Captain Cartwright # 9 – All Those Tomorrows (by Krystyna)

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Summary: Commodore and Mrs Adam Cartwright await the birth of their first child, but it’s a time that is threatened by danger, the ambitions of a corrupt official and petty thief, and of blizzards.

Rated: K (238,200 words)

The final page contains the reviews/comments from the Old BonanzaBrand Library

Captain Cartwright Series:

To Soar on Albatross Wings
To Fly with Eagles
Captain, Oh My Captain
The Commodore
Invictus
Carpe Diem
A New Command
A Duty to Live
All Those Tomorrows
Written in Stone

 

All Those Tomorrows

The Shenandoah slipped easily into her berth in the harbour at the foot of Pacific Street which boasted a wharf some eight hundred feet further than most and was the designated location for that journeys end. It was pleasant enough weather to greet the ships company back to base and preparations were soon put under way to secure her hawsers to the bollards. The gangplank was eventually lowered for the Harbourmaster to board the vessel in order to receive the necessary paperwork from the ship’s officers.

It had been an uneventful trip of six weeks, weeks that Commodore Adam Cartwright had resented but had accepted as orders had come with the proviso of several months leave afterwards. This had provided him with a measure of relief as it would mean being home during the birth of his and Olivia’s much longed for baby. He stood now over seeing the ships company at their duties with his hands clasped behind his back and his dark eyes watching them carefully while he listened to his first officer and the Harbour master in discussion over the necessary paperwork.

Some years ago this same wharf had been the scene of the destruction of the first ship he commanded, The Ainola, and he turned now to look at the places where so many of his crew had been laid upon their tragic deaths. It still haunted him, just as the memories of other events on his trips from home followed after him and resurfaced in dreams or nightmares or just plain shadows that sprung out at him in the darkest recesses of his mind.

He sighed and turned back to attend to the signing of the papers, and acknowledged the harbourmasters friendly overtures which reminded him of the time of the Pelman affair in which the man had played his own vital part in its fatal outcome. They parted with a salute and nod, and as he watched the man descend the gangplank he wondered if he would ever be able to sever those links to that dreadful day the Ainola and his crewmen died.

He walked to the ships bulwark and glanced downwards and across to where the cabs would draw up to disgorge their passengers. Already some were making their way from the main thoroughfare and he wondered, hoped, if just possibly Olivia would have made the journey from home to welcome him back.

He realised it was expecting a lot from her, after all she was now in her sixth month of pregnancy, but he allowed himself to hope anyway, lingering a little in a fanciful dream for a few moments before he forced himself to look away and return to his duties. There was still a considerable amount to be done before he could disembark and walk away from his responsibilities as an Officer on board the ship.

…………….

Ben Cartwright adjusted his vest and buttoned up his jacket before he knocked lightly on the door and stepped into the room. Olivia Cartwright turned to him with a radiant smile on her face, a smile that welcomed him on a day she had been looking forward to so much, “Do I look alright, Ben?”

He nodded, cleared his throat and said quietly “You look beautiful, my dear.”

She sighed as though his words gave her some comfort and reassurance, then she turned sideways and frowned at her reflection in the mirror, “He’ll see a change in me.” and her hand moved slowly over the gentle curve of her skirts, and her brow furrowed slightly, “I hope he won’t think I’m too fat.”

“You’re not fat,” Ben smiled, a slow gentle smile as he watched her move away from the mirror to pick up her coat, he stepped forward and helped her into it, and then waited for her to button it until she reached where it wouldn’t stretch across any further, “It’s warm enough for you not to have to wear your coat, why not just have your shawl?”

“Ah yes, that would be much better, thank you, Ben.” she smiled at him, and wondered if she would ever get used to calling him Pa, and chided herself for making the mistake yet again.

“The children are waiting downstairs in the foyer; they’re so excited at the thought of seeing Adam again, especially on board his ship.”

“Yes,” she paused as she folded away her coat and looked at him thoughtfully before nodding her head, a drift of hair uncoiled from her clasp and she impatiently tidied it away, “Yes, it’s important for them to see what Adam does, it will make them fret less about where he is in the future.”

“It’s always good to give children some reality to hold onto; otherwise they can let their imaginations run riot.” His brow furrowed again and he watched her pick up her purse “Ready?”

“Oh yes, I’m so sorry to have taken so long.”

“It was worth it, my dear, Adam will be more than proud of you when he sees you.” he offered her his arm which she accepted with a smile for Ben Cartwright was a handsome man and in his grey suit and brocade embroidered vest he looked the picture of a respectable and wealthy businessman.

“Do you think he’ll be expecting us?” she said for probably the hundredth time since they left Virginia City.

“I should think he will be hoping to see us, not sure if he will actually be expecting us though.” Ben smiled down at her and patted her hand, “We’ll just collect the children and then we’ll get a cab to the harbour.”

He stepped down the wide and rather splendid red carpeted stair case with her by his side, her perfume drifting towards him. He looked at her again as they reached a half landing, noticed the arch of her slender neck with the curl of silver blonde hair in its centre, at the way she held her head and the gentle smile that seemed so natural to her lips. It was no wonder that those who were mounting the stairs paused to look at them, she was beautiful, and worth any one’s second glance.

As he descended further to the entrance of the hotel he recalled, once more, the way he and Adam had parted. It had not been a comfortable parting between them, as they had shot angry words at each other and although Adam had cooled down enough to ask his father to forget what had been said, Ben had nursed the anger a while until time passed long enough for him to let go of it.

What had caused the outburst? He sighed now at the memory and bowed his head, pursed his lips, and remembered the way Adam had told them he was leaving for several weeks, another assignment, duty calls, all that kind of rubbish …but it wasn’t rubbish, and Ben had never dismissed it as such until then, when he had said in no uncertain terms that Adam should refuse the order, he had a wife, children, a child on the way … he recalled his son looking at him with confusion, then shaking his head, “What more can I do, Pa? I’ve resigned my commission but if they don’t accept it, I have to do what I’m ordered to do.”

“Then resign again, tell them you can’t go to sea again…”

“If every man who had a wife at home refused to go, Pa, we’d be in a pretty sorry state” Adam had replied reasonably and he had even put out his hand to appease his father, although the look on his face indicated that the anger was curdling beneath the surface.

“Agreed, but you’ve done enough, it’s time to sit this one out, resign and stay home.”

“It’s not that easy, you know that.” Adam had shaken his head, looked at Hoss who had just turned his back on them and tried to pretend he wasn’t there.

“Well, go ahead then, do what you think best, you usually do anyway…” Ben had snapped out and that was when Adam had lost his temper and the shouting had taken place and Hoss had to step in between them and demand they calmed down.

Adam had picked up his hat and turned on his heels, walked out and slammed the door behind him, leaving Ben still boiling over and Hoss wondering how on earth he was going to get them to talk sense before e his brother left home.

It had been Olivia who had healed the breach, if healed was the right word, for she had driven over in the buggy the next day and spent some time with Hester and the little ones, and then talked quietly to Ben as they had strolled out in Marie’s rose garden… and whatever she had said had paved the way for Adam to ride over that evening to talk and make peace before he left.

Now they settled into the cab, Reuben and Sofia opposite them and looking out of the window, watching houses, and businesses, and hotels pass by as the horse jogged along at a comfortable pace along the main thoroughfare. Ben turned to Olivia “Thank you for coming to see me that day, Olivia.”

“What do you mean? What day?” she looked at him, puzzled, for her thoughts had been so engrossed on something else that his comment caught her by surprise.

“After Adam and I had quarrelled over his leaving you again…” he paused, “I had always told him he had to be loyal to his oath, let your yes mean yes as they say, and yet that time I just felt it was too much, too unfair … I wanted him to refuse to go, for your sake more than anything.”

“Oh yes, I remember now, yes, you did say that,” she nodded slowly and sighed, then turned her head to look out of the window, “I love Adam, Pa. I married him knowing he was duty bound to obey orders, and that is the way it is, when he leaves it is like a big gap in my life and I miss him, so much. But then as the days go by I get to thinking that soon he’ll be back home, and that’s just so wonderful.” She smiled and turned to look at him, “He was confused by your reaction, he had always looked to you for support and encouragement, the one who reminded him of his duty, his responsibility to his superiors and there you were demanding that he turned his back on it all.”

Ben nodded and firmed his lips, he recalled those previous times when Adam had been reticent to leave and how he had reminded him of his loyalties to his President and duty, but since those times the President had fallen out of favour with him, was no longer President, and he really felt Adams duty should have been towards his wife. He frowned, “Well, at least it was only a short assignment this time.”

She smiled and hugged his arm against her own, “Yes, just six short weeks.”

She turned now to watch as buildings and people drifted by, there were the traffic jams when everything came to a stop and then they would re-start again. She sighed, for some reason this journey seemed to be taking longer than the six weeks prior to it.
…………….

The Adjutant acting on behalf of the Admiral saluted the Commodore and removed his hat which he placed upon the desk; he then opened a leather briefcase and took from it a large envelope which he handed over “From the Admiral, sir. He sends you his best wishes and hope that you will be able to join him and his wife and some other officers at his home this evening.” he passed a smaller envelope “Your invitation, sir.”

Adam glanced at it before dropping it onto his desk, the larger enveloped he ripped open immediately, read its contents and nodded, “Give the Admiral my compliments, Mr. Batten. I can’t guarantee my being there tonight however, please give him my apologies.”

He didn’t bother to look at the man as he spoke, his eyes were devouring the contents of the letter and when Batten made a sound, whether of disapproval or just to let him know he was still there, he turned and smiled “Thank you, Mr. Batten.”

He indicated a folder on the desk for the Adjutant to deliver to the Admiral, and then waited for the man to leave. Once Batten had left the cabin Adam rose to his feet, straightened his jacket and sighed with relief at the thought that there was no need to go for an interview with his superiors, everything was laid out in the letter before him, and it was every bit to his satisfaction.

His next move was to ask his steward to fetch Mr. Hardy, Mr. Dekker and Mr. Miles to his cabin and while he waited for them he went to the main window and peered out at the harbour. He had a good clear view of the traffic, the stevedores, the harbour master and his men and although there were some pedestrians there, he saw no one he could recognise. He felt a slight disappointment but accepted the fact that he was probably expecting too much from Olivia and just as he was about to plunge into various aspects as to why she wouldn’t have come there was a knock on the door and his three Officers entered.

Each of them removed their hat, and stood at attention before their Superior Officer, each of them wondered what was about to befall them, good news, or bad? Hardy had no doubts he was going to get another negative report, and steeled himself. Dekker hoped but decided not to hope too much and Miles, the new man, waited in total fear of being dismissed altogether.

“Gentlemen I have received orders from the Admiral following my report which was sent via diplomatic bag from London two weeks ago.” He frowned and looked at the three of them, before glancing down at the paper.

“Mr. Hardy, I’d like to congratulate you on achieving your promotion to Captain. You are to report for further orders as soon as your duty is over here. Well done, I knew you had the makings of a good officer in you.” and with a smile Adam extended his hand and shook that of the other man who looked totally stunned.

“Mr. Dekker, I’m very pleased to tell you that you have achieved a rise in rank to First Lieutenant, you will continue to serve on the Shendandoah.” He smiled at the younger man who looked pleased and saluted, breathing easier afterwards as he did so. Adam now turned to Miles, “Mr. Miles, your brother served with me some while back and was a good officer, I was more than pleased to see that his qualities continue to be seen in yourself. Well done. You will remain here on the Shenandoah.”

He looked at them and nodded “Now then, we’ll get our duties finalised here, and then go on leave. Mr. Hardy, Captain Hardy I should say, you have to go and get your orders once finished here. Mr. Dekker and Mr. Miles, you have leave awarded to you …” he passed over envelopes to both of them, and then dismissed them.

Hardy was the only one to pause at the door and step back inside “Thank you, sir.”

Adam nodded, smiled and watched as the other man left the cabin. His smile faded slightly however as he continued with the remainder of his duties which were interrupted yet again when his steward knocked on the door and opened it to allow three men to step into the cabin.

Chapter 2.

Adam rose to his feet with a smile as the three men entered “Well, gentlemen, are you ready to leave?”

“We certainly are,” the y youngest of them replied, “No disrespect to you, Adam, and I know this was a smooth voyage but I’ll be glad to put my feet on terra firma again.”

Another of the men said with a slight drawl to his voice “The carriage from the Secretary of State is waiting for us, Commodore, so we’ll not keep them waiting.”

A well built handsome man now stepped forward and extended his hand which Adam took and shook warmly “Thank you, Commodore, you’ve helped us more than you can know.”

“Well, everything was in our favour, your grace.” Adam replied with a wry twist to the lips, “I hope the remainder of this assignment continues just as well.”

The man referred to as Your Grace sighed heavily, and nodded “So do I. We don’t have much time to consolidate our forces at the present moment so we can but hope and pray -”

“- and work hard to achieve the best results,” the younger man smiled and shook Adam’s hand “Thank you, Adam.”

“Just carrying out orders, sir.” Adam nodded and then stepped back for them to leave the room and make their way to the upper deck.

Hardy, Dekker and Miles were standing by the gang plank in formation and saluted as the three men, followed by Adam, appeared on deck “Captain on the bridge.” came the cry and the ships company stopped their work and stood to attention.

At the gangway the man addressed as Your Grace shook each officer by the hand before making his descent followed by the others. A carriage with shaded windows stood close enough to the gangplank for them to step from one immediately into the other. Adam watched them until it pulled away followed by another carriage which he didn’t doubt carried several well armed men who were employed as their protectors. He pursed his lips and then raised his eyebrows before turning back and passing the three officers with a mere nod of the head.

Dekker sighed “Well, that’s it then, duty over.”

Miles shrugged “What was it all about, do you know?” he glanced at Hardy “Do you?”

Hardy shook his head “Not really, but then there’s a lot of things we’re going to be ordered to do that we’ll never know anything about, especially when it has anything to do with politics.”

He looked over and watched the two carriages as they made their way to the main thoroughfare and into the traffic and wondered if the Commodore was equally as much in the dark.

Returning to the privacy of his quarters Adam sat at his desk and noted the time of departure of the three Englishmen. He didn’t mention them by name, just their initials. He glanced at the clock, and then closed the book.

It had not been a difficult assignment although it was under the classified category Of course there had been the risk of certain factions becoming involved and consequently things could have become unpleasant, but this had turned out to be a simple task of sailing to England and collecting several representatives of the British Government, and eventually bringing them to America. His Grace the Duke of Sutherland was to act on behalf of Prime Minister Disraeli to discuss various difficulties that had arisen over America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia. Russian protests, particularly with the disclosure that gold had been located, and that they had not been provided with the proper sanctions from America had led to the dispute trickling over into Prussia who shouted louder than most and beat the war drum to the extent that it scared her Russian allies enough to call a conference with England as mediator.

As Adam began to gather his personal things together he remembered the pleasure of meeting up with Laurence Willoughby and his wife, Rachel. It was while at Laurence’s family seat in Oxfordshire that Adam had met the Duke and the two men who were to arbitrate along with him and endeavour to bring about a peaceful resolution between the three countries. Sutherland had been convinced it would be a matter of only a few days before Russia would climb down because she was already so totally committed to the war against Turkey and would retreat rather than create further difficulties. Willoughby and the other two men were less sure of success being achieved that quickly.

Willoughby had travelled back with them to Southampton where the Shenandoah was berthed. As they boarded the Shenandoah and were led to their cabins Willoughby had observed rather dryly, “No assassination attempts, no stealing of papers, the Russians must be pretty sure of themselves this time round.”

“Maybe the problems will come after the conference,” Adam had said in reply as he shared a short time with the younger man on the deck before it had become time to shake Laurence by the hand in farewell. “I’m sorry you won’t be accompanying me on this trip, Laurence, although I have a feeling it will seem rather tame compared to our past adventures.”

Laurence had laughed at that although he agreed with the sentiment, it would have been grand had he been able to have been more involved, he admitted to Adam, but as it wasn’t to be all he could do was wish everyone involved ’Bon voyage.’ As Adam watched Laurence leave the ship and make his way to his carriage he felt some relief at knowing that whatever the outcome of the discussions it would be someone else’s responsibility, he had done his duty and was now heading for time with his family. It would be some other Officer who would have the privilege of taking Sutherland and party back to England.

McGill entered the cabin with coffee on a tray and placed it carefully on the desk, he was about to speak when someone called out “Daddy …” and with a scampering of feet Sofia came running into the cabin to where Adam had been standing by the desk.

To see his son’s face colour up with such pride and love gave Ben a deep feeling of satisfaction and pleasure. The way Adam hugged the little girl and then the boy before looking for Olivia was all that was needed to reassure Ben that his son’s heart was totally captive to this woman who had stood, hesitant for but a moment by the doorway, before hurrying forward and into the Commodore’s arms.

McGill cleared his throat “Shall I get refreshments for everyone, sir?”

“Yes,” Adam smiled over at the man “Yes, for everyone …” then he returned to looking at his wife, kissing her and listening to her whisper the words that were for his ears only.

Ben stepped forward wondering if his son was harbouring resentment against him for the argument they had had before his departure but as soon as Adam saw his father he extended both hands and grabbed Bens in his, and when Ben had placed his hand on his sons shoulder Adam had beamed a smile “Hi Pa.”

“Son.” Ben nodded, smiled and allowed his breath to flow in a long exhalation, having held it in for too long, “I hope you don’t mind us all disrupting your duties but I’m afraid I just couldn’t hold them back.”

Olivia laughed “You were as eager to get here as we were.” Then she turned back to her husband and hugged him close “Have we disturbed you in what you were doing? Have we come at an inconvenient time?”

Adam’s reaction to her questions was to slip his arm around her waist and assure her that their timing was just perfect, before adding “I – er – I wonder if perhaps Pa and the children would like a tour of the ship, and then we could have something to eat here. I can just tidy up a few last minute things and then we can leave.”

“Oh Pa, can we see the ship? Can we?” Reuben tugged at Adam’s sleeve and then turned to Ben, “Please say you want to see it, Gran’pa?”

Ben smiled and his dark eyes turned to his son proudly, “I’d like to see around this ship of yours, Adam. It’s quite some time since I’ve seen the inside of one like this.”

“Come along then,” Adam paused then turned to his wife whose slight hesitation he could feel from the sudden tension in her body, “Would you prefer to rest? I’ll get one of my officers to show Pa and the children around -” he smiled slowly at the way her face lit up at this suggestion and he turned then to McGill who was still hovering in the room, “Ask the cook to prepare a light meal for us all here, Mr. McGill, and would you ask Mr. Miles to come to the cabin.”

Sofia looked thoughtfully at her mother and then at Adam “Can’t you come too?”

“I have things to do, Sofia, Mr. Miles is a very pleasant man and will take you to see all over the ship -” Adam replied giving the hand she had slipped into his own a light squeeze, “And Granpa needs to know his girl is with him, to take care of him, you know.”

Sofia looked without confidence at Ben who nodded, smiled and held out his hand to her which she took rather begrudgingly, looking back at Adam and her mother with a slight frown as Miles led them from the cabin.

Immediately Adam approached his wife and took her again in his arms, he held her close and kissed her, joyful at the way her kisses assured him of her love, and then he released her and looked at her very carefully, his eyes roving over her face, into her eyes, and then following the contours of her body, “Everything’s alright?”

“Yes, Dr Martin checked everything before we left to make sure I could make the journey. He feels quite confident that the baby is healthy and from the way it kicks and moves about I’m quite confident as well.”

He relaxed a little and his face softened, “I’ve missed you so much. The thought that something could happen and you would be alone …”

“I always worry that something could happen to you too.” she leaned forward and kissed him gently, and then reached out to touch his face with her long fingers “Was everything alright this trip.”

“Yes. It was more like a pleasure cruise than anything else.” he smiled and drew her to a chair so that she could sit down, his hand hovered slightly, hesitatingly before he lowered it gently upon her skirts, just where the gentle mound of her body could be discerned and looked up into her eyes “I love you, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“I’m glad about that, Mr Cartwright.” and cupping his face within her hands she kissed his mouth with all the warmth that a woman who loves as deeply could bestow upon the person so beloved.

Someone clearing their throat caused them to draw apart and smiling rather bashfully Adam rose to his feet, “Olivia, may I present my first Officer, Captain Hardy.” he turned to Hardy and smiled proudly “Captain Hardy, my wife, Olivia Cartwright.”

…………………………….

A Russian warship slid into her berth at the harbour. Several gentlemen were on the upper deck watching the proceedings with some interest. Their eyes scanned the smart clipper ship bearing the name Shenandoah and one of the gentlemen turned to another and raised an eyebrow “His?” To which the other replied “Da.” and tapped ash from his cigarette into a small silver box he held in his left hand.

Chapter 3

The sun was casting long shadows over the yard at the Ponderosa and a breeze blew dust devils across the dry ground. In the house a little girl was playing with her dolls skipping happily from one to the other of them, chattering in her baby fashion as she tended to their needs.

Close by and nursing her new infant was the little girl’s mother who stared besottedly down at the baby she cradled in her arms while every so often raising her eyes to watch that the other child was still happy at play. On the table close to her chair were refreshments set out for more than just themselves, indicating that visitors were to be expected. Hop Sing appeared just as sounds of a buggy arriving in the yard had been heard, he glanced over his shoulder as he placed the tray of little cakes and cookies down on the table, “All time I go here and go there, cook and bake, cook and bake all time visitor come and not ready come too soon.”

“Hop Sing, you always prepare just enough for everyone, it’s perfect. Thank you.” Hester Cartwright smiled over at him before carefully folding a shawl across the baby and setting her down in her crib. Then she stood up and walked across the room to open the door to Mary Ann and little Daniel. She greeted her sister in law with a kiss on the cheek and stroked Daniels curly chestnut hair “Did you hear if Ann was coming today?”

Mary Ann nodded “Yes, she may be a little later though as she had to take Rosie to school and wanted to get some more material from the Haberdashery.”

Hannah looked up and ran to her aunt with her doll in her hands which she held up for Mary Ann to pat on the head, which she did bringing a smile to the child’s face as she returned to her play. Baby Daniel observed it all very seriously with his fist in his mouth and his big hazel eyes roving from face to face until his gaze fell upon the refreshments on the table. Now he jigged up and down in his mother’s arms and stretched out his hands, his fingers wiggled and he strained against her restraint so that she sighed “You know, Hester, he has only to see food and he wants to eat.”

“Reminds me of someone I know,” Hester laughed and closed the door as Mary Ann walked over to the settee to sit down.

Daniel was now eight months of age and like his parents he was slender of build. He had been a chubby dimpled baby but once he had learned to crawl he had became longer and leaner. He was alike enough to both his parents for people to refrain from saying how much he resembled either one of them in case they offended the other. Suffice to say he had his fathers colour eyes, a hazel green and resembled the Cartwrights enough to make his grandfather very proud of him.

Once Mary Ann had placed him on the floor he set off into a crawl. He headed straight for one of the dolls and grabbed it, pulled its hair and stuffed its nose in his mouth, before spitting it out and throwing it on the floor which caused its ‘Mother’ to cry “Dan-u-ell, norty.”

Ignoring her he set off to explore the bookcase, pulling out several of Ben’s prized possessions and tossing them aside with a determination that his father would have been proud of, claiming that his son had obviously inherited a loathing for literature from him. After a while he sat very still while he got his bearings and then headed for the table where he crawled to a chair and carefully manoeuvred himself up onto his feet and grabbed at the tablecloth.

Hop Sing gave a cry as he saw everything slowly moving across the table and grabbing at the other side of the cloth succeeded in stopping what could have been a disastrous end to the refreshments. “Boy like father not know when to stop – he cause mischief need rope to tie down.”

Hester laughed and hurried to snatch up the little miscreant as his own mother had her arms full with little Helen Hope Cartwright who snuggled into the crook of her arms so comfortably. She shook her head at her son who was now wriggling in protest as Hester carried him away from the table and back to the area where they were seated. Hannah hurried to gather up her babies and keep them closer to her as Daniel was set down at his mother’s feet.

“I do hope that Adam’s ship came in on time,” Hester now said as she sat down beside Mary Ann, “I hate the thought of Ben and Olivia having to wait in that hotel wondering when he’ll get in.”

“Ben was so excited, wasn’t he? I think he really was looking forward to seeing a ship again. I know Reuben was beside himself with excitement, Olivia said he hadn’t had a proper nights sleep for several days thinking about the trip and seeing Adam again.” Mary Ann dropped a kiss on Helen’s downy head and then leaned down to grab her son by the breeches as he was about to set off on another exploration, “Oh Hester, this child of mine … he just seems to be getting in everywhere he shouldn’t.”

“Hannah was just the same,” Hester replied smiling contentedly over at her daughter who was watching her cousin very closely and hugging her favourite doll protectively to her chest. “It took several tumbles down the stairs before she realised she couldn’t manage them.”

Mary Ann looked as though she didn’t want her son to learn lessons in such a painful way and grabbed hold of his foot as he was about to launch himself forwards yet again. “I think you had better take hold of Helen so I can keep an eye on him.”

Helen Hope Cartwright was a placid baby with her mother’s brilliant blue eyes and leaner shape, unlike Hannah who had her grandfathers dark hair and colouring, Helen was blessed with a fuzz of golden hair that glowed like a little halo around her skull, her limbs were longer than Hannah’s had been and she resembled the Buchanan family, whereas apart from her colouring Hannah was round of face like her father. Hester loved her babies dearly and gently settled Helen back into her crib.

The sound of another vehicle indicated that Ann had arrived and in anticipation of her cousins entrance Hester got up and began to set out the cups for their tea or coffee. David Canady ran into the room with the enthusiasm of a young colt set free from its stall and with a gleeful cry ran to Hester and hugged her skirts so that she laughed and looked up at Ann “What on earth has brought all this about? Such a show of affection from David?” and she dropped a kiss on the top of his head while looking over at the other woman.

“He thought he was going to be left at the school with Rose.” Ann replied as she removed her coat and entered the room with her basket on her arm. “It quite terrified him.”

“Poor David.” Mary Ann laughed and opened her arms to him so that she also could be favoured with a hug from the little boy usually too shy for such demonstrations for he was like his father, Candy, in almost every way possible.

Now they could settle to their little tea and refreshments while they chattered about the events that had taken place since they had last met together. Ann told them about Miss Brandon who seemed very pleased to have Rose in her class now and how the sheriff had arrested Lou Brooker for watering down his beer and cheating on his customers. They then discussed Ben and Olivia’s visit to San Francisco, and mutually agreed that it would be very unfortunate if the ship had been delayed although Ben knew so many people there that they would never get bored, to which Hester reminded them that Olivia had lived there since her first marriage.

“Talking about marriage…” Ann paused after saying the three words in a very significant manner before leaning forward “You will never guess what the biggest piece of gossip is going the rounds in town just now?”

“I hope it isn’t anything unpleasant.” Hester said quietly as she set down her cup upon the saucer with a rather decisive rattle.

“No, no, nothing unpleasant at all, rather – well – endearing really.” Ann said with a slight purse of the lips.

“Well, what is it? I presume someone is getting married, someone we wouldn’t think of at first. Let me see? Widow Hawkins perhaps?” Mary Ann chuckled.

“Oh no, not Widow Hawkins her heart is solely occupied with just one person who isn’t the slightest bit interested as we all know.” Ann laughed along with the others and then she sighed, “Well, it seems that dear Roy Coffee has found someone at last, after all these years since Mary died.”

“Roy?” both women exclaimed, “Are you sure?” added Hester doubtfully as she passed Hannah another cookie.

“A lady called Rachel Jane Darrow, a widow, her husband died during the Indian Wars nearly 15 years ago. She arrived in Virginia City just before the Cholera outbreak.” Ann looked at them with round eyes and watched their faces carefully to check the reaction her news would have on them, “I’ve not seen her but everyone says she is very attractive and smart, reasonably well off and she has been seen in public with Roy on several occasions. In fact -” she leaned forwards a little “she has been out in a buggy with him twice already; he said he was going fishing but not alone that was obvious.”

“I think it best we don’t say anything about this until we know for sure,” Hester said after a moment or two, “Gossip can be so harmful, and I would hate to hurt Roy’s feelings.”

Ann shrugged “I’m only telling you what I was told by several in town, everyone is just so – well – surprised by it all.”

Mary Ann nodded “I can well understand that, I’m totally amazed!” and with a sigh she handed her son some more to eat and watched as he contentedly chomped at it in a very Hoss like manner. She shook her head “I don’t know why he’s always hungry,”
She murmured sadly.

“He’s a Cartwright,” Ann laughed, “What more do you expect?”

Mary Ann was tempted to point out that he was Joe’s son, not Hoss’, but managed to restrain herself in time. Instead she picked him up and cuddled him until it was time for him to have his nap. Once the children were settled down either sleeping or playing quietly, the three women spread out the latest quilt upon which they were working and set down to work.

“Roy Coffee courting, would you believe it?” one or other of them would murmur every so often which would lead to a few moments of whispered speculation and assumption that in other words was really – well – gossip.

Chapter 4

The Russian delegation had chosen to remain on board their ship, feeling no doubt safer on what they could consider to be Russian territory. There were three men with secretaries and servants making up the entourage and as Secretary of State Hamilton Fish glanced through the details his countenance fell and darkened. He snapped his fingers at one of the clerks scribbling away and asked him if there was any further information about the men listed to which the clerk replied that there was not to his knowledge but he would enquire.

At the back of his mind Fish felt a niggle of apprehension and doubt. The names tinkled a far distant bell in his memory, one that was confused due to other matters taking up much of his own attention at the time. He walked to a window and stared out at the view and felt uncomfortable, an itch of a memory too far away to reach and scratch.

He returned to his desk and looked through the details of the British contingent with a scowl. He knew none of these men although he had heard that Sutherland was a cunning old hand at such diplomatic matters which was why he had been sent to this meeting as a representative of Disraeli. Lord George Fortescue and Sir Charles Canning were names on paper only but by their ages hopefully past the flippancy of youth and wise in the ways of diplomacy and tact. Somehow Fish felt that such qualities were going to be in great demand during the coming days.

He turned to another of the clerks who was rummaging through some papers “Commodore Cartwright brought the British delegation here I believe?”

“Yes, sir, he did.” the clerk clutched some files to his chest and nodded.

“Has he reported to the Admiral?”

“The Admiral didn’t require seeing him, Mr. Fish.”

“So where is he then?”

“Who, sir?”

“The Commodore?”

The clerk frowned “I don’t know, sir.” He paused “Probably still on board his ship.”

Fish thought for a moment then with a rather weary expression on his face asked the clerk to enquire politely if it was possible to see the Admiral for some moments on a matter of urgency. The clerk scuttled away and Fish heard the door slam behind him, he shook his head, already so much stress upon his nerves and the conference had not even started yet.

The first clerk that had been dismissed now returned with more papers in a box file which he placed on the desk, “This is all I could find, sir. One of the gentlemen has been quite prominent in several brushes with our overseas operations, while another was related to -”

“Yes, that’s alright, I’ll read it through myself, thank you.” Fish nodded and continued to read the notes he had in his hand “We have translators available, don’t we?”

“Yes, sir, but they won’t be needed as the gentlemen concerned all speak English.”

“I know that, I’Il need the translators for when they choose to chatter to themselves in Russian.” Fish ground his teeth, all these years and still he was surrounded by novices and idiots.

The door opened and the second clerk returned followed by the Admiral himself who looked coldly at Fish as though he had been gravely insulted by being summoned, although Fish made it clear immediately that that was not the case and oh yes how grateful he was for the Admiral to have come in person.

“Well, what is it that you want?” Barlow asked immediately looking at the files and clerks filling the room everywhere he looked.

“I wanted to know where the Commodore was – you know – Adam Cartwright?”

Barlow’s shoulders rose up to his ears and he inhaled sharply “Is that all?”

“Well, yes – at present.”

Two men who were leaders in their own particular fields stood face to face, not exactly nose to nose but close enough, Barlow shrugged “I presume he’s on leave now. I didn’t need to see him as it was merely a trip across the pond to collect some British diplomats and deliver them here. If you needed to see him then you should have made me aware of the matter so that I could have made the necessary arrangements.” He turned aside and started to walk away “Any of my staff could have told you that …”

Fish said nothing but turned his back on the Admiral and on the matter in general. He needed to read the information about the Russians before anything else and sat down at the desk to do just that, the matter of Adam Cartwright’s location a matter to be considered for later, should the need so arise.
……………….

Sofia sat on Adam’s knee and leaned her head against his shoulder. She loved this man in a way that only a child could love, her whole heart was his, and she had offered it to him willingly, just as she had given it to Ben previously. These two men had caught at her instincts for love and protection as soon as she had known them, and she loved them accordingly.

“Did you have to go very far this time?” she asked now, “Was it a long way away?”

“Not this time, it was a clear run, no storms, nothing to worry about.” he smiled down at her and was awarded a sigh of pleasure at her knowing that he had been safe.

“So there was no fighting this time?” Reuben asked as he speared some chicken onto his fork, “No fighting at all?”

“Nope.” Adam smiled, and seeing the disappointment on the boys face leaned forward and ruffled his hair, “It wasn’t that kind of trip.”

“It sounds boring.” Reuben sighed, and finished his meal with a little grunt of pleasure for the French cook on board the Shenandoah had provided them with a meal that would have delighted any gourmet.

“Well, true enough, a lot of time it can be boring,” Adam agreed, “Just as boring as sitting in the saddle behind a herd of cattle driving them along to Denver for days on end or chasing calves for branding. Every job in life is the same, son, you have to take the rough with the smooth, so my father told me, many times over, isn’t that right, Pa?”

Ben smiled and wiped his mouth on a napkin before answering that yes, it was a fact of life and sometimes excitement doesn’t always make for the best trips if it meant deaths as a result. Adam reached out for Olivia’s hand at this juncture and smiled over at her, realising that she was more than glad to know that this had been a boring trip with no excitement to cause her any anxiety. Sofia sighed and nestled in closer, it was warm in the cabin and she had eaten her fill, the wine that the Frenchman had used in his sauces had made her sleepy, and the sound of their chatter was background noise lulling her to sleep. She heard her mother calling her name but her eyes were closing and she was too comfortable to move now, she was just so happy to be so safe with father again.

……………..

Some time had passed since the Secretary of State had decided to review various documents and he now turned up the flame in the lamp on his desk to conclude his reading. At various locations in the room busy clerks making final arrangements with regard to their own involvement in the proceedings that were to commence the following day. Secretary of State Fish finally put down the last of the folders and after putting it with some others pushed them to one side of the desk. After a while of contemplative silence he picked up a pen and began to write some notes with a swiftness that denoted urgency before calling to his secretary “Locate Commodore Cartwright and bring him in to see me.”

Hamilton Fish watched the man leave the room and glanced around at the activity everywhere, he sighed and shook his head as a feeling of foreboding niggled at the back of his mind. His fingers played with the edge of the folder closest to him and he finally set it down on the desk in order to re-read what was there and what he feared had come back to haunt them.

The Admiral was still in his quarters when Hamilton Fish entered the large commodious study. Behind the immense desk that had once been the privileged seat of office for Commodore Pelman, deceased, Barlow sat like a large behemoth and nodded at the Secretary of State with a patronising air.

Politics were in that state of flux between outgoing and incoming Presidents, except in this case no one was particularly sure who was going to be the incoming President. So far as Barlow was concerned Fish was on his way out no matter who was ‘coming in’. “Yes, Mr. Fish?”

“Do you know where Captain O’Brien happens to be just now?”

Barlow frowned and leaned back in his chair, he shook his head “You expect me to know where every officer in the fleet is at this precise moment of time? “

“An approximate would be ample.” Fish shrugged, so far as he was concerned incoming, outgoing or whatever, he was still the incumbent Secretary of State.

The Admiral pressed a button and within seconds some minion appeared almost as though he were on a revolving door just behind the Admirals back, he listened to the request and disappeared as quickly as he had entered. Barlow frowned, “Has this to do with the Alaskan affair?”

“Ah, so you do realise the importance of the situation?”

“I make my own enquiries, and I’m quite up to date with what is happening. I’ve sent a request to the Commodore to attend me as soon as possible. He happens to be in the vicinity still, thankfully.”

Fish frowned, and then nodded slowly. There was a rustle of papers and both men turned their heads to see the clerk reappear with some papers in his hand, these he passed to the Admiral, acknowledged the Secretary of State briefly and then stood back as though expecting further orders to come. Barlow spread out the papers and nodded “Ah, yes … Here we are. Captain O’Brien was in Cuba for some while, returned a month ago and gave his resignation.”

“Was it accepted?”

“Oh yes, no doubt about it. He put forward that he intended to become a lawyer, and very strongly refused any inducement to stay. “

Fish frowned “Why, if you don’t mind my asking, did you accept his resignation but refused the Commodore’s? I believe he has tendered it several times already.”

Barlow smiled and shook his head “Contacts, wheels upon wheels, and all that sort of thing. Politics, Mr. Fish.”

“Yes – you don’t need to say anymore.” Fish sighed and shrugged, “You know, he may well tender his resignation again when you see him.”

Barlow now shrugged in his turn, and grimaced “Maybe, at the moment we don’t intend to accept. As it stands he’s useful to us, and it won’t be long before he retires anyway, his years of service are close to ending …” he flicked through some papers and nodded, “There was little point in keeping O’Brien in service, he married into a very influential family.”

Fish frowned, he disliked the direction the conversation was leading too, Grants administration was tainted with bribery and corruption enough as it was and he disliked the thought that something crooked had taken place with regard to someone he felt to be as honest and courageous as Daniel O’Brien. Barlow stood up now, flicking the papers together and handing the folder back to the clerk “Why so much interest in O’Brien? He was never the dominant factor in the Alaskan situation.”

“May be not, but according to statements and records he was the one who shot Count Alexei Lebedev …” Fish frowned, “and this is the awkward part, Count Lebedev’s brother is one of the Russian delegates already here in San Francisco.”

Barlow scowled “Awkward.”

“So where is O’Brien, do you know?”

“Last known to be in Paris, France with his wife and family. According to sources he will not be returning for some while.”

“Good, long may he stay there.”

“What about Commodore Cartwright?” Barlow asked in a more sober tone of voice, “You may not realise it, Mr Fish, but I have a lot of respect for Adam Cartwright, and I wouldn’t want him harmed in any way.”

“Couldn’t you send him somewhere? Africa or someplace?”

“He’s been promised leave, Mr. Fish.” He sighed “I think – I hope – the Ponderosa will be big enough to hide him away.”

“Unfotunately the Russians tend to have long memories and a thirst for revenge and Adam Cartwright has crossed their paths once too often for my liking, and possibly, theirs as well.”

Chapter 5

The two men leaned against the corral fence with their arms folded upon the top bar, one munched on an apple while the other just stared fixedly at the horse that was staring just as fixedly back at him.

“Well, what do you think?” Joe Cartwright finally asked his companion who shrugged and shook his head, “I don’t know, Joe. You’ve had him long enough now for him to be trained but …” Candy scratched the back of his head, “He seems more stubborn than a mule.”

“Yep, and I swear he understands every word we’re saying about him. Notice how his ears pricked back when you said that about him being stubborn?” Joe‘s grin broadened and he held out the apple core towards the horse who ambled up and took it from his fingers with as much daintiness as a fussy old lady.

“He’s a beauty alright.”

“Mmm, he sure is… I had hoped to be riding him by now, but I haven’t the heart to force him to do more than he’s willing to give.”

“He doesn’t want to though, that’s the whole point. He doesn’t want to give you more than he’s prepared to do, and I reckon he’s reached the stand off point.”

Joe scratched his nose “Yep, that’s what I thought.”

“What does Hoss think?”

“Well, Hoss has always been of the opinion that Saturn was a hay burner, not in the same league as the one Adam rode in that thar race ..” he chuckled at the memory which pre-dated Candy’s arrival to the Ponderosa but the story of which had been re-told many times.”

“Hoss told me that this here horse is very like one Adam caught once upon a time, so what happened to him?”

Joe sighed and turned away from the corral, struck his hands into the pockets of his pants and began to walk away. “Well, Jupiter was a great horse, personally I reckon he’s this ones sire, wouldn’t surprise me none if he was.”

“So, Adam let him go back to the wild?”

“Yeah. A real stubborn horse, and full of fire. Bounced Adam off more times that I can remember but got to a stage we didn’t know who was more stubborn, him or Jupiter.” he smiled slowly and with Candy by his side walked slowly towards the house, “We got to worrying about it some then one day Adam came in and said he had taken Jupiter back to his herd. Just like that, after all those months of trying to train him into a first rate mount …”

“Why?”

“It was close to the time when Adam was beginning to get restless being at home. I think he would go out there and watch that horse, have a fight with it, and then watch it some more and realised the critter was feeling much like he was himself . He wanted his freedom.”

“Who? The horse or Adam?” Candy grinned and removed his hat as they entered the house.

“Both I guess. You see, Adam had a childhood full of wanderings around with my Pa; he didn’t have a home like I had. Fact is, our childhood couldn’t have been more different. Seeing Jupiter and Adam together in those last few weeks though you’d have thought they were getting on just swell, Jupiter was always pleased to see Adam, he’d canter up and let Adam groom him, and chat to him… but soon as that saddle and bridle went on, he turned into a regular firecracker.”

“Like Saturn?”

Joe pulled a wry face then nodded “Yeah, like Saturn.”

He tossed his hat onto a peg and strolled into the kitchen where the stove was belching out heat and things were boiling and steaming, filling the room with rich sweet smells. He turned to Candy “Staying for supper, Candy?”

“Best not, although it’s tempting.” Candy grinned, “A coffee would be good though.”

Mary Ann came into the room as Joe began to pour out the coffee, he smiled over at her and added another cup to the two he had already set out “Where’s Bridie?”

“She took a ride over to see Marcy. “ Mary Ann replied “How’s Ann and the children, Candy?”

“Doing well, thank you, Mary Ann.” He took the cup from Joe and watched the young woman as she took a cake from the larder and began to cut slices for them, “You’re looking well, Mary Ann.”

“Thank you, Candy.” she smiled and passed him a plate with a good sized chunk of apple cake on it, “How’s Rosie enjoying school?”

“She isn’t. Makes quite a fuss having to go. Sure wish you could take school hereabouts, Mary Ann.”

Joe grinned and looked at his wife affectionately as he reached out to take hold of her hand in his “How’d you like that, Mary Ann? Feel like taking up school again?”

She laughed “The School Governor may not approve if I did, nor would the current school teacher.”

“Miss Brandon’s doing alright, best she can anyway.” Candy said and then smiled; his blue eyes gleamed with a wicked twinkle “I saw Roy in town today.”

“Oh, you did?” Mary Ann’s eyes widened and she tried to curb her interest by lowering them straightway, “Er – was he well?”

“He certainly was, seems to have been putting on some weight.” Candy bit into the cake and sat there in silence for a moment, more than aware that Mary Ann was on tenter hooks to hear more. “Had a lady with him…”

“Really? He did?” Mary Ann’s eyes widened, “Was she pretty?”

“Must have been a beauty in her time. “ Candy replied and stood up, brushed aside crumbs and thanked her very politely, “I’d best get going, Ann will wonder where I’ve got to.”

Joe smiled as he walked his friend to the door, both knowing full well that Mary Ann was sure to say something before either of them had got through it “Candy?”

“Yes, Mary Ann?”

“Did Roy introduce you to the lady?”

“Yes he did.” he reached for his hat “A Mrs .. What was her name agin Joe?”

Joe shook his head “I don‘t recall, Candy. I actually never met her .”

Candy shrugged “Probably come to me later. Thanks for the cake, Mary Ann.”

Saturn loped around the corral; every so often he would test the bars with his broad chest, thrusting his body against them. When Joe appeared with Candy he snickered a greeting, he was, after all these months, fond of this human in a horse like way, and he nodded his head several times as though Joe would understand what he was saying. As Candy rode away Joe walked back to the corral and reached out to stroke the soft velvet nose of the black stallion, they looked at one another eye to eye and then Saturn wheeled away as though to say, enough is enough for today.

Mary Ann appeared to have set her pique with Candy to one side when Joe reappeared and gave her husband her customary pleasant smile which encouraged him to put his arms around her waist and draw her closer so that he could kiss her and tell her how much he had missed her. She laughed a little at him and was more than happy to kiss him back and tell him that she hadn’t missed him at all; she had been far too busy with another young man who had quite stolen her heart away.

After a few minutes pleasant teasing of one another she turned back to check on the food that was cooking while he washed his hands and told her of anything he would think would interest her about his few days’ absence. She listened attentively enough and responded by asking various questions which he was happy to answer. Yes, Hoss had dug in most of the fence posts along the west side but he and Candy had spent most of the time digging the holes; Pa had not made an appearance and it wasn’t until he had returned home that he had found the reason why to which Mary Ann had shaken her head and admonished him for forgetting that Ben had told them ’ages ago’ that he would be going to San Francisco with Olivia to meet up with Adam.

He laughed then and said nothing but informed her that he was going upstairs to have a word with the young man who had usurped his way into her heart and kissing her gently as he passed her he took the stairs two at a time to the upper storey. Mary Ann smiled as she heard his footsteps and the sound of the door to Daniel’s room closing.

Life had been good and a pleasant one and as she basted the meat before replacing it in the oven Mary Ann mentally retraced the days she had spent on the Ponderosa since little Daniel had been born. It seemed hardly any time at all since that night of the blizzard when Bridie O’Flannery had delivered the tiny infant and now here he was all of 8 months old. She could hear him shrieking with glee at the sight of his father and smiled to herself as she imagined the funny faces and tomfoolery her husband would be indulging in to make his son respond so happily.

In the main house, which most people still referred to as the Ponderosa when referring to the three buildings built so closely together, Hoss Cartwright was bouncing his eldest daughter on his knee while she told him the story of Betsy and the geese. Hester was having to translate here and there as she hovered in the background setting out the table for the supper and listening in.

It appeared that Hop Sing had been given several geese by a cousin of his and had been very excited at introducing them to the Cartwright menagerie. However, he had seemed to have forgotten that geese were very territorial and could be very aggressive, and after they had succeeded in terrifying the hens they turned their attention onto the smallest member of the humans among them. Hannah was seldom without her rag doll and for some reason they identified the ugly thing as part of the human group so whenever Hannah appeared they ran at her to peck and pull and hiss at the doll which rendered poor Hannah into quite speechless terror.

“They skeer me.” she confided to her Pa, settling her head upon his shoulder.

“Shucks, honey, they’re jest big birds, you don’t need to be skeered of them.” Hoss replied stroking her back gently and dropping a kiss on the top of her head.

“Hop Ting not put ’em away. Hannah don’t like ’em.” she pouted “Betsy don’t like ’em.”

Hester sighed and shook her head recalling the number of times she had had to re-stuff Betsy to her former glory because of the damage the geese had done her, the poor thing was now a contender for ugliest doll in existence as she even made Sofia’s doll, Clarabelle, look reasonably cute.

Hannah sighed remembering another grievance to bring to her father’s attention “Dan-Dan bit off Betsy’s nose.”

“Shucks, too bad.” Hoss sighed and picked his daughter up and set her down “I guess he was hungry huh?”

Hannah nodded and having had ample time on her beloved daddy’s lap went off to find Betsy. He rose to his feet and walked over to the crib where Hope slept, he rocked it slowly for a few minutes with a bemused expression on his face for he just could never quite get his head around the fact that such delicate beautiful babies came about the way they did, and they were his, and Hesters. His smile broadened as he felt his wife’s arms slip around his waist and she whispered “Happy, Hoss?”

“More’n I probably deserve to be.” Hoss sighed and turned to her, held her close in his arms “I can’t always believe it, you know. Hester. I sure am glad I met you before I started working on that list I wrote up.”

She looked at him doubtfully and then remembered how he had drawn up a list of potential spinsters in the territory when he had decided the time had come for him to do some ‘wife hunting’. “I’m glad I spared you so much time and trouble.”

“- and money.” he added with a grin, “It could have cost me a small fortune paying out for candy and flowers for all them ‘gals.’”

She pinched his cheek and wrinkled her nose at him before laughingly hurrying off before he could playfully swat at the bustle on her dress. Hop Sing came and smiled, “Supper all ready now you come eat while hot or have for blekfast in morning.”

Hoss sighed and sat down, glanced at the empty chair where Ben would normally have sat and frowned “Wonder how Pa’s getting on. Sure hope Adams ship came in on time.” He frowned and looked at the meat “Hey, Hop Sing, this here chicken sure is an odd shape.”

“Not chicken. Goose.” came the immediate reply with a nod of the head and a wink of the eye.
……………

Ben pulled out the chair away from the table for Olivia to be seated before assisting the children into their seats. The Maitre d’ of the restaurant came and smiled, slipped the menu’s onto the table and stepped back for the wine waiter to do his duty. Ben frowned at the empty chair and looked over at the Maitre d’ “The Commodore will be joining us later, Josef.”

Josef nodded, bowed and asked if they would like to wait for their order but Olivia said it would be better to get the food now as the children were already tired. Reuben was petulant and swinging his feet too and fro, while Sofia was feeling awed by the hustle and bustle of people in the opulent surroundings. She looked at Ben and then at Olivia with big eyes and was about to speak when there was the sound of a familiar voice behind her and she smiled, turned to look up as Adam approached.

“Sorry I’m late.” he murmured and with a smile at Ben, a kiss on the top of Sofia’s head, a tweak of Reuben’s nose and a kiss on Olivia’s cheek Adam took his seat. Dressed in his uniform he struck an impressive figure, and a familiar one to Josef and the staff to whom he had become a regular client.

“Did you see the Admiral?” Ben asked before anything else was said and Adam nodded, scanned the menu and looked at Olivia with a smile just for her and a wink that assured her that everything was well. “You aren’t being sent away anywhere?”

“Only to the Ponderosa, Pa.” Adam’s smile broadened and he loosened his jacket a little to become more comfortable.

“I was afraid they were going to reassign you.” Ben grumbled, “So what was it all about?”

Adam frowned and shrugged “Not very much really, just a quick resume of the trip, and to go over some old ground regarding the Alaskan venture.” He looked at Ben “You remember, with Pelman and the Andres?”

“Ahh, yes.” Ben scowled and then shook his head “What about it? “

“Pa? Let’s order -” Adam nodded to indicate the hovering waiters and Josef who was trying not to look impatient.

He told them what little was necessary to be said and even if Ben was sure that he was missing some things out in the telling he said nothing realising that for Olivia’s sake some things were best kept unmentioned. All it seemed to boil down to was a confirmation of who was involved in the expedition to Irena Pestchouroff’s village and who had actually shot a man called Alexei Lebedev. Having said all that was, he felt, necessary, Adam relaxed and entertained his children with stories of what would amuse them and make them laugh, until Olivia had to caution him that if he made them laugh any more they would have tummy aches and not sleep.

…………………..

Ben sat in a not particularly comfortable chair in what was the sitting room of their private hotel suite and leaned towards his son who was standing by the fire warming his hands for the evening had turned much cooler. “Adam, while Olivia’s out of the room, was there anything said that I should know?”

Adam glanced at his father and gave a slight grin “Not much gets past you, does it, Pa?”

“Not where you and your brothers are concerned, you should know that by now.”

Adam nodded and turned back to look at the flames before saying very quietly “He just wanted to know how soon I could get out of San Francisco and was mighty relieved when I told him I was leaving first thing in the morning.”

“Any reason as to why?”

Adam paused for a moment and glanced towards the door of the room where Olivia could be heard talking to Reuben, he then looked at Ben “One of the Russian delegates is the brother of the man O’Brien killed in Alaska.”

“What has that to do with you?”

“I was O’Brien’s Commanding Officer.” Adam said quietly and then smiled slowly as he bowed his head as though to contemplate more closely the way the flames danced over the wood in the grate “Even though O’Brien thought I was dead at the time it may not have been mentioned to Count Lebedev that I was not capable of giving the command to shoot him.”

“They think he may be on the look out for you?”

Adam shrugged “It prevents them being forced to have me involved in any of the discussions they have, they’ll have to rely on the reports and statements we have already given.” he turned now towards Olivia and stretched out his arm to wards “Are they alright, sweetheart?”

“Yes, sleepy and happy to know we are going home tomorrow.” she took his hand and allowed him to help her into the chair next to Ben, “What were you two talking about so secretively?”

Adam laughed, a quiet chuckle and glanced over at his father who smiled and squeezed Olivia’s hand “Nothing for you to be worried about.”

“Ah now, your saying that gives me good reason to start worrying, Ben.” she looked at her husband who was still smiling “Well?”

“Pa’s right, it’s nothing about which to worry about, just that the Admiral was pleased to know that we were leaving in the morning. I think he was afraid I would be hankering after his job if I stayed too long here in San Francisco.”

She looked at him doubtfully but said nothing. Perhaps in the privacy of their room he would enlarge on what needed to be said, if that was at all necessary.

Chapter 6

Seeing his wife for the first time in six weeks was particularly special for Adam. During those weeks her body had undergone a few changes to accommodate the growing foetus and as she brushed out her hair he sat on the edge of the bed looking at her, observing her intently. Finally she put down her brush and looked at him “What’s the matter? Am I too fat ?”

He laughed at the expression on her face, his dear Olivia worrying because she was too fat when really he was just totally enraptured by the whole process of this pregnancy; he stood up and walked to wards her, placed his hands gently upon her shoulders and gazed into the eyes staring at him from the mirror “I love every single inch of you, my darling girl. You are more beautiful to me than I could ever imagine anyone could be…” the fingers of his left hand slowly trailed down her arm then beneath her breast to gently caress the mound of her body where his son or daughter lay, “It’s hard for me to believe this is true, you know.”

She stood up now, holding his hand with her own so that he could feel the slight fluttering movements of the baby for himself and his smile, the way his head leaned forwards so that his brow touched hers made her heart tighten with the longing for him, the love was so intense that she could have cried tears if it were not that he may have misconstrued the reason for them.

“Imagine it, Livvy, there could have been two of them in there …” he paused, realised that was probably one of the most tactless things he could have said so sighed and looked into her eyes, the shifting sea green of them were dark so kissed her nose, her lips, “What I mean is, this little one is a fighter, isn’t he?”

“She?” she whispered beneath his lips and she could feel his smile moving upon hers, and then her arms wrapped around his body and held him close, so close that he had to catch her arm and lower her gently upon the bed before they had both fallen upon it.

Now was not the time for speech, for talking of what was now irrelevant … now was the time for hungry kisses filling an appetite that had long been denied, of caresses and tender whispering words of love that fell upon the hearers ears like the refreshing dew of morning. As their fingers touched and reminded each other of one another so their love was reaffirmed, sweetly safeguarded and treasured in the act of perfect blissful union .

She woke later that night to the sound of her husbands whispered words not of love, but of struggle and torment, of the names of men whom he spoke of as gazing upon walls of ice and skies full of snow with their unclosed eyes. He groaned aloud at one point so that she had to put a hand on his shoulder and gently shake him awake…

“Darling, you’re having a bad dream. Wake up, wake up.”

For a moment he lay there very still, hovering between being held captive to the dream and waking. With a sigh he forced open his eyes and looked up into her face, shrouded though it was in shadow. His hand reached up and touched her cheek, traced the outline of her face “Livvy?”

“You were dreaming.”

“I woke you up, I’m sorry.” his voice was a whisper, and a sigh. He sat up and rubbed his face, wondered aloud what time it could be and then kissed her “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, I don’t sleep too well just now anyway.” she leaned upon her elbow and looked down at him, “You haven’t had a nightmare like that for some time.”

“No.?”

“Mostly before it was about Jiang Peng but this time you were talking about a man called Rostov and someone called – Irena.”

She had tried not to say the woman’s name with any coldness but she was a woman herself, and she loved him, and this Irena was someone he had never mentioned to her. She sighed, “You don’t have to tell me if you’d prefer not to do so.”

He sat for a while, frowning and staring over to where the curtains swayed in a slight breeze across the window. He knew that she wanted to know, the tone of her voice indicated that and he didn’t blame her for it so he took her in his arms and as he lay back down upon the pillows he drew her down with him so that her head rested upon that curve of his body that God had formed especially for her.

“Irena Pestchauroff was a beautiful woman, old enough to be my mother, a Russian lady who had married an Aleut fisherman. She possessed some papers that the Government needed and I was assigned to get them from her. She was totally dedicated to her husbands’ people and was a very brave woman.”

“Is she still alive?” she whispered.

“No. A Russian called Alexei Lebedeve killed her.” his voice trailed away and he sighed as though the memory of that time had reached out, as indeed it had, “I only knew her for a few hours but she wasn’t a woman one can easily forget.”

“And Rostov?”

“Ships carpenter, spoke Russian and some Aleut. He was one of my men who came with me to find Irena. He died with a young man called Jack Lawson. I had to leave them behind.”

“But they were dead?” she whispered “What else could you have done?”

“I know …” he paused and stared up at the ceiling while his fingers continued to stroke her bare shoulder “Talking to the Admiral today brought it all back to my mind I guess, it’s as if I can’t forgive myself for letting them down. I can‘t seem to get it out of my head that they really were dead, I just keep seeing them there staring up at the sky and – and – ” he firmed his lips as though refusing to allow another word to pass them upon the subject.

She could feel his heart thudding faster beneath her hand, and slowly stroked his brow just as if he had been her little boy, her Reuben. He reached up and took hold of her hand and kissed its palm. “I love you, Livvy, so much. You can’t imagine how hard it is to leave you, but how happy I am to come home .”
……………………….

On board the Russian ship ‘Batory’ Count Vladamir Viktor Lebedev was also awake and thinking of matters relating to the death of his brother. He was looking through various papers, each one of which he scrutinised with a thoroughness that indicated his earnest desire to find some hidden meaning behind the words that he had read time and time again over the past years.

Eventually he set the papers down and placed them in a leather folder which was in turn transferred to a case which he buckled in place. Then he rose to his feet and walked to the port hole of his cabin and looked over to the lights of the city. This new world , he mused, so progressive, young and enthusiastic and always seeking to devour other lands, other enterprises. He nodded slowly as though in agreement with his own thoughts before striding back to his desk and turning up the lamp’s flame, new worlds, new cities, always prepared to overthrow the old, to discard the past. Those huddled masses of people from all the different lands from which they came were all part of one nation now that challenged his country for power and authority in the world of this day. He shook his head and pulled out a drawer from the bureau from which he withdrew a bottle of vodka and some glasses, then he clenched his fist and thumped on the partition wall “Doestov, come, drink with me.”

Dimitri Doestov rolled from his cot and shook his head in order to remove the last vestiges of sleep. He pulled on a velvet jacket and after sweeping his hand over his hair and picking up his cigarettes he made his way to the Count’s room. A glass of vodka was thrust into his hand immediately he entered “Sit down, Dimitri.”

Doestov put the glass down on the bureau, “Drinking this early will not leave you a clear head for this mornings meeting, Excellency.”

Lebedev shook his head and waved a hand is dismissal, not of Doestov who would have been grateful to have scuttled back to his bed, but in regard to what had been said. “No, no, it’s alright, I can think straighter when I have had some vodka in me. Stop looking so nervous, Dimitri.”

“I am only worried for you, Viktor. You have a lot at stake here, not only with regard to your brother but to Count Alexander Milyutin Gorchakov’s request to you.”

The Count’s face fell and darkened, the fine lips thinned and eyes narrowed “Gorchakov!” he spat and immediately tossed back the vodka, “If he had spoken up at the time then the Tsar would never have sold the land to the Americans. “

“Ah well, my friend, he preferred at the time to keep silent and there is nothing we can do about it.” Dimitri sat down on a chair and regarded the Count anxiously while at the same time recalling to mind the man’s brother, Alexei and how often he had spent similar evenings in cramped ships quarters with him.

“Will he be there, do you think?” Lebedev asked, picking up the bottle and checking to see how much was still in it.

“Who do you mean? The Commodore?”

“Yes.”

“Who knows?” Dimitri shrugged and inhaled a lungful of smoke which he slowly exhaled. “There is little reason for him to be there, surely?”

“There’s every reason for him to be there. You know that as well as I?”

“Well, he doesn’t know why you would want him there, would he?” Dimitri shrugged slightly and inhaled another lungful of smoke.

“Sometimes,” the Count murmured as he looked at the other man with some distaste, “I am not too sure who you support in this matter, Dimitri. You seem to have just too much sympathy for this Commodore for my liking.”

“I owe him my life several times over.” Dimitri said dryly, and tapped ash into the silver box he carried with him, a habit he knew irritated most people after a very short time. “Perhaps it is for this reason that Count Gorchakov sent me to be your aide on this assignment. To make sure that your personal feelings do not overshadow the real purpose of this meeting with the Americans.”

Lebedev threw himself down into a chair, long legs stretched out and arms lolling across the back, he shook his head and black hair fell across his face, “Gorchakov knows nothing about it.”

Dimitri crooked an eyebrow and said nothing although he reached for the glass of vodka and gulped some down. He looked at Vladamir Viktor Lebedev thoughtfully and wondered if the man realised just how much Count Gorchakov, State Chancellor of all Russia and Poland at that time, actually did know.

It seemed to Dimitri Doestov that Lebedev lacked the cunning and the cold aloofness of his brother. That where Alexei had been cunning and crafty, cruel and autocratic, Vladamir was just weak and shifting, sly and devious, yes, he was cruel but not in the way of his brother who enjoyed inflicting pain upon his victims. Vladamir preferred others to do his deeds for him and at a distance. He put down the glass and stood up “I shall see you later. Time is getting on and we need to have our wits about us when we meet the Americans. The Secretary of State Mr Fish is a man of experience and wise in the art of statesmanship. Vladamir, you must keep your wits about you.”

Lebedev said nothing but watched as Doestov left the cabin. He reached for the bottle again, hesitated and then with a sigh replaced it in the drawer. He rose to his feet, a tall man, dark just as his brother had been; after a moments pause he returned to look beyond the port hole at the city laid out before him.

Chapter 7

Reuben Phillips Cartwright was more than excited to be homeward bound at last. His eyes constantly strayed to the boxes and packages that had been carefully stowed away along with his father’s belongings, and he knew for a certainty that they hadn’t been among the luggage they had brought from the Ponderosa. All different shapes and sizes and as they wobbled about on the storage rack above them he tried to imagine what they would contain.

Sofia was just content to sit between her Daddy and Mommy. She fidgeted a great deal for a while, chattered about nothing for a more than considerable time before she finally fell asleep with a very long contented sigh. Somehow she had managed to get up onto Adam’s lap and settled her head against his chest, listened for a while to the beat of his heart and was soon drifting to sleep.

To Ben it was like looking at someone else’s dream come true. He looked upon his son sitting beside Olivia holding her hand with the child on his, Adam’s, lap and it all seemed unreal. With his head resting against the bolstered headrest he allowed his mind to drift back over the years, so many years, where he would be cajoling or urging his sons to get married and provide him with grandchildren and now., well, it had happened without him even realising it or having to raise a finger.

He sighed, and now that he had it, he found himself constantly wishing he could turn back the clock to when they were four men happy enough on the Ponderosa with Hop Sing bustling about and a days work to be done, and far more easily than it was now with his aches and pains a constant reminder to the fact that even he, Ben Cartwright, couldn’t hold back time.

“What’s on your mind, Pa?” Adam asked with a smile on his face and his voice drifting above the head of the sleeping child on his lap.

“Oh, I was just thinking of how things change.” Ben replied very quickly and smiled back, “I remember one time saying to you and your brothers that as soon as marriage appeared likely the lot of you scattered as fast as buckshot, and now here you all are, settled happily and with children of your own.”

Olivia smiled at him now, and gripped more tightly to Adam’s hand before turning her head to smile up at him. Adam chuckled “There were one or two times we thought you were going to settle down again, Pa. You – er – managed to avoid getting tied down yourself pretty neatly as well if I recall rightly.”

Ben nodded slowly and the black eyes look rather sombre as he recalled those times; there had been Joyce of course, he had loved her for a long time and then she had ridden away when her husband had been killed that by crazy Gideon. She had written once or twice for about a year and then nothing, nothing at all. Strange to think that the Edwards property was now owned by Candy and Ann Canady, and had been Andrew and Barbara Pearsons beforehand.

He frowned, well yes, there was Katherine; that had been somewhat of a misjudgement of feelings, once it had become obvious to what extent she had felt for that miserable murdering thug of a son of hers. He looked at Adam and saw the smile still lingering on his son’s lips and shrugged “If you think I have any intention of considering Clementine Hawkins as a future wife, you can think again.”

They all laughed together at that knowing how much Clementine adored Ben, and how terrified Ben was of her, well, perhaps … maybe… the softening of his features indicated that there was a fondness for the irascible little widow but that was more than likely due to the number of years they had known one another than for any other reason.

“Pa?” Reuben chipped in now, sensing that the adults were in a convivial and therefore more approachable mood “What’s in all them there boxes?”

Adam frowned “What’s in those boxes?”

Reuben nodded, failing to see that Adam was attempting to correct his grammar, “Yeah … them.”

Adam grinned, “Well, son, you’ll just have to wait to find out, won’t you?”

“Bet it isn’t any present for me or Sofia, would it be?” Reuben sighed theatrically and rolled his eyes, slumped back in his seat and looked doleful.

“Bet it isn’t.” Adam replied with twinkling eyes with a teasing note to his words but Reuben frowned and stared back up at the boxes .

“But you didn’t go away with all them there boxes, did you?”

Adam sighed and shook his head, he looked at his wife “I think our son is spending too much time with his Uncle Hoss.”

“I ain’t.” Reuben scowled, “I’m spending too much time with school, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t have no time left for fishin’ or playin’ or anythin’.”

“That makes life hard,” Adam replied looking suitably glum on his son’s behalf , “All boys should be able to have time for fishinG, and playinG and everythinG else for that matter.”

“Yeah, that’s what I reckon an’ all.” Reuben nodded, “Will you tell Miss Brandon that, Pa? Tell her she gives us too much homework and stuff.”

“I’m sure Miss Brandon only gives you what she thinks you are capable of doing each evening.” Adam leaned back and looked at Olivia “He is keeping up with his school work isn’t he?”

“Yes, and he’s doing really well. Miss Brandon was really pleased with his work when I saw her last week.”

“Well, that’s good. I’d hate to give any present at all to a little boy who doesn’t work hard at school.”

Reuben laughed and clapped his hands as he jumped off the seat with delight, his Pa had bought him at least one present after all, and when Adam laughed along with him he just had to throw himself on top of Sofia to give his Pa a hug.

Ben sighed and smiled, he nodded at Olivia who was looking so content, so happy and had caught his eye. What more could he have asked for, he told himself, the joy within this little family was a delight to see, to be part of , so much so he had to turn away and look out of the window at the scenery swiftly slipping away.
……….

The month of October was slipping away now but the weather was holding warm and pleasant. In San Francisco, Secretary of State Fish and several other diplomats from both the Foreign and Interior Departments welcomed the delegates to the conference to discuss, yet again, the sale of the Alaskan territories to America. It seemed to Hamilton Fish that it was a ‘gift’ that had come with a bomb secreted inside it and they were about to see it explode in their faces at moment.

Lebedev and Doestov took their seats along with their companions and associates while opposite to them sat the British delegation. As the Duke of Sutherland looked around the table he wondered briefly if anything he and his companions said would be listened to as the Americans already seemed to dominate the proceedings even before it had begun.

He rose to his feet and looked at everyone, made the necessary introductions and then briefly introduced the subjects to be discussed. Glancing around the table at the look on the faces of the other men he inwardly sighed as it appeared quite obvious that no one was prepared to give quarter about anything. If he thought for a moment that some of those present had an axe to grind, he couldn’t have been more correct for Lebedev sat back and waited for the precise moment in which to wield his own particular one.

It was late in the afternoon and all members of the meeting were becoming weary of talk and rhetoric that took them round and round in circles. Lebedev lounged back casually in his chair and staring coldly at Hamilton Fish demanded to know if Commodore Adam Cartwright would be attending the proceedings in the morning.

The British delegation froze slightly, caught unawares as to the reasons why the man who had brought them from England would be required to be present and Sutherland turned to Fish who shook his head, “Commodore Cartwright will not be attending any meeting to do with this situation.”

“Why not?” Lebedev demanded while his face went a rather sickly pallor, he looked at Sutherland “You know this Cartwright, you came with him on his ship.”

It was an accusation rather than a question and Sutherland nodded “That’s true, but I have no idea what it is you would need to see the Commodore about in connection with what we are discussing here.”

“He said nothing to you?”

“Should he have done?” Sutherland looked at the other delegates all of whom shook their heads, shrugged and looked confused, he then turned to Hamilton Fish “Do you know what this is in connection with, sir?”

“I believe Count Lebedev is under the misapprehension that the Commodore is more involved that he was… but I assure you ..”

“He was there, sir.” Lebedev said in his heavily accented voice “He was in Alaska and brought back to his Government the papers of Pestchouroff that should have been ours.” he thumped the desk and glared around the table, “If we had had those papers returned to us then you would not have got possession of the gold fields as easily.”

Sutherland stood up, tall and proud and with a dignity that the Russian Count had appeared to have lost, he raised a hand for silence which out of respect to him he instantly received “Some of us do not know anything about these papers nor the Commodore’s involvement in them. I suggest that we adjourn this meeting now and we shall re-convene in the morning. Mr. Secretary of State, it you do have any information to give us before tomorrow about this matter we would be grateful to have it to study this evening …”

Fish bowed his head and sighed, signalled to his clerk to bring forth a folder which he signalled was to be handed to Sutherland. He looked at Lebedev and no one would have guessed what was r unning through his mind as he did so at the time as he politely asked if that was in order with him. Lebedev rose to his feet, “And the Commodore?”

“I’m sorry, he isn’t available.” Fish replied, “He isn’t anywhere in the vicinity.”

“He was here this morning …” Dimitri Doestov murmured as he lit a cigarette with a casual grace that was as repellent as it was mesmorising.

“That was this morning…” Fish replied.

“Then you must bring him back from wherever he is …” Lebedev hissed, “I demand it.”

Fish shook his head “No, sir, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

Everyone there knew the opposite was true, but no one said a word. Sutherland picked up the folder and with a bow to the Count and a muttered good evening to everyone he left the room. He was followed instantly by the Russians leaving Fish and his associates watching them go. “Shall we send someone to bring the Commodore back, sir?”

Fish looked at his secretary thoughtfully, then shook his head “No. If anything I’d rather order him to Timbuctoo than have him return here right now. If Lebedev’s brother was half as vile as he is, I can well understand why O’Brien took a gun to him.” he sighed bowed his head and picked up the papers from the table, “Let’s get back to work, I think we’ll all be up burning the midnight oil at this rate.”

The secretary, a bright young man took the folders from him and walked along side him “Seems to me pretty pointless, sir, coming to discuss this matter of the Alaskan holdings now, after all it’s been some years since we took possession of it and they’ve not bothered to make a claim on it before. They can’t expect us to hand it back, surely?”

“No, but they want compensation for what they’ve lost out on, you have to remember they’re involved in a war with Turkey and strapped for cash, they need to find something from somewhere. Anyway,” Hamilton Fish sighed “I think it’s just been an excuse for Lebedev to rake over old coals and try to set this matter of his brother’s death alight again.”

“Can’t see why, sir.”

The older and wiser man shrugged “Can’t you?” he sighed again and shook his head sadly, “Well, no matter.”

The young man turned into the Secretary of State’s office and set the folders down, turned the flames up in the lamps and sat down at his own desk while Fish removed his jacket and took his seat. Revenge, he thought, was obviously not only the provence of the Italians… and he had an uneasy feeling that it wouldn’t be dished up cold!

Chapter 8

A new morning dawned with a light rain falling upon the city. The cabs bearing the British and Russian delegation arrived at the same time, in front of the large imposing building where the meeting was to be held for the second consecutive day. The vehicles stopped one after the one in a line up close to the wide steps that led to the main entrance.

Lebedev stepped down and shook out his long coat with its extravagant white fox fur collar and looked around him with all the haughtiness he could muster before he began to make his way up the steps. He was followed closely by Doestov but niether had gone far before a voice hailed them from behind and upon turning it was to see the Duke of Sutherland making his elegant arrival. He bowed to Lebedev with a courtesy expected of one aristocrat to another and received the Count’s slight bow in return. “Your Grace,” Sutherland said quietly, “I’ve been reading through the statements of the people involved in the situation in Alaska…”

His pause allowed all of them to advance a few more steps, Lebedev finally sighed and said “Well?” as though the other man’s opinion was of little interest but had to be listened to for the sake of conformity.

“Well, to be honest, I think it would be wiser for you if you were to keep one particular aspect of the situation closed.” when Lebedev continued to just stare at him with a look on his face that indicated he had caught the whiff of a bad smell, Sutherland continued “We are here to discuss your country’s case in regard to the sale and purchase of Alaska and the resultant discoveries that your State Chancellor feels justifies an enquiry into the manner in which the purchase was made. We are not here to look into the situation regarding your brother’s death or Commodore Cartwright’s involvement in it.” he frowned and sighed as Lebedev merely twitched an eyebrow “I’ve read through the statements of all concerned, sir, and there is no indication anywhere that Cartwright killed your brother.”

Lebedev scowled and he stared at Sutherland with a coldness that indicated that had they been in Russia there would have been a challenge issued for them to be meeting at dawn with swords or pistols in hand. He shook his head “It is a matter of honour, I cannot do as you ask.”

“I would have thought it more of a matter of honour that you should not pursue it.”

They continued on their way, but Lebedev declined to say anything more except to turn to Dimitri and mutter in Russian something in a rather cold voice that made Sutherland step back with a frown on his face and a shake of the head.

George Fortesque joined the Duke as they walked more slowly along the corridor to the room where the meeting was to be held. They watched as the Russians strode forwards and were engulfed within the dark interior ahead of them, “He must be blind to the consequences …” he murmured.

“He has a personal axe to grind and hatred is blinding him to the obvious facts.” Sutherland replied stepping through the entrance as the doors were swung open to him

“He should have kept it personal then instead of airing it in public.” Canning said quietly as he joined them, his hands clasped behind his back and head bowed.
……………..

Saturn stood in the centre of the corral his dark eyes watching the man coming from the house. He nodded his handsome head several times as though acknowledging his master even though he refused to accept that was what the man was actually becoming; he pawed the ground with his foreleg and whinnied softly as the gate opened and Joe entered.

Man and horse stood still to observe one another, each wondering what the other would be thinking if such a thing were possible for a horse. Joe held the bridle loose in his hands and advanced to the horse although his mind was more on what Candy had said only the previous day, about Saturn being the kind of creature that should be returned to the wild, that it wasn’t his nature to be tamed.

“There now, boy,” he smiled and stroked the soft velvet muzzle and jawbone of the animal, “You’re a real beauty aren’t’cha? Reckon you and me we’re getting on fine, ain’t we? “

Saturn pricked his ears back and then forwards, he pawed the ground a little more and stepped back a pace or two before giving Joe a nudge in the shoulder. Joe handed him some sugar lumps and stood still while the horse chomped through them and then looked expectantly at him, as though to say ‘More?’

“C’mon, we’ve work to do. I want to be able to show Pa and Adam just how fine we get along now. Adam sure will be peeved seeing us riding out of here seeing how he didn’t get that far with Jupiter.”

Slowly and carefully he got the bridle and bit into place after all this wasn’t’ the first time and Saturn was used to it now, even if he did make a bit of fuss every time. Next the blanket and then the saddle, and always done with Joe’s usual careful handling as though he respected that the horse might not like it so much but just needed a little reassurance that everything was going to be just fine once he allowed it to happen.

From the top window of the house Mary Ann watched her husband with the horse. She held little Daniel in her arms and bounced him up and down while he chuckled and coo’d , “See, look, Daniel, look at Daddy?”

She tapped the window and got the baby’s attention so that Daniel glanced down and saw his father, clapped his hands and bounced more energetically up and down making Mary Ann laugh as he did so.

It didn’t take but a moment for Joe to swing into the saddle and put Saturn through his paces. After so many weeks now the horse knew what was expected of him and Joe appreciated what the animal was prepared to give, knowing that in time there would be more. The practice session took twenty minutes but it was all he had to spare as there was work to be done. He slid from the saddle and rewarded the horse with more sugar lumps as he stroked the glossy black neck, “You know, won’t be long before we can go riding out on the range. You’ll like that, you’ll be able to get to know more of the other horses we use and you’ll get used to riding along with the cattle. “

Saturn chomped on his sugar lumps and drooled a little, he pushed Joe in the back as though ordering him out of the corral which made the young man laugh as he carried the tack over to t he rails and hoisted the saddle onto the top bar. The sound of a horseman entering the yard made Joe pause and look up, smile broadly and raise a hand “Hi, Hoss, I won’t be but a moment.”

“Best hurry up, Joe, I want this dang job finished with before Pa gits back and we’re already a day behind schedule.” Hoss nodded over towards Saturn “How’s he doing?”

“Really good.” Joe smiled and closed the gate, “He’s a fine horse, ain’t he?”

Hoss leaned on his saddle horn and observed Saturn for about the thousandth time since Joe got him, he nodded “He sure is, Joe, every bit as fine as he was yesterday and even the day before that, now jest git moving will ya?”

Glancing up to the window Joe saw Mary Ann and Daniel, he raised a hand and waved before walking to the stable to get Navajo saddled and ready for the task ahead. “When’s Pa due to arrive anyhow?”

“Early tomorrow morning.”

“Plenty of time then…” Joe grinned as he tightened the cinch, “Here, Hoss, grab yourself an apple.” and with a laugh he tossed his brother one from the barrel which Hoss deftly caught and began to eat while waiting for Joe to mount up.

The rain falling on San Francisco hadn’t crossed the mountains to reach them, the day was pleasant with just a cooling breeze eddying around them and as they galloped from the Ponderosa into the open range both brothers felt a sense of well being and pleasure with no thought of any danger befalling them or those they loved in all those tomorrows yet to come.
……………

The discussion around the table had gone on for hours. Imprecations and insults, along with arguments and curses had been hurled between all parties and the hours had ticked away until daylight was beginning to fade. Secretary of State Fish closed his folders and stood up, drew himself to his full height and announced they felt nothing had been accomplished it was therefore sensible to close the proceedings.

“I will not be satisfied until I have Commodore Cartwright arrested and charged with the murder of my brother.” Lebedev announced coldly.

“Then you’re going to be disappointed, Count.” the Secretary of State replied, “because Commodore Cartwright did not commit murder. Let me put this to you straight yet again …” he leaned forward his eyes cold and narrowed “your brother killed Irena Pestchouroff, I have a statement from her daughter Valentina that he also killed those people in the village which he had destroyed before setting off to find my people. Your brother is responsible for the actions that took place on that frozen tundra all those years ago, for the deaths of two American seamen, and the near deaths of two officers.”

“I insist …” Lebedev’s nostrils became pinched and white as he jumped to his feet.

“Insist all you like, you have no jurisdiction here, no argument to put forward to force us to do what you wish when we have more against your brother and -” he turned to Dimitri who was in the process of lighting another of his interminable cigarettes “neither do you, do not think for a moment that we have forgotten that you were responsible for the death of Mr. Abbott, the Commodore’s steward. If the matter was not so delicate at present I would see that you were escorted back to your ship and never allowed foot on American soil again.”

All the British delegation were already on their feet, Sutherland looked from Fish to Lebedev who was standing very still and very quiet, Dimitri Doestov now stood up, slowly, and bowed to the assembly in a slow mincing manner, he smiled slowly “Thank you for reminding me of that tragic error on my part, it was regretted immediately of course, an accident I assure you.”

“Nevertheless …” Fish said and with a nod of the head moved to leave then paused, “I think we can say that this wraps up the discussions relating to the Alaskan affair?”

Sutherland sighed, shook his head, “I don’t know, I have a feeling that whatever we have concluded today will no doubt come back on us some other time.”

“Thank you for your assistance, Your Grace, Mr. Fortesque, Mr Canning.”

Hands were shaken, bows made, etiquette observed. The Americans left the room and the Russian party began to gather up their papers as the British turned to leave. Doestov watched as the doors closed upon them “Well, we have achieved not very much.”

“There is no honour here,” Lebedev admitted, his face was ashen and Doestov noticed how his hands were shaking, “But we expected it, so did Gorchakov.”

Dimitri frowned “I didn‘t know that your brother had destroyed the village … only that he had removed Irena Pestchouroff.”

“What does it matter?” came the cold reply, “They were nothing! Peasants!”

Count Alexander Milyutin shivered slightly, he had been reluctant to come on this mission feeling it a waste of time and that Lebedev was more interested in his personal vendetta than his country’s honour. As he shuffled his papers away he mentally made note of all that had taken place, later that evening he would write it all down in a private missive to the State Chancellor.

Sutherland looked over to Hamilton Fish and approached him once he ensured that the men who had been with them were a good few feet ahead. He gestured the way so that the two of them were seen to be walking together in the direction of the others, albeit at a slower pace.

“I don’t feel much was achieved at these meetings, Mr. Fish. Nor is there any point in continuing with them tomorrow.”

“I agree. “ Fish nodded and fingered the edge of the folders he had under his arm with a slight nervousness.

“I shall write out my report for you and for Gorchakov. I’m afraid the Russian Chancellor won’t be too happy with my findings. A pity he chose to have a loose cannon like Lebedev represent his cause.”

“A pointless exercise all round, Duke. Seems the only thing on Lebedev’s mind was his brother’s death and he used the whole matter of the Alaskan purchase as an excuse to force us to bend to his will. Well, I won’t have it… Commodore Cartwright is an honourable man, apart from which he did not fire the shot that killed Lebedev.”

“I’m afraid his brother refuses to listen or see reason.” Sutherland frowned, “From my reading of the statements the papers Cartwright had collected from Irena Pestchouroff contained more than a list of names.”

“As I told them -” Fish jerked his head to indicate the Russians still closeted together in the room, “everything on those papers had been written down by Count Pestchouroff, mineral and gold findings had already been located and known about, it was no secret.”

Sutherland nodded “But that list, those maps, were not in American hands until some time after the purchase of Alaska.”

Fish stopped and looked at Sutherland thoughtfully “If you have any point to make, you should have mentioned it in there.”

“I didn’t feel it would achieve much purpose. The fact remains though that Gorchakov may have known about those minerals prior to the sale -”

“In which case he should have mentioned it at the time. As it was Count Pestchouroff chose to give the papers to his cousin Irena, never really sure what she would do with them. I find that – shall we call it an omission ? – rather significant.”

Sutherland smiled “So do I.”

“Then we understand one another, sir?”

Sutherland nodded, they shook hands and without another word parted as the large doors to the outside world opened to them.

Chapter 9

On board the Shenandoah the British delegation made preparations to return to England feeling that the whole event had been unnecessary and fruitless. Had it been an attempt by the Russian Czar and his ministers to enlist their aid for their war against Turkey then it had miserably failed. The blame for that fell upon Lebedev’s head although even with him as a reasonable scapegoat they had all felt the demands of the Russians would not have been met.

The newly appointed Captain Hardy made all the necessary arrangements for the British guests to be accommodated before confirming orders to sail the next morning. During that time Sutherland, Fortesque and Canning and their men had to be content with cramped quarters and the racket of water and stores being loaded on board for the journey.

On the Russian ship Lebedev sought his own quarters and demanded vodka, caviar and privacy. Doestov and Milyutin were left to their own devices which were diverse, Milyutin preferring the cool air on deck while Doestov smoked endless cigarettes in the cabin and played constant games of Patience.

The reminder of the death of Abbott, the steward who had died in order to protect his Captain even if by accident, played heavily on Doestov’s mind. In all his dealings , underhand though they were and certainly sometimes very unscrupulous, he had never personally taken a life not before or since Abbott’s death. Now as he placed one card over the other and sought another for his next move he thought over the events of that time which led him to his more recent encounter with Adam Cartwright in Egypt. He sighed and as he did so the door opened and Milyutin entered, pulled out a chair and sat down. The men were of equal rank, similar age and experience and had worked together on various assignments so when Milyutin said “Lebedev is crazy.” Doestov simply agreed that yes, he was, sometimes.

“Sometimes?” Alexei shook his head, “No, I think he has gone totally overboard now. He’s lost total control. I can’t understand why Gorchakov would have sent him here on this assignment.”

Doestov shrugged and placed a Queen of Hearts over the Knave, “Don’t you?”

“Give me one good reason why ?” Alexei asked and rose to his feet to walk to where there were several decanters of alcohol, he shook his head again “No vodka.”

“Lebedev probably has it all stowed away in his cabin.” Doestov smiled a somewhat mirthless grin which stretched over his teeth giving him a rather skeletal appearance, “Gorchakov knew the Americans wouldn’t provide what he needed, why waste time on a skilled diplomat on such an errand that was doomed to failure.”

“Then why bother to arrange it at all?”

“Because the Czar demanded it and even though at times we never know who is in control of our beloved country, there are times when Gorchakov feels it is wiser to comply. Lebedev has the ear of the Czar, they are related after all.”

“I didn’t know that …” ALexei said with a slight frown, and poured out whisky for himself and Doestov, but the latter declined with a shake of the head. “You think Lebedev persuaded the Czar to arrange this?”

“Not really, but once he heard it was on his mind then I am sure that Vlad would have taken good advantage of it.”

“You know that Lebedev has given orders that we remain here?”

Dimitri frowned, paused a moment before placing a three of diamonds upon the two, he shook his head “I didn’t know that… but if we stay on board we are safe, this is Russian soil, there is no need to venture from it.”

“I don’t like the idea of being on board with a madman.”

“Well, at present we must just wait and see what happens.” Dimitri smiled again, and looked at the door as it was thrust open “Yes?”

Lebedev’s secretary and valet stood at the entrance looking at them both before telling them that they were summoned to the Count’s presence. As Doestov put down his last card and picked up his little silver box and his cigarettes he wondered just how much the man had overheard and how much would be repeated to his master.

Lebedev was sprawled across his divan and looked at them both through bloodshot eyes, it occurred to Alexei Milyutin that the man had been weeping, but Doestov just dismissed it as evidence that the man was drunk.

“You know I have given orders that this ship does not leave until I say so?”

Both men bowed and nodded affirmation and waited for more but some moments elapsed before Lebedev seemed capable of remembering what he had summoned them for , when he did he stood up and walked over to a port hole to observe the view beyond “Dimitri, you know this Adam Cartwright, what is he like?”

“In what way do you mean, Excellency? “

“His appearance .. Is he tall, fat or thin, old, young?”

“He is tall, well built. Handsome with dark colouring. I should think in his mid-forties.”

“Is that all?”

“What else is there to say?” Dimitri shrugged “He has recently married, his wife had two children a boy and a girl. “

“He lives some distance from here I am told?”

“Yes, he lives near Lake Tahoe, the ranch is called The Ponderosa.”

Lebedev scowled “The Ponderosa? Hmm. You have been making enquiries of your own about him perhaps?”

“Perhaps.” Dimitri tapped ash into the little silver box and then blew smoke softly into the room, “He has always intrigued me. I owe him my life after all.”

Lebedev waved that statement to one side and sat down, “Your description of him could fit hundreds of men.”

Dimitri merely shrugged “That is hardly my fault, Excellency. If I were asked to describe you -” he paused and felt it best to say nothing more but sighed and glanced over at Alexei.

Milyutin now ventured to ask why the interest now, and why were they not going to leave this country while the weather still held good. October, he ventured to say, could be a treacherous month on the seas.

To that Lebedev said nothing but poured himself another glass of vodka, as he did so there came an abrupt rap on the door which his valet opened to admit four men who, seeing themselves in the presence of the elite, removed their headwear and clutched it to their chests, bowed and looked expectantly at Lebedev.

Vlaldamir Lebedev stood up and with a curt nod to Alexei Milyutin and Dimitri Doestov dismissed them both. Mystified both men returned to their cabin where Dimitri sat down and stared at the cards still on the table. Milyutin muttered something but if fell on deaf ears so that the younger man decided it was better to leave him to his cards and his cigarettes.

Several hours later in the darkest hour of the night those four men made their way down the gangplank and stepped onto American soil.
………………

Adam Cartwright swung his case into the porch and then turned to take the packages from Ben so that his father could return to the carriage and collect more items. Olivia had already entered the house and was removing her hat and coat by the time they finally joined her in the big room. The house was warm and inviting, fires had been lit and there was food already cooking for the mid day meal. Reuben was nearly dancing on the spot with excitement as he watched his Pa slowly unbutton his coat. “Pa, hurry up, hurry up.”

“Why? What’s the urgency? I think your mother and I, and grandpa, need a good cup of coffee before we do anything else now.” he smiled and put his arm around his wife’s shoulders drawing her close to him and kissing her on the brow.

“Daddy, Reuben said you got presents.”

Adam laughed “I see, so that is why there’s all this hopping and skipping about, well, I don’t know.” he tugged at his earlobe and looked at Olivia “What do you think, Livvy? Have they been especially good children while I have been away?”

“Well, mmm, sometimes…” Olivia smiled indulgently at her son and daughter, “Most times.”

“Gran’pa, what do you think? Do they deserve presents?” Adam looked at Ben and winked, so that Ben scratched his head and frowned, then said “Wal, I don’t rightly know for sure.”

Sofia ran up to him and hugged him around the legs “Oh Granpa, I bin good, I bin good.”

He laughed and picked her up and swung her high for she was no weight at all, and her laughter always made him feel light hearted, Reuben sighed, “Do we have to wait long?”

Adam frowned and pulled Reuben’s hat down so that it covered his face “It will take as long as it takes,” he replied, a little disgruntled at his son’s persistence in getting presents above anything else.

“I thought Hoss and Joe would be here,” Ben said as he put Sofia back on her feet, “Perhaps they’d forgotten we were coming home today.”

Adam frowned, he had been a little disappointed not to have seen his brothers and their wives, but then he shrugged and tapped Ben on the chest “They’re busy men, Pa, and if you gave them a list of things that needed to be got done before you came home, they’re probably seeing that gets done.”

Olivia leaned down to put another log on the fire and turned as Cheng Ho Lee came into the room, bowed low and greeted them all with a wide smile, Sofia ran up to him “Cheng Ho Lee, Daddy’s got us all presents.”

“Except that we don’t know what they are yet.” Reuben muttered and pulled a face.

“Presents always good but better still to see happy smiles on all faces.” he bowed again, “Soon lunch be ready and visitors come I hear horse and buggy in yard.”

Ben laughed, a shout of a laugh, and turned to wards the door but Adam was already ahead of him and had it open and was standing on the porch with a wide grin on his face and hands on his hips waiting for their guests to clamber down from their horses and buggies

“Welcome home, brother.” Hoss whooped throwing his hat in the air and catching it again just as he reached Adams side

“Hey, Adam, you were gone and back again so quick we hardly had time to miss ya.” Joe laughed giving his brother a playful punch in the stomach and then ruffling his hair as though Adam were the younger brother all of age 10.

Hester and Mary Ann came next offering their cheeks to be kissed and kissing him in turn before sweeping into the house to embrace Olivia and ask about the journey. The infants had been carried in with their mothers while Hannah trailed in hanging onto Hester’s skirts but upon seeing her Uncle Adam again she raised her arms up and smiled so charmingly that he could do nothing else but swing her up into his arms and hug her close.

It always delighted Cheng Ho Lee to prepare and cook for these family gatherings. On the Ponderosa good food and hearty meals were expected, enjoyed and provided by Hop Sing, Bridie O’Flannery and now Cheng Ho Lee and each cooked to their own specific preferments. Now the table was being laden with good things and the glassware shone and the silver cutlery gleamed. Cheng Ho Lee beamed with pleasure as the family seated themselves ready to partake of his culinary delights. Only Reuben looked miserable as he kept casting covetous eyes over at the packages and parcels heaped beside his father’s case and valise.
……………….

Dimitri Doestov was told about the four men leaving the ship hours after they had gone. For some moments he sat very still with his face frozen into a mask where not even his eyelids flickered and then slowly he rose to his feet and without stopping to even pick up his cigarettes he made his way to Lebedev’s suite.

“What do you want?” the Count raised red rimmed eyes to his visitor and then shrugged “You want to know why we are still here?”

“You told us last evening why we are still here, Your Excellency. What I want to know is where have you sent those men.”

“Men? What men?” Lebedev’s brow furrowed and he rubbed his temples in small circular movements of his fingers, “Ah, those four men?”

“Yes, those four men you saw in your cabin when Milyutin and I were here.”

Lebedev shrugged and stood up to reach for a jacket that was hanging near to hand, he pulled it on slowly before looking at Doestov again “Still here, Dimitri?”

“You haven’t answered my question yet.” Doestov replied leaning against the wall of the cabin and staring at the younger man as though he were looking at something that had crawled from under a stone.

Lebedev shrugged “It’s no concern of yours. Those men are under my orders, not Gorchakov nor yours.”

“I know one of those men, Vlad, I know him from some years ago when he and I were saved from the sea and then allowed to return home. I know that he was one of the men who was with your brother …”

Lebedev raised an imperious hand in order to silence his companion from saying anything more, and Dimitri closed his mouth with a suddenness rather like a steel trap, he narrowed his eyes and nodded then in a quiet dismissive tone of voice he said “You are a fool, Vlad.”

He had slipped out of the room and closed the door before Lebedev had managed to reach the crystal decanter but he heard it shatter against the wood panelling and the door shook from the force of its weight. Lebedev’s curses followed Dimitri Doestov down the corridor to his cabin. Once inside he hastily gathered some of his personal belongings, bade farewell to Milyutin and made his way to the upper deck of the ship.

He was on American soil by the time Lebedev had reached the bridge with several of his personal guard, all armed and looking for the man who had dared to challenge the Count’s authority. From behind several massive metal storage cases on the wharf side Dimitri watched as the armed men paced along the length of the ships deck in the hope of finding him and until they eventually gave up the search. He shook his head, “Fool!” he hissed and spat derisively upon the ground before picking up his bag and making a silent but swift departure.

Chapter 10

Oh how hard to be a little boy trying to be patient while the grown ups ate and drank and talked. How hard to keep still and not fidget or cast covetous eyes over at the bundles and packages piled at the far wall of the room. Occasionally he couldn’t help a little sigh slip through his lips or a meaningful look steal up towards his Pa who seemed to be totally ignorant to the point of being uncaring about just how hard it was for little boys to keep still when presents were close by.

Finally the plates were cleared away, glasses refilled or coffee cups replenished and Aunt Hester took Helen away to be fed while Hannah and Sofia sat obediently at the table smiling at one another while Rosie and David sat together looking very grown up. In his basket Daniel slept snug and warm, totally oblivious of what life was going to be like for him in a few more years time.

Reuben looked appealingly around the room and caught Hoss’ eye, his Uncle winked at him and nodded but that was all. Couldn’t even Uncle Hoss remember what it was like to be a little boy, Reuben sighed, he had to remind himself that Uncle Hoss was old after all, and probably had forgotten. Next he caught Uncle Joe’s eye and put on his best begging big eyed look which seemed to confuse his Uncle who pulled a face and mouthed “What?”

Adam glanced over at Joe who tried to pull his face into features resembling a man attentive to the conversation around him rather than grimacing at his nephew. Adam then turned to Reuben, frowned and asked him if he had finished eating to which Reuben said that he had in such a voice as to sound as though he were either suffering from indigestion or really longing for more.

Adam looked over at his wife who gave him a small smile before looking at Hannah and Sofia, those two paragons of good behaviour at the table, and gave them a word of commendation for being so well mannered. Hester returned and placed Helen upon blankets in the big chair and it was then that Adam turned to Reuben

“Well, now, son, are you ready to help me ?”

“Oh yes, Pa.” Reuben bounced off his chair and then paused, there was something about the way Adam stood up and moved from his chair that made the boy suspicious. Had his Pa really wanted help with the presents, or was it to bring in more wood or … he looked furtively over at his mother who was whispering something to Ann.

Adam cleared his throat and everyone became silent and turned their attention to him “As you know my last trip was to London and Oxford in England…” they laughed at that, everyone knew where London and Oxford was but once the laughter had trickled away Adam nodded and placed a hand elegantly upon his chest as though he were an orator about to pour forth a sermon “While I was there I couldn’t resist the chance to get you all something – so Reuben is going to help me hand out the presents, aren’t you, Reuben?”

Inwardly Reuben said ‘whoopee’ but he just smiled and nodded politely at his father before following him to the pile of packages. Now here Adam spent a few moments hemming and hawing, and wondering about this shape parcel and that size package before handing one to his son “That is for your aunt Hester…”

Back and forth went the little boy, carrying a gift to everyone, there was even something for baby Helen Hope who surely wouldn’t appreciate it, and there were gifts for Hop Sing, Cheng Ho Lee and ‘Flannel’ which were to be taken to them although Reuben had to carry Cheng Ho Lee’s into the kitchen.

Paper was torn off and exclamations of delight and surprise and appreciation uttered. The girls squealed in delight at their new toys, David clambered down from his chair to play with his whip and top right away and ran laughing around the furniture as the top spun and wobbled along the floor. Finally Adam placed a large package in Rueben’s arms and smiled, “This is for you, son. I hope you like it. Thank you for helping me give out the gifts for everyone.”

Reuben swallowed hard, he had been getting angrier and angrier until in the end he felt he would burst with disappointment as gift after gift had to be carried over to someone else. Now the anger dispersed like a soap bubble and he hugged his Pa tightly before picking up the parcel and hurrying off to open the paper to see what was inside.

It was later when they were together in the privacy of Reuben’s bedroom that Adam asked his son if he had understood why he had had to wait until last for his gift. The boy wasn’t sure enough of his answer to reply so just shook his head while his eyes stole over to the gleaming red and black train engine. Adam smiled slowly and ruffled the boys hair “It was to teach you to be patient, and to be generous. There’s more pleasure in giving than receiving, son.”
Reuben would have argued about that at this point, but he could see what his Pa was meaning. He thought of all the happy faces that had been around the table, even Cheng Ho Lee had come out to bow and thank the master for his gift. He thought of the twinkle in his fathers eyes as each gift had been unwrapped, and how Aunt Hester had got up and kissed his Pa when she had seen the little silver rattle for Helen. No one had been forgotten, the only one who hadn’t had a gift was … Adam.

“Pa, you didn’t have a gift though.” he said quietly and put out his hand which he rested upon his fathers, “Didn’t you want one?”

“Well, I had a lot of gifts come my way today, Reuben.” Adam replied slowly, “I got home safely with my family, we ate well, we had a good time – didn’t we?” the boy nodded in response to that question, “And I saw how happy everyone was with their gift. Gran’pa will smoke that new pipe when he gets home, and Uncle Hoss will show off his new vest at the next dance while Aunt Hester will make a pretty dress from the silk material. What do you think Ma thought of her present?”

Reuben laughed, that was easy because Ma’s eyes had filled with tears at the sight of it although it was such a cheap and simple little thing, just a glass dome with a little house that looked just like theirs inside, and when she shook it snow came tumbling about it. “Ma liked it a whole lot.”

“She did, even more than that emerald brooch I got her a while back along.” Adam laughed and rose to his feet, “Well, good night, son.”

“Good night, Pa.” Reuben whispered and glanced over at the steam engine then said “Pa?”

Adam paused and turned, “Thank you, Pa. Thank you for my present.” the boy sighed contentedly, “I do love you, Pa. You’re the best Pa in all the world.”

The corners of Adam’s smile twitched a little, he nodded and said nothing more but slowly closed the door. As he crossed the landing he remembered the number of times he had said the same thing to his own father, and for some reason he had to pause on the stairs to swallow the lump in his throat.

Olivia was knitting, carefully counting along the stitches and then smiling up at him as he stopped at the bureau to pick up the letters that had remained there , unopened, since they had returned. He sat opposite her in the other big chair and slowly opened them, one by one, reading them and putting them back down. One was post marked Paris, France and was in familiar handwriting

“I think this is from Daniel O’Brien” he said quietly, “From Paris?”

The letter was a pleasant few pages of news from Daniel, relating that he was now a civilian having had his resignation accepted and joining Maria in France. He told Adam of his future plans to study law and that it was his intention to do so as soon as they returned from France., he expressed his dismay at Grant’s loss of the Presidency, although he had anticipated it, and that he had heard news that Alexei Lebedevs brother was anticipating a visit to America to put forward Russian interests in Alaska. “I fear for you, Adam.” Daniel wrote, “as rumour has it that he is quite mad at you, and determined to avenge his brother’s death. However he is travelling with a party of Russian diplomats who, I am sure, will set him on the right path. If anyone were to be punished for such a mans death it would be myself, for I well know that it was my bullet that killed him.”

Adam cleared his throat and folded the letter away. Another letter with familiar writing and this one he opened anxiously and with a glance over at his wife who was looking over at him with anxious eyes. He smiled at her and then began to read the letter from Grant.

It was not a long letter but within its contents the former President wrote “I hear that Gorchakov has shown new interest in the matter of Alaska and Pestchouroff’s papers. It may well be true that Pestchouroff concealed the facts of the gold and other minerals in that territory from the Czar and his Chancellor but even so this means the man is determined to make trouble for us. I have also heard, Adam, and take this as a warning, that you have been mentioned in despatches to the Chancellor as having meddled too often in Russian affairs…in the Kurils as well as in Egypt. I believe that the affair of the Baltimore and the Khedive did not go down well with them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lebedev, who has even more venom running through his veins than his brother, will be sent as their means to get revenge upon you, or if not revenge, some form of retaliation.

I know you have done nothing that has not been done under my auspices. I know that all you have done or not done that involved Russian politics was due to my orders. I am limited as to what I can do now, but as a private citizen I shall do whatever it is in my power to help you. Whether it is just gleaning information or more…”

Adam re-read the letter through and then folded it neatly back into its envelope. He scratched his nose and for a moment stared into space as he thought over the contents of the letters and then glanced over at his wife. She looked up at him then and smiled, such a look of love and confidence in him that he lost the courage to speak, to say anything about what the letters had said. He stood up and walked across the room to take his seat beside her, and placed his hand upon her thigh, so that she didn’t have to stop knitting. For a while he watched her and was reminded of Inger who had knitted little garments for the baby she had never seen grow to childhood. “What are you knitting?”

She smiled “A ‘polka’, a loose jacket for Sofia. It’s almost the last of the wool Margarita sent me.” she sighed and set the garment down upon her lap, “Were your letters – alright?”

The pause before the last word indicated that she must have seen something on his face as he had read them, and once again he was reminded of just how astute a wife he had married. He smiled and leaned over to kiss her cheek “A letter from Daniel and Grant… both telling me that the Russians were not happy with me and that there could be a bit of trouble from them.”

“Which is why Mr Fish wanted you here, instead of staying in San Francisco?”

“Yes, that’s right.” he smiled at her again and looked at the garment in her lap, pink and green ribbing, it would look nice on the child. He looked at Olivia and knew that it was now wiser to say no more, the sea green eyes were greener than usual, which indicated her own concerns for his safety.

Chapter 11

Life settled into its usual routine on the Ponderosa . Morning chores were followed for Adam by riding to the Ponderosa’s main house to discuss what to do for the day or to work on the list of things to do from Ben. Sometime during the discussion Joe would have joined them and then either the three of them would take themselves off or Ben would actually ride along with them.

The weather grew colder and the leaves of the trees had all fallen, only the stately pines and spruce remained as dark shadows against the rocks and boulders of the mountains. Streams ran crystal clear and freezing cold from the gathering snows in the higher ground, and the skies despite their blueness showed a colder sun.

At the end of each day they would each ride home only to separate where the track to the Ponderosa now forked into three different directions, first to Adams home and then Joes before taking the turning to the main house.. As Adam would unsaddle his horse and groom him he would smile a little as he thought of Joe doing the selfsame task in his own stable and Hoss in the familiar old stable of their old home. Ben was not the only one to wax nostalgic over the past and dwell upon fond memories.

The October box social was an annual event to which the Cartwrights never failed to attend weather and health permitting. An opportunity for everyone to meet together and see the changes that had taken place since the summer fete.

Hester showed some reluctance to attend as baby Helen had developed a cough and although Hoss tried to reassure her that Hop Sing would be on hand to tend to her he finally succumbed to her anxieties and agreed that it would be better for her to remain home.

“That doesn’t mean you have to stay with me, Hoss. You’ve been so busy these past few months you deserve to have some relaxation and fun.”

Hoss shook his head and sat down in the big leather chair “No, Hester, I can’t go without you. It jest ain’t fun without you there.” he glanced over to the fire and smiled absent mindedly “It’ll be good to be here with my three girls.”

“I’d go, really I would, Hoss, if it weren’t for this wretched cough Hope has got. What if anything happened while we were there ‘having fun’?”

“Sweetheart,” Hoss leaned forward and took hold of her hand which he nursed within his own, he reached out with his other hand and stroked back her curls “Now stop that fretting, there ain’t nothing going to happen to our little baby. We’ll just stay put right here and enjoy being together, ain’t that right?”

Rather anxiously Hester nodded, sighed and glanced up at the stairs as Ben began to descend them, he was fidgeting with his tie and scowling but smiled when he looked down at them both from the half landing “Not ready yet?”

“We ain’t going, Pa. Thought it best to stay here.” Hoss replied with a half smile and anxious blue eyes and Ben nodded “You’re right, you should stay with your children.”

Hester got up and walked towards him with a smile, she tidied up his tie and smoothed down the lapels of his best jacket “You’ll be the handsomest man there, Pa.”

“Flatterer,” Ben laughed, and kissed her cheek, “I’m curious to see this lady friend of Roys I keep hearing about, I hear tell she’s a mighty pretty woman.”

“So I’ve been told, I’ve not seen her yet.” Hester said and handed him his hat, “Pa, make sure you don’t get cold there’s a chill wind out there, and don’t eat that pie Mrs Jenkins always makes with the chilli sauce it upsets your stomach.”

“I know, but the pastry makes it almost worth while.” Ben laughed and after buckling his gun belt he took his hat, then his outer coat, “It’ll be good to see everyone again, I’ve not been in town since we got back from ’Frisco.”

“Then enjoy yourself and we’ll see you in the morning.” she leaned forward and kissed his cheek, while he pinched hers gently and then kissed her nose, “G’night then, Hoss, Hester. “

He sighed as he crossed the yard his long legs striding towards the stable where he had his horse Cinnamon waiting ready saddled for him. The night air was cool, the stars very bright with little cloud. As he put his horse into a smart canter it crossed his mind that there could be an early frost before morning.

Joe and Mary Ann were in the two seater buggy at the junction where the track to their home divided away from the main house. In the trunk were baskets laden with the goodies that Mrs O’Flannery and Mary Ann had prepared to add to the feast. Upon seeing Ben riding up towards them Joe flicked the reins for the pair of evenly matched horses to get moving on along the track, with Ben riding alongside them.

“Where’s Hoss and Hester?” Mary Ann asked and after Ben had explained she nodded and admitted that Helen Hope’s cough had been worrying.

They rode on in pleasant silence until they reached the bend in the track that would lead them to Adam and Olivia’s house and here they had to wait a few moments until the two seater was seen approaching them from the house. Once again the question about Hoss and Hester was put forward and answered before the buggy lined up behind Joe and Mary Ann and they went in formation along the track to where it forked to the main road to town.

Olivia tucked her arm more firmly through that of her husbands and looked up at him with a smile. The light had not yet faded so much that she couldn’t see his features quite clearly, from the way his eyebrows were formed, to the scar upon his cheek bone, to that on his upper lip, the firmness of his jawbone and chin. As though aware of her observation his lips moved into a smile of his own and he glanced down at her “There’s nothing new for you to look at, darling, not that I’m aware of anyway.”

“I know.” she laughed, “I just love to look at you, don’t forget I’ve missed out on looking at you for all those weeks and I want to make up for it now.”

He laughed and lowered his head so that he could kiss her, “Don’t forget, not too much dancing tonight -.”

“Hm-mm.” she smoothed out her skirts and he could feel the motion of her head as she nodded “Sofia was so sweet tonight when she said good night, she said you were like Prince Charming.”

“In which case what does that make you?” he teased and she laughed then and said if he didn’t know then she wouldn’t tell him.

Listening to their banter and laughter made Ben smile as his horse trotted beside one buggy and then the other, adding his comment here and then another comment there. By the time they were making their way to the Town Hall in Virginia City he was feeling more than well blessed.
…………….

Candy and Ann Canady were already there and greeted them with the warmth one expected from such good friends. Ann expressed concern about her cousins’ baby having such a bad cough and asked Mary Ann if little Daniel had shown any sign of it to which Mary Ann said that he had not and was, of course, perfect.

Adam watched as the women grouped together to chatter and had his head to one side while deep in thought when his father came and stood beside him “Are you going to stand there all day looking like Mrs Hawkins parrot or are you coming in to have a drink?”

“Sure, Pa, although you realise the punch here is never as good as the brew you create. “

“I know, mores the pity. You know I got that recipe from your grandfather, the old pirate. Here you are…” he passed the glass to his son and nodded with a smile “Well, Adam, it’s good to have you back home.”

“I agree, it’s good to be back.” Adam sipped the punch and grimaced, “Tastes like Hoss’ old socks.”

Ben laughed and then turned to look at the assembled townsfolk before looking over at Candy and Joe in deep conversation “I guarantee they’ll be discussing that black horse of Joes”

“Should be saddle broke by now.” Adam murmured, “What’s he taking his time over it for?”

“Claims that he wants the horse to keep its spirit without wanting to run off like Jupiter did.” Ben grinned and sipped his drink.

“Hmm, Jupiter didn’t run off, I let him go back to the wild, where he belonged.”

“Joe doesn’t want Saturn returning to the wild.”

“That’s pretty obvious.” Adam sighed and shrugged, “Well, Pa, how’s it feel being the grandfather of so many children now, huh?”

“Well, I guess much the same as it must feel for you being the father of so many…!” Ben quipped in return and raised one dark eyebrow as his lips twitched into a smile.

Adam didn’t reply to that he merely turned to watch as his wife walked towards him with that smile on her face that he had missed so much for so long. He held out his hand to take hers and drew her closer “Did I tell you that you looked beautiful tonight?”

“You did, sir.” she replied and then glanced over at the couples dancing, “I thought Marcy and Luke would come tonight, but I don’t see them here at all.”

Mrs Derwent Jessop was passing them and paused, “Mrs Cartwright?”

“Yes? Oh, good evening, Mrs Jessop, I’m sorry I didn’t see you.” Olivia gave Kate Jessup one of her warmest smiles, “Have you seen Marcy lately?”

“I saw her this morning but Luke has been away in Carson City for a few days. He wasn’t expected back home until Monday.”

“Oh, I didn’t know, “ Olivia sighed with disappointment, “It seems such a while since I saw Marcy and Luke.”

“They talk about you all the time, “ Kate Jessop said with a genuinely kind smile “I know she was disappointed not to have come.”

Adam who was listening to the conversation touched his wife’s elbow “We’ll ride over and visit her tomorrow, sweetheart.”

“Oh, yes, can we?” Olivia smiled up at him and when he nodded she looked back at Kate “Thank you, Mrs Jessop.”

“Oh, I’d like it if you would call me Kate.” came the reply and she was about to say something else when her husband came and joined them, and being told how Olivia had enquired about Luke and Marcy he nodded, “Luke heard about a bull for sale -.”

Ben frowned “A bull for sale? Not that prize bull of Jonas Mayhews?”

“The very same,” Derwent said and smiled, “Luke was hoping that he would be able to get it for a decent price.”

“Mayhew never sells anything for a decent price.” Ben observed and shook his head, “Take it from someone who knows… from experience.”

“Painful experience.” Adam added with a grin and then looking at his wife “Would you care for this dance, Mrs. Cartwright?”

How gently he led her into the dance which was a slow waltz, his hand on the base of her spine with the lightest of touch. The Jessops and Ben watched them for a while before Derwent took Kate in to join with them, passing Joe and Mary Ann who acknowledged them with a smile and a wink.

Ben was smiling and thinking how beautiful his daughters in law were when he heard a gruff ’Herrr-ummm’ in his ear and turning found himself face to face with Roy Coffee. “Well, Roy, good to see you here.”

“Huh, wal, dunno about that but had to come.”

“Had to?” Ben frowned, “Had to, Roy?” he raised a questioning eyebrow and smiled.

Roy inclined his head towards a woman who was standing talking to the Mayor’s wife, “Yeah, didn’t have much choice in the matter. You know, Ben, I’m thinking of asking for my badge back.”

Ben gave his old friend a quizzical smile, one he hoped conveyed sympathy along with curiosity. Roy seldom attended these social functions as a partaker of events, usually he would just come to check that everything was proceeding peaceably and that the men had left their hardware behind and then had disappeared again. Now he looked like a man who had lost his way, turning to his friend to provide the way out.

“Who is she, Roy? You know, I’ve been hearing rumours in town about you and a certain lady friend, so is this – she?”

Ben’s eyes were twinkling as he asked the question and watched his friends face redden, Roy shook his head and scratched the back of his neck “Fact is, I don’t know where this dang fangled story came from, but it weren’t from me you can be sure of that fact for a start.”

“You do know the story I’m referring to, Roy?” Ben grinned and glanced over at Joe and Adam who were returning to the table with their wives clinging to their arms. “Adam, Joe – Roy is trying to assure me that there is no truth in the rumour that he is about to get married.”

“Dang blast it…is that what the rumour is?” Roy exploded, his blue eyes widened to such an extent that Joe burst out laughing which he quelled instantly as Roy turned his glare at him “If’n I thought for a moment that you had anything to do with this, Joe Cartwright …”

“Me? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Joe protested almost choking now and grabbing a glass of the punch out of Mary Ann’s hand.

“About this here rumour -” Roy stammered and then blushed red as the lady who was the centre of the rumour appeared before them all “Er – “

“Lan’sakes, Roy Coffee, is that all you can say – er -” said the lady in question with a light laugh “Just when I get here to be introduced to your friends and all you can say is ‘er’”

Roy cleared his throat “Sorry, Rachel, got a frog in my throat that’s what it is…” he coughed and looked at his ‘friends’ who were staring at the lady with fixed smiles on their faces waiting to be introduced. “Rachel, this is my friend Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa and his sons, Adam – Joe – Cartwright, and their wives, Mrs Olivia and Mrs Mary Ann Cartwright.”

There was a slight hiatus, Mary Ann giggled but then they all started to say “Hello “ “How do you do” very politely, and Ben took hold of Rachel whoever else she was by the hand and bowed graciously over it “Good evening, Rachel … a pleasure to meet you.”

She laughed again and shook her head “Oh, I’ve been hearing such high praises about you, Mr. Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa.” she tapped him on the jacket with her fan and then looked at Adam and Joe “Now which one of you is the one who is a seaman, let me see if I can guess -”

Adam and Olivia exchanged smiles with twinkling eyes while Joe grinned and winked at Mary Ann and when Rachel pointed to Adam and said “You must be the seaman, you look the sort who would be…” they laughed and while Adam led his wife into another dance with a murmured “I wonder what it means to sort of look as though I should be a seaman?” Joe was left to fill a glass for Roy’s lady friend, and hand it to her with a fixed smile on his face.

She must have been a great beauty in her day, and certainly remained very attractive now with her auburn hair and dark eyes, heart shaped face and wide generous smile. She was if medium height with a pleasing figure and if her dress for the evening was anything to judge by had excellent taste in grooming.

Mary Ann nudged Joe and with a smile they begged their excuses in order to drift into the dancing. Roy rocked back and forth on his heels with pursed lips and his hands behind his back staring up at the ceiling while Ben and Rachel stood at the table with their glasses of punch in their hands. Ben raised his eyebrows and with a smile asked Rachel if she had known Roy long which elicited a snort from Roy and a laugh from Rachel, “Oh yes, I’ve known Roy for a very long time, all my life in fact.”

“Really?” Ben frowned and glanced at her again, then at Roy, “He’s not mentioned knowing such an attractive lady to us before. Roy, what do you have to say for yourself, you old rogue?”

Roy shook his head “What’d you mean? Rachel here ain’t no one special, she’s my sister.” seeing the surprise on Ben’s face and the raised eyebrows on Rachels, he cleared his throat “I mean …she is special but …being as she is my sister, I never felt the need to talk about her before and it …”

“Oh hush now, Roy, there’s no need to go on so.” Rachel said, and shook her head, “I happen to be his baby sister. Roy was the middle of five of us, two elder brothers and two younger sisters.” she slipped her arm through Bens and smiled up at him “He was always the shy one.”

“I can believe that.” Ben nodded and grinned over at Roy who was shaking his head and frowning at her as though he would rather she said no more.

“I came to join him here when he wrote to say he was definitely retiring. “ she accepted something to eat and thanked Ben graciously as he led her to some chairs upon which they sat down. Roy remained standing by the table as though he felt safer there out of ear shot.

“We were all led to think he was courting, that you were his future intended?” Ben said with a chuckle in his voice.

“I think some ladies of the Temperance Society got that impression from something that Roy said. “ she frowned, “I didn’t bother to correct them as they seemed so determined to believe it themselves.”

Ben nodded, that was so true of Widow Hawkins, nothing if not determined. Roy sauntered towards them and lowered his head to whisper something in her ear which caused her to look at him anxiously “Are you sure? What? Now?”

“Yes, reckon I’ve had enough of these shenanigans” Roy muttered and then looked with a frown at Ben “Do you think you could do me a favour, Ben, and make sure that my little sister gets home safely before mid night?”

“Er – certainly, if you wish.” Ben replied and smiled at Rachel “If that is alright with you, Miss – Mrs – Rachel.”

“It’s fine with me, and do call me Rachel. My full name is Rachel Jane Darrow, but as Roy saw fitting to forget to tell you that I would be more than pleased if you continued to call me Rachel.” she looked at her brother fondly “Why not stay just a little longer, dear?”

“Nope, that thar music is making my head ache and won’t be long now before someone’s going to ask me to dance which will set off my bunions.” Roy muttered, “See you soon, Ben, and thanks.”

Rachel stood up and kissed Roy’s cheek which made the old sheriff blush redder than ever as he hurriedly made his way from the dance room. She watched him go and then resumed her seat, “He’s been a lonely man since Mary died. I knew he would go to pieces once he retired, that job was his life.”

“Yes, we all realised that, we never thought he would actually ever retire.”

“He had to in the end, Mr Cartwright, his eyesight is so poor now, and he isn’t as strong as he once was, well, you would know that anyway being such a close friend of his.”

Ben nodded, things he had noticed about Roy over the past year or so had never been discussed between the two friends but yes, he had noticed. He looked over at the dancing couples, smiled fondly at the sight of his sons and their wives dancing before asking Rachel if she had any children of her own “No, not now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry …” he bowed his head and sighed, “With Roy not having mentioned you before, I rather thought – I mean – we know nothing at all about you and -.”

“I understand, it’s alright, Roy wouldn’t want to discuss such things anyway. During the war between the states we were on different sides you see. I went along with my husband and Roy, well, he kept to whichever side he chose at the time. My husband was killed at the first battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Then my son Henry was killed at Shiloh the following year, and Jonathan died at Gettysburg in ‘63. “ she paused then and drew in her breath, before slowly releasing it. “Well, that was all the family I had really, Mr. Cartwright. My sons were too young to marry but old enough to die for the cause.”

Ben swallowed and nodded before turning his head to look again at the dancing. He felt at a loss as to what to say and annoyed at himself for being so. He cleared his throat finally and turned to her “I’m truly sorry for your losses, Rachel. It was a cruel time.”

She sighed and then looked at him before nodding and seeming to be at a loss for words. “Er – Roy never spoke about his affiliations to us. It’s a subject that here in Virginia City we tried to avoid as much as possible.”

“Your gold and silver went into the Union war chest I believe…” she said with a shrewdness that sounded harsh against the background of music and dancing.

“I believe quite some reached the Confederate cause also.” he replied gently.

Before she could say anything more Widow Hawkins emerged from behind some curtains looking rather red faced and bemused, she smiled at them both and nodded cheerily “Why, Mrs Darrow, has Roy gone already?” she chirruped.

“Yes, he has always disliked social events.” Rachel replied with a faint smile as she rose to her feet to speak to the other woman leaving Ben now free to slip away with a slight bow and resume his position at the table where he was soon joined by Candy and Ann and the rest of his family.

The hours of dancing and pleasant company swiftly passed for some, and not so swiftly for others. By the time it was obvious the evening was winding down Ben went in search of Mrs Darrow only to be told by Bob Moffatt that she had left a message for him to say that she was leaving early. Upon enquiry Ben discovered she had left close to ten o’clock, escorted home by several ladies who were ’going her way.’ It left Ben feeling uncomfortable and ill at ease knowing he had not fulfilled his promise to his old friend, Roy, or fulfilled his obligations to the lady, Mrs Darrow.

Chapter 12.

Hester went round eyed when Ben told her and Hoss about Roy’s lady friend. He had arrived home from town just as Hoss and Hester had finished eating breakfast and after assuring them that he had eaten in town before leaving to return home he said, with twinkling eyes “I met Roy’s lady friend last night. You’re right, she is a real nice looking woman.”

Hester had agreed that she had heard just exactly that, so what had Ben thought of her? Were the rumours true? When were they getting married? How Hoss had laughed when Ben had answered all the questions and how Hester laughed along with them at their folly in believing such gossip about Roy.

“I should have known he wouldn’t exchange his badge for a wedding ring.” she giggled, wiping her eyes now with her apron.

“So’s she’s really his sister?” Hoss mused and sat down on the corner of the settee, “Is she pretty though?”

“Like I told you already, she’s – er – yes, very pretty. I could imagine that when she was younger she was quite a beauty.” Ben smiled and poured out coffee for himself.

“So why hasn’t Roy ever mentioned her at all?” Hoss now asked as he watched Ben drinking from the familiar old chinaware, “I can’t recall him ever saying anything about a sister.”

“I think there was an estrangement between them because they shared different opinions about the war, and, I guess, with the losses she suffered she may have borne a grudge against Roy.” he looked over the rim of his cup,”I’m just speculating on the basis of what she told me. Her husband and sons died during the war.”

“I never heard Roy mention anything about the war either.” Hoss said rubbing the palms of his hands against his knees, “He would just clam up tight as a drum if the subject came up. I don’t even know if he took any side or not.”

“Well, if he did I have a feeling it was the one opposite to hers, and with her losses …” Ben sighed, and glanced at Hester who was looking very sombre, “Are you alright, Hester?”

“Yes, thank you, Ben, but I was just thinking how hard it must have been for her. Having lost my own husband …” she glanced at Hoss who nodded sympathetically and reached out for her hand, “Well, at least I was young enough to start again but she was obviously not if she lost two sons as well.”

“Too many died …” Ben said quietly, and then he set down his cup “How’s Helen today? “

Grateful for the change of subject Hester replied that the baby was much better and Hoss laughed and said that it was about time they settled on just what they were going to call the child, was it Hope or Helen? Hoss poured out more coffee and his face become a little more sombre as he asked his father if the sheriff had put in an appearance at all.

“The sheriff? You mean, Armitage?” Ben frowned as Hoss nodded, “Why’d you ask, any particular reason?”

“Wal, jest that the man gives me an itch. I don’t much like him, Pa.” Hoss glanced at Hest er and shrugged, “Reckon that ain’t very fair of me seeing as I don’t rightly know him well at all, but he just don’t match up to Roy or Clem.”

“Well, Clem seems happy enough to remain the deputy sheriff here under Armitage’s authority, Hoss.” Ben gently reminded him and put down his cup, “Come to think of it, no … he didn’t come to the dance hall last night. I didn’t see him, anyway.”

“Was Clem there?” Hoss leaned forward “Or Dodds?”

“No, but I’m sure that had there been any trouble then they would have been there immediately. Now then, stop your worrying, Hoss, and let’s get ourselves started, there’s work to be done and it won’t get done the longer we sit here.”

They were still chuckling over this comment and rising from the table when there was a knock on the door and Candy stepped inside, followed by Joe.

“You’re both early, thought we’d have to haul you outa bed, Joe.” Ben chuckled and nodded at Candy who had removed his hat and was standing there with a smile on his bronzed face.

“You told them about Roy’s sister yet, Pa?” Joe grinned, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

“I have indeed.” Ben replied and nodded over to the coffee pot “Either of you want some coffee?”

Niether did so and after waiting some moments for Hoss to get ready the four men took their leave of Hester and left the house. Hoss immediately asked about Adam to be told that he was taking Olivia to visit Marcy, and then Candy volunteered the information that his horse had cast a shoe on the way to the Ponderosa so he’d been forced to stop at Adams place. As a result he had the loan of Sport until his horse had been given the necessary attention.

……………

Marcy was more than happy to welcome her dear friends to her home. What a different Marcy this was to the timid little house maid Adam had first met nearly two years previously. Marcy Dent was now a stronger looking young woman with a proud head and smiling eyes. The love of her husband had endowed her with a confidence that would have taken years to mature had Luke not taken her to wed. She greeted both Adam and Marcy, with Sofia, with hugs and kisses all the while leading them into the little parlour that had at one time belonged to Olivia.

She affirmed that Luke had been away on business to see about buying a bull. A stud bull she had been told. While conversation soon veered to topics that Adam had no interest in he excused himself and went for a walk out side, followed closely by Sofia who held his hand tightly in her own.

They walked to the orchard where he lifted her up so that she could pick an apple from the top most branch of a tree, and then resumed following the little path that had been formed by countless feet having trodden its way clear. Here and there patches of sunlight gleamed in snatches through the boughs and he was listening to Sofia chattering by his side about the new doll and how friendly she was with Clarabelle already when he paused, then stopped, his one hand tightening around hers and the other protectively holding her back and pushing her behind him.

The tall man who emerged from the shadows raised a hand “Ho, it is I, Johnny Tall Bear.” he stepped several paces closer so that the light shone upon him, he nodded “Adam Cartwright?”

Adam extended his hand “Good to see you again, Johnny. Is everything alright with you and your people?”

“All is well. “ the Indian looked down at Sofia and nodded “The child woman looks more like her mother now.” he observed with a smile and a softening of his features.

“I guess she does at that,” Adam replied before asking Johnny what he was doing here so far from his own village.

“I came because a friend of yours has come to my people and asked me to bring him to your Ponderosa.” he frowned and fell in step with Adam as the white man had turned to walk back to the house, “I came first to make sure that such a visitor would be welcome.”

Adam pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes “Any reason why you would think that he wouldn‘t be, Johnny?”

“He is Cheyenne. He was at the battle that killed Custer.”

Adam drew in his breath and then slowly exhaled, he nodded just the once before saying rather quietly “I see.”

The Indian said nothing after glancing sideways to observe the look on Adam’s face, but apart from concentration on the matter there was no obvious distaste or displeasure there, he waited patiently until Adam asked him the name of this Cheyenne.

“He is a shaman, Stalking Horse is the name by which you know him.”

Adam nodded “Stalking Horse.” he repeated and then sighed before pausing just shy of the house “Johnny, why not come in to the house, Olivia would be more than pleased to see you again.”

Johnny Tall Bear nodded and smiled “I shall be pleased to see her also. It has been a long time since my last sight of her.”

A niggling suspicion that the other man was rather fonder of his wife than he would have liked lingered in the back of Adam’s mind as he pushed open the door, letting Sofia run on ahead to announce the arrival of their visitor. Before following her he turned “Tell Stalking Horse that he’s always welcome at the Ponderosa, would you?”

Nodding in the affirmative the Bannock smiled and followed Adam into the room where Olivia was already rising to her feet to welcome her old friend into the Dent’s home, with Marcy smiling by her side and the kitten chasing around their feet.
……………….

The four men sat together at the table in the Bucket of Blood saloon. They had arrived in the town the previous day and to all intents and purposes were no different to anyone else there. They could all speak good English and the one with the strongest accent knew to speak seldom and as quietly as possible. They were dressed in a style that would suit their environment, whether they would be mistaken as miners or cattlemen made no difference. They simply merged into their surroundings.

Every time the doors swung open the one facing them would glance over to see who had entered while the eyes of the other three looked fixedly at him, awaited a sign before resuming their relaxed posture as they drank their beer.

“How much longer do we sit here doing nothing but drinking this foul stuff?” one hissed, lowering his head and glancing from left to right and back again

“We sit as long as it is necessary to do so, my friend.” the man who had been with Alexei Lebedev in Alaska murmured gently, “We have plenty of time, and plