Sweet Innocence (by Krystyna)

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Summary: Joseph Cartwright has to deliver a letter to an old friend of Bens which plunges him into romance, and murder.

Rated: K+ (32,465 words)

The final page contains reviews/comments left on the Old BonanzaBrand Library.

 

Sweet Innocence

June 9th 1863

“Joseph”

Her voice held a quiver of excitement just in the utterance of that one word. Despite all the noise of music, talking, laughing and shouting, he heard his name and turned to look in the direction from whence it came.

“Joseph Cartwright? It is you, isn’t it?” she smiled now, and held out her gloved hands in a warm greeting as she seemed to float down the plushly carpeted stairs towards him. “You’ve hardly changed at all since the last time I saw you”

Joseph Cartwright smiled and took the pro-offered hands into his own and put his head slightly to one side as he surveyed the young woman who had greeted him so fulsomely

“On the contrary, Georgina, I think it more honest for me to tell you that you’ve hardly changed at all since the last time I saw you – which was when exactly? Six years ago?”

“Is it really that long ago?” she looked at him in mock surprise and then laughed softly, and slipped her arm through his and gently steered him in the direction of the dance hall. “It seems like a life time away.”

He looked at her again, quickly and hastily in an attempt to discern her feelings as she spoke. Did she really regret leaving Virginia City then? He put a hand over hers and smiled in a slow, kindly manner and nodded

“I guess it must, Georgina. There’s been quite a lot of changes for you all since you left, hasn’t there?”

She nodded and looked away from him to watch the dancers. For some seconds they stood together, their arms linked, and saying nothing.

“If I may say so, without presuming too much, but you make a lovely looking couple” a voice murmured behind them and they both turned quickly. The young man who had addressed them laughed and placed a hand on each of their shoulders in a gesture that embraced them both “Joe, you look well. How is everyone back there in Virginia City?”

“Surviving well enough” Joe chuckled, extricating his arm from Georgina and thrusting out his hand to shake that of Howard Kerridge. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Howard, life must be treating you well enough here in Jackson Creek”

“Well, we can’t complain, can we, Georgie?” Howard addressed his sister, who smiled and looked at Joe appealingly. Joe had seen that look on too many young ladies faces who desired to spend time along with him, but Georgina and Howard were old friends, and he preferred to talk with them other than be alone with her.

“We’ve still some way to reach the Ponderosa’s standards” she replied quietly

“Standards? In what way do you mean? All I’ve heard about since hitting town is how prosperous the Kerridges are and how well you’re doing and what a fine spread you have outside of town.” Joe laughed and his hazel green eyes twinkled “Seems to me that you have nothing about which to complain.”

“Oh, we’re not complaining. It’s been hard work and worth it. I can remember your brother, Adam, telling me often enough that the Ponderosa was built from the blood, sweat and tears of hard work from his father and brothers. Well, if it’s a form of boasting, then I guess we can boast the same here.”

“Well, there’s no harm in hard work, it never killed anyone, and keeps a man out of trouble” Joe laughed

“That’s a fact. A mans just too dog tired to get into trouble” Howard laughed and looked around the room as though searching for someone. When his eyes finally settled on a young woman his face softened and his lips slipped into a whimsical smile. He glanced at Joe and nudged him “See that young lady?”

“Yeah”

“What do you think of her?”

Joe glanced quickly at Howard and then at Georgina who had turned her head away and was opening her fan slowly, as though a sign to prove her disinterest in the current conversation. He glanced once again at the girl and nodded

“She’s very pretty” Joe observed

“Pretty? She’s a darn sight more than pretty, Joe. She’s beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the room.” Howard declared, and a slight flush reddened his cheeks and his eyes gleamed “She’s going to be my wife, Joe.”

“In that case, congratulations”

“Her name’s Rachel Harding. Her father is one of the most prosperous mine owners in the territory and is Chairman of the Mining Association.”

“He’s also the Mayor of this town” Georgina said quietly, and glanced over her fan “Can you dance yet, Joe?” she laughed then at the quizzical expression on his face and extended her free hand to take hold of his “Oh Joe, have you forgotten the times we used to partner one another at school for the dances? You always had two left feet”

“I did? Well, I guess you must be right, if you put up with me that often” he smiled again and took her hand “If Mademoiselle permits…?” he bowed slightly from the waist and she laughed and nodded and assured him that Mademoiselle certainly did permit “Then – shall we dance?”

They swayed into a waltz. His arm gently encircled her trim waist and he led her through the steps with an ease that brought a smile of pleasure to her lips and encouraged her to slip just a little closer into his arms. Joe could see people glancing over at them and smiling that kind of benevolent smile that meant people like what they saw and it gave him a twinge of pride and brought a twinkle to his hazel eyes so that the green flashed within them.

They were indeed a handsome pair. With their dark hair and slight stature and he being so handsome, with his constant smile and she with her blue eyes contrasting so well with her dark curls and rose pink lips. He held her hand lightly in his own and looked down at her

“If I’d known you would have become such an accomplished dancer, Joe, I would never have left Virginia City” and she laughed, displaying white teeth that gleamed with the lustre of pearls

“I always did wonder why you all left in such a hurry. I don’t think it had anything to do with my dancing though” and he pulled a mischievous face and pouted

“Oh, I don’t know either” she smiled, but her eyes slide away and seemed to be searching for someone else in the room “Mother died a few years ago, you know?”

“Yes, I heard. I am sorry, Georgina, she was a fine lady”

“She was, wasn’t she?” and her voice trembled and the sadness slipped into her eyes and the smile faded “Ever since then Papa has worked so hard. He says that it was his fault that she died, that he never gave her the things that she deserved. He swore to build up a place the size of the Ponderosa and give us everything we could ever have….” Her voice trailed away and she sighed “We were happy though, Joe. Mama never wanted to be a grand lady with a big house. She just wanted us to be happy and, you know, Joe, money doesn’t guarantee happiness, does it?” She looked up at him with an appeal in her blue eyes and he shook his head, “Howard works all the hours he can too, and he’s so ambitious. He wants to marry Rachel, and thinks she wouldn’t look at him if he were just another rancher.”

“I don’t think Howard ever intended to be just another rancher.” Joe said quietly and he looked over to where Howard was dancing now with Rachel. “Adam always said your brother was an ambitious guy, and wouldn’t settle for anything less than an empire of his own”

“Adam was right.” Georgina said quietly.

The music stopped and he took her elbow and led her from the dancing to a group of chairs. She tugged at his hand and drew her down to sit by her side. She looked at his face and smiled again, the sadness fleeing away and the twinkle in her eyes returning

“Thank you, kind sir, for dancing with me”

“Au contraire, thank you!”

“Oh Joe, you were always so charming. I can remember Marcia Lewis saying how you could charm the birds out of the trees”

“I wish she had told me.” Joe chuckled “Can I get you a drink, Georgina?”

“In a minute.”

They sat together in silence and watched as the couples swirled by them as they danced to the music of a popular waltz. He looked at her again and thought how little she had changed and yet, what changes there were, had merely enhanced her appearance. She was truly very lovely

“Joe – you’re staring at me” Georgina whispered, opening her fan and raising it to shield her face

“I’m sorry. I was just thinking how lovely you had become, Georgie, so different from that freckle faced gawky kid I used to know”

She threw back her head and laughed, a good honest to goodness laugh that made him chuckle and drew the attention of those nearby. She shook her head

“Oh Joe, was I really?”

“Yep, but a pretty freckled faced gawky kid who has grown into a very lovely young lady”

She allowed a slight blush to grace her cheeks and lowered her eyelids so that the long lashes (carefully brushed with oil and soot that evening to make them look longer and thicker) cast an alluring shadow upon the cream and rosepink skin.

“How are Adam and Hoss?” she murmered, looking intently at her hands

“Oh, much as you might remember them”

“Are they married yet?”

“No chance” Joe laughed “Hoss runs as soon as he thinks a gal might hogtie him down, and Adam – well, I guess he hasn’t found the right one yet”

“I heard that he was engaged to Mrs. Dayton” Georgina said rather coyly

“Oh yes, well –“ Joe frowned “It didn’t work out, she married our cousin Will instead”

“I’m glad” she said with such force that Joe was surprised. She looked at him and shrugged “A woman knows these things, Joe, they would never have been happy.”

“I think we all realised that, but it was still a bit of a blow”

“And what about you, Joseph Cartwright? Has any girl managed to tame you yet?” she tapped his hand playfully with her fan and her eyes crinkled as she smiled

“No, not yet” he said quietly and he gave her a long look, deep into her eyes which made her glance away and suggest that perhaps they should have a drink now. He got up and walked to where the refreshments were being served and took two glasses of punch from the lady who smiled at him in the way many a matronly lady had smiled at him from his childhood up.

“Joseph” a voice boomed behind him and he turned, the punch spilled a little over his hands, the glasses had been over full and the sound of his name being called out in such a manner had made him jump.

“Mr Kerridge” he nodded and smiled and put one glass down in order to shake the hand extended towards him. “How are you, sir?”

“Surprised to see you here and so far from home and family” Kerridge replied with a broad grin on his face to soften any sense of criticism that the lad could have garnered from his words “How are you, son?”

“Well enough, sir.” Joe’s eyes twinkled at the man who looked like a character stepped straight out of one of those Dickens novels Adam enjoyed reading so much.

“Glad to hear of it. You look well”

“As you do, sir.”

“What’s all this, sir-ing and such” Kerridge boomed, for his voice was as deep and warm as his build was large and florid “Why, when you were a boy I bounced you on my knee and you called me ‘uncle’” and he slapped the young man on the back with such force that more of the punch was spilled and he was forced to put that glass down beside its companion. “Now then, tell me, what are you doing here, Joe?”

Joe smiled again “I was bringing some cattle down to Fort Johnson and Pa suggested that I came by here to see how Gabriel Kent was getting on with the stud bull he bought from us two years back. I’ve a letter for you from Pa, sir.” Joe frowned “It’s in my room at the hotel”

“At the hotel” the voice boomed afresh and William Kerridge looked at the young man as though he had just admitted to embezzling the company funds “What are you doing in that flea pit of a place? You should have known you would have a welcome at the Double K”

“To tell you the truth, sir – “

“’Sir? Again, ‘sir’ – “ the big man interjected, and his florid face went slightly more crimson and he shook his head “Call me Bill, most others around here do” and he smiled genially

“Well – Bill – “ Joe scratched his head and glanced over at Georgina “I was wondering what to do about that, but I got into town too late to ride on any further. As it was the Hotel Manager told me about the dance here at the town hall to night so I thought I would wander on by and see if you were here or not.”

“Good idea. Now, why not ride over to the Double K tomorrow morning for breakfast and tell me how things are with your pa and everything –“ he glanced over Joe’s shoulder and nodded to someone before turning an apologetic face to the youth “I have to go, business follows me about everywhere –“ Bill paused “Err, Gabriel Kent’s bull – “

“That’s right, sir. Gabriel bought it from Pa just before moving here. He wanted to establish a good herd and thought El Toro would be a good stud – I thought I’d check and see how he was getting on.”

“No one told you then?”

“About what, sir – err – Bill?”

“Gabriel Kent died about six months ago. His wife auctioned off the land, and the bull.” Bill Kerridge sighed and shook his head “Sad business all together, but life here isn’t easy if you want to make it big. Gabriel just took on too much.”

“I hadn’t heard. Pa will be upset about that, he and Gabriel were good friends.” Joe sighed and shook his head “Any idea what happened to his stock?”

“That bull of yours, huh?” Bill Kerridge tugged at his ear lobe “Wal, as a matter of fact, I bought it off’n Mrs Kent myself. He’s a good stud all right.” He slapped Joe warmly on the back and smiled “You’ll be able to see him for yourself tomorrow, Joe. Don’t be late….”

Joe nodded and watched the older man as he walked away from him. Then he picked up the two glasses of punch and made his way over to the young woman who had been watching him with a strangely anxious look in her eyes.

“Is everything all right?” she asked, taking the glass from him and holding it gingerly in one hand whilst the other rested gently on his arm

“Fine. Why?”

“No reason, Joe. I just wondered”

“Why?” he raised a glass to his lips but his eyes remained fixed on her face “Is there something I should know?”

“About what?” she laughed, but not with the usual warmth, and her eyes had lost their lustre, replaced now by something else, something that made Joe feel uncomfortable. “Oh, take no notice of me, Joe, I guess I’m just tired”

“Tired? And the night’s still young – and there’s plenty of dancing in me yet awhile” he grinned, taking hold of her hand and raising it to his heart whilst he gave her a long and languishing look under his long lashes

“Oh Joe – you always could charm the birds out of the trees.” Georgina murmered and slowly withdrew her hand

“Your pa’s invited me to your place for breakfast –“

“Oh, that’s good, Joe” and her cheeks reddened slightly

“You’d best give me directions on how to get there in time, just in case I get lost on the way”

“You couldn’t get lost, Joe, everyone knows where our place is, and we own most of the land from the town boundaries on to the south and west of here.”

“You do?” Joe’s mobile eyebrows swivelled upwards and his large eyes went round “I didn’t realise you had prospered so much”

“Didn’t you?” she glanced away and gave a slight shrug of her shoulders “Perhaps you should have paid us a visit more often, Joe, then you could have seen how it grew for yourself.”

He frowned, and took hold of her hand again, and looked at her thoughtfully

“Aren’t you happy, Georgina?”

“I am now you are here, Joe.” She replied simply and the smile returned to her eyes and lips as she stood up “Shall we dance, sir?”

June 10th – 7.45 a.m

He sat astride Cochise and just stared about him. Everywhere he looked there were signs of the wealth and prosperity of the Kerridge family. He urged the horse forward to a slow gait, noting as he went the size of the herds that grazed upon the lush green grass, and for an instant he felt the same kind of awe overwhelm him as he imagined many must have experienced as they entered the Ponderosa.

Here, however, there were no magnificent pines reaching heavenwards to speak of the grandeur of their owner, as well as to glorify their Creator. The land stretched out far and wide and respectably flat but it was lush and green and a wide river tumbled from the far off mountains that lined the horizon.

He rode along the wide track that led to the house. It seemed to grow from a small dot on the horizon to a low sprawling building that encompassed far more space than the ranch house on the Ponderosa. Joe stared at it thoughtfully for some time before finally dismounting and tethering Cochise to the hitching rail with enough slack on the rein for him to drink from the rather fancy water trough.

This was certainly no lovingly carved out dwelling from the woodland that Joe knew as home. It was built from rock and stone and cement with wide and high windows. It was rather like its owner, large and florid. Joe allowed a vague smile to grace his lips at the thought and after taking a deep breath, he rapped on the door.

A woman, obviously the housekeeper, opened the door so quickly that it was obvious that not only was his presence expected, but had been observed. She put out a hand for his hat and then indicated the direction he was to take with a gesture of her free hand.

Without his hat to twiddle with and use as a foil of any kind, Joe found himself rather defenceless and naked. He bit his bottom lip and nervously walked down the hall towards another large door. This he pushed open.

Georgina Kerridge glanced up and smiled. She was dressed in a very well cut riding habit, so Joe would have been right to assume that her intention was to go riding with him later. He glanced at the room and then at the table and frowned. People often observed that he and his family were wealthy, that they lived in style, that they could afford all and everything, but compared to this room, this sumptuousness, this quite ostentatious display of wealth, he felt like an ignorant and poverty stricken peasant.

“Sit down, Joe. Breakfast is ready.”

“I thought I may have been late” he muttered, running his fingers through his hair and looking around the room “Aren’t your father and brother going to join us?”

“Yes, of course. They won’t be long. Would you like some coffee?” she held up the coffee pot and with a smile poured the hot liquid into the fine porcelain cup “Here they are now” she smiled at him again and then glanced to the door

“So, you made it, young man? Welcome to the Double K. What do you think of it?” William Kerridge boomed, and he beamed at Joe with all the benevolence of a child who was displaying all his toys at one and the same time and expected only applause and approval.

“I hadn’t expected anything so grand, sir.” Joseph said honestly

“Beats your old mans place for style, huh?” he chuckled as he eased himself into his seat at the head of the table. He clicked his fingers and immediately the housekeeper appeared again, this time bearing a heavily laden tray “Never thought to see old man Kerridge living in such style, did you? I guess I surprised a lot of folks. Folks back in Virginia City sure would be surprised, ain’t that a fact?”

“Yes, sir. I guess they would be kinda surprised.” Joe admitted genuinely. The food was set down on the big table and Howard began to ladle food onto his plate with the alacrity Joe only thought Hoss ever displayed. “They’d be pleased for you though, you’ve worked hard to achieve this much.”

“You think so? Well, guess that’s praise indeed.” Kerridge said, sliding eggs onto his plate “Did you bring that letter from your pa?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe put his hand to his jacket pocket and pulled out the letter and handed it to the older man who ripped open the envelope and devoured its contents swiftly. It was then tossed to one side without comment.

“Coffee” Kerridge said, and dutifully Georgina picked up the coffee pot and poured out the beverage for her father. William now looked over at Joe “What did you think of my cattle?”

“Saw quite a herd. You’ve good stock, sir”

“The best in the territory. That stud bull you sold Gabriel, it’s the best I’ve ever seen. Reckon the herd can only improve with him around.”

“I guess so. That was what Gabriel hoped as well.” Joe said quietly, his eyes slipping to his fathers’ letter that remained casually on the table at his hosts’ elbow. “I don’t think anyone in Virginia City knows about the Kent’s – we certainly had not any knowledge about their circumstances.”

“Sad business.” Howard said quietly, dabbing at his mouth before looking over at Joe “Gabriel was a very pleasant man, and a hard worker. Overly ambitious perhaps, but he had no reason not to be, he owned a good sized property.”

“Did you ever see it, Joe?” Georgina asked, her eyes settling upon the young man with such gentleness that Joe could feel the heat under his collar

“Gabriel’s place? No, I have not. They talked about it though, said it was in a very pleasant valley, with lots of grassland and trees, and an orchard.”

“Oh yes, the orchard. It’s beautiful in the spring. Mrs. Kent loved it very much.” Georgina sighed and picked up her fork

“What happened to her, and Jacob?”

“She and her boy sold up and traveled back to live with her sister in Kansas. Not the best place to be just now with the way things are – have some of that ham, Joe, it’s from one of my best pigs.” William stabbed the air in the direction of the thick slabs of ham on the plate and Joe wished that Hoss were with him, as he sure would have enjoyed wrapping his teeth around a slice or two of that meat.

“Apart from the cattle, Mr. Kerridge –“ Joe paused, instinct warning him that perhaps this was something he would be wiser not to ask. Was it the quick look that passed between father and son? Was there really a slight fission of something that he sensed in the air? He cast his eyes back to his plate “I’d sure like a tour around the place, if that would be alright, sir?”

“Why’d you think my dear sister has got herself rigged up so neatly, Joe?” Howard chuckled “She’s been so hopeful of your asking that she tried on at least three outfits before I’d even got up”

“In which case how would you know?” Georgina snapped, but she smiled and her eyes twinkled over at Joe “I’d love to ride out with you, Joe, and show you around”

“Thanks, I’d enjoy it –“

“A bit like those times your pa would take us around to show off his place” William Kerridge mumbled through a mouth full of food which he washed down with coffee “Always liked to take us round to see his favourite bits of the land he owned”

Joe and Georgina’s eyes met over the table and he noted how flushed she looked and realised yet again that the tension had entered into Kerridge’s voice again. He smiled as he looked at his host and picked up his coffee

“I guess we all make the mistake of sometimes being a bit boring about the things we care most about –“ he said in a very even, very mild tone.

Kerridge shook his head and shrugged

“’Twere’nt never boring. I enjoyed it. Liked to see what there was and what could be gained from hard work. Never stinted on hard work, not me. I jest determined that one day I would be able to do that, take folks around my own place, show ‘em the bits of land I loved the most. Let them know that it was all mine and all due to my efforts and mine alone –“ he glanced up “and Howard’s, of course”

Howard released a long, pent up sigh and concentrated on his meal.

“Well, Pa and Adam and Hoss worked hard to build up the Ponderosa. Those early years were the hardest, the years before I was born.” Joe put down his cup and glanced over at Georgina “I’m ready whenever you are, Georgina. If that’s alright by you, sir?” he looked at Kerridge who only grinned with that same pleasure on his face that had beamed there earlier. Once more he looked like the genial, excited child who wanted to show off his toys and be rewarded with a pat on the head

“By all means, enjoy yourselves. I’ve told the girl to get a picnic lunch ready for you both” and he waved them away as though they themselves were children.

.. .. ..

She settled upon the grass and the wild flowers bent beneath her. Joe tethered their horses and then walked to where she was sitting and joined her. For a few minutes they sat together in silence whilst her fingers plucked at daisies and poppies and she engaged herself in making daisy and poppy chains. After a while she looked at him and smiled

“What did you think of it, Joe? Do you think it as beautiful as your Ponderosa?”

“It’s different. It’s very lovely” he sprawled out a little, and turned to his side and rested his head upon one hand, and looked at her “Like you really, Georgina”

“Are you saying – that you think I’m lovely?” she smiled and teasingly waved a daisy in his direction “You must need your eyes tested, sir”

“Not at all. From where I’m sitting, the view is very beautiful” and he took hold of one of her hands and raised it, palm upwards, and kissed it gently “You were right, you know…I should have visited here more often and seen how the view was changing”

She laughed, and the colour mantled her cheeks slightly as she disengaged her hand from his fingers

“Tell me about some of our old friends, Joe.”

“Such as?” Joe frowned and with a sigh plucked some flowers of his own, which he toyed with for want of something to do with his hands.

“Sally Cass?”

“Oh, she and her pa left town.”

“Mr Cass left Virginia City? Why, I never thought that would ever happen. Pa was always saying that there was never a more generous man than Mr Cass – “

“My Pa says the same, kept Pa and my brothers going with groceries and such when they first settled on the Washoe”

“Sally was my best friend at school. We wrote to one another for a little while, but then – I suppose we just grew up and – well, things change.”

“Yeah, things change.” Joe frowned as he thought of Sally Cass and the misery she had endured since her brother’s killer had, in turn, been killed.

“What about Miss Jones, our teacher, is she still chasing after Adam?”

“Nary a chance, she’s married herself now. Got married to one of our hands only last year.”

“Well, fancy that?” a slight frown furrowed her brow and she sighed and let her hands drop into her lap, sending the sweet wild flowers scattered into her skirts.

“Georgina, what exactly happened to Gabriel Kent? How did he die?” he rolled onto his stomach, rested his chin upon his hands and looked up with large appealing eyes .

“Oh, I don’t know, Joe. Pa and Howard don’t talk to me much about things like that –“

“Like what?”

“Like how Mr Kent died – or why – I get to hear things, of course.” She frowned “I overheard Mrs Kent talking to my father shortly after Mr Kent died. She was crying and I so wanted to go in and hug her. I always thought she was my friend and yet, after her husbands funeral, I never got to see her once.”

“What was she talking to your pa about?” he twisted grass between his fingers, and looked away from her, to make it easier for her to talk.

“Oh, she was saying something like “I can’t go on anymore, not on my own. I don’t want my boy hurt anymore. I’ll take your offer for the land and go from here – as far as I can go’” Georgina frowned “I peeked into the room and papa was so kind, he put his hand on her shoulder and tried to comfort her, but she was too distressed to notice” her voice faded away “A few days later Papa came and told us that he had bought the Kent’s place. He said that I could have it for my own, as a kind of dowry, because I loved the orchard so much.”

“It seems you just never know about folk” Joe said quietly, letting the blades of grass fall while he rolled onto his back “I would have thought Mrs. Kent was one of those ladies that would never give up on a place like that – she was the stronger of the two – that’s what I always thought!”

“Well, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, Joe, when your husband shoots his brains out because he’s been up to no good, what’s the point of hanging onto things that would only remind you of it all”

“Gabriel shot his brains out?” Joe looked at her, his face indicative of his amazement “I can’t believe that!”

“Well, it’s true” came the reply, said with the simplicity of a child reciting the alphabet.

“No, I can’t believe that – Gabriel was too decent, too honest” Joe’s voice trailed away as he thought back to the couple he had known, who had left Virginia City so full of excitement and high hopes for their future.

“I’m only telling you what is common knowledge in town, Joe” she said quietly “I’m sorry if it upsets you, it upset us all at the time. Frances was so sad – as I told you, I never saw her except at the funeral, and even then, she didn’t want to talk at all.” She sat up and smiled, and reached out and took his hand “Would you like to see their place? It isn’t far from here”

June 10th. 1.15 p.m.

They sat astride their horses and said nothing. There really seemed little to say. The stillness all around them reminded Joe of being in a church and he had the urge to remove his hat and bow his head in prayer.

“Isn’t it pretty, Joe?”

Her voice broke into his thoughts and he looked at her and saw the innocent pleasure on her face that had always been one of her most endearing features. He smiled and dismounted and walked over to her and put his hands around her waist and lifted her from the saddle. Side by side they stood together and looked at the cabin and the land about it.

It was as she described it – pretty. A modest cabin built in the familiar style of the homesteader of the times. Close by was the orchard, now past the time of blossoms and showing the promise of a good harvest in the weeks ahead. Joe had already noticed how rich and lush the land had been as they rode through the valley and he had remembered Gabriel’s excitement when talking about the place and could now appreciate exactly why their friend had been so optimistic about moving from Virginia City. Their home on the borders of the Mel fords land was nothing in comparison to this pretty acreage.

“Come on, Joe. Let’s go inside and look around –“ she whispered and excitedly grasped hold of her hand.

Hansel and Gretel slipped into his mind and he smiled and gripped her fingers more tightly, so that she winced and looked at him in reproach. They pushed open the door and stepped into the building that had once been the Kent’s family home. Joe frowned as he looked around

“They sure left in some kind of hurry” he said quietly as he ran a finger along the edge of a dresser where dust lay like sugar frosting.

“She didn’t want to stay, Joe.” Georgina whispered and looked sadly around the room. She edged closer to him and took hold of his arm “I’ve not been here since before the funeral. I thought she would have taken her belongings with her. Joe, I don’t like being here. Can we go?”

He looked at her and frowned. Her deep blue eyes looked up at him so trustingly, and yet were brimful with tears. Gently, very gently, he ran a finger over her cheeks and wiped the tears away and then, he kissed her lips. She seemed to melt into his arms and her lips responded to the pressure of his upon them and then, abruptly, she pushed him away and stepped back, shaking her head.

“No, Joe, no – I don’t want you to fall in love with me”

Joe frowned slightly, and then nodded and with a swift glance around the room, walked away. She followed him meekly, her head bowed and he heard her close the door behind her as he strode on towards Cochise.

“Joe? Joe?”

“What?”

“Don’t be angry with me, Joe. Please” she was by his side now and grasped at his arm and he looked down and shook his head

“I’m not angry with you, Georgie. As if anyone could be angry with you?” he smiled and touched her cheek gently with his fingers “It’s just that you looked so sweet standing there and – and somehow I couldn’t but help myself from wanting to kiss you”

“Joe, I – I did like it when you kissed me.” She took a deep breath and then shook her head, which loosened the dark curls from their ribbon. A stray coil of chestnut hair drifted over her shoulder and across her face, and Joe very gently caressed it away and teased it back behind her ear. “I – I’m just afraid –“

“You don’t have to be afraid of me, Georgie. I would never, never hurt you.”

“No – I know that, Joe – it’s just that I don’t want to be the cause of hurting you”

“How could you do that, Georgina, unless you couldn’t love me – “

She sighed and stepped away from him and then wistfully looked back at the cabin. They looked at it in silence and then she turned back to look at him,

“Joe, can we go somewhere else, so that we can talk together in private?”

“Isn’t this private enough?” he grinned, and his hazel eyes twinkled green motes that made her stomach turn over and over

“I don’t feel happy being here, Joe. I thought I would be, but there is too much of Frances and Gabriel still there – almost as though there ghosts were standing there watching us!”

“Very well” he sighed and turned to the horses. It was odd, how she had said that, he pondered, because it was how he had felt too, just as though Gabriel and Frances had been standing in the room with them. He felt a shiver trickle down his spine and turned to help her into her saddle, but she had already mounted and looked impatient for him to follow suit.

….. ……. ……

“Joe, do you recall me telling you about my mother?” she glanced over at him as they walked their horses homewards. Joe nodded and waited for her to continue “She had been ill for some time you know.”

“I didn’t know that –“

“Papa didn’t know either, she wouldn’t tell him in case – oh, I don’t know why, Joe. I always thought when people loved one another they confided in each other, but mama never told pa that she was ill, not until it was so obvious that – that even he noticed. But by then it was too late, far too late.”

“Was it her heart?”

“No, no, nothing to do with her heart. It was a sickness that seems to pass through her family. Her great aunt had it, so she told me –“ she bowed her head and lapsed into silence for some seconds and seemed to be waiting. Joe sat astride Cochise and wondered for what she was waiting, he put out a hand and touched hers for they were riding that close to each other that their knees were constantly brushing against each others.

“Are you afraid that it may pass on to yourself, or your children?” he looked at her and saw the colour fade from her cheeks. Her skin looked the colour of parchment and then suddenly was engulfed with a rush of blood that rouged her cheeks so violently in contrast that he thought she was ill and pulled Cochise to a halt.

He slid from the saddle instantly, and was by her side and had taken her from the saddle and held her until her shivering ended and the colour had faded to a semblance of normality.

“I’m sorry, Joe. I – I didn’t really expect you to understand so quickly… no-one else ever has, you know?”

“You’ve mentioned it to others?”

“Oh, only those who have insisted that they loved me and wanted to marry me. I couldn’t just shrug them off, Joe. Some of them were so sweet and I did care about one or two – but – but it would never have been honest or fair of me to have accepted their proposals.”

“Georgina, if you haven’t got this illness, what makes you think you will? And what makes you think that the man who loves you, and marries you, would not continue to love you and care for you, even if you do become ill? Georgina, if I – if you –“

“NO” she placed a hand gently over his lips and shook her head “No, Joe. I’m asking you again, don’t fall in love with me”

Telling Joseph Cartwright NOT to do anything was tantamount to begging him to go right ahead. As his brothers knew from long experience the best way to get Joe to break a horse was to say “Shucks, that dadburned black horse is nigh on impossible to break. I don’t reckon no one could break that horse” – oh, yes, it was guaranteed that Joe would be promptly out there and on that black horse and it would be a battle to the finish but he would prove that he would and could break that dadburned black horse.

If Joe were in a lazy mood and Adam needed some fencing done, the best ploy was to say, within his hearing, of course, “Don’t let Joe go near that pasture at the north end, the fencing needs to be done pretty skillfully and I don’t want any bodged up job” – guaranteed that Joe would be there within 24 hours and the job done as neat as could be!

Even Joe couldn’t really explain why he felt so compelled to do something when everyone else asked him not to, nor why he was driven not to do something when anyone asked him to do it. It wasn’t as though he were stubborn, like his brother, Adam. Or was it? It wasn’t that he needed to prove himself as good as his brother, Hoss. Or was it?

As soon as she looked into his eyes and whispered the words “I’m asking you again, don’t fall in love with me” he felt as though his heart had been pulled from his breast and a cord entwined around it, knotted securely and then tied to her heart. He could only respond by lowering his head and kissing her lips and holding her close so that their hearts beat together.

“I love you, Georgina – how can I not love you? You’re the sweetest, prettiest little girl in the territory and –“

“Listen to me, Joe, please listen to me” she stepped back once again, and put her hand to his mouth to prevent another kiss and he stopped and looked into her eyes and recognised the urgency in them. Beneath her hand she could feel that there was no longer any resistance and she nodded and smiled “Joe, I already have this illness. Sometimes it goes away for months at a time, but I know it will come back. I’ve had it since, well, since just before mama died. She started being ill with it just after she had Howard, and when I was born she got worse, but papa never knew. She just said it was because she was clumsy or needed eye glasses – “

“But, Georgina, you look as though there couldn’t be anything wrong with you. You don’t look ill and –“

“She told me what to look out for, although she did tell me that the symptoms were often different from person to person. Oh, I know I could go on for years just as I am – or I could be in a wheelchair within a year.”

“Can’t the doctors do anything for you?”

“No. They don’t understand what it is, Joe. They say it is something that families carry along with them, but they don’t know what to do about it. All they say is to rest, not to overtax one’s energies – but I don’t want to live like that, Joe. All cocooned and such –“

“I wouldn’t cocoon you, Georgie, I promise. Just let me love you and take care of you. You’d be so happy on the Ponderosa –“

“Oh Joe” she brushed his cheek gently with her fingertips and then laughed quietly “You can’t imagine how happy my father would be to hear you say that. Me, married to a Cartwright and living on the Ponderosa”

Joe gulped. He thought of William Kerridge and the plump florid face with its beady little black eyes lighting up with pleasure and the plump dimpled hands rubbing together with delight. But then he looked at her and his heart melted and he took hold of her hand and raised it to his lips and kissed her fingertips

“I love you, Georgina. I love you so much”

A loud cough startled them both and they turned to see Howard leaning down from his horse, one arm leaning upon the pommel of his saddle. Instinctively they drew closer together, and Howard smiled and pushed his hat further to the back of his head and raised his eyebrows

“Wal, kind of wondered where you two had gone. Georgina, Pa wants you back home. You had better hurry, he’s got guests coming and wants you to play hostess.” He looked at Joe and the smile faded “Probably see you agin, tomorrow sometime, Cartwright?”

Joe said nothing, he watched them as they rode away and then slowly mounted into the saddle and turned Cochise towards town.

10th June – 10.00 p.m

The glass of cold beer was warm now. He had chosen to sit at a table in a dark corner of the saloon, taking the glass of beer with him for company. He had to think, and there was a lot to think about and get put into some kind of order in his mind.

No one had bothered him, if any noticed him at all. Even the saloon girls had seemed to sense his desire for solitude and left him to his own devices. Occasionally he had looked up to take note of what was going on around him but that was all.

Why would anyone want to buy land with an orchard? Sure, it had good grazing land but compared to what was already owned by the Kerridges – he shook his head again – it was as unthinkable to assume that there was something wrong with Kerridge and his dealings with the Kents as it was to believe the story that Gabriel had blown his brains out. Why was the cabin not emptied of the Kent’s possessions? Only houses deserted by owners who could never return still had furniture and pictures on the walls and – and Frances would have wanted her things with her.

The Hotel Manager had listened to his questions about the Kents and nodded sympathetically before saying they should have stayed in Virginia City and he should be careful what questions he asked and from whom he asked them. He would venture nothing else and Joe, curiosity whetted, had decided to think things over at the saloon with a cold glass of beer.

Pictures of Georgina drifted through his mind and clouded his thoughts constantly. Six years had been a long time apart, but the years had served them well, for both of them were now of an age to make decisions independently of their fathers. Both had matured, grown, and become their own people.

Georgina. He smiled at the recollection of the little girl in pigtails who would follow him around the playground at school. The little girl in the blue gingham dress who always insisted he danced with her at the school dancing classes (which he had loathed). She had had big blue eyes and freckles then, and a determined chin and dimples. She still had them, and the remembrance of how they were balanced out so symmetrically on her sweet face made him feel a pang in his heart at the thought of her illness and how it could affect them both.

“Leave me alone. I told you already, I don’t want a drink “

The girl’s shrill voice and the noise of the men shouting and laughing brought him out of his thoughts and forced him to pay attention to the intrusion into them. A group of four men were seated at a nearby table, and one of them was holding a girl by the wrist and attempting to force her to drink with them. She was struggling to free her arm and was about to slap the cowboy round the face. Immediately, her hand was seized. Some other rowdy had come up from behind her. Her struggles were now the cause for more laughter.

Joe looked about him. It amazed him to see how little care there was for the girl’s situation. No one moved. The other saloon girls seemed frozen to the spot in the midst of whatever action they were about, and the men either looked embarrassed and had turned away, or were acting as though there was nothing happening for them to notice anyway.

“Leave me alone”

The note of panic and fear was obvious in the girls voice and her face betrayed her fear and the more she showed her fear the more the men laughed. They were now pushing her from one to the other

“Leave her alone” Joe heard himself saying even as he stood up and pushed the table away from him. He walked towards them, pushed aside one of the men and then grabbed the arm of the first man who stood up to challenge him “Leave her alone. Howard, take your men out of here –“ his gun was in his hand even before he had finished speaking, and the two cowboys who had been rash enough to try and settle the intrusion with a show of gunpowder found their hands hovering over their gun butts whilst they stared down the barrel of his that pointed unerringly towards them.

“Still the knight errant” Howard murmured, releasing the girls arm “Why don’t you go back to your corner and mind your own business, Cartwright?”

“Why don’t you just do as I suggest, and get out of here, Howard?”

Howard Kerridge smiled slowly and leaned forward very slightly

“You don’t have your brothers to run up and help you out now, Cartwright. Just run along and forget what you’ve seen”

“I don’t need my brothers to deal with the likes of you, Howard. I never did – not even when you were the playground bully all those years ago at school. Hoss only came to bail me out when you got your little gang to set on me, because you didn’t have the guts to handle me on your own”

Howard Kerridge drew himself up to his full height and stepped forward, then paused. The gun was pointing unwaveringly towards him and when he looked past the gun, he could see Joe’s determined face staring at him. He looked at his men and nodded and jerked his thumb to the direction of the door

“All right, Joe, have it your way this once. But don’t think I’ll forget this –“ he raised his hand and pointed his finger at Joe’s face “Don’t think for a minute that I’ll forget this”

They left, taking their time and striving to retain some of their swagger as they passed around the crowded tables and brushed against the saloon girls and out into the night. As the doors swung shut behind them, the atmosphere in the room lightened and it seemed as though everyone there had been holding their breath and now exhaled out. People laughed and chattered. The girls began to circulate around their clients, swishing their skirts with just a little more bravado than previously. The girl Joe had rescued, rubbed her wrists and looked at him.

“Thank you, I owe you a drink” and she beckoned over to the counter and signaled for two whiskies “You took quite a risk you know” she said quietly as she sat at the table he had just left.

“Oh, I don’t know about that –“ he said with his customary gallant smile and twinkling eyes, he nodded his thanks to the bar tender who placed two glasses and a bottle on the table “Howard’s always been a bit of a coward”

“Maybe so, but even cowards can turn nasty, and he can be very nasty when he wants to be –“ she frowned slightly and picked up the bottle “You’re a stranger here, how come you know Howard so well?”

“I was at school with him, in Virginia City”

“Virginia City? Now, where have I heard that place mentioned before?” she crinkled her brow again “Do you know the people who own the Ponderosa?”

“Sure, my brothers and pa own it. I’m Joseph Cartwright – “ and he extended his hand which, after a slight hesitation, she accepted and shook “What do you know about the Ponderosa?”

“Nothing really, only talk from folk. Howard talks about it quite a bit. Seems his family were friends of yours, and got to see quite a bit of it.”

“That’s true enough” Joe took a swig of his drink and nodded his appreciation, it was good stuff, not the usual rot gut rubbish some saloon bar keeps dished out to strangers. “You didn’t tell me your name?”

“Monica Bradwell”

“Well, Miss Bradwell, thanks for the drinks” he winked and took another gulp “Did you know a family by the name of Kent?”

“You mean, Gabriel and Frances? Of course I did, they were good folk.”

“Is it true that he shot his brains out?”

She looked at him very seriously. One of those long looks women often used when trying to weigh up the rights and wrongs of making a decision – what to say and how to say it and should they bother anyway? Joe looked at her thoughtfully. She was not a bad looking girl. Probably the same age as himself and Georgina. Scrape off some of the paint and perhaps there was a really pretty girl beneath it all. She sighed and poured more whiskey into her glass

“Mr Cartwright – Joe – our doctor is a very busy man dealing with patients who have strange accidents. There’s a lot of people in town who have strange accidents –“

“You mean, Gabriel got shot by accident? He didn’t commit suicide?”

“Gabriel Kent was a very kind, very thoughtful man. His wife was a mite ambitious, what you would call the power behind the throne. When he started getting offers for his property she told him to ignore them. After a little while –“ she glanced around her, but no one was paying any attention, she leaned forwards a little “the offers to buy the property stopped. They began to get threats. Strange things began to happen. Fires broke out. Once when they left town the wagon was tampered with and the wagon crashed and Jacob broke his leg. They were warned that it could get worse –“

“Why? I mean – what’s so important about that land?”

“Well, this may not be Virginia City, Joe, but you would have to be blind not to notice that it is a mining town. There’s gold and silver and copper on the land round about here. The biggest mine owner hereabouts is William Kerridge and he has a very big dream…which he seems pretty determined to see become a reality”

“What’s that?”

“He wants a Ponderosa of his own – and so does Howard”

“Are you saying that Gabriel was murdered?”

“I ain’t saying anything more about that, Joe. All I can tell you is that he was found in an alleyway with his brains shot out and the gun in his hand. Rumours suddenly went around town that he was bankrupt and –“ she paused “well, rumours went around that were meant to discredit him and provide some kind of crazy reason for him killing himself. But they were just rumours –“

“And Frances?”

“The last time I saw Frances she said she wasn’t going to give in to anyone’s threats – the land was her boys inheritance.” Monica stood up and brushed down her skirt “Thanks for the drink, Joe, and helping me out. I don’t know anymore than that. Honestly!”

He nodded, emptied his glass and stood up. Slowly he picked up his hat and slipped it over his head and left the saloon.

11th June – 8:30 a.m.

Mrs FitzGibbon prided herself on making the best breakfast in the territory. When she saw the young man enter her establishment and take a chair at her best table she promised herself that she would cook him the best meal he had ever tasted (being ignorant of Hop Sing’s abilities she did not realise this was an impossibility). She smiled at him and offered him the menu and waited, pencil poised over her notebook, but intently observing him. She liked the look of him. Wholesome was how she would have described him, wholesome and handsome. When he smiled and his eyes twinkled up at her, she couldn’t understand why the nib of her pencil broke.

Joe sat back and stared out of the window while he waited for the meal to be prepared. He had spent a restless night in his hotel room and was feeling even more confused than when he had gone to bed. He picked up his cup of coffee and inhaled the bitter aroma and thought of home. They would have had their meal and be working, he mused. He frowned slightly, feeling a deep longing inside of him self to be riding the range with them there and then and wishing he had never set foot in this town. He saw the sherrif walking down towards his office, a big, pot bellied man with narrow slits of eyes in a ruddy face. He sighed. The sight of him did not inspire confidence. He noticed the man who approached the sherriff and frowned, wondering why Howard Kerridge would be in town so early, and what business he would be having with the law. He noticed the way the sherriff glanced over at the restaurant and nodded slowly as though acknowledging the information being given to him, whilst at the same time making up his mind on what course of action he would be taking upon it.

“Here you are, my dear. I cooked the eggs sunny side up” she smiled at him and then glanced through the window and frowned, whilst she wondered why the actions of the sherriff would be of such interest to the youth. She would never have him pegged down as a man who would transgress the law.

“Ma’am – is there anyone here in town you could trust?”

She blinked and glanced at him again “How do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” Joe said miserably “I guess I’m just confused about some things here.”

“I saw you at the dance Saturday night. You were with the Kerridge girl quite a bit, if I recall rightly” she picked up the coffee pot and poured him a fresh cup

“Yes, Georgina and I were at school together in Virginia City”

“Pity they didn’t stay there” she sniffed “She’s a nice girl, I give you that, but since her mother died –“ she paused and glanced over her shoulder before lowering her voice a tone “This was a really nice friendly town, before the Kerridge’s came here. Now no one knows who to trust and what to do about it.”

“About what?”

“About things that are happening around here, of course.” She frowned and bowed her head to view more closely what was happening with the sherrif who was now lounging against a post with his eyes on the restaurant as though waiting for someone “Have you any intentions of speaking to our sherriff?” she asked and when Joe shook his head, she nodded “You’re wise. He’s one of Kerridge’s men. Perhaps you should leave by the back way once you’ve eaten.”

“Thanks, ma’am, I’ll do that –“

“Virginia City” she frowned in thought and then looked at him “Did you know the Kents?”

“Gabriel and Frances? Yes, we did.”

“No doubt you heard that he had died?”

“I heard he had committed suicide”

“Stuff ‘n’ nonsense. Gabriel had no intention of committing suicide at all. He was a good, God fearing man and he was determined to fight Kerridge with all that he had, but he just didn’t have enough –“

“Enough what?”

“I don’t know. Whatever it needs to take on and beat a man like Kerridge.”

“He owns a lot of land from what I hear?”

“You hear right, he owns most of the land to the east and south of here, and intends to get more.”

“Why don’t you send for the Marshall to come and get this place cleaned up”

“Gabriel made that mistake – the Telegraph clerk ‘forgot’ to send the cable and the copy of it ended up on Kerridge’s desk.”

“How do you know all this, ma’am?”

“People talk over their cups of coffee, son.” She smiled and then put a gentle hand on his shoulder “Looks like the sherrif has decided he’s waited long enough…he’s coming over.”

Joe pulled some dollar bills out of his pocket and with a quick smile and nod of thanks, picked up his hat and hastily departed through the back door. He found himself in some kind of storeroom which had an exit door to the street, but instead of leaving he pressed himself against the other door to overhear anything that could be of interest from the conversation the sherriff would have with Mrs FitzGibbon.

By the time Sherriff Harrison had reached the restaurant, Mrs Fitzgibbon had cleared the table and dumped the dishes, and was sitting in Joe’s seat, sipping coffee demeurely. She looked up at Harrison and smiled

“Good morning, Frank, you’re busy and early too – do you want some coffee?”

He looked at her, at the empty table bar the coffee pot and single cup and saucer, and scowled

“Where’s the boy gone?”

“What boy?” she raised her eyebrows in amazement

“The boy, Cartwright. Came in here about 8:30 a.m?”

“Did he? Then he must have left right away, sherriff, because I’ve not served breakfast to anyone called Cartwright. I don’t cook breakfasts after 8:15 a.m. You should know that by now.” She frowned “What was he supposed to have done anyhows?”

“Caused a disturbance at the saloon last night, threatened one of the customers – so if you do see him, be careful, seems he’s pretty useful with a gun”

“Hum, as if that should be of interest to me….” She snorted down her nose at him in contempt “Who did he threaten, one of your deputies?”

“No. It was Mr Kerridge”

“Oh, the great Mr Kerridge, huh?”

“Howard Kerridge!”

She said nothing. Merely poured herself another cup of coffee and raised the cup genteelly to her lips. Harrison said nothing. The act and manner of it was one of complete contempt and dismissal. Taking it as such he turned, paused and looked at the back door behind which Joe was listening intently. Mrs FitzGibbon continued to drink her coffee whilst staring thoughtfully (and very anxiously) out of the window. Harrison teetered about what to do, and finally left he restaurant via the front door.

Minutes later Joseph Cartwright was riding out of town on Cochise and heading towards Gabriel’s little cabin amidst the orchard.

11th June – 11:45 am

The gunshots came as a volley of constant fireplay. Joe was mid-way to the Kent’s home when he first heard the gunfire. He paused only long enough to get his bearings and discern the direction from where the sounds were coming. Cochise leapt forwards as he urged the piebald to a faster speed and soon gained a position where he could see more clearly what was taking place only a short distance from him.

A wagon was careering along a duststrewn track. It was slewing from one side of the track to the other as the horses stretched themselves at their greatest speed and without the control of the driver. Five men on horseback were gaining on the wagon, firing constantly upon the occupants. The answering fire was spasmodic and erratic. As the scene flashed before Joe’s vision he had time to see two women, one frantically attempting to keep the team of horses under control and the other using a rifle to fire back at their attackers.

The rapid fire coming from behind them caused the five men to slow down and pay some attention to what was obviously a far more serious affair from the rear. Suddenly one of the riders gave a yell and a horse careered off the track, as his rider lost control of the reins as his nerveless fingers turned to putty. Within a few minutes the other men had turned their horses into the shrub and putting some distance between themselves, Joe and the women in the wagon.

Joe fired off several more shots, just to encourage them to keep riding. The sound of the wagon approaching prompted him to get to dismount and walk towards them. Taking off his hat he waited until they were stationary and put out a hand to steady the horses and bring them to a standstill.

“Thank you” the woman who had been driving the wagon looked at him and called out the words. She was breathless from the exertion and seemed to be struggling to catch her breath. The other woman was clambering down from the wagon and walking quickly towards him. She extended her hand

“Mary O’Connor” she said in an abrupt no nonsense manner “My daughter in law – Harriett” she pointed to the other woman who nodded and seemed to have succeeded in getting her breathing under control “Can’t say thanks enough, young man, you saved our lives”

“Joe Cartwright, ma’am” he shook the proffered hand warmly, appreciating the heartiness of the clasp the woman gave him “If I may say so, ma’am, I doubt if you would have lasted out much longer.” He took the hand the other woman offered him and smiled gently, no wonder she was breathless, she was quite advanced in her pregnancy.

“Oh, this isn’t the first time it’s happened.” Harriett said quietly “Over the course of the past month we’ve been attacked on the road every time we’ve been into town or back. This was the worse though. The last times were just warnings – I don’t think we could say that this time it came into that category”

“We’re grateful to you, Mr Cartwright” Mary said “If you had not arrived when you did I don’t think either of us would be alive now.”

“It’s true” Harriett continued quietly, as she glanced fearfully around as though expecting the assailants to at any time reappear “I could barely control the horses any longer. It would either have been a bullet or the wagon over the cliff – and both of us dead” she placed a hand unconsciously on the mound where the infant lay safe and snug within her womb, and perhaps in her mind she added that the little one would also have been a victim of the attack.

“We’d be more than grateful if you could ride beside us to where we live, Mr Cartwright” Mary looked keenly at the young man, as though appraising him and liking what she saw in the honest young face and hazel green eyes.

“My pleasure, ma’am. I was about to suggest it myself” he smiled and slipped his hat back on and turned to Cochise. Recollecting his manners he walked to the younger woman and slipped his hand beneath her elbow, and gently assisted her back onto the wagon seat. She smiled down at him and flushed a little at the responding smile. Mary came and was in her seat before Joe could assist her, but she smiled at him, as though in approval of his courtesy. She took up the reins and looked over at him

“It isn’t far. My daughter Megan will have the meal ready for us. You’ll be more than welcome to join us, young man”

“My thanks..” the young man nodded and grinned and then swung himself into the saddle.

Thus they rode along the worn track to where the women lived. The horses put on a spurt as though in anticipation of a nosebag and good draught of water. The women sat close together, as though the nearness of their bodies afforded them greater security from danger. Joe rode by the side of the wagon, close enough for him to rest his hand on the side, whilst his eyes roved constantly as he sought out any danger that could approach them.

June 11th – 2 pm

The door to the cabin opened wide and a young woman stood in the doorframe, wiping her hands anxiously upon her apron. When she saw Joe she instinctively put a hand to her hair and pulled back a stray wisp.

“You’re late” she cried, the words directed to the women whilst her eyes devoured the youth riding by their side

“We were attacked again.” Mary said, dismounting with an alacrity that belied her years, whilst Joe hurried to assist Harriet. “Get some water for your sister, girl!” and she took the woman’s other arm and persuaded her to lean upon her, whilst Joe tethered the horses. Megan had disappeared into the interior of the cabin, giving Joe the opportunity to look about him and take stock of the appearance of the place.

It gave evidence of hard work, and more than that, of love and attention. Despite the heat of the day, flowers nodded and danced in the sunlight, adding splashes of colour that only enhanced the sweet attractiveness of the place.

“Had a good look?”

He turned and smiled at Mary, who was looking at him thoughtfully from the doorway, whilst Harriet disappeared into the cool interior. He took off his hat and approached her

“I was just curious, ma’am”

“About what?”

“About why you would be attacked, what could be here that was so important to prevent you getting back to it.” he twisted his hat round and round between his fingers whilst his eyes continued to roam around the place.

The barns were in good condition and had recently been painted in preparation for the coming winter months. Everything bespoke a family who had poured all their resources and energies into a successful business. He saw horses in the corral, good looking horses and well fed too. He looked at her

“You’ve a nice place, ma’am”

“Yes, it is a nice place. Perhaps not as grand as the Ponderosa where you hail from, young man, nor as impressive as the Double K……but it is everything that we love and intend to keep”

“I don’t doubt it, ma’am” he stepped closer to her, meeting her now at the door “How did you know I came from the Ponderosa?”

“Well, you may be some distance from the place, my dear, but the name Cartwright precedes you, along with the reputation.” She reached out and took his hand “Come in –“

Megan was placing another plate onto the table as they entered. He looked about the place and parked his hat on the rack by the door. As he did so he noticed that no other mans hat was there. He unbuckled his gunbelt and placed it on the hook next to his hat.

“It’s good to see a man’s belongings there again” Mary said quietly as she washed her hands at the sink and dried them on the cloth by the stove.

“You’ve no man about the house?”

“Not any more” Megan said slapping the cutlery onto the table with a vigour that did not go unnoticed by their guest “Not for two months now.”

Joe immediately looked at Harriet then blushed at her reproachful glance at him. She approached the table with the coffee pot in her hand and began to pour out the hot liquid into the four cups. She looked at him with her large eyes

“Please sit down Mr Cartwright”

“What happened?” Joe asked, as he picked up his cup and inhaled the bitter aroma

“Where do we start?” Harriet said quietly and shrugged her shoulders before taking her seat by his side.

“Well, who was it who attacked you on the road? Do you know?”

“Of course we know. There’s no secret to that –“ Megan snapped as she ladled out the appetising beef stew “It’s Kerridge’s men”

Joe frowned and glanced down at his plate. Kerridge again. Always Kerridge.

“How long has it been going on for?” he asked

“Eversince he decided that he wanted to turn the Double K into another Ponderosa.” Mary replied, taking her seat opposite him. “He’s obsessed with the idea. Didn’t you know he left Virginia City only because he couldn’t bear being near your father and his empire anymore?”

Joe thought back to the time the Kerridges had left town. He had been on good terms with them all, although now he thought about it, there had been a kind of cooling off between the two families. He had assumed it was to do with Mrs Kerridges illness….or was that just a memory of something said by his father to explain why they had withdrawn from them. He stared at the meat in his plate as though it were guilty of a capital sin as he struggled to remember.

“It’s been some years, ma’am. We were always good friends of the Kerridges and from what I remember Mr Kerridge was a kind man. When my ma died he and his wife were amongst the first to give us help.”

“Oh yes.” Megan put a plate of bread onto the table with a force that nearly cracked the plate and brought a look of reproach from her mother “Mr Kerridge is always very kind and thoughtful. He was so kind and thoughtful when he came here that no one believed it when he started his campaign”

“Campaign?” Joe asked, some food halfway to his mouth and his eyes darting from one face to the other

“Things began to happen” Mary said quietly, beckoning to Megan to sit down and calm down “Our sherrif had an ‘accident’ which put him out of work and he was quickly replaced by a friend of Mr Kerridge’s! Of course we were all grateful – any friend of his was a friend of the whole towns at the time. Things weren’t too obvious at first, not while Mrs Kerridge was still alive. Then, after her death, everything exploded into nothing less than a war between us and them”

“Trouble is,” Megan said quietly as though having taken her mothers’ reproof to heart “by the time everything became obvious, the town was already full of his men. That sherriff turns a blind eye to everything, unless it is one of our people, then they got arrested pretty sharp and Mr Kerridges lawyer friend fixes a trial and – “ she stopped, deciding to be silent and leave it to his imagination

“Why don’t you contact the circuit Judge?”

“Don’t you think we haven’t tried?” Megan said quietly. She looked at him with large brown eyes “My brother, Harriets husband, rode into town and sent off a telegraph to the Circuit Judge and to the US Marshall in Yuma. When we found his body the messages he had written out to be sent were pinned to his shirt.”

“I’m sorry –“ Joe said quietly, casting a quick glance at the widowed girl who sat so quietly by his side.

“One by one our neighbours leave. They leave because their lives are in danger and no man wants to see his children harmed, his home burned to the ground and no woman wants to bring up a child fatherless.” Mary reached out and touched her daughter in laws hand gently.

“Everything is under Kerridge’s control. We can’t telegraph out for help without him knowing and the rest of us getting reprisals. We can’t even go into town now without risking our lives. To-days attack was a clear warning that he wants our place now. It means that anything can happen to any of us at any time.” Megan took a deep breath “Harry hasn’t long before the baby comes, but to go for the doctor for help could be signing our death warrants.”

“Gabriel and Frances Kent.” Joe said quietly as he broke some of the bread between his fingers “What do you know about them?”

“Gabriel and Frances knew the Kerridges from the time he was in Virginia City. They seemed to be good friends while Mrs Kerridge was alive. When Gabriel bought that bull from the Ponderosa some while back, Kerridge exploded with fury. So far as he was concerned, Ben Cartwright should have sent that bull to him. That Gabriel got it was a gross insult, and sealed the Kent’s fate. They were harassed out of existence…then Gabriel was killed and no matter how they dressed it up to look like suicide, everyone in town knows it was nothing of the kind. Then the next thing we know Frances and the boy disappeared.” Mary looked at Joe thoughtfully “You’ve not seen them back in Virginia City have you?”

“No, ma’am, we had no idea all this was going on. We hadn’t heard from the Kent’s or Kerridges for years and my Pa asked me to call in on Gabe and Frances to see how they were getting along with the bull”

“Well, the bulls getting along fine at the Double K.” Megan said sarcastically

“I saw him there.“ Joe pushed away his empty plate “Thanks, ma’am, that was a great meal.”

“I suppose you’ll be riding back home then.” Megan stood up, taking the empty plates from the table and piling them onto her arm before carrying them to the sink.

“No, ma’am.” Joe poured out some more coffee “If it’s all the same to you, Mrs –“

“Call me Mary “

“Mary –“ he smiled at her “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll bed down in the barn and stay awhile.”

Mary smiled. It was a smile that lit up her face, and made the blue in her eyes more intense. She may have been a woman old enough to be his mother, but she was still very attractive to look at and Joe thought that she was one of the most lovely women he had ever met. She reached out and took hold of his hand which he clasped in his own

“Thank you, Joe, I’d be more than grateful if you were to do that.”

Harriet smiled at him, a shy, sweet smile that showed her acquiestance to the idea. She stood up and helped clear the table and was about to take them to the sink when there was a knock on the door which was pushed open to admit a tall dark man, who pulled off his hat immediately he stepped into the house.

“Joel?” Megan exclaimed “What’s happened?”

“We’ve found them” the man replied, so anxious to impart the news that he failed to notice Joe at the table.

“What do you mean? You found whom?” Mary cried, her hands rising instinctively to her throat as though in preparation for bad news.

“Frances and the boy” Joel said quietly, and then he saw Joe and frowned and looked at the three women as though he couldn’t believe his eyes “What’s he doing here? Don’t you know he’s in thick with the Kerridges. I saw him dancing with the young lady the other night at the dance….and no doubt about it they were all on very good terms…”

“That’s enough, Joel.” Mary said quietly, authoritively “Joseph Cartwright – this is my nephew, Joel McIntyre” she turned to Joel who was still staring hostilely at Joe “Mr Cartwright came to our rescue today, Joel. Had it not been for him, we would be dead now”

A shade of despair fell over the young mans face and his shoulders sagged and he shook his head

“All ready?” he murmered “He isn’t letting much time pass between one and the other is he?”

“Not any more.” Mary replied “But then, there are fewer of us to drive away from our homes, isn’t there?”

“Joel – Frances and the boy? Where are they? Are they safe?” Megan asked, impatient to dismiss what she considered to be small talk “Are they alive?”

Joel turned his eyes to her, and their eyes met in a long look of despondency and he shook his head

“Jacob Tierney was out fishing. His dog ran off into the orchard that belonged to the Kents. Started diggin’ up a patch of newly dug over soil and pulled out her shawl….Jake came to me and we went diggin’ and found their bodies.”

A silence so profound settled upon them all. Joe felt his heart hammering beneath his ribs. It was such a cruel and unkind end for happy, laughing, merry Frances Kent and her little boy.

“Were they shot?” Mary struggled to get the words out of her mouth

Joel nodded.

“Where are they now?” Megan asked in a whisper

“In back of my wagon” Joel replied “Jake and me – we’re taking ‘em to town. They’re gonna have a decent funeral and gonna be buried beside Gabe, like they should be all along.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Joe asked, taking his gunbelt from the rack.

Joel glanced from him to Mary, and then back again. He shook his head

“I’d feel better if you stayed put here with Aunt Mary and the girls. If anything happens to them, I’ll hold you accountable.”

Joe nodded and stretched out his hand, which Joel accepted and shook with a firm grip. Then he slipped back his hat and disappeared from the house. They heard the wagon as it left the yard.

June 11th – 8 p.m.

The light tapping on the door followed the sound of horses in the yard. With his gun in one hand Joe stood back against the wall close to the door, and waited for the arrivals to enter the room.

“Mary?” a woman’s voice and one that Joe recognised. Mrs FitzGibbon stepped into the house. Once inside, she let her shawl slip from her head. Behind her came Joel and another man, whom Joe presumed to be Jacob Tierney.

Mary and Mrs Fitzgibbon embraced and looked soberly at one another.

“We left Frances and the boy with the undertaker. Harrison tried to stop us, of course. Joel reported what had happened, and wanted Harrison to charge Kerridge with murder. Of course, he refused to do so. He said that there were no witnesses and who could prove it was murder anyway. So we called in young Doctor Latimer.” She took a deep breath and then recognised Joe and nodded over to him “Doctor Latimer said it was murder, no doubt about it. Harrison said it was suicide due to stress over the loss of Gabe, but Latimer insisted that no woman could shoot herself and her son in the way that they had been shot, and then bury themselves. Young Latimer actually lost his temper and called Harrison a confounded fool!”

“Good for him!” Megan said with a slight blush to her cheeks which Joe did not fail to notice.

“Didn’t do him any good, Harrison then threatened to put him in jail for misrepresenting evidence and trying to incite trouble in ‘his peaceful and respectable town.’” She stepped closer “Mary, they are going to be buried beside Gabe tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock. The whole town, everyone, is going to be there.”

“You can count on us” Mary said quietly and she looked at Joe “This isn’t your fight, Joe, but….”

“It is my fight, Mary. Gabriel and Frances were our friends too” Joe replied with a resoluteness that brought a smile to her lips and a nod of appreciation from Mrs Fitzgibbon.

“Don’t forget – 9 o’clock” Joel whispered at they stepped back into the evening dusk.

Megan closed the door behind them and dropped the latch. She looked over at Joe and sighed sadly

“Do you think Miss Georgina knows anything about all this, Joe?”

Joe shook his head in denial, and then realised that for the past day he had hardly thought of the lovely Georgina. He frowned and looked at Megan and her mother

“Georgina’s like her mother, as gentle as a lady could be, she wouldn’t know what was going on.”

“Even though her father and brother get richer and the ranch gets bigger?” Megan protested.

“And others leave their ranches, leave the town?” Harriet said, standing wide eyed by the door of the small room in which she had been resting.

“She’s a trusting girl, and she loves her father and brother. She would believe what they told her.” Mary said quickly, looking at Joe with a quiet look on her face.

Joe said nothing but nodded in agreement. However, the shadow of Georgina Kerridge hung between them like a sword, and he stepped back and put his hand on the latch to the door and raised it

“I’ll sleep in the barn” he said quietly.

Mary stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on his arm, and smiled up at his face

“Good night, Joe. Thank you for staying here with us.”

He nodded, smiled and after a quick glance at the two other women, quickly left the house and pulled the door closed behind him.

June 12th – 8:45 a.m

The bells tolled. Slow, mournful. They rang out a doleful peal that summoned them to the graveside.

Wagons and buggies toiled their way through the main street of town. There were men on horseback. Joe saw whole families walking together. Some of the women and children were bearing posies of flowers. From all directions they streamed towards the little grave-yard where the coffins were being carried on the undertakers carriage.

From under the brim of his hat Joe cast a furtive glance at the Sherriff’s office and noted how the door was opened and the sherriff and his deputies stepped out onto the sidewalk, looked at the people assembled and still walking to the church before going back inside. He wondered briefly if there would be any trouble and placed a cautious hand on his gun butt.

It had been a hard night. He had spent most of it thinking back to the past when the Kerridges had been in Virginia City. Howard had always been a diffident lad. Sulky and morose but affable for all that and Joe had been on good terms with him for some time. It had been Adam who had taken him to one side after school one day and told him quite bluntly that Howard was not the kind of boy Pa and he would want Joe to associate with at all. Of course, being Joe he had demanded to know why and when the answer was not forthcoming, or what he had wanted, he had determined to do what he wanted anyway. The result had not been particularly noteworthy as Howard never appeared at school again and whenever they met again had chosen to be off hand and cool. It was noteworthy to see that he had not changed very much over the years.

Georgina though? …Oh, Georgina. He had tossed and turned a bit at the thoughts of her as they drifted through his mind. It had always been “Joe, can you help me work out this math?” or “Joe, I don’t understand what Miss Jones meant when she said.” Or “Joe, do you like my new dress?” and how pretty she was as she swirled around in the playground with her lacy petticoats drifting through the dust. Georgina had been the girl he had sought out to talk to, or had walked from town to the schoolhouse with her books and lunch pail in his hands. Georgina had been the girl that the others had teased him about because he had been so besotted with her and had suffered the torments of any pubescent boy when she would be picked on by Miss Jones to give an answer and would stand and stutter and stammer and blush and look so appealingly forlorn that even Miss Jones would relent. Not for Georgina the ruler over the palm of her hand or the dunces hat while she stood in the corner. She would be excused and allowed to sit down with her dignity intact.

Could she know about her father and brothers schemes? Would she, in fact, be agreeable to what had happened? Was it even remotely possible that she could approve of or stand by and allow the things that had been going on in this town? No, a thousand times he told himself no…not Georgina.

In which case, Joe reasoned as he lay upon his truckle bed in the O’Connor’s barn, she could be an ally. It would be well worth their while to get someone in the Kerridge household to act on their behalf. But would she understand what they would mean?

Mary had cast him an oblique look when he had entered the house and sat down for breakfast. She had poured out the coffee and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder

“Didn’t you sleep well?”

“No, ma’am.”

“What’s bothering you?” Megan had demanded. Her face was sullen and the pretty mouth was down turned at the corners making her look belligerent and provocative and he realised that not once during the hours he had spent with them had Megan afforded him the least chance of seeing her at her most pleasant.

But then, why should she? There had been nothing but bad news from the moment they had met and he cast her another look and realised that her eyes were red rimmed and puffy, an indication that she also had slept badly that night and no doubt, shed many a tear.

“The Kerridge’s” Joe replied simply as he reached for bread “William Kerridge was someone that I called uncle once. He and his wife used to come round regularly with Georgina and Howard. We were on good terms and I always felt I owed him a debt of gratitude for the kindnesses he showed me when my ma died.”

Harriet came from the other room, one hand rubbing her back and the other slowly buttoning her gown. She lowered her eyes when she had seen Joe and in silence sat down to eat.

How could a man change so much? That was the question that kept going round in Joe’s head. But had he not already changed before leaving Virginia City? Was not that the reason that Ben had withdrawn from their association and Adam had warned him not to have anything to do with Howard. Joe sighed and wished that he had been older and able to understand the things that had obviously been going on but had floated over his head at the time.

Now as he rode beside the O’Connor’s wagon he wondered about Gabriel and Frances. Their hopes and dreams shattered. It was as though everything so good and clean became changed to sordid misery and death. They had been good friends too and Ben had always spoken of Gabriel with great respect. Joe frowned, more so than he had ever spoken of William Kerridge. In fact, Joe realised as he pulled Cochise to a halt, he could not even recall when he had last heard any reference to Kerridge and the letter Ben had given Joe to deliver to William Kerridge had come as a complete surprise to the young man.

They were at the grave side now. The church bell suddenly topped tolling. The silence was suddenly oppressive and intense. The men removed their hats and bowed their heads. The Minister began to intone the funeral discourse and as his flat voice rolled about them, Joe was aware of a slight movement amongst the crowd and glanced up.

Georgina Kerridge stood in front of him. She stood directly opposite and facing him over the coffins. Her face was ashen and her mouth trembled. She held a small bunch of flowers in her hand and her eyes were fixed on his face as though the sight of him was the only thing that made being there at all possible.

No one moved. The Minister began to talk about vengeance “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” and Joe looked at her face and saw two tears fill her eyes and drop onto her pale cheeks. Did she understand the meaning behind the minister’s words? Was she aware of what her father had done to this dead woman and her child and to the husband?

Movement. Frozen images began to move again. Flowers were cast onto the coffins as they were lowered down and petals scattered like confetti. Georgina came and stood by his side and he was aware of the O’Connors moving away from him. As he glanced over his shoulder at them he saw Mary place an arm around Harriett’s waist but from Megan he received a cold angry glare before she turned and accompanied her mother.

“Joe? I didn’t realise you would be here too” she whispered, reaching out with her hand and taking hold of his with the gentlest of touches.

“They were my friends too” he replied gruffly

“And mine” she replied very quietly

He slipped his hat back on and stepped into line with her, so that they walked side by side out of the grave-yard. She looked at him thoughtfully

“I was expecting to see you yesterday”

“I was busy”

“I heard.”

“What? What exactly did you hear, Georgina?” he paused in his stride and stopped, and looked at her and saw her cheeks redden

“Howard told me that you had shot one of our men. He said that you were causing trouble in town and he had spoken to the sherriff about you and that you rode out and shot Tyler” she frowned “Then I saw Tyler today and asked him and he told me that you had shot him.”

“Well, if he was one of the men who were shooting at Mrs O’Connor’s wagon yesterday then he was right. I shot at them and winged one of them….if I had not come upon them when I did, then there would be another funeral we’d all be going to ….Mary, Harriett and the baby….”

“You’re angry with me?” her face was pale now and she glanced at him and then looked away “Joe, I didn’t know anything about that…I was just told that you were causing trouble here in town. When I came in to see if you were here today, I saw the crowd and heard the bell tolling and they told me that they had found Frances’ body.”

“Did they tell you where they had found her and the boy?”

“Yes, in the orchard.” She looked up at him “That’s why nothing had been touched in their cabin, isn’t it? When we were there the other day, we both felt as though they were still there, didn’t we?”

“They were found in a shallow grave beneath the apple trees. Apple blossom had fallen upon them as they were being buried…” Joe’s lips thinned and he shook his head “Georgina, people here in town say that your father and brother are behind all these killings. Do you realise that?” he grabbed at her arm even as she stepped away from him “Georgina, you can’t hide from the facts here. Did you know that your pa and brother had anything to do with all this?”

“No. And they didn’t either….”

“Georgina” his voice held a note of exasperation. Perhaps now, for the first time in his life, he had to realise that Georgina was like a child, a little girl lost, a pretty little soul living in a world quite separate from reality “Georgina, listen to me…” he grabbed at her again as he saw the look on her face, the look of a child who was about to see her sand castle crushed beneath someone’s ugly boot.

“No, I don’t to hear what you said. It isn’t true. I didn’t believe Pa or Howard when they told me about you hurting Tyler, so why should I believe you when you say those things about them?” She pulled away, and turned and began to run and he was about to take pursuit when a hand grabbed his arm and pulled him to a standstill.

“Joseph Cartwright?”

He turned and came face to face with the Sherriff. The man had a gun in his hand and a mean look in his eyes as he forced Joe to turn to face him

“Joseph Cartwright, you’re under arrest”

“Why?” he flinched as one of the deputies pulled his own gun roughly from the holster.

“For causing a disturbance in the saloon the other evening, for assaulting Mr Howard Kerridge and for shooting at an unarmed man and wounding him.”

Joe stood still as though frozen to the spot. The accusations were so untrue, so unfounded that he could barely believe he was hearing them. He saw Mary O’Connor as she walked towards them

“You’d better just let the boy go, Frank.” Mary’s gentle voice did not waver, nor did it rise a decibel higher than usual but the sherriff turned to pay her some attention “If it wasn’t for this lad Harriett and I would be dead by now. That would be three more on your conscience, Frank.”

“Mary, you may mean well, but this isn’t your argument. I don’t know anything about you and Harriett – only what I’ve been told.”

“And we’re telling you that you were told wrong.” Mary replied

There were the ominous click of safety catches being released from rifles, and Joe’s eyes swiveled to take note of just how many men had suddenly appeared to surround the sherriff and the deputy. Someone was taking his gun from the deputy’s hand and slipping it back into Joe’s holster.

“Mary, I’m warning you not to get involved in something that you can’t finish” Frank growled

“Is that a threat?” Megan yelled, pushing her way forward and jostling her mother out of the way “Well, sherriff, where were you when my brother was shot? Where were you when Gabriel needed help? What are you going to do about that –“ she pointed to the church yard “Why aren’t you doing something to find out who was responsible for their deaths? Or was that suicide too?”

“Mary, get your girl out of here before I have to shut her up –“

“Shut me up?” Megan’s voice shrieked “What? Is there a law now that says a citizen can’t speak the truth around here anymore? Oh right! Right! I forgot! This isn’t our town is it? This is Kerridge’s town, and you’re Kerridge’s men and we can’t move or speak or breathe unless Mr Kerridge gives us permission! I’m so sorry….I quite forgot!” she threw her hands up in the air in a gesture of futile resignation “Here, in this town that we so loved, people get shot at, murdered, shoved aside. They get their homes burned down around their ears. They get their cries for help ignored and turned around as accusations. Oh, and then a stranger rides into town and gets arrested for doing what you should be doing, you great bucket of lard….”

“That’s enough from you” Frank yelled and grabbed at her arm, but Joe stepped in, intervening as the thick fingers reached out to grasp at her

“Leave her be” Joe said in a tone of voice that brooked no nonsense “Just leave her be…….”

Their eyes met and the sherriff found that far from being intimidated by him, the young mans eyes never wavered. Instead he was forced to step back and in silence beckon to the men to stay where they were as Joe took Megan by the elbow and led her to the wagon.

“I didn’t need your help” she snapped, pulling away from him angrily

“I’m sure you didn’t, ma’am”

“I only said what needed to be said”

“Yes, ma’am”

“Should have been said a long time before”

“I know, I understand…” he helped her up onto the wagon seat and held up her shawl, which had slipped from her shoulders. She took it in silence, but her eyes met his and melted into tears

“Are you coming back with us?” Mary asked

“I’ll be by later. Joel and I have something that we need to do first.” He stepped back and nodded at them as she took the reins and looked at him, steadily

“Be careful, Joe” she said quietly

“Will do, ma’am” he tipped his hat and stepped back a little further still as the wagon lurched and rolled away from the sidewalk.

June 12th – 10:40 a.m.

“Are you sure that they’ll come?”

Joel frowned and glanced over at the young man who was impatiently striding up and down the floor of Joel’s fathers barn. He nodded and stood up and walked over to a small window

“Sure, some will come and some won’t! That’s the law of averages, ain’t it?” he peered through the smutty window and nodded “Here comes Davies, and Jacob. Open the door quickly, will you?”

Joe did as he was instructed and like two furtive shadows Davies and Jacob slid into the room. The door closed behind them.

“Any others here yet?” Jacob asked as though afraid that his words would come out of his mouth like a clarion call, he coughed and covered his mouth covertly.

“Not yet. We did say 11 a.m. There’s time yet.” Joel replied calmly.

“Some of them are scared sick after what happened this morning “ Davies said quietly, pulling a chair forward and sitting down as though his legs were about to fold from under him. “That act of support you got caught them all by surprise” he grinned and wiped his neck with a handkerchief “Caught me by surprise too, never thought I’d see the day this town would wake up to itself and realise they could stand up to Kerridge’s men”

“Trouble is that now they’ve gone home and started counting the cost. The ‘what-ifs’” Jacob frowned

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joel asked, peering once again through the window and beckoning to Joe to open the door

“Well, they got home and started wondering what if the sherriff recognised me behind that rifle, what if I go to my business and find the store burned down, what if my daughter goes to school tomorrow and never comes back…..” came the cold reply.

“Well, that’s why we’re holding this meeting, isn’t it? To make sure that the town is safe for everyone again. If they can show some guts like they did today, even if for just a little while, then we may well get this town back on its feet again.” Davies explained patiently, and he turned, with the others, as two more men entered the barn and acknowledged them with a nod of the head.

Before Joe could close the door several other men slipped into the barn. Joe watched each and every one of them and wondered just how tough they would be when the going got hard. He had seen their type before, in other towns that had faced the same kind of bullying. The soft handed store men, the genial bank managers, the big mouthed businessman who, at the end of the day, was always at the back of the queue when the guns got handed out. Yes, he’d seen their type before and some of them had become hero’s, and some of them had just been content to shrivel up and crawl back to their lives under the shadow of fear for the rest of their lives.

By the time the hands on Joe’s watch reached eleven there were over 30 people crowded into the barn. Their mumbling and muttering together created quite a pleasant hum of chatter, but it died down when Joel stood up and raised his hands for silence. As he did so the door slid open again and Mary O’Connor and Mrs Fitzgibbon stepped into the barn. Some men stood up and offered them chairs upon which to sit and after that Joel began to speak.

He wasn’t tactful, nor was he flowery. He just got down to the bare facts. What were they going to do about Kerridge and his henchmen? When was the town going to stand up and be counted? Where was their backbone? It was time to stand up and be counted because if a good woman like Frances Kent could be shot so ruthlessly, and her child with her, then what point was their in staying in a town that had already died of – as he put it – yellow fever.

Joe watched their faces. As the lecture went on he saw their faces change from a determination to stand firm, to anger, to shame and then to resentfulness. He sighed and looked at Joel. There was little point in reminding men such as them of what they had not done to safeguard themselves and their families. That kind of talk never rallied anyone it only made the townsmen want to retreat home with their tails between their legs.

He stepped forward and got their attention immediately, after all, he had been the kid that caused the excitement that morning.

“Look. The bottom line is that you hand over this town to Kerridge or you stand up and fight back.” He looked at each one of them “I know how you’re worried about your families and your businesses. But if you don’t do something now, you’ll live with that worry and fear for the rest of your lives. If you’ve some pride in yourselves, in what you came out here for, then you have to do something. You can’t achieve a dream by holding onto it in the palm of your hand. You have to bring it alive by taking action.”

“We don’t want to break the law.” Davies yelled “Seems to me that everything we do, Kerridge always seems able to twist it so’s we’re the ones breaking the law..”

“He’s got the sherriff and his deputies and the law in this town in his pocket” another said “We need to know that we have the law behind us if we’re going to do anything because if we stick out our necks and end up losing everything anyway, what point is there to it?”

“You’re right” Joe nodded and struck his hands in the back pockets of his pants and frowned “Look, I’m going to cable my pa to get the State Governor onto this, and get a US Marshall here as soon as possible. That way we’ll get the laws back up, which is what you want, isn’t it?”

“It’ll take ten days for a US Marshall to reach here” Davies grumbled

“Yeah, and anything could happen in that time” a man called Pottinger yelled from the back.

“Anyhow, we tried to do that before, and look where it got us. Mary’s boy murdered, Gabe murdered.” Davies stood up “You get the marshall here and then we’ll think about what to do with Kerridge.”

They trickled away. By ones or two’s they just slipped through the doorway and made their separate ways home. Mary O’Connor shook her head and looked at the two young men as they stood watching the barn empty

“You did your best.” She consoled them

“It was obviously not good enough” Joe said quietly

“Well, they’re scared, and they have families to think about, Joseph. I’ve lost my son, I know how they must be feeling.”

“How would you get the cable to the State Governor anyway” Mrs Fitzgibbon asked “Jerry never sends through anything that isn’t approved by the sherriff or Kerridge.”

“That’s true” Joel said quietly “But Jerry likes Monica “

“And I can send a telegraph to my pa and get things moving “ Joe smiled “If the town needs a US Marshall here, then that’s what they’ll get.”

June 12th – 1 p.m.

Beneath all the paint and feathers, Monica was a pretty girl. She listened to what they suggested and smiled sweetly and agreed with their plan. As she went to get her shawl Joe took hold of her hand and pointed to the red marks on her wrist

“What happened?”

“Oh, Howard Kerridge happened……you didn’t think you’re telling him to go away the other evening would keep him away for good, do you?” she rubbed her wrist ruefully “Thankfully he was so drunk that I got away with it lightly.” She picked up her shawl and held it tight to her body and sighed “You know, he could be such a pleasant young man. He just wants people to like him.”

“He sure has a funny way of going about persuading them” Joe said, folding the shawl about her shoulders and she shrugged

“People aren’t born to be bullies, Mr Cartwright. They’re taught to be bullies. It’s just a case of changing the way they’re taught, that’s all.”

“Are you saying that you have some kind of feeling for Howard?” Joel asked, his eyes widening in surprise

“Sometimes he’s talked to me about things. Not when he’s drunk either. He can be very kind, you know”

“Yeah, tell me about it” Joel snapped and turned his back on her in annoyance.

“You know what you have to do?” Joe said quietly and she nodded, and smiled at him and then sashayed out of the saloon and across the road to the Telegraph and Mail Depot.

“I always thought she was a nice girl” Joel said peevishly and Joe smiled and raised his eyebrows

“She is, otherwise she wouldn’t be doing this for us, would she?” he replied, holding Joel’s hat out to him as he turned to leave the saloon.

June 12th – 2 p.m

Joel McIntyre stood by the door. He kept to the side so that no one would see him as they passed along the side street. He had a hand on the handle of his revolver, and the other hand ready to pull down the blind of the Telegraph & Mail Offices. He was as taut as a bowstring and kept wiping sweat from his upper lip as he listened to the tapping of the telegraph key as Joe sent out the messages across the wires.

He glanced at the clock. The minute hand ticked away so slowly. His eyes then switched to Joe who was concentrating hard on the messages he was sending out. Joel wiped sweat once again from his brow and glanced anxiously out of the window.

He could see Jerry leaving the saloon. There was a frown on his face and a look of determination in the set of his mouth. Joel yelled over to Joe who paused and glanced up

“Looks like Jerry’s caught on to what’s going on here.” Joel whispered

“Not much longer …I’ll just sign off now”

“Hurry up then. Wait! He’s not sure what to do. He’s standing in the main street trying to make up his mind whether to come here or go to the sherriff. He’s looking up along to the sherriff’s offices and now over here. He’s not sure how many may be in here and he is not armed. He’s going to Harrisons”

“That’s fine, let him. “ Joe signed off with a flourish and pushed away from the desk. “Let’s go.”

It took mere minutes to vacate the office and lock the back door. From there they hurried to where they had left their horses. They were galloping pass the sherriff’s office when Harrison and Jerry came out, paused and watched them ride by.

“YOU!” Harrison yelled, firing off a warning shot that cut over Joe’s head “STOP RIGHT NOW”

Joe looked at Joel. They had made their plans and as he pulled Cochise to a halt, Joel’s horse leapt forward. As Joe turned Cochise to face the sherriff and two of his deputies, as well as a hyperactive Jerry, Joel continued to gallop out of town, and, for some reason, no one stopped him

“Dismount and throw down your gun” Harrison demanded

Joe did as he was told. He lifted his hands skywards and watched as the fat man lumbered towards him

“What are you arresting me for, Sherriff?” he asked quietly

“For just about everything I can think of, young man”

“Anything specific?”

Harrison didn’t answer. He pointed with his rifle to Joe and then to the jail house. The message was clear. Joe began to walk towards the sherriff’s office and jail house. Harrison was breathing heavy. The two deputies flanked him.

He was pushed into the cell and stood facing the window while the door clanged to a shut behind him. He heard the grating of the key in the lock and then turned to face Harrison

“There’s a US Marshall on the way here, Harrison. I thought you ought to know.”

Harrison said nothing but stared at the youth with cold contempt. Joe wondered if the sherriff were incapable of functioning without Howard or William Kerridge to order him to breathe, think or make a decision. After some seconds the mans narrow little eyes flickered

“It’ll take ten days for a US Marshall to get here, boy. Plenty of time for us to cable and tell them it was a fool kids idea of a prank. They’ll not take any notice of you.”

Joe said nothing but stared coolly into the sherriffs face. Perhaps they would send a cable like that to the US Marshall. But then there were the other cables he had sent about which they knew nothing.

June 12th: : 7:00 pm

Rachel Harding looked at her reflection in the mirror. It was not the cursory glance of a young woman preparing for a evening of entertainment, but a severe point by point dissection that went beyond the mere physical features as represented by the mirror.

A year ago she had returned home from finishing school in France. She was intelligent and discerning as well as very attractive and appealing in looks. Life in Europe had appealed to her so much that she had longed for some rich European to fall in love with her and sweep her off her feet and keep her a permanent ‘prisoner’ in some exotic European city.

She pulled a ring from her finger and looked at it carefully. She turned it around and around between her fingers and her brow creased slightly as she thought over the situation as she found it at that moment in time.

Her engagement to Howard Kerridge was only a few weeks old. She had fallen in love with him as soon as she had returned home and as a consequence any hope of returning to Europe flew out of the window. At the time she had been happy about that, content to stay by his side, happy to be his wealthy and alluring wife. They had talked about their future together, and how, as both were ambitious, their combined fortunes could see him as a Senator one day.

She now tossed the ring onto the dressing table and stood up and walked to her bureau. There were, she decided, men like Howard Kerridge, in every sphere of life. Men whose main difficulty in life was to remember the name of the woman they happened to be with at the time. She pulled down her riding clothes and began to dress herself hastily for she knew that she had only a short time to dress and get the horse saddled and ride out of the Harding home.

Let her parents talk all they liked about the Kerridge fortune and the prosperity of the Double K and the yield of the Double K Mining Corporation. Let them spin their dreams and hopes on the Kerridges should they have a wish to do so, but she refused to have anything more to do with it anymore.

Ambitious she was, but to the point of murdering people, of driving them from their homes. That, she felt, was not ambition, but ruthless and cruel injustice. She buttoned up her jacket and turned to face herself in the mirror one last time. Then, taking a deep breath, she slipped the ring into an envelope, sealed it, and left it propped up against the mirror.

The door made no sound as she closed it.

Georgina Kerridge put down her brush and looked at herself in the mirror. She saw a pretty face, with a pert nose and full pink lips. She saw glossy ringlets of chestnut hair that coiled over her creamy white shoulders. She stared at the reflection and wished that she could see further, deep down into her heart.

When Joe had accused her father and brother of being involved in Frances and Jacob’s deaths she had felt angry. She had felt so much anger against him that had she had a gun she would have used it there and then. But when he had walked away and she had found herself in her buggy on the way home she felt waves of nausea sweep over her to such an extent that she had pulled the vehicle to the side of the road and thrown up in a shrub! Then she had curled herself up into a ball and wept.

Why? Why had she felt so much anger, and then so great a sickness, a repugnancy at what Joe had said. She had sat there for some while, cradling her self, her arms wrapped about her legs, her head rested upon her knees. She thought of what it must have looked like, finding Frances and Jacob. Joe had said there was apple blossom in the grave. She could imagine it in a fairy tale kind of way. The picture was rather like the Babes in the Wood, except that no one had come to their rescue and their sleep had been an unending one.

She had sat in her room for hours. Voices below stairs seemed far off and detached from reality. She could only hear Joe’s voice telling her how he would never ever hurt her and then telling her about Frances and Jacob. And it had hurt. Joe had hurt her.

Standing up and away from the dressing table she went to the bureau and pulled out her riding clothes. She had to find Joe and talk to him. Her father and brother were innocent of any crimes. She would know, after all, she lived with them.

Creeping down the stairs she paused as a door opened and closed. It didn’t close tightly enough and she could hear voices. She tip toed nearer and listened to her father and brother and Frank Harrison

“Never mind that –“ Bill Kerridge’s voice boomed “it was a stupid thing to do. The whole idea of having Joseph Cartwright in jail is trouble”

“Joseph Cartwright being here in the first place meant trouble, pa.” Whiskey was splashed into a glass and Georgina could just see her brother raise the glass to his lips and gulp it down.

“Well, what do you suggest I do with him then? He’s sent for a US Marshall. How do I get around that little problem for a start” Harrison’s boots squeaked as he paced the floor and his shadow drifted over her and passed on.

“That’ll be easy enough to deal with, just send another cable and tell ‘em the problems been sorted out. Which it will be” Kerridge was walking towards the door and Georgina stepped back, pressing against the big book case so as not to be seen.

“So?” Harrisons voice was edgy “What do I do with him?”

“Tell him he’s free. Let him go.”

“What? No explanation or anything?”

“What explanation would you like to give him, Frank?”

The silence was a drain on her nerves. She glanced over to the door and wished she could have just reached it before they had started talking. She stepped forward and then paused as she heard her name mentioned

“Georgina seems overly fond of him” her father was saying “We could use that to our benefit. Now, I don’t want trouble from Ben Cartwright. The last thing I want is for him and his other boys to come rampaging down here trying to get that kid out of trouble. At the same time we can’t have him loose around town getting folk all stirred up about nothing.”

“I’d hardly call Frances’ death nothing…” Howard drawled

“He has to be dealt with one way or another” Harrison snapped “He’s getting the whole town wound up and jittery. Davies told me that they had a meeting over at Joel McIntyre’s place this afternoon. Trying to draw up plans on getting rid of the whole kit and caboodle of you”

“ – and you” Howard growled in an undertone.

“I’ll get Georgina to write to him and arrange a meeting place somewhere. He won’t be able to resist that –“ William Kerridge frowned “It’s a shame he had to come along, I always liked the boy when I knew him before but he’s getting too dangerous.”

“Then what?” Howard demanded

“Then poor Little Joe will have to meet with a nasty accident….one that won’t send the Cartwrights and the whole mess of the Ponderosa down on our necks”

Georgina took a deep breath. The door was just feet away. Within minutes she was out of the house and saddling her horse.

June 12th : 9:OO p.m.

The rapping on the door was insistent. With a resigned sigh Mary O’Connor hurried across the room and pulled it open. The dark shadow in the doorway slipped like a wreath into the room and pulled off her hat and looked around her.

“Georgina? What are you doing here?” Megan asked instantly, getting to her feet and the book she had been reading tumbling to the ground

“I had to come. I thought perhaps – just possibly – he would come here first”

“Who? What are you talking about, girl?” Mary demanded, taking hold of her hand and pulling her gently further into the room “Why, you’re shivering. Here, come nearer to the fire” she led the girl towards a large chair and helped her to sink into it “What’s happened? Is it your father?”

“Is he dead?” Megan asked ghoulishly

“No..No.” she whispered and then sinking her face into her hands she began to cry “Is it true? Those things people are saying in town about my father and Howard? Are they true?”

The three women looked at one another anxiously and then Harriett put out a hand and touched hers and held the cold fingers between her own

“Georgina. Didn’t you know?” she asked gently

“I didn’t know anything at all. I don’t even now understand or know what has happened. All I know is that my father and Howard and Harrison are planning to kill Joe. I had to come here and warn him. Do you think I should have gone to town?”

“Town? Why the town?” Mary asked kindly as she pushed a mug of hot sweet tea into the girls’ hands.

“Joe’s in jail there. He’s sent for the US Marshall.”

“So that’s what Joel and he were up to.” Mary said quietly “I wondered what they had planned between them”

“What do you mean about plans to kill Joe? Do you know anything about it?” Megan asked in her abrupt fashion and the girl shook her head

“Only that they were going to release him. That …” she paused as the sound of a horse entering the yard came to their ears

“Where’s your horse?” Megan whispered

“In the stable” she replied “I put it there, in case someone thought to try and find me here…”

“Good!” Megan smiled a rare smile of commendation.

They listened as footsteps approached the door and a gentle knock came, a knock so light that it was barely discernible. Mary opened the door a mere crack and looked out onto the porch to see a youth standing there, looking rather thoughtfully about him

“Who are you?” she demanded rather brusquely

“I’m Josh. Josh Chapman. My ma works at the Double K and told me to bring this here note.” he produced a small white square of paper from his pocket “Miss Georgina wanted it delivered”

“Thank you” Mary reached out and took the letter and then looked again at the boy “What made you think of bringing it here?”

“My ma said that you were friends of Cartwright and he would probably be here” he glanced about him once again with a scowl on his face “You ain’t seen nuthin’ of Miss Georgina, have you?”

“Should we have done?”

“Jest thet I thought I see’d her horse jest ahead of me once or twice as I was riding along.”

“Well, as you can see, the only horse in the yard is your own. Now then, be off with you….”

Josh Chapman frowned sullenly. Under her scrutiny he walked to his horse, remounted and then rode out of the yard. For some time she stood by the door as though expecting him to return and then, finally, satisfied, she closed the door and went back inside.

“Seems you’ve been busy writing letters” she smiled and held the little envelope aloft.

“I’ve not written anything” she frowned and then sat back against the cushions “What shall I do now? They’ll know that I left the house – “

“They won’t know where you went though” Harriett said quietly “And it’s a lovely evening. The perfect evening for a ride –“

She said nothing but cradled the cup between her hands and thought of her father and brother. She had never lied to them. She had never lied to anyone. She stood up and set the cup down and looked at them thoughtfully

“Yes, you’re right. It is a lovely evening for a ride. I think that’s what I shall do now if you don’t mind”

“Don’t go too far” Mary said gently

She only smiled. Hesitatingly she reached out for the letter and carefully opened the envelope and read the letters contents. With a sigh she passed it to Mary who, after reading it looked at the young girl and asked her what she thought she should do with it. Georgina frowned

“Perhaps, I should let him receive it. Harrison will be expecting a letter to be delivered to him, won’t he?”

“Then why did Chapman bring it here?” Megan asked, instantly suspicious once again.

“Because Harrison is supposed to release Joe, and once he is released, he’d come here, wouldn’t he?” Mary replied impatiently

“You’re right. Do you think I should just write and tell him he would be safer where he is?”

They looked at one another and Megan shook her head

“With Harrison? I don’t think so….”

After a pause of a second or two, Mary pulled out a scrap of paper and after rummaging about for a pen and bottle of ink, placed them on the table and looked at Georgina thoughtfully

“Write down what you think would be best” she suggested.

Gratefully Georgina took the pen, dipped it into the ink and began to write, the letter was then placed back into the envelope and she sealed it. She placed it carefully down on the table and with a brief smile at them, she slipped out of the door into the yard and over to the stable.

“Do you think she can be trusted?” Megan asked her mother as they watched her go.

Mary looked at the envelope in her hand and nodded

“Yes, poor girl, she wouldn’t know how to deceive a soul.” She took her daughter by the hand and closed the door “She said that Joe was in the jail house so perhaps we should deliver this, by hand.”

“But if they’re going to release him –“ Harriett suggested

“That’s what Georgina told us, but we’re not supposed to know, are we?” Mary replied

“In that case, I’ll ride into town and deliver it to Joe in person.” Megan said quietly “It’s the least I can do for the way I’ve behaved lately”

June 12th : 10:15 p.m.

The lights from the windows cast long shadows upon the sidewalk and main street. Megan dismounted and tethered her horse to the hitching rail and looked about her. Everything was very quiet. Lights shone in various windows like willo’the wisps throughout the town. Her steps echoed hollowly upon the planks of the sidewalk and she had to take a deep breath before knocking on the door and pushing it open

Frank Harrison glanced up and frowned. He had reached out a casual hand to the gun resting on the desk top, but when he saw Megan he withdrew it.

“What can I do for you, Miss O’Connor?” he pushed back his chair, half closed his eyes and raked her up and down in a manner that would have made Georgina collapse on the floor had she been there but Megan was made of sterner stuff and merely glared at him in such a cold manner that any semblance of warmth seeped away from the fat mans eyes.

“I’ve a message here for Joe Cartwright. He is here I understand?”

“He is…” Harrison frowned “Who’s it from?”

“Miss Georgina. Joshua Chapman delivered it earlier this evening.”

“Now is that so?” Harrison narrowed his eyes “And you, being the kind hearted little lady that you are, thought fit to deliver it, huh?”

“Wasn’t going to git itself read sitting on our table at home, was it?”

“You know, Miss Megan, you’d be a darn sight nicer if ‘n you could drop that sassy way of talking. Jest leave it here and I’ll deliver it to my prisoner”

“I’d prefer to give it to him myself”

He stood up and shook his head sadly, “You know, it pains me bad the way you act as though you ain’t trusting me “ he led her through the door into the area where the cells were “He’s third on the left”
Megan walked to the door and looked through the bars at Joe who lay on the truckle bed, with his hands folded beneath his head.

“Joe?”

Had he been asleep? He blinked and looked up and then sat up and surveyed her thoughtfully. Then he smiled and stood up and approached her

“Miss Megan? It sure is nice to see a friendly face around here”

“Listen, Joe…” she paused and looked over her shoulder at the entranceway where Frank Harrison lounged, his arms folded across his chest and his eyes fixed on them. She turned slightly in an effort to obscure his scrutiny only to get a shouted direction from him to step away from the prisoner. She sighed and held up an envelope “This arrived for you this evening. We thought it was important….”

He took it and looked at the writing on the envelope. It was quite unfamiliar and he looked at her with a query in his eyes but her brief smile of reassurance was sufficient to make him relax and smile back his thanks.

“You came all this way just to deliver a letter?” he said quietly

“Well, to see how you were and to see Dr Latimer.” She blushed slightly at the mention of his name “Harriett hasn’t long to go now, and I wanted to make sure we had everything we needed. Dr Latimer will know …”

“Of course he will….” Joe slipped his hand through the bar and took hold of hers and smiled again “Thanks for the note.”

“Be careful, Joe”

He watched her leave and then retreated to a corner of the cell where he opened the letter and read it’s contents. With a grimace of wry amusement on his lips he then tore it to pieces and tossed it into the bucket that served as a latrine.

Alan Latimer had lived in Jackson Creek with his mother for less than two years. He was a pleasant young man who had always hoped to serve humanity as a good and caring doctor. His father had worked hard in that same capacity in a small settlement that had steadily grown to city proportions during Alan’s life time. His widowed mother had moved to Jackson Creek a year earlier upon her husband’s death.

The gentle tapping on the door sent Mrs Latimer hurrying to open it with an oil lamp held high in her hand. Megan could see the welcoming globe of light moving towards her as she waited on the front porch of one of the most impressive homes in the town. She smiled as the door opened, and if the smile faltered just a little when confronted with the elderly widow rather than the handsome young doctor, Mrs Latimer was far too polite to comment.

“Why, Megan, is anything wrong? Is Harriett alright?”

“Yes, ma’am. I just needed to see the doctor for just a moment….if he isn’t too busy.” Megan replied, suddenly aware of the lateness of the hour and the murmer of voices that drifted towards her from the Latimers front parlour.

“Come along in, my dear. Goodness me, it seems to be the evening for visitors today…” Mrs Latimer said with a gay note in her voice. Megan recognised it as the voice of a woman longing to get to her bed…………

“I really shan’t keep him long, Mrs Latimer” she promised as she followed the elderly woman down the hallway to the door leading to the front parlour and Doctor Latimer and his guest.

Rachel Harding dabbed at her eyes and turned to face Megan O’Connor with the same expression on her face as that of the young woman who confronted her. Both of them barely acknowledged one another. Mrs Latimer, after a polite cough, disappeared, taking the oil lamp with her.

“Megan” Alan Latimer sprung to his feet and with a smile greeted her warmly “Come along in. Is everything alright at home?”

“Yes, thank you” she replied woodenly whilst her mind registered the fact that they had not been seated together on the long settee, although his chair was drawn quite close to Rachels. “Alan, Dr Latimer, I mean, I need to talk to you about something…..private.”

“Really?” Latimer’s mouth parted into a smile “It seems to be the evening for confidences. Rachel has just been telling me something that is – was – private, but which is really vitally important for people to know…” he paused as Rachel gave a slight sound of protest “I’m sorry, Rachel, but people do need to know”

June 12th – 10:30 p.m

Frank Harrison walked over to the cell and surveyed his prisoner thoughtfully. With an almost insolent casualness Joe lay full stretch on the truckle bed with his arms folded beneath his head and his hat covering his face. If he were aware of the sherriff’s presence he gave no indication. Instead he continued to lay as still as any innocent man would in the circumstances.

“Hey, you”

“Who? Me?” Joe inched his hat away with his thumb and then peered wide eyed at the fat man “Speaking to me, sherriff?”

Harrison narrowed his eyes. If he had his way he would have got rid of this kid well before now. He took a deep breath and pulled out some keys

“I’m releasing you”

“Releasing me? Why?”

“Because no one’s gonna press charges. You’re free to go –“ he turned the lock and opened the door “I said – you’re free to go”

“I heard you” Joe replied nonchalantly, and resumed his prone position on the bed, pushing his hat once again over his face

“Look, runt, I said you’re free to go. Move your butt off that bed and move yourself out of here!”

Joe remained where he was although his nerves tautened for a man of Harrison’s disposition was always unpredictable. Joe tried to remember whether the man was armed or not. Harrison came and slapped Joe’s feet from off the bed and stood with arms folded as Joe was forced to sit up and catch hold of his hat before it fell onto the floor.

“I said – out!” Harrison jerked his thumb to the outer offices

“I didn’t realise it was so hot in here, sherriff” Joe said quietly, putting his hat safely on the side of the bed and surveying the sherriff with a thoughtful expression on his face

“It isn’t” the sherriff replied with a narrowing of the eyes

“Well, you sure are sweating a lot ….” Joe replied slowly “If you don’t mind, I’ll stay just where I am for now, thanks.”

“Are you crazy? If you’re innocent of the charges…”

“You said there were no charges?”

“Then why are you so intent on staying where you are?”

“Because, sherriff, in this town odd things happen to people. Now, I’ve just had a reliable witness here who can testify to seeing me alive and well in this cell not five minutes since. I don’t want to end up dead someplace for resisting freedom to leave……..” he frowned “Fact is, I think I’ll stay put until the US Marshall gets here.”

“Then you’ll have a long wait. He won’t be coming!” Harrison growled and slammed the cell door behind him. He made a deal of noise locking up before leaving the cell block.

Alone once more Joe settled down on the bed and tried to think of some solution to the problems that faced the residents of Jackson Creek. All he could think about, however, were the Kents in their shallow grave with the apple blossom scattered over them and of Georgina’s anguished face when he told her that her father and brother were responsible for their deaths. No matter how often he tried to swing his thoughts to practical solutions, or to the fact that the US Marshall would not be coming, the more scattered his thoughts became until, eventually, sleep stole up upon him and lulled him into several hours of nightmares instead.

June 12th – 10:30 p.m.

Miles from the town, but riding at a fast gallop, Howard Kerridge bent low over his horse’s neck. His brain was a seething mass of angst filled questions to which there seemed to be no answers. Yet the answers had really all been there in the letter he had been given by Mayor Harding.

Over an hour ago he had ridden to visit his future wife. It was a late visit and one that would need careful explanation to the Hardings who observed the proprieties in life. But when he was taken to the older mans study and asked to see Rachel he was told quite bluntly that Rachel had left her home.

“For what reason?” Howard queried, “She never gave me any indication that she was leaving home. Do you mean that she has gone to visit someone in town? Should I wait for her to return?”

“From the letter she left for us, I don’t believe she intends to return, not for the foreseeable future anyway.” Harding drew himself up, taller than usual, he stared at Howard coldly “I loved my daughter, Kerridge, she was the light of my life and I really thought that by marrying you she was doing herself, and us, proud. I rather think we were incorrect in thinking that…”

“I don’t understand you, sir!” Howard replied through gritted teeth and hoping that he was not losing colour for he felt as though the blood were draining from his veins.

“She left this letter for you” Harding produced an envelope which he held out to the other man “We found it propped up by her mirror.”

“You must have known she was leaving. You could have told me, warned me.”

“We had no idea. She excused herself after dinner, and went to her room. She changed into her riding outfit and as far as we are aware took nothing with her.”

“Then she must intend coming back”

“No. She does not intend to come back.” Harding turned and rang a small silver bell, “You know the way out, don’t you?” he asked Kerridge as the servant arrived at the door and without further ado he walked out of the room.

Kerridge watched him go. There was no word nor action could have been more explicit. It positively screamed that he was no longer acceptable in that household. White faced he stared at the back of the old man until the door closed behind him. He was now left holding Rachel’s letter in his trembling hand and a servant waiting patiently at the door to show him the way out.

Well, he was in no hurry to leave. He turned, picked up a decanter of whiskey and poured him self a decent glassful. He gulped it down and then tore open the envelope.

The ring fell into the palm of his hand and gleamed there like a teardrop. Momentarily stunned he stared at him until the reason it was there in his hand, and not on her finger, dawned on him. He pulled out the letter and read it through, not just one, but twice. Then he drained the whiskey from the glass and threw the glass at the wall and with an oath hurled himself from the room and the house.

That she could do this to him. To turn her back on him and on everything that he had promised her. She could have possessed an empire that would equal the mighty Ponderosa. All the gold, silver and minerals beneath the earth would have been at her disposal. What could she and her paltry family offer him in return? Nothing! Nothing at all!

The horse fought him for a while. His mood was so evil and dark that the horse shied back and resisted his attempts to get into the saddle. Once master over the horse however, Howard dug spurs into its flanks and urged it forwards.

Like a madman he galloped from the Harding’s premises and ate up the miles towards town. That was where she would be, hiding in some hotel room until the morning stage. Well, he would be ready for her. He would find her and beat the life out of her and make sure that whatever she knew, whatever she thought she knew, would never come to light.

He slowed the horse momentarily as he picked up the sound of an echo to his horses hooves. The steady gallop of another horse had reached his ears and he rode quietly into the shadows of some shrubs to see who this night -time rider could be.

It was not a particularly dark or cloudy night. The rider rode fast and low towards them and the moonlight behind them made rider and horse a mere black silhouette. It was enough for him to know that it was a familiar figure. Slowly he drew out his gun and carefully he got her in his sights

“Rachel” he cried in a voice so terrifying that any normal blooded person would have felt the blood freeze in their veins. Had she really thought to gain the victory over him, he mused. A smile slid thinly over his lips. He saw her falter. The slim figure with the luxuriant mane of hair beneath the jaunty little hat drew up the horse “Rachel – don’t think you’ll get away with what you’ve done to me this night” and he fired off the gun. It kicked in his hand and his smile widened

“Howard?”

Oh but even he, base and cruel though he were, felt the horror of what he had done. The cry of his name came to late for him to prevent or to alter the course of that bullet. He screamed to her to move but the only movement was the jerk of her body from the saddle as the bullet struck her.

And she lay upon the ground with her hair scattered amongst the wild flowers that nodded like pale wraiths in the moonlight about her.

Howard raised her into his arms and held her tightly and saw the light go from her eyes. For a second his heart stopped beating and all feeling froze within him. Only horror and dismay rose to the surface, and then, within seconds, the instinct to survive the tragedy removed even those finer feelings.

He hurried back to his horse and mounted it and turned it’s head towards home.

June 12th – 11:30 p.m

“Who could that be now” Mary O’Connor wondered as she hurried to the door. She glanced at the clock and registered the time and immediately felt anxiety gnaw at her heart at the realisation that Megan had still not returned home.

Josh Chapman practically fell into the room as the door opened and hurriedly she stepped back to avoid him. His hands flailed, and reached out and grabbed at her

“Help me…you’ve got to help me…” he cried gesturing wildly behind him

“Why? What’s the matter with you?” she cried, clinging more tightly to her shawl and wondering all the time where Megan could be with the hour so late.

“I found her on the road. She’s dead. She’s dead”

“Who? Who’s dead?” she cried, grabbing at his arm now, and fear gripping her throat and oh, please God, don’t let it be Megan.

“Who is it, ma?” Harriett asked, making her way into the room

“It’s Josh Chapman. He’s found someone dead on the road” she turned back to him “Who is it, boy?”

“It’s Miss Georgina. Someone’s shot her”

June 13th – 7:30 a.m.

“Joe. Wake up. Joe, wake up”

“Sure, sure, pa…in a minute” Joe grumbled and tossed over onto his side with a sigh.

“Joe. For goodness’ sake, man, wake up”

“Why? Wassup?” Joe blinked and shook his head and rubbed his face to bring some life into it. Then he rubbed his head making his mass of hair stand up endearingly on end. He took a deep breath and yawned “Joel? What’re you doin’ inside my cell? Bin arrested too….”

Joel McIntyre surveyed his new friend thoughtfully and then sat down on the bunk opposite Joe and took off his hat and began to turn it round and round between his fingers. Then he took a deep breath and gulped

“Joe, I got some bad news for you”

“What kind of bad news?” Joe said quietly looking at Joel now with intense hazel eyes.

“Josh Chapman found Georgina on the road to town last night. She had been shot”

“Shot?” Joe echoed and the green in his eyes gleamed through the hazel in such a strange unearthly kind of way that Joel shivered

“Josh Chapman is the son of the Kerridges housekeeper. He was told by his mother to always keep an eye on Georgina, make sure she was safe. Well, seems that after delivering that letter to the O’Connors last night he was convinced that Georgina had been riding in that area and went on the look out for her”

“And found her shot?”

“Yes.”

“But she is alive?” Joe got to his feet and grabbed for his hat “Isn’t she?”

Joel shook his head and looked away at the sight of his friends misery. Joe’s face crumpled and he bit on his bottom lip so as not to give way to emotion in front of a comparative stranger and in these particular circumstances. His brain began to fire off questions that he knew he needed to get answered.

“Did this Chapman fella see who shot her?”

“No, but he heard someone call out, then a shot – his only concern was for Georgina”

“Do you mean that someone was waiting for her? Deliberately waiting to shoot her?”

“No, not her. Josh said he heard someone call out the name Rachel”

Joe looked at Joel uncomprehendingly for some seconds and then took a deep breath and nodded. Rachel Harding. This could only mean that Howard Kerridge …he bowed his head and surveyed the ground before looking back up at the other young man

“Why are you in jail?”

“I’m not.” Joel replied, surprised at the question “I mean, I’m in your cell but it’s not locked and there’s no sherriff to stop you from leaving.”

“No sherriff?”

“Josh went straight to the sherriff to tell him what had happened whilst the O’Connors brought in Georgina to Latimers. Next thing you know, Harrison has bolted.”

“Bolted? But why?”

“Exactly! Why?” Joel shrugged “That’s what we’re all wondering”

“Well, he may have bolted from town, but I can guarantee I know where we’ll find him – at the Double K” Joe strode determinedly out of the cell and into the outer office where he found his gun belt and pistol. He paused and looked around him, as though the disarray in the office should provide him with some clue as to what was going on, but, finding nothing, he turned and followed Joel out of the building.

Mary O’Connor stood up as the two young men entered the doctors surgery. She could see from the wide eyed look on Joe’s pallid face that he was shocked and distressed and with motherly concern approached him and placed a hand on his arm

“If it helps to know, Joseph, she felt no pain. It was very quick”

“To tell you the truth, Mrs O’Connor, it doesn’t help. But thanks for the thought” he turned away and looked at the other people in the room. Doctor Latimer who stood next to Megan. A well built man whom Joe vaguely recollected by could not name. This latter sat beside a young woman who was weeping into a handkerchief. Latimer stepped forwards and looked from Joe to Joel and then shook his head

“You realise that there’s no law in this town now “ he said quietly

“Was there ever?” Megan said coldly

“There was a semblance of law, it kept certain things under control. But without a sherriff that control doesn’t exist anymore – “Latimer paused and looked Joe squarely in the eyes and the younger man frowned and looked at Joel who only shrugged

“What are you getting at, Doc? I only came over to see Georgina. To pay my respects. “ Joe ran his fingers through his shock of dark hair and looked at Mary O’Connor who still had her hand on his arm

“I think what the doctor means is that without the sherriff there is a danger of vigilante law here and mob rule.”

The man sitting on the settee stood up and approached Joe, he put out a hand and introduced himself as Judge Harding, the Mayor of Jackson Creek

“I’ve the authority to swear you in as our sherriff and deputy, until the US Marshall arrives” he said in such a manner that both men realised that the matter had already been discussed and decided upon even before they had left the jailhouse. Joe stared at him and without a word walked pass him and into the room where Georgina lay.

He didn’t really know what to think or what to feel. His mind was numb as he looked down at her and saw her pretty face with her tousled hair upon the pillow. He took hold of her hand and raised it to his cheek and then kissed her fingers.

“You loved her?” Mary asked gently as she stood by the door and surveyed the scene.

“I could have –“ his voice broke and he swallowed the lump in his throat “Funny thing really, she was my very first girl. Everyone loved her but she always said I was the only one for her. I believed her too, you know.”

“Well, that was one thing she and her mother had in common, they never lied.”

He glanced at her and frowned slightly and then looked back at the girl who looked as though she had fallen asleep and would wake up when her Prince Charming kissed her. He gently released her hand and with a sigh turned away.

“Why would anyone shoot Georgina? Do you know?” he asked quietly

“We think so, Joseph. Rachel Harding has something to tell you.”

Joe followed Mary back into the other room and looked at Rachel. There was something uncannily familiar about her and yet nothing that he could actually identify for certain. She looked at him and took a deep breath

“I broke off my engagement to Howard this evening. I thought I would be able to get into town, hide someplace and then catch a stage someplace tomorrow morning without him finding out. The problem was that he arrived at our home and my father gave him the letter I had written to him, with the ring.”

She was talking too fast and Joe wanted her to stop and say it all again more slowly. He stared at her and then at her father who nodded solemnly. It all seemed to be making sense to everyone else so he nodded in return and waited for the girl to resume her quick fire delivery of whatever it was she felt was so important for him to know.

“I told Howard that I had overheard him talking to his father about Frances Kent. I heard them discussing the fact that she was proving a hard nut to crack. Her husband dead but still she was holding on to the homestead and not giving in to their threats. Then Mr Kerridge said it didn’t really matter. He had a lot of respect for Frances. Howard asked him what did he mean by that and Mr Kerridge said that he thought that in time he would like to marry her. Howard was furious. He called his father some terrible names and reminded him that his own mother had not been dead that long and what would Frances think about the man who was proposing to her if she knew he had been the instigator of her husbands murder.”

“Why didn’t you –“ Joe stopped himself in time. Of course she would not have gone to the sherriff! How could she?

“Why didn’t I tell anyone? Was that what you were going to say?” Rachel smiled slowly and shrugged “Who could I tell? My father thought Kerridge was a wonderful man who had brought prosperity to the area. The sherriff was hand in glove with Howard. Everyone was afraid to talk to anyone else. Those who stood up to be counted were soon disposed of and quite honestly, Mr Cartwright, I loved Howard. I thought only that he was in a terrible position, and that – oh, who am I fooling? Even now, I’m trying to tell myself that I was not wrong in keeping quiet about what I overheard.”

“It’s easy for outsiders to be judgmental” Mary said quietly “But in your position you were very much alone and had Howard known sooner that you had heard that then no doubt you would have been disposed of very quickly”

She looked at Mary gratefully. Taking a deep breath she nodded and then looked at her father “I did try to talk to you about them, father, but you just kept talking over me and telling me what a grand match I was making and what a fine man Kerridge was. My only solace for some time was Georgina. She was like my own sister. We even had the dressmaker design similar dresses. See? Our riding habits are the same. Georgina wanted green velvet trimming and I had the dark blue velvet”

Joe blinked and nodded. That was it, the similarity. Everything now made sense to him. Rachel and Georgina were both wearing their riding habits that evening. In the darkness, and expecting Rachel to be on the road to town, Howard had mistaken his sister for his fiancée. Joe wondered briefly when it was that Howard had realised his error.

“When – when they found Frances and her little boy I realised that what I had overheard was very relevant. I had to leave town quickly and get the law here before anyone else was hurt. I felt so alone and so frightened that I didn’t dare tell anyone –“

“But you told Howard in your letter” Joe said quietly

“Yes. I told him what I had overheard that evening. I told him I knew he had killed, or had used someone, to kill Frances. I told him because I wanted him to know that someone knew and – and had the power over him to frighten him for a change.”

“It was a dangerous thing to have done”

“I knew Howard differently from many others. I knew his gentle side, his tender nature and generousity. I knew that he was intimidated by his father. I thought that if I used what I knew perhaps he would turn against his father and – and things would be done right for once. He had the chance to wipe the slate clean, Mr Cartwright. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want him to go and shoot Georgina”

“Didn’t it ever occur to you that he might want to shoot you?” Latimer said gently

“I believed him when he said that he loved me. I was wrong. He had every intention of killing me and that’s what the boy heard, he heard Howard call my name before he fired the gun”

Joe sighed and looked up briefly to the ceiling as though he could divine some assistance from up there. Then he looked at the Judge who was now holding his weeping daughter in his arms.

“There’s every possibility of people in this town taking the chance now of getting their own back on Kerridge and once they take such a notion into their heads there will be murder done.” Harding said quietly “I’ve seen such things happen before and it isn’t pretty”

“So?” Joe looked at their set faces and then looked at Joel who lowered his head and stared fixedly at his feet.

“There’s a lot of hate here, Joe” Mary said in her calming voice and she took a deep breath “You don’t know Howard the way the people here do, and you may still be able to see William Kerridge as a grieving father and so – well – you may be able to deal with the matter more coolly than anyone else. If you took on the responsibility, Joe, as the sherriff here, you could be the one calm voice of reason that people will need to keep them from doing anything foolish”

For a few seconds Joe said nothing although there were countless thoughts racing through his head. Paramount over them all was the memory of his brother coming to his room one evening, his brown eyes very serious as he looked at Joe and asked him if he could talk to him about something important.

Adam had sat on the bed by his side and for a moment or two waffled on about friends and how important they were in one’s life. He had asked Joe who it was he considered to be his friends and Joe had replied Hoss and himself, which had made him smile.

“What about Howard Kerridge? Isn’t he your friend too?”

“Sure he is – “ Joe had grinned and his eyes lit up brightly “Howards great fun to be around, Adam. He asked me to go with him and Barnaby next Saturday evening. I jest gotta clear it with Pa”

“Listen, Joe, about Howard –“

Joe swallowed the lump in his throat and blinked and the memory slipped back into the past. He frowned and looked at Mary, at Joel and Rachel and the others there in the room.

“I’ve know Howard for a while too, Mrs O’Connor. I know what he can do, what he’s capable of doing and – and everything else you could wish to know about him. My brother once described him as a charming devil. It was not a compliment. It was a matter of fact” he picked up his hat and looked at the Mayor “Sure, if it helps any, Judge Harding, you can swear me in. I can’t speak for Joel here though”

“You can count on me, sir” Joel said quietly

Harding took a deep breath and released it. The relief on his face was obvious. Joe glanced once more over his shoulder at the little room where Georgina lay and remembered how Hoss had once said that she had all the good in the family, whilst Howard had nothing but the bad. With a sigh he slipped his hat onto his head and followed the Mayor from the doctors’ house.

June 13th – 11 a.m

The sound of a single gun shot rippled around the sumptuous study.

In her room Mrs Chapman paused, and looked over her shoulder. Trembling she continued with her packing. She had little by way of possessions but what she had was precious to her. Her small valise was soon bulging but even as she snapped the fastener shut, she found herself unable to move as angry voices could now be heard. She hugged the valise to her chest and froze.

She would never forget the look on William Kerridges face when Harrison brought them the news of Georgina’s death. All the pride and pomposity just abandoned him. He was a mere shell of the man he had been minutes earlier. Then his face went gray and he made a strange gargling noise in his throat and his left hand flailed towards the decanters on the desk as he sank into the big leather chair that had once symbolised all his power over them.

Howard had gone white. He had stared blankly at Frank Harrison for some seconds before rushing to the brandy and pouring a good amount out for his father. It was then he realised that Mrs Chapman was still standing at the doorway and with an uncouth oath told her to clear out. She had closed the door and ran to her room and began to collect her belongings.

She had loved Georgina as a daughter for many years and had promised Mrs Kerridge that she would always take care of her. Now she felt not only grief stricken, but guilt ridden, and as she clung to her valise in her little room the tears streamed down her face.

“You fool” William Kerridge exclaimed half rising from the chair and staring in dismay at the body of the man now saturating their aubussion rug with his blood “Why did you do that?” he groaned, and slumped back into the chair. The brandy slopped over his fingers and he gulped down the remainder in the glass hurriedly “Don’t you realise that you’ve just put us in the worse possible position? You can’t go killing –“

“Shut up about killing” Howard yelled “Shut up!”

“All right, Howard.” Williams’ eyes narrowed and he scanned his sons’ face for some clue as to a reason for Harrisons’ death “Harrison was saying that he knew who the killer was. Who killed Georgina!” He licked his lips and glanced away from Howard and stared for a few seconds at a silver framed picture of his daughter “Now, I for one would want to know who killed my daughter. I would have thought that you would have wanted to do the same for your sister?”

Howard wiped sweat from his face and reached out a trembling hand for the decanter of whiskey but William pulled it from his fingers and placed it well away from him

“Do you know who killed her?” the old man whispered in a voice that trembled slightly.

“What if I did?”

“Then I want to know who it was –“

“And knowing, what then?”

Kerridge clenched his fists and glanced once more at the portrait of his daughter before allowing himself to look once again at his son

“Then I would see him hang”

“Oh, you mean you would see justice done?”

“For Georgina, yes!”

“It’s a pity then that I just shot the sherriff” Howard passed his sleeve over his face wiping away sweat that was now mingled with tears “And what about the others?”

“What others?”

“The others that have been killed over the years? Do they deserve to get justice too?” Howard thrust his face closer to his fathers, so that both men were nearly nose to nose “Do they, father? “

“You’re being ridiculous” Kerridge whispered hoarsely “I don’t know anything about any other killings”

“You lying old man –“ the words were spat out with a hatred that burned Kerridge to a rage and he slapped his son such a blow across the mouth that the bottom lip was split against the teeth. Howard put fingertips to the wound and drew them away and stared in horror at the sight of his own blood.

“Now then” William Kerridge hissed “YOU tell me how Georgina died. Do you think I care about the others? Of course I care. But to get this place built there had to be sacrifices and if people did not pay heed to the warnings, then they paid the consequences, and more fool them. Now, about Georgina”

Howard pulled out a handkerchief and held it to the bleeding mouth and glared with contempt at his father. Then he lowered his head, quailing beneath the baleful darkness of his father’s eyes and suddenly aware of the quagmire into which he was now placed.

“It was an accident” he began and glanced up at his father who narrowed his eyes “I thought she was Rachel”

“YOU thought SHE was Rachel? And what harm had Rachel ever done you? “ Kerridges’ brow furrowed in confusion and he sat down more heavily into the leather chair “What connection has Rachel got with Georgina?”

“Rachel overheard a conversation I had about Frances Kent. She realised, when the bodies were found, that I was implicated. She broke off our engagement and said she was leaving town.” He leaned forward, upon the desk, glaring into his fathers face “She was going to leave town” he repeated

“Go on” Kerridge frowned more deeply and Howard could see the colour beginning to mantle his fathers’ neck around the collar

“That meant that once she was out of town she would contact the law. Well, that was the last thing WE wanted, wasn’t it, father? I left the Harding’s place and was riding into town when I thought I saw her – Rachel. I called out a warning to her, and she turned and I fired” his voice faded into a tremor and he placed a hand over his face as though to blot out the memory of that fateful encounter. “I saw her fall to the ground. I didn’t know she was dead until I reached her side. Then I saw it was Georgina.”

“You shot your own sister?” Kerridge whispered “What kind of man are you, Howard? To kill your own sister?”

“What kind of man am I? I don’t know anymore, father. I guess I’m the kind of man you made of me. The man who did what he was told. The son who killed the people his father wanted to ‘get rid of’ so that he could fulfill his ambitions and build his Ponderosa. I’m the son you never wanted. Oh, don’t look like that, father, do you think I never realised that the son you wanted was Joseph Cartwright? The marriage of Georgie to him wasn’t so that she would have a rich husband, but so that you could have the son you want. Isn’t that right?”

“What are you saying?” William said quietly “That I’d prefer another man’s son over my own?”

“You can’t deny it. I knew it from the first moment we ever met the Cartwrights. So did my mother”

“You keep your mother out of this conversation, Howard.” Kerridge raised a hand as though to ward off a physical blow.

“I didn’t mean to kill Georgina, but I couldn’t afford to let Harrison blab to you about it. He would have told you in a way that would have meant –“

“ That girl in Virginia City, was that an accident too?” Kerridge asked quietly

“Of course it was” Howard replied hastily “She slipped and fell, I couldn’t get to her in time. You know that. You know all about it.”

“No, I don’t think I do. Adam Cartwright intimated that there was more to it, he wanted the law to look more closely into the whole thing. I think I knew he was right all along…”

William Kerridge walked away from the desk and knelt by the body of Jackson Creeks ex-sherriff. He leaned over and swiftly pulled the gun from the holster and in one swift move, he had turned to face his son, the gun in his hand, levelled at Howard

“What are you doing?” Howard said quietly

“Something I should have done a long time ago.” Kerridge replied

“You mean -? You mean you’re going to shoot me? Shoot your son?”

“You shot your sister, didn’t you?” the old man replied as he calmly took aim .

June 13th 12 noon

Joseph Cartwright, Sherriff of Jackson Creek and his deputy, Joel McIntyre rode cautiously into the big square that fronted the ostentatious home of the Kerridges. Dismounting and tethering the horses to the hitching rail the two young men looked thoughtfully about them. Both slipped their guns from their holsters and then looked at one another with questions in their eyes

“It’s too quiet” Joel whispered

“Maybe they’re eating” Joe cocked an eye at the noontime sun and then glanced once again around the yard before walking purposely towards the door.

“It’s open” Joel said and pushed at the ornately carved door which swung open to reveal the wide spacious hall that led to the grand staircase.

Joseph allowed his eyes to trail over the splendour of it all and thought how grand it all was in comparison to the Ponderosa. Never had his home appeared to his mind so comfortable, so solid and reassuring in its structure. He sighed and banished such thoughts from his mind and pointed to the rooms that Joel should examine whilst he scrutinized the rooms behind the doors on the left of the hall.

“Joe, over here”

Joel had already disappeared into the environs of the big study and it was there that Joe found him kneeling by the side of the heavily built rancher. The ruddy complexion was now gray and waxy, the full lips were flaccid and drooling spittle and blood. A patch of blood on his white shirt front was blossoming into a full petaled rose even as they knelt by his side

“Is that you, Joseph Cartwright” the mans breathe came in thick heavy gasps and blood bubbled from his mouth at every word. His hand reached up and gripped hold of Joe’s shirt with a strength that could only come from a dying and desperate man

“Yes, sir, it’s me”

“I’m sorry, son. I let you down. I let Georgina down”

“I don’t understand what you mean, sir”

“I always loved the Ponderosa. Always enjoyed it when your father showed off his place. That’s all I ever wanted to do, you know. Take folk round to see my own spread. Things got out of hand. Howard –“ his voice drifted away and Joe put his hand on the mans wrist in an effort to prise away the fingers. The old mans eyes opened and focused upon the youths handsome honest features and he smiled “I wanted a son like you. Howard was right about that – “

“I’ll get a doctor here, sir”

“No, it’s too late. I’m dying. Joseph, I didn’t want any harm to come to Frances and her boy. I wanted to marry her. She was a good woman. Howard saw that as a threat to his future and killed them”

“There were others, sir. There were those people who were driven from their homes, or killed on their land. Was it just Howard’s fault?”

“No” the word was a mere whisper “No, not all Howard’s fault, mine –“ the word came as a gasp and the unmistakable sound of a man taking his last breath rattled in his throat whilst his body jerked and the spasm caused his fingers to tighten even more so upon Joe’s shirt.

“Joe, there’s another body here” Joel cried as Joe prised away the fingers and with a shudder stood up and stepped away from William Kerridges dead body.

“Our late lamented sherriff” Joe said as they looked down upon the dead mans face. “I wonder who shot whom” he frowned and knelt beside Harrison’s body and then glanced up at Joel “Where’s his gun?”

Joel shrugged and stepped back and looked carefully around the room before coming to Kerridges body and seeing the gun in his hand he called Joe over

“It hasn’t been fired” he said having taken it from the dead mans hand and checked the bullet chamber “No bullets missing either”

Joe glanced at both men and the nodded slowly. The solution was obvious and he slipped his own gun into its holster before taking a final look at the room

“Get this sorted out, Joel. I’m going to look for Kerridge”

“Not on your own surely?”

“We go back a long way, Joel.”

The young deputy opened his mouth to protest but the look on his friends face was sufficient for him to know that his mind was made up. He merely nodded and stepped away from the door to let Joe pass through.

With a wound such as his, William Kerridge could only have been shot within the past fiften minutes. That meant that Howard could not be so far away. Running lightly on his feet towards the stables Joe checked over the stalls where the horses ate lazily from their hay bags. What did he hope to glean from an empty stall? He frowned, and noticed the one stall that was empty. He checked the hoof prints leading from it. Saw the print of a mans pointed boot in the dust. It was sufficient.

He mounted Cochise with a confident vault into the saddle. Pulling at the lead rein he turned Cochise towards the direction the hoof prints indicated and galloped from the yard.

June 13th : 12:30 pm

The man slid lower beneath the rocks and waited. The rifle was steady in his hands, the barrel rested on his arm. He squinted along its sights and waited.
Howard Kerridge had seen Joe and Joel arrive at the Double K and had taken the fastest horse from the stable as soon as they had entered the house. He knew he had a short time before the pursuers came after him and stretched the horse to the limit until they reached the rock strewn cliffs only a few miles north of his home range. He set the horse loose, hoping that the dust cloud would fool the followers into continuing with their pursuit, rather than turn to the rocks and hunt him down.

Remorse was not an emotion that rated high on Howard’s list of priorities. Sadness, sorrow – neither of them mattered either. He was disgusted only at other men’s weaknesses. Angered and irritated by other peoples emotional needs. He was ruthless, ambitious, and cruel. Perhaps the emotion that spurred him on more than any other was jealousy.

Now the object of his jealous rage rode into sight. The black and white horse and it’s young rider emerged within minutes of Howard settling into his most comfortable pose. He levelled the rifle and got the youngest Cartwright in his sights and followed him along just a little. He moved the rifle just sufficient distance from the rider and squeezed the trigger. The rider galloped onwards as the bullet sped towards him. Bullet and rider impacted.

Joe was aware of a thud in his shoulder. Instinctively he glanced up at the rocks but the sun was high overhead and glared into his eyes. He could feel the strength draining out of him. He knew that he was going to fall from Cochise and kicked away the stirrups. He wanted to hang on to the reins but his fingers were putty. They were so weak and numb. Then he was falling and as his body struck against the solid rock strewn ground he thought that it had as much effect on him as it would have done to a sack of grain.

He fell and landed. Dust and small stones were dislodged into a small cloud as his flesh and bone struck the ground. He rolled and rolled again. He felt nothing but was aware of the movement. He saw the sky and the ground and then the sky and then nothing but a deep velvet black cloud that swirled about his head and sucked him down into its vortex.

June 14th : 6 a.m.

It was still dark and he wondered if he were still unconscious or asleep and dreaming. He reached out with a hand and touched rock. It was cold and wet and his fingers slipped from it.

“Wake up” he told himself and forced his eyes to open. Then he realised he was awake and his eyes were open and the darkness was all around him. It was all so claustrophobically dark.

“Howard?” he called out the name and the name bounced back from the rocks in mockery “HowardHowardHoward”

He put out a hand and touched rock by his side. He reached out before him and there was rock beneath him.
Inch by careful inch he moved along the rock. His eyes could see the outline of shapes. But the shapes were that of rocks upon rocks. His ears could discern the sound of water slithering down the walls and once he paused to put his lips against the life giving liquid. It was cool and refreshing and for several seconds he leaned against the rock face and savoured the pleasure of the water.

Pain was beginning to send jagged searing torment through his body. He put his left hand to his right shoulder and felt the warmth of blood. It was sticky and thick and already beginning to clot about the wound. Touching it made him feel dizzy and faint and he sunk back to his knees and reached out a hand and felt – nothing.

He froze instantly. There was nothing ahead of him. Nothing beneath him. Had he not stopped he would have plummeted from the rock face. Fear trickled through him and made him feel sick. Then anger took its ascendancy and he leaned back and began to think of the situation he was in and how to get out of it. He picked up a stone and tossed it over into the void. It was over a minute before there came a splashing sound as the stone struck water.

“I need matches.” He told himself and immediately searched through his pockets and felt relief as his fingers curled around the matches in his jacket. “Get some light and see what’s what around here” he struck the match against rock and the brave little flame flickered brightly into life.

Long enough for him to see that he had reached the end of a ledge. He had to turn and go back and inch to where he had come from…he struck another match and saw where the ledge widened out to the left and led into what must have been an old mine. He walked as far as he could go by the flames light and then, more cautiously, along until he knew he needed the confidence another flame could give him to continue onwards.

He was so tired. He was weak and his head was spinning. The effort to raise his feet and take a step forward, to follow it with another step was immense. He fumbled over the next match and dropped it. The disappointment caused a lump to well up in his throat and tears prick at his eyelids. He gripped the other match more tightly and struck it against the rock and found himself in the diggings of an old mine. He stumbled onwards holding the little flame ahead of him.

“That’s far enough”

Howard’s voice echoed eerily around the mine. It bounced from the walls and seemed to echo in Joe’s head. The younger man licked his lips and squinted into the darkness.

“I thought you’d be dead by now”

Joe felt the tremor of weakness in his legs. ‘I will be soon’ he thought as he reached for the walls to steady him self.

“Seems you Cartwright’s just don’t know how to lie down and die. This is awkward, Joe. I found you a nice place to end your days and you go and spoil it all.”

“You killed Georgina” the words came out of his mouth in a slur and that irritated Joe. He forced himself upright “You killed your father and Harrison”

“What? Are you accusing me of killing my dear old pa, sherriff?” Howard’s voice was mocking, containing the trace of laughter. He struck a match and Joe watched the flame travel to the wick of a lamp where it flared and afforded reasonable light by which both men could see the other. Howard set it down upon a rock and smiled slowly “Well, so what if I did?” he shrugged “He was a fool, haunted by a dream that turned into a nightmare. He didn’t know when to stop, so I stopped him”

“I don’t understand what you mean”

“All my life I heard about the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights. At school there was you and your brother Hoss and Miss Jones drooling over your big brother Adam. Cartwrights this and Cartwrights that…it drove me mad…”

“Why?”

“Why? Oh, only someone with everything could be so stupid as to ask a question like that! Do you know what it did to me to see you and your brothers preening yourselves and boasting about what you had? Taking folks to see this, see that – look at the lakes, look at the ponderosa, look at this and that…it made me sick to the stomach to hear it, to see it.”

“Everything we had, we worked for –“ Joe could hear his voice weakening. It was so weak it didn’t even muster an echo anymore

“Sure you did. Then one day I couldn’t take no more – “ Howard paused and bowed his head in thought before raising it to look at his opponent. The silver star on Joe’s shirt gleamed dully, and he could see from the sag of the boys shoulders that there wasn’t much life left in him “Ever hear about Maryann Evans?”

“No”

“You mean big brother Adam never mentioned Maryann to you?” Howard laughed softly, a laugh that held menace and something that was akin to the coldness of the steel of a rapier. Joe longed to sit down. In fact, he would have preferred to lie down. He groped for the wall behind him and hugged into it for support. “Maryann was a poor shanty girl who was also very pretty. She and I got on very well for a while. I should say very well indeed. Then she saw your big brother Adam Cartwright and decided that it would suit her very well to have him in the palm of her hand. I told her ‘You think a Cartwright would look at the likes of you?’ Then she laughed at me “Who are you anyway to tell me anything, you ain’t nuthin’”

“I never knew her –“ Joe breathed weakly

“You were just a kid.”

“So? What happened?”

“She boasted that she could get a date with your brother within a week. I dared her to do so. I told her, if she did that I’d kill her. A week later she came and told me she was going to meet Adam at the Mill Road. She flounced away with a toss of her head and a laugh. I picked up a stick and hit her with it.”

“You killed her?”

“I told her I would –“ Howard shrugged

“Did anyone know?”

“Your brother started sniffing around. She didn’t have a date with him at all, she just said that to get me jealous. But she’d told her friend and this friend went and told Adam and the next thing I know he’s riding round to my pa’s place making accusations. I wanted to kill him there and then –“

“Was that when you stopped going to school?”

“There was no proof that I’d killed her. No one saw anything. Your brother found a bloodstained stick, but what does that prove?” Howard shrugged “But he never let up. On and on he went. Making enquiries. Asking questions. One day I went up in the rocks with a rifle and when he came along I shot him down.” Howard laughed, and the sound sent a trickle of apprehension down Joe’s spine “He fell off his horse, like you did. But my bullet had only stunned him, and when I got down towards him he turned and fired back at me. I’ve still got the scar to this day”

“So you left Virginia City?”

“It was a fortunate coincidence that my parents decided that they were going to move. My pa had an idea about making his own fortune and as soon as we reached Jackson Creek he went about setting it into action. He made our fortune”

A sound from behind him and he turned. Joe groped for his gun, his numb fingers touched, fumbled, upon an empty holster. He closed his eyes and struggled to keep upright.

“How many, Howard, how many have you and your father killed?”

It was odd how Howard’s voice was slurring and he was wavering, cloudy, enshrouded in mist. Joe closed and opened his eyes several times to get Howard back into focus. Clouds of black mist were drifting up around his eyes and suddenly Howard was not alone. There was someone else standing behind him and the sound of a gunshot that seemed to shriek around the cavern of the mine

June 17th: 10 a.m

“Am I awake?” Joe whispered as he opened his eyes and looked up into Mary O’Connors gentle face

“You are, thank God” she smiled and smoothed out the pillow close to his head and then, very gently, brushed away the curl of hair that fell across his brow.

“What happened?”

“Joel found your horse shortly after you had left Kerridges. I remembered that there was an old mine close by and we tracked you down. That was all” she smiled, but her eyes were a little misty, and the lips trembled.

“Did Joel shoot Howard?”

“No” her voice was a whisper “No, it wasn’t Joel. I told you, Joe, there was a lot of hate in town. People who hate, who have been hurt, do irrational things. Perhaps, though, they do the right things”

“I don’t understand”

“An eye for an eye, Joseph, and a life for a life.” She took his hand in hers and sighed “I had a handsome son, his name was Samuel. He was a hard working young man, much like your self, he was honest and he was happy because he married a girl whom he loved. Harriett was heart broken when Sam’s body was dumped on our doorstep as though he were mere garbage. Can you imagine what that is like, Joe? The father of your unborn child just dumped there for you to find?”

“You shot him?” Joe whispered

“Does it matter who shot him?” Harriett said from the doorway. She stood there with the light shining behind her and Joe could see that she held a bundle in her arms. As she drew closer to the bed he could see the small red face of the infant swathed in a shawl. “He was killed justly. He was about to kill you. He was shot instead. It saves the town the expense of a trial and a hangman’s rope” she looked at her child and smiled softly and then held the infant towards Joe “This is my son, Samuel Joseph O’Connor. He was born yesterday morning”

“Then it wasn’t you in the mine –“ Joe breathed with relief

“You’ve been here unconscious for over two days, Joe. Out of your head with loss of blood and fever. There was Harriett in one room and you in the other. Doctor Latimer and I have been rushed off our feet” Mary smiled, her eyes twinkled and she stood up and smoothed out her apron “I’ll get you some broth. Why not get better acquainted with your god-son”

He followed her with his eyes and then looked at Harriett who smiled at him in a shy, enigmatic way as she passed her child over and into his arms. He looked closely at her face and for a brief instant of a second knew exactly who had killed Howard Kerridge.

The End

2 thoughts on “Sweet Innocence (by Krystyna)”

  1. Lovely to get a comment on this story, Joesgal. I couldn’t even remember it as it was posted so long ago, so many many thanks for reading and leaving a review. Very much appreciated.

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