahead of him was a long landing with doors leading off. They were all closed. As he made his way along the carpeted landing he opened each door to see inside. At each doorway he paused long enough to get an idea of the layout, of what it contained, and a glimpse into the life of the man he suspected of abducting the women. As he approached the bedroom he thought about Lucy Agutter, how pretty she was, and how similar in some ways she was to Nettie, to Rosemary.

The bedroom was sparse, a nightstand with a lamp, a book, the bed was tidy and a chair was by the window. He opened a closet and found Gil Sandersons clothing still hanging there, several suits, shirts, shoes. Highly polished shoes. He stared at the clothes and then felt in their pockets. He found nothing.

He made his way to the sitting room, where there was more of an idea of what the personality of the man was like…books on shelves running along the main wall, some on theology, some of history. The man seemed to like European history. There were books about people and places Joe had never even heard of, some he had and knew to be master criminals remembered years after their deaths from centuries past. Botany, poisons from plants, chemistry…and Joe stopped, stepped back and shook his head. So many books…and as far as he was concerned not one worth reading.

He straightened his shoulders and turned his head at a sound from behind him, a smell…he frowned, unfamiliar and sickly. Then he tensed, put his hand to his gun but already his mouth and nose was covered with a cloth, a strong hand held it down, while another hand gripped his wrist preventing his fingers from touching his weapon.

“Well, well, Mr Cartwright…you really should learn to leave matters to the law, this is way out of your depth….way out of your depth.”

Joe blinked, his head was spinning and there were little white dots scattering like stars in the dark. And then that was all there was…just dark.

………………….

“Where’s Pa?” Adam asked as he clambered down from the wagon and looked over to where Candy and Hoss were still working on the bridge.

He walked to the tail gate and lowered it, then pulled out the necessary equipment, loading his arms and carrying it over to the two men. Hoss wiped his hands on the back of his pants,

“Thought you’d never get here…” he grumbled and scowled as he grabbed a box of nails, and checked on the size, just to make sure they were the right ones he needed.

“Another girls gone missing, about two days ago.” Adam explained, “We got hauled into the Sheriff’s office …here, Hoss, take these as well…” he tossed a box of screws across to his brother who caught them one handed.

“Who is it this time?” Candy asked, and when Adam told them he shook his head “Pretty woman. Older than Nettie…”

“Yep, by some years, but the size and shape and colouring are the same.” Adam squared his shoulders, “She’s been gone two days.”

Both men looked at one another, shook their heads, the expressions on their faces evidence of their feelings. Hoss paused “Where’s little brother?”

“In town.” Adam looked at them both, then shrugged “He needed to see his wife about something.”

“His wife?” Hoss exclaimed, “How come he needed to see her?”

“How do I know?” Adam retorted sharply, and stooped to pick up a hammer “Let’s get on shall we, or we’ll be here come summer.”

…………….

Mark Watts approached the Sheriff and shrugged “No one’s taken a trip to Huntersville or Jefferson Point in a while, Sheriff.. I checked at the train depot to see if anyone had taken a ticket to any town close to either of them , but no one has…”

Nate nodded, gave a tight grin, “Well, at least that puts Joe Cartwright’s theory to bed, not that I think he’ll be satisfied with that, he seems dead set in sticking this case on the pharmacist.” he paused “I’ll just go and have a word with Mr Appleby.”

Mark and Vinnie said nothing, but made their way to the Sheriffs office. Joe Cartwrights’ idea’s were often known to flounder, both of them shared some memory of some plan or idea Joe had put forward, it had afforded them quite a chuckle in the past.

Mr Appleby had returned from the hospital and was back behind the counter. He looked up from his task of carefully packing so many pills into so many little boxes. “Yes, sheriff? What can I do for you?” he frowned “You look a little bilious if you don’t mind my saying so. Roy was just the same, the job got to him too, and these girls disappearing….poor Nettie..”

“Mr Appleby, I just wanted to have a word with your assistant, Mr Sanderson, is he available?”

Mr Appleby shook his head and frowned “I hope you haven’t been paying any attention to Joseph

Cartwright! It just wouldn’t do if he has been putting ideas into your head about Gil.”

“No, I just wanted to confirm that he is in town ..just in case we need to talk to him about Miss Agutter.”

“Miss Agutter?” Appleby frowned, “What about Miss Agutter?”

“I understood that Mr Sanderson and Miss Agutter were – er – on friendly terms?”

Nate stared at the little man, this was sheer speculation on his part and he knew that Mr Appleby could, if he knew better, have called him out and proven him a liar. But the chemist shrugged and pursed his lips and looked rather vacantly in the air above Nates shouldered

“I had a feeling he was courting, he really didn’t want the journey to Huntersville. I have the chance

of getting as place there, branching out a bit more…out of the loop so to speak…but Gil really didn’t seem keen to go at all”

“So where is he?” Nate glanced around the store as though the man in question would pop up at any moment, but Appleby shook his head

“I sent him to our branch office in Cutler’s Creek, he can work there for a few days while Mr Brown can go to Huntersville in his place.” he shrugged “When you get a good employee, you have to be prepared to go out of your way to accommodate them, and Mr Sanderson, Gil, is an excellent employee.” he pursed his lips “Mr Brown can handle the transaction well enough, he has a good head on his shoulders.”

Nate nodded. Thanked the chemist and left the store, the bell tinkled above the door as it closed. He paused on the side walk “Cutlers Creek,” he muttered to himself “Why does that sound familiar.”

Chapter 58

The journey from town took longer than Christopher Orr had anticipated. The weather was colder now, the sky looked like smudges of charcoal promising more rain to come. He didn’t take the time to admire the views, some of which were not that admirable anyway. But he did take time to think over the events of the months he had spent in Virginia City, and particularly those of the past twenty four hours.

Like most of the town he was aware of Lucille Agutters disappearance. He had been made aware of it even prior to the Sheriff due to deSousa’s bursting into his office and declaring the loss, the fears , the truth about his relationship to Lucille. It had taken half an hour to calm the man down and to get him to think rationally, to put the matter into the hands of the Law. If her parents would not, then it was he, as deSousa’s Lawyer, had the responsibility to do so.

Secrets, everyone had secrets they preferred to remain secret!

And then, as expected, the Sheriff had arrived with his questions. Polite, wary and waiting to pounce on any thing, any indication that he knew more than what he was saying! Perhaps any man who had shown an interest in Lucille during the past few months would be getting the same treatment. The Lawyer liked Nate, respected him as a decent man. He had answered honestly, after all, he knew the Law didn’t he? What was he to say but the truth..Lucille was a charming pretty companion but she was ill read, a little lacking in good conversation so he had kept contact with her, socially, to a minimum. The last time he had seen her was several weeks previous to her disappearance.

So now here he was taking a long earned rest, a few snatched hours away from town and work, and looking forward to a pleasant hour ahead.

……. ….

Christopher recalled the way to the house from the time he had joined the posse looking for Nettie all those weeks earlier. As he saw the fork in the road that would lead him to it he paused the horses for a moment in order to observe the building, and the view. A brief shaft of sun broke through the sombre skies as he did so, shimmering down upon the shingles of the roof, causing the glass in the windows to catch the last rays

It was what it was, a house suited to its environment. He had heard the story of the rancher who had started building it single handedly and nearly killed him self in the process. He had to admit it had been a project worth the attempt. He flicked the reins and the horses ambled their way down the track towards the house.

A ranch hand stepped out from the stables leading a pony, a plump little creature with a blonde mane. The little boy in the saddle looked at the visitor with a frown but said nothing. Christopher thought the child looked a natural rider, the way he sat in the saddle with such confidence and ease. Hank raised a hand to Orr, and nodded in answer to the question asked of him. He then continued to lead the pony to the corral for the child to ride around until he was ready with a saddled mount of his own, after which they would ride the trails beyond the house.

Orr brought the horses to a halt and clambered down, straightened his jacket and approached the house.

Olivia removed her glasses and rose to her feet as Chen stepped aside to admit the visitor. She smiled her usual warm smile but Orr could see she was anxious or perhaps, confused by his visit. It showed in the slight furrow of her brow, the darkening of her clear eyes.

Mr Orr, what a pleasure to see you here..and a surprise. I never thought a visit to the Ponderosa would entice you away from work.” She stretched out her hand which he took, held lightly in his own before releasing it “So .. what brings you here? Do sit down ..Chen will make us some coffee.”

Orr glanced at the sloe eyed Chinese and gave a thin smile, nodded and muttered a thanks as he took a seat opposite the woman. He glanced about him and then allowed his eyes to settle on her.

A very attractive room, Olivia.” he glanced over at the piano “You play?”

No, sadly not. Sofia, my daughter, she is the musical one, Mary Ann is teaching her.”

That’s Joseph’ s wife? Talented as well as very attractive ..”

We think so..” Olivia replied, slightly guarded and she paused a moment “So, I’m intrigued, what brings you here today?”

“Well, to be perfectly honest with you, I thought that if I didn’t seize the opportunity now I would never get here.. the forecast is for snow, and I have a big case coming up so time will be limited in the foreseeable future. I wanted to see you in your home setting.”

Really? Then I hope you won’t be disappointed ..” she bowed her head and waited until Chen had placed the tray on the low table before looking up at him again “What brought you to Virginia City, Mr Orr? You seem so much more suited to the court rooms in the cities back East “

Do you think so? Then I’m flattered” he took the cup and saucer from her and allowed a slight frown “Well, perhaps I was just tired of the law suits in the courts back East, they can become very tedious. There is so much more happening here..life is faster, richer..”. he looked over the rim of his cup at her and smiled “Don’t you agree?”

She said nothing to that, but concentrated instead on finding a topic that would be less personal but for some reason she couldn’t think of a thing except to ask him if he knew how Nettie Groom was, and whether or not she was recovering from her ordeal.

He swallowed the coffee and after setting down the cup and saucer, admitted that he did not know about Nettie Groom but concerns were now raised for the welfare of Lucille Agutter who had been missing several days. Olivia’s eyes widened, she lowered the cup into the saucer and stared at him “Lucille? Missing.”

She remembered the young woman at the theatre laughing up at Orr, flirting with him, touching his arm, smoothing down the lapel of his jacket. And more recently, had she not seen him talking with her in town, again with her hand on his arm..a gesture both affectionate and possessive. She shook her head “Poor Mrs Agutter.” she shook her head again. “Do you think the same man has taken Lucy that took Nettie and the Doctor’s wife.”

Orr leaned forward slightly, as though trying to convey his sincerity and concern to her as he spoke and assured her that he had every confidence in the sheriff. The main problem was the time wasted before the matter was reported.

Conversation slipped into more general topics, he carefully steered their talk onto subjects he felt would appeal to her, and eventually broached the matter of his friendship with Robert. He could see that she was not adverse to discussing her previous husband, her eyes softened, there was a slightly heightened colour to her cheeks and her mouth turned up in a smile as she listened to him, or laughed at some memory of Robert and Himself involved in some prank or other “We were but boys,” he said with a wave of the hand, “we had a lot of growing up:to do.”

She was tempted to ask him about the time he was suspended from college, what had been the reason, what had caused the change in him that had so affected the friendship of which he spoke so fondly. But instead she let talk him on, until finally the clock struck the hour and he pulled out his watch, checked it with the clock and shook his head

Time always goes too fast when enjoying the company of a pretty woman” he said as he stood up, and looked down at her “I’m glad to have found you again, Olivia, for Roberts sake, for old times ..”

She merely smiled and said nothing, although she felt uncomfortable and wished he would leave now without saying anything more. She walked with him to the door, waited as he collected his hat, his outer coat.

You know, we were all rather intrigued about Roberts choice of wife,’ he said as he pulled on his coat,”His old friends and I ..we were a tight knit bunch of old pals. When we heard that Robert had married a girl from the wilderness of Nevada territory we thought he had taken leave of his senses.” He fastened the last button and smiled at her, “But when I met you I could see why he was so entranced by you…you were fresh, and innocent and intelligent. Such a contrast to the young women one has the usual social contact with, all moulded and sculptured are as society demands. “

I don’t really understand why you are telling me this..”

No, Olivia? I don’t expect that you would” he gave a smile, rather a sad winsome smile before saying his farewells, and striding across the yard to his vehicle and the waiting horses.

She watched him drive out of the yard before she closed the door behind her.

Christopher Orr jounced along the track thinking over the conversation he had just had with her. He thought over the expressions on her face, the way she had laughed. He smiled occasionally, perhaps before the snows came he would be able to make another visit .. or two.

…………………

Hester Cartwright glanced quickly at the clock on the wall and was relieved to see that she still had enough time to finish the days accounting before going to collect the children from school. Reuben would have ridden in on Max, so there was just enough room for the three girls to crowd in with her. It was a once a week event but one she enjoyed, probably more than they did

There was only Bridie still in the building now, everyone had gone to their homes. The lingering smell of the food, of bodies in a small area, and of burning wood from the fire remained testimony of the hard work that had been carried out during the day.

Footsteps caused her to look up from her ledgers and with a frown she saw Nate and one of his deputies coming towards her. They had removed their hats and looked so solemn that the fear of something having happened to Hoss or the children caused her to stand up so abruptly that the desk juddered an inch or so over the floor. From the corner of her eye she could see Bridie approach, anxiety etched onto her face.

Has something happened.” she asked, “Nothing …”

Nothings happened, Hester,”. Nate said immediately, reassuringly, “I just needed to ask you some questions.”

Some questions.” Hester repeated, and then blushed, told herself she sounded like a parrot, so she nodded, smiled and relaxed “Of course, how can I help?”

It’s really to do with your sister in law…Ingrid Buchanan”. he looked at her quickly, noticed the thinning of her lips, a hardening of the usually pleasant features, there was obviously no love for the deceased woman here. “When she returned to town after being robbed of her belongings in San Francisco, did she give you the name of the man? I know it was some years ago, but if you remember anything it may help our enquiries.”

Hester twisted a pen between her fingers as she thought back the years to when Ingrid had been the persistent thorn in their flesh. She thought of the woman, of how beautiful she was with her soft husky voice, the black hair and perfect body. So beautiful, so alluring, that she had John Martin crazy for her and even Joe, their Little Joe, had been enticed by her. She sighed and shook her head,

Ingrid tried to return to the family but it was not possible. No one could trust her enough, she was ….” she sighed, shrugged “she called the man a lot of names, Nate, but not one I could repeat!”

Nothing? No indication that his name was Philip Manser?”

She thought hard for a moment, glanced at the clock ticking away the minutes, thought again of Ingrid and how her face was screwed up with bitterness and hate for the man who had stolen from her. But there had been no name…she shook her head “No, there was no name mentioned.”

A description..?”

He was tall, dark, handsome. She said what attracted her attention at first was the way he was so kind and attentiveness to his nephew. I remember she said that at first she mistook them for father and son, the younger man was very like him.”

And did she happen to mention his name?”

No. Just that he was a handsome youth on the way to college, and no, she didn’t tell me what college. “. she looked again at the clock, at the ledgers, she would have to leave them unfinished  or be late for collecting the girls.

“If you do remember anything ..”. Nate said and then with a half smile, a murmured thank you he turned away and left the building with Vinnie beside him.

I”ll go get the girls and bring them here “ Bridie said, reaching for her cloak “It will give you time to finish the ledgers.”

Hester nodded and sat down, stared at the figures she had already jotted down and shivered. How like Ingrid to cast such a long shadow from all those years past …

Nate Carney walked slowly towards his office, eyes narrowed and fixed to the ground upon which he walked. He was aware of Vinnie beside him, while he himself kept thinking he should be looking for the missing woman not fretting over the name of a man who may well have had nothing to do with any of this mess. He thought of Mrs Chandler, of Nettie and of ..he paused and looked up…Lucille Agutter was walking towards them, swinging her purse casually too and fro, head held high, a slight smile on her lips .

If she noticed the way people were looking at her, the way Nate and Vinnie had stopped in their tracks and stared at her. It certainly didn’t bother her. She was enjoying the moment, the star of her own performance.

Later as she sat in the sheriffs office and faced him, with her mother hard faced and furious seated near by, she was still smiling. She answered the questions casually, shrugged frequently, smiled often. She had spent the few days with a friend, yes, a male friend. She was over the age of consent and surely was free to go where ever she chose without having to ask permission. She had been to San Francisco, had a great time .. scowled over at her mother, smiled at the sheriff.

The name of her lover …she shook her head, that was her secret. She leaned forward,

When it comes to secrets, Sheriff, this family is very good at keeping them, ask my mother, ask Mr deSousa”

Mrs Agutter uttered a cry of pain, covered her mouth with her lace trimmed handkerchief and went ashen. Years of secrecy ended and this had been Lucille’s revenge.

Her daughter flashed a look of triumph in the direction of her mother and then rise to her feet, “If that is all, Sheriff Carney? “

She turned and walked out of the building, straight backed and regal, her mother dabbing at her face, hurrying to catch up with her. The balance of power had shifted.

Chapter 59

Adam was whistling under his breath as he strode towards his house. He pulled his gloves off as he walked and began to unbutton his coat. Work on the bridge had been finished and everything tidied away for use on the bridge down at Horseshoe Creek. Ben had decreed it was sound enough to last through this winter but come spring they would need to work on it right away.

He wasn’t sure what was wrong but as soon as he walked into the room he sensed that there was something – a tension. The children seemed subdued which was unusual, and Olivia..he looked at her anxiously, his eyes scanning her from top to bottom as she stood up and faced him. He went to her right away, wanting her assurances that everything was alright, that he was imagining things. He looked over at the children who called out greetings, smiled and returned to their books. Nathaniel came and wrapped his arms round his fathers legs and looked up at him, big brown eyes wide in appeal.

“Everything ..alright?” He asked quietly as he kissed her cheek and picked Nathaniel up, tossed him onto the crook of his arm and stared into his wife’s pale face,

“I”ll talk about it later..”

“No, now”. he put Nathaniel down, and watched the child run to some discarded toy, then he caught her hand and led her back to the chair. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head, raised her eyes and gave a slightly strangled laugh as though she didn’t believe she was going to tell him what she was about to say but he took hold of her hand in his and nodded “Go on, start at the beginning..”

“Christopher Orr came here,” she tightened the grip on his hand at the look that passed over his face

“He didn’t frighten you? “ his eyes narrowed, sparks in the amber “He didn’t hurt you, touch you?”

“No, nothing happened he just talked, but it made me feel …unsettled. I wanted to ask him about various things that had aroused my curiosity in Roberts letters”. she paused unsure now whether she had mentioned them to him or not, but he said nothing, but sat there looking at her intently. “Well, it was just talk, he told me about Lucille Agutter, that she had gone missing now. We talked and he left within an hour…but then …”

“Go on..”

“Hester dropped off the children from school. She said that Lucille Agutter wasn’t lost at all but had gone off with a friend for a few days in Frisco.”

“Well, that’s good isn’t it?” He squeezed her hand gently in his, and leaned closer

“Then she said Nate came and asked her about the man who had taken all Ingrid’s papers and jewellery that time when she was in San a Francisco… whether his name was Philip Manser.”

Adam nodded “Yes, he mentioned the name to us as well, when we were in town, Joe and I.”

“Hester said Ingrid had never told them the man’s name but…” she paused and then pulled papers from her pocket “Robert knew him, at college. He was a cousin of Christopher Orr. For some reason they were both suspended from college and when they returned Robert wrote that Christopher had changed.”

Adam looked at the papers, the dark script writing of Robert sprawled across the pages. He glanced up at her “Did Robert say what the trouble was that caused the suspension?”

“No”

“What else did Hester say.. .. about this man and Ingrid?”

“Only that he was with his nephew … “ she put a hand gently upon his, the papers crackled beneath their fingers.

Adam nodded and carefully folded the papers and asked her if it was alright for him to keep them a while and when she nodded he stood up “I’ll take these into Nate now.”

“But it’s already dark..”

“I ll be back as soon as possible.” he leaned down and kissed her, then stepped back “So, Lucy was away with a friend? Male I presume?”

She gave a wry smile and nodded, so he leaned in for another kiss and then after calling out to the children his farewell grabbed his hat and left the house.

Olivia stood at the doorway and watched him ride away, until the trees finally swallowed him into their shadows and he was gone from sight..

A colder breeze had blown up now, the branches of the trees leaned over, swayed back and forth, groaned and moaned as he passed them by and then he was riding fast where the land opened up and there was nothing to stop the cold from chilling his blood

……

He was nearing town when he heard a horseman approaching and he drew the horse to a walk, while his hand reached for his rifle but even before he had drawn it from the sheath he recognised Mark Watts and the horse he rode. At the same time Mark saw him and slowed his horse and walked it to Adams’ side

“I was on the way to get you, Adam. Mr Orr’s been injured .. he wants to see you.”

“Is he dying.”

“Dr Corby don’t rate his chances as very high.”

“How did it happen.”

“We don’t know ..he hasn’t spoken except to demand to see you.” Mark frowned, “He’s at his house, Dr Corby thought it best not to move him”

………..

Nate was pacing the thickly carpeted floor of Orr’s living room, his hands clasped behind his back and head bowed. He looked up as soon as the door opened, his face expectant, and when he saw Adam he immediately became alert as he strode over to thank Adam for coming so quickly.

“I was already on the way,” Adam pulled off his coat and threw it along with his hat onto a nearby chair “I wanted to give you these to read..Philip Manser is Orr’s cousin and,,”

“Really? I was beginning to think it was Orr himself but ..no, don’t waste time, the man’s dying and determined to talk to you. He won’t say a word to any of us..”

He took the papers and nodded “I’ll read these while you’re in there.”

Adam nodded, paused and made his way to the stairs. Nate sat and smoothed out the letters, looked over at Mark and nodded to him so that without a word Mark mounted the stairs and followed Adam into the injured man’s room. Whatever was going to be said would not pass the attention of Nate’s deputy. He kept discreetly to the shadows, stepping back as Corby passed him, a look of surprise on his face at seeing Mark but saying nothing as he left the room and closed the doors behind him.

Christopher Orr was seated at a desk, dressed in his usual clothes, no sign of blood or bandages anywhere, nor lying supine upon his bed as Adam had expected to find him. The surprise must have shown on his face for Orr gave a grin, a slight shrug

“Don’t look so dismayed, Adam….I’m not dead yet and prefer to have this discussion with you man to man rather than ..the other …” he waved on hand airily and raised his eyebrows “Sit down, may as well be comfortable for what time is allowed us.”

Adam pulled out a chair and brought it close to where Orr was seated. Now he could see blood staining the shirt beneath Orr’s jacket, the edge of bandages where Corby had bound him. He nodded, glanced up at Orr, and then sat down. He was aware of Orr’s eyes on him all the time, and for some reason he wondered if this was not all a rather sick joke, orchestrated by the lawyer, for some nefarious reason of his own. He sat and looked at the other man who nodded and gave a slight shrug,

“You disliked me from the first moment you saw me ..why was that..”

Adam raised his eyebrows, thought back to their first meeting, “Instinct .. you seemed a man with too many secrets”

“Everyone has secrets, Adam..you as well as any other.”

“True enough, but your secrets may have involved my wife, or, at least, her husband Robert.”

Christopher nodded, a curl of hair drifted over his forehead “Yes, I can understand that..being a naturally suspicious man by nature I can see how you would think along those lines.”

“You knew she was my wife long before you met us at the theatre yet you called her Mrs Phillips…you created a situation…”

“Yes, I did, and I got the reaction I wanted. “ Orr pursed his lips and frowned, “I was disappointed that she had remarried. Robert was an admirable man, he deserved undying loyalty and love.” he sighed “But … that’s by the by now. I want to tell you about my cousin, Philip Manser” he bowed his head, flexed his shoulders a little and winced, “I – I don’t suppose you knew I had a cousin by that name?”

“Robert Phillips mentioned him in his letters to his mother, I only heard the name for the first time this morning. Is he the man who shot you?”

Orr sighed heavily and for a moment Adam didn’t think there would be an answer. In the shadows Mark thought the same. Orr finally nodded, “Yes, I took my eyes off him for a moment. Not the wisest thing to do with Philip, he’s very unpredictable.”

“He went to college with you…”

Orr raised a hand, a reminder that this was his show, he was the one who dictated who spoke and when. He picked up a glass of water and sipped it His other hand rested lightly on his chest where he had been shot, a flicker of pain passed over his face.

“Let’s start from the beginning shall we? It’s always tidier that way…” he drank more water then put the glass down, Adam noticed there was not the slightest tremor in his hands, and again wondered if this was just an elaborate trick.

“Philip was a year younger than I. My cousin, son of my fathers sister. He was everything I was not … we were both intelligent, but he was .. he had a quality about him that was magnetic. My father grew .. overly fond of him and Philip used that to his best advantage. I hated him. He loathed me. We both knew this day would come eventually, I just hoped I would be the one that … survived.”

He paused for emphasis, looked at Adam thoughtfully “Families can be like a noose around ones neck, can they not? You must find that at times…well, you left your Ponderosa to get away from them all, didn’t you? Sailed off to who knew where and won your medals and was very brave, and finally returned to the bosom of .. your family.”

He shrugged and one finger pushed the glass round and round, while he stared at Adam, he frowned “Well, Philip had some strange ways about him, people got hurt when he was around, and by the time I left for college I was more than glad to be out of his shadow. All my life for as long as I could remember I was watching our for him, waiting for him to do something…trying to put whatever he had done – right! But at college, for a while I could be myself among friends, I didn’t have to be watching Philip all the time, watching, waiting! I made a good friend of Robert Phillips, he was a loyal close friend.” he sighed and again bowed his head as thought to pick up the threads of his memories, and put them into words.

“And then, of course, he arrived. My father had promised to send Philip elsewhere but as usual capitulated to his demands. Philips arrival coincided with Roberts brother Booth coming to college. They were two of a kind, immediately attracted to each other.”

Adam nodded, he had read that in the letters, now he waited for Christopher to continue. He noticed that there were beads of sweat along Orr’s hairline now, the man’s eyes were no longer fever bright but fading, and his skin was greying. When he suggested getting the Doctor, Orr shook his head and waved the suggestion away.

“A woman went missing from near the college. Because I was so often with Philip, they assumed I knew what had happened but I didn’t, I had my suspicions of course, but no one believed me. He told them some fanciful story involving me and as a result we were both suspended. My father believed him too..that’s how clever he was, how charming he could be…Father eventually realised, like many do, that Philip had fooled him. You see, Philip likes an audience, he likes people to know ..he has to reveal everything to his victims in the end.”

“So what brought you here….what exactly does Manser have to do with what’s going on?”

Christopher frowned, he ran a finger along his brow and seemed surprised to see the sweat upon his skin, he shrugged “Philip eventually broke ties with me, went his own way. I felt I was free from him at last…I was able to live my own life. Then I began to read about missing women..always a pattern. I was used to Philips patterns, I contacted the Pinkerton Agency and they sent me reports..I tracked him for some years and then he disappeared ..he went to France..’

“Ingrid?”

“Yes..Ingrid Buchanan. She was a means of escape for him, he knew the net was closing in on him at the time and was able to get to France. And for once, I really thought I could breath easy and get on with my life.”

“And this nephew?”

“Not his nephew…his son, although David doesn’t know that, he ..he ..” Orr paused, he picked up the water and Adam noticed a tremor in the man’s hand now. Orr swallowed some water and looked at Adam, nodded slowly as though acknowledging what he could see in Adams face. “I know this must all seem rather theatrical…but I couldn’t bear the thought of lying on my bed pouring out a dying mans confession to you.”

“ So David MacArthur killed Ingrid.? Is that what you’re saying, Philips son?”

“Yes, and Philip returned to America, came here, settled down here, became one of your leading citizens…Ah, now you’re puzzled arn’t you? I told you how clever he was! How he loves an audience …and his son .. part of the whole “game” as he called it. Pinkertons contacted me, concerned that the pattern was repeating itself here, in Nevada territory. So I came because … … family should stick together shouldn’t it?”

“Then – if you knew all this, why didn’t you stop it? Why didn’t you go to the Sheriff and get him to arrest the man? And his son – I presume” Adam paused “I presume the son is here too?”

Christopher stared at the glass and asked Adam to refill it, he was obviously weakening, and his eyes were losing their focus. He took the glass and drank a little, then lowered it back onto the desk. “I didn’t know David. I saw him once when he was a child – I presumed he was here, wasn’t until I heard about the boy – the Undertaker’s boy – referring to a man and his nephew in that house..that I realised David was here too. As for Philip..a different name, a different persona..and I hadn’t seen him in years. I didn’t recognise him when he came here, but he knew me of course, he’s been enjoying playing his games again, right under my nose.” he licked his lips, dry and for a moment he worked his mouth as though aware it was failing him, “It amused him, to think I had not recognised him, and I didn’t. I really didn’t recognise him … he’d be dead long ago had I done.” he sighed, released his breath, “But as I said he caught me off guard …”

“Who is he? Christopher, you said..”

“I … I feel ..I’m dying, Adam. I thought … “

“I’ll get the Doctor ..”:Adam got to his feet, pushed aside the chair but as he moved forward Orr grabbed his arm

“ You haven’t got much time now, Adam. He has gone ..left town..He won’t come back …he and David have him…”

“Christopher, you’re not making much sense..got whom? Where and who is Philip Manser?”

“Philip Manser .. Gil ..Gil, Sutherland ..and he..family so important, Adam, take care of him,”

Adam caught him as he fell forward, slipped from the chair into his arms. “Who is he, Christopher?

Give me a name….”

But there was no name, there was nothing now. Mark came and looked down at the man as he lay there, and shook his head. Adam heard footsteps, heard James Corby’s voice ..and then he was on his feet looking down at Christopher Orr who, even in death, looked handsome, debonair and, for the first time Adam realised, he looked sad.

Chapter 60

Chapter 60

The three men watched as Dr Colby attended to the body and then drew the sheet over the handsome face. He stood up and approached them, his eyes weary and features sombre

There was no way he could have been saved. It’s a wonder he stayed alive for as long as he did.” he paused “I’ll get Jenkins to remove the body..”

Jenkins the Undertaker, rival to Riley’s. Every Doctor was free to show their preference. Alyssa Colby disliked Mrs Riley so obviously business had to go to their rival .Nate nodded, thanked the Doctor and waited for him to leave the room. The shrouded corpse a silent reminder of the events that had taken place earlier

Do you believe what he said, about not recognising his own cousin?” Mark asked the other two men with the doubt clear on his face

He did say they hadn’t met for years, people change, and if Manser is going that step further in deliberately disguising his appearance, then I believe him.” Nate turned to Adam “What about yourself? Do you believe him?”

Adam nodded. He rubbed the back of his neck and stared at the body with a twinge of guilt nibbling at his conscience . Mark scowled “He should have come to us with his suspicions as soon as he got here, we could have flushed the killer out”

Two killers…” Nate reminded him, “From what David Riley told us and from what Orr has confirmed then there are two of them, working together.”

We need to find those reports …the reports he said he received from the Pinkerton Agency.” Adam looked at Nate who nodded agreement, ignoring the ‘we’, not reminding Adam that he was not a deputy and should now step back from the investigation.

Mark got onto the task immediately, rummaging through drawers and behind pictures in search of any papers, or a hidden safe. They moved from one room to another but found nothing.

It had taken an hour and all three men were frustrated and worn. Adam was so tired his eyes felt gritty. He pressed his fingers against his eyelids, stifled a yawn.

I need to get back, Livvy will be worried …”

Can you come back tomorrow morning? There’s things we need to discuss , facts we need to bring together”

Adam nodded, located his hat and left the building. Mark scratched his head

He ain’t a deputy..”

No, but -“ Nate pursed his lips, he was beginning to realise what Roy Coffee had appreciated about the Cartwrights, why they got themselves involved in these kind of situations. “Let’s get something to drink. We need to go over those notes you made ..”. he paused and remembered the letters Adam had handed him. Just perhaps he could glean something from them.

…….

Joseph Cartwright felt numb, he couldn’t feel his limbs, he was unable to move. He lay where he had been placed, eyes closed, breathing heavily, letting the darkness around him swaddle him like a blanket. No stars shone. No moonlight. The darkness was total.

His brain was buzzing, so many facts, details, crumbs of information colluding with each other so fast that he longed for it all to stop, to just settle on one point for him to concentrate on and build up a picture.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t feel his body. Limbs, fingers, toes, nothing responded to any commands, it was as though he were paralysed. His brain was scrambling, thoughts, plans, words all jumbling together until he could scream.

But he couldn’t move his mouth either, so the scream just rolled about in his head and joined the chaos there until even that was switched off and everything was totally blank. Gone.

……….

Olivia was waiting for him when he got home. The fire flickered a warm welcome, but her presence provided the best welcome and her arms around him, her eyes showing relief and pleasure at seeing him home safely…he held her tightly before drawing away to remove his coat, then untie the gun belt.

Christopher Orr was murdered,” he said as he took her by the hand and led her to one of the settees. They sat down, he looked at the fire, the reflection of the flames on the glass of whiskey waiting for him. “He told me about his cousin.”

Philip Manser?”

Yes. It seems Pa was right. The man, this cousin, isn’t just mad, he’s evil. Orr came here trying to find him, to stop what he was doing..”

So that means Nate can arrest him.. “

No. Orr died before he told us who he is, or rather, who he’s pretending to be now.” He reached for the glass, held it against his chest and continued to stare into the fire, “It seems that Orr had been watching over Manser all his life, tried to stop him, failed. Then for years he never saw him again.”

So did he know his cousin was here? Is that why he came here?”

Adam nodded, he pushed his fingers through his hair, frowned over at the shadows in the room “Pinkerton had got a lead on him, sent him information. He knew his cousin had been involved with stealing Ingrids papers, and had gone to France, but for some reason he returned and came to Nevada territory, but he hadn’t seen him for so long he didn’t know who he was looking for, took him all this time to track him down…”

So who is he? Do we know him? Is he still in town?”

Adam didn’t reply, he sipped his whiskey slowly, trying to remember everything Orr had told him. He put a hand to his jaw, rubbed across his chin,

I need to think this through, but ..”. he thumped the glass down on the table so abruptly that Olivia jumped, “Joe was right, he was right. He kept saying it was the pharmacist, and Orr mentioned Gil Sutherland..”

Olivia opened her mouth, closed it again. She leaned closer, groped for his hand and tried not to look too anxious, she just had a feeling that something was about to go horribly wrong.

Chapter 61

Mary Ann was used to her husband coming home at different times to the day. When he had not returned by meal time she merely sat down to eat with the children and did not worry. She knew the work on the bridge had taken longer that Ben had hoped, and she also knew that her father in law could be exacting when it came to repairs of such kind. Lives could be lost due to neglect, they had a responsibility to make sure the bridges on their territory were safe for those who ventured upon them.

By the time the children had to go to bed she merely wondered at what could be delaying him. Perhaps Ben had wanted them back to the house to discuss another job for the following day, or the coming week. Perhaps something had happened in town that had caused a delay, like that missing woman. Briefly she wondered how Nettie Groom was now, and how her parents were too, now that their daughter was home safe if not completely sound.

Constance took a while to go to sleep, she wanted her Mama to sing to her, then a little story, just a little one, and finally she drifted into sleep, her favourite rag doll tucked under her arm, beneath her chin. Daniel was snoring, he was a healthy little boy who put all his energies into what he was doing, whether eating or playing with the result that he fell asleep quickly. She listened to his snores with a smile, brushed aside hair that had fallen over his brow and kissed him gently.

She waited another hour. Lee went to his room, bidding her goodnight, after making sure there was nothing she needed him to do. She put another log on the fire and pulled a shawl around her shoulders and waited.

She had nearly fallen asleep when the clock struck the hour. Midnight. She listened to it dole out the chimes, and then shivered, the room had become colder. She put another log on the dying embers of the fire and walked to the window, stared out into the dark and frowned. Should she be worried? Joe had not intimated that he would be this late home. What had he said before leaving?

She paced the floor a little , returned to the window. Stars gleamed in the dark purple sky and the moon slipped in and out of shadows. She was worrying unnecessarily. She sat down and watched as little flames nibbled into the log and wondered whether she would be better off just going to bed.

But then, what if something had happened to him? That was not unknown either …several times in their marriage he had been injured, once so badly they had all thought he was going to die, a horrible time. She pulled her shawl tighter, stared at the burning log and began to bite her finger nails.

………………..

When Joe opened his eyes and looked around him he found himself lying on the ground, rockstrewn, uneven and decidedly uncomfortable. Feeling was returning to his body now, myriads of tiny pins and needles stabbing at him like the red hot pincers of soldier ants. It made him shiver just thinking about them. He stretched his legs, reached out with his arms and felt space all around him.

The darkness was fading into grey, shades of grey, some areas black. His eyes roamed round and round, taking in the rock formation around him, walls of rock. As he looked up he could only see increasing darkness, then the darkness merged into total blackness. No light from above, what there was came from an area to his left. He moved forward, slowly, expecting a trap, something that would spring at him, pull him back, beat him senseless, return him to the black void from which he he just surfaced.

With one hand pressed against the rocks that formed the walls, he stepped forwards, one step at a time. His hands acting as his guide along the walls. He could hear his breathing, shallow and fast so stopped in order to try and control it. He moved on until he came upon an opening. When he stepped through the opening he found himself in what appeared to be a chamber containing a bed, table, several chairs. Light came from a rough opening in the rocks some feet above his reach. As his eyes travelled along and around the chamber he saw food stuffs piled on top of some crates. He turned another 45 degrees and noticed for the first time the water that trickled down the side of the rocks, seeping from above, collecting in a pool.

He walked further into the chamber, paced his way around the perimeter, back and back again until he was dizzy. There was the window far above him, there was food and water, a bed to sleep upon, but there was no door, no exit.

Perhaps he had missed the exit in the other chamber, the one in which he had woken in so he quickly retraced his footsteps to the previous area and stared into the shadows beyond. Now he paced around and around, feeling with his hands for anything that would provide him with a way out. He looked up but there was nothing. Just the dark and the shadows that were even now creeping further down the rock face towards him.

……………….

It was impossible to sleep. Olivia was restless, tossing and turning beside him, but at least she had gone to sleep eventually. Now as the morning was chasing away the night darkness, Adam pushed himself away from the bed and pulled on his dressing gown.

Back in his study he found some paper and picked up his pen. Then he stared at the blank page and wondered where to start writing….perhaps it should begin with Ingrid Buchanan..1874!

Nate Carney went downstairs to the area he had designated his study, he sat at the desk and found a pen and some paper. There were facts he didnt know, people he didn’t know and dates of which he had no knowledge, but if he could get them all together, set out in a coherent order, maybe there would be some way of tracing Philip Manser.

And who was David MacArthur? Was he really the young pharmacist Gil Sutherland, had Joe’s crazy idea actually been right? He picked up his pen, and wondered where to start …it seemed to him that it had started so many years ago, when Christopher Orr’s cousin had started college. But then, a reconnection here in Virginia City, and according to Orr, Philip Manser was someone they knew in town, someone it had taken him all this time to recognise …he put the pen down again, and shook his head, then covered his face with his hands. None of it made sense…he couldn’t find the point at which to start knitting things together.

Chapter 62

Snow were swirling down from a bleakly grey sky . There was just enough for the flakes to be noticed, peppering the air and disappearing before they touched the ground.

The three horsemen dismounted outside the Sheriffs office and without even looking at each other just strode purposefully to the door and pushed it open. Ben took the lead, removing his hat as he entered the building and glowering fiercely at the man seated at the desk.

He had been determined not to be sidelined this time. As soon as Mary Ann had appeared earlier, in clear distress, anxiously asking them if they knew why Joe had not returned home, angrily berating them for sending him somewhere without letting her know, Ben had known that his son was in need of help.

Now he stood in front of Nate and attempted to keep his emotions in check. He heaved in a deep breath and as soon as he heard the door click shut and knew his sons were close by he told Nate of his concerns. He couldn’t believe he was able to speak so coherently, calmly. In the past he would have been thumping his fist on the desk, demanding action, but now reason prevailed, the man wearing the badge probably knew as little as they did, so why cause a scene.

Nate listened, frowned and nodded “The last I saw of Joe was when he came here with Adam yesterday.” he shot a dark glare in Adams direction “I thought he was going back with you, I saw the wagon leave town shortly after you left my office”

Adam nodded “Not with Joe, he said he had things to do and would come back with Mary Ann. Fact is, it wasn’t Mary Ann who was at the hospice yesterday. Had I known that I’d have realised he was up to something so …”

He looked at Nate and raised his eyebrows, but said nothing more. Nate tapped on the desk, his fingers beating out dull thuds as they fell. He looked from one to the other

So?” his eyes locked onto Adams and then he looked from Hoss to Ben, and back to Adam “What do you want me to do? Joe’s a grown man, if he chose not to come home that was his right, he hasn’t been missing more than a night, if he is actually missing! He could well be sleeping off a hangover somewhere..”

Ben did thump the desk now and raised his voice telling the sheriff his son was not a lay about husband who didn’t care about his wife’s feelings, if he hadn’t returned there were other reasons than the one suggested by the sheriff who should by now know Joseph well enough to not even think along the lines he mentioned

Nate raised a hand in an effort to quell the man’s temper and when silence did fall he sighed, nodded and asked them what it was they expected him to do considering how busy he was just now.

Adam placed a hand gently on his fathers arm, preventing Ben from another tirade of angry words. He rocked on his feet for a moment as though by doing so he could gather his words together without incurring the wrath of his father or the sheriff

Joe had an idea that Gil Sanderson had something to do with all this business.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to check the man out for himself. Maybe he found something and decided to follow it up…”

Nate pursed his lips and then pointed to some chairs, telling them to sit down.

Adam continued talking even as he took one of the chairs “In view of what we heard from Christopher Orr, I think Joe was onto something. Gil Sanderson is David MacArthur. I’d like to go and have a look around the man’s rooms, check him out for myself.”

Ben leaned forward “We assumed before that there was a pharmacist involved in these cases…Joe must have figured out that connection, especially after he and Mary Ann saw Lucille Agutter ..”

Nate raised a hand again, and nodded, “Now … interesting you should mention Miss Agutter.” he leaned forward “The lady in question came to see me earlier,

She said she had something she needed to tell me.” he paused just a moment and continued “She was involved in a friendship with Sanderson. She had thought it was leading to romance and when he suggested they went away for a few days….to get to know one another better…she jumped at the chance. No shrinking violet is our Miss Lucille.” He shrugged “so she went to the hotel he mentioned, and waited, but he never arrived.”

Was it in San Francisco.?” Hoss asked and Nate nodded

The longer she waited the angrier she became so she decided to stay there

And just take advantage of the amenities. She said it gave her time to think over everything, her life, the situation regarding deSousa, and of course, Gil.”

And did it help .. in the course of your enquiries ?” Ben asked politely

I’ve been to see Mr Appleby who insists his assistant is in Clifton Bend.”

And is he?” Adam asked,

I’m waiting to receive confirmation .. sent a telegram to the sheriff there.”

If I recall rightly wasn’t a young woman abducted there…and the pharmacist questioned?” Adam looked directly at Nate who nodded in confirmation, “I think that was what led Joe to suspecting Sanderson. And another incident where a pharmacist was involved..”

Nate nodded again “I think Joe was right. I’m always hopeful that I’ll be proven wrong, but there are too many co.incidences to be ignored.I was going to go search his rooms…”

The three Cartwrights immediately rose from the chairs, and reached for their hats “We’ll come with you” Ben growled “And don’t say no, Sheriff, my son could be in danger and I’m not going to stand around doing nothing.”

Nate frowned and once again his eyes were fixed on Adam, he looked up at the ceiling and then leaned forward “I’m going to be busy for the next half hour..” he rose to his feet “If you do find anything to support your concerns, let me know.”

……

The door to the pharmacists rooms being at the side of the building and down a narrow alley meant there was no need to pass the front of the building and arouse Mr Applebys curiosity. Just as Joe had found previously the door was easy to force open and once it was the three of them mounted the stairway quietly. They separated on the landing and checked the rooms to meet within minutes in the well appointed sitting room. Ben looked at each of them, then nodded “I didn’t find anything. Nothing that proved Joe had been here.”

“Everything just points to Mr Sutherland as being a very tidy tenant, almost too tidy.” Adam conjectured, he moved around the room “Very impersonal too. Books on drugs and plants…” he picked one up and then placed it back down

No pictures anywhere, of anything …”

Smells though..” Hoss sniffed “Odd smell… “

Ben nodded “Let’s search through everything, closet, drawers, desk ..”

….

Joe woke feeling heavy headed and slightly sick. He lay very still for a while just staring up at the darkness. He felt clearer headed now, less panic stricken and determined to think things through. He had been drugged, he accepted that as a fact, remembering the cloying smell of something over his face before everything went black. As he ran a hand over his jaw he realised that it had been just one night from home, he had ran his hand over his chin often enough to know how quickly stubble grew. So, he reasoned, it was possible his family didn’t realise he was gone yet. He felt hungry but not hollowed out, not yet.

He had been brought to a destination and estimated that due to the time the distance from town could not be too far. He tried to remember something, anything that would help him get some idea of the location, or even how he had been transported. Did anyone see them leave? Was it in a buggy or wagon? But nothing came to mind. Just the darkness and waking up in what could have been an abandoned old mine shaft, or a makeshift cellar.

He strained his ears to hear sounds, but there was nothing but the trickle of water, an occasional, scratching sound of rats or mice, nothing but a silence that made him feel claustrophobic and scared. Was this the kind of place to which Nettie had been brought ? Did she experience these same fears, in which case Joe’s heart reached out for her.

He retraced his steps once again, mentally picking apart everything just in case there was something he could clutch at and build upon. His mind took him back to when he first suspected the pharmacist, he replayed the conversation that evening, felt the disappointment of not being taken seriously. Bit by bit he built up the case against Sutherland, proven now by this action taken against him.

I was right, “ he told himself “I was right …”

…..

The Sheriffs desk was covered with neat stacks of paper over which Nate Carney was standing, head lowered, fingers tapping his mouth. When the three Cartwrights re.entered the building he straightened his back and half turned to look at them. He said nothing, asked nothing, the look on their faces sufficient to tell him there was nothing to find, nothing to tell.

He stepped away from the desk and took his seat, pushed it away and stretched out his legs

Well, all these papers .. reports, letters .. don’t tell us any more than we already knew. They fill in gaps, a little more back history, but who Manser is..” he shook his head “From what Orr said, he had no idea where David was but suspected he was part of Mansers little game, to entice the girls …” he leaned forward, his fingers toyed with one sheet of paper

“So who are we looking for? What manner of person is he?” Ben demanded, struggling to control the timbre of his voice

From what Orr said Manser went to France, after his meeting with Inger..”

Do you think he realised his son, or nephew, had killed Ingrid?” Ben asked, twisting his hat round in his fingers

Nate shook his head. “The report from Pinkerton that brought Orr here – the last report- was that Manser had been located in Virginia City, mostly because of his methods, his tactics. There had been silence for years, no activity, then something happened to bring Manser back to their attention.”

And that was? According to them?” Ben said quietly

Manser left France and came here in 1875, not so long ago really, but it co.incided with David MacArthur starting his career as a pharmacist and then the cycle began …women abducted, taken away, cared for and then hunted down. Two different men, two different ways of dealing with these women”

Ben nodded “And one man the dominant figure, the one giving orders..”

Adam leaned forward “Did Pinkerton have any idea that Gil Sanderson was David MacArthur?”

No idea.” Nate frowned, “In the last report they said McArthur was involved, but didn’t connect him to Sanderson. Orr had not seen him since he was a child..referred to him in one journal entry from years ago, that he was a gentle thoughtful child, untainted was the word he used..”

And Manser … wealthy and influential here since ‘75?” Adam looked at his father, “Does anyone come to mind, Pa.”

Ben shook his head, frowned and stared down at the desk…”Several come to mind,”. he said quietly “but … not sure enough of them to point the finger ..”

Orr said that his cousin left town, went after the shooting …” Adam looked at Nate “If I recall rightly?”

Yes, but just perhaps ..”. Ben raised a hand, as though to slow the thought processes that could lead away from what was most important in his mind but Nate ignored him and continued “he’s still here in town, we could … if it were possible..”

Some thing happened that Manser needed to deal with, he got rid of his cousin, and now has to deal with …” Nate glanced at Ben “Joe.”

Ben sighed, nodded, felt a tightness across his chest while Hoss and Adam looked at one another, their jaws tightened. Adam turned to his father “That fits, Pa. Joe got curious, started asking too many questions, and Sanderson took him.”

That’s what I’m thinking,” Nate replied “but without Mansers consent …I should imagine this won’t go down well with him. If he’s an important figure in town he won’t want to mess with the Cartwrights. He’s gone to clean up the mess David or Gil has made by taking Joe. “

Hoss stepped forward “But why ..why did he waste time going to 0rr?”

Perhaps he intends to pick up this comfortable life he has here, but Orr revealed himself …” Nate folded his arms across his chest

No, Orr was always in clear view to Manser, and I think it suited Manser to let Orr carry on, remember, Orr didn’t recognise his cousin, they’d not seen each other in years, but Manser knew Orr, probably as soon as he stepped foot in town. It was Manser who came to Orr, who caught Orr by surprise…he said that It didn’t pay to turn your back on Manser.”

Manser wanted his cousin dead …”. Hoss shook his head, “the thing is ..”

Enough talk.” Bens voice snapped through the dialogue “what abou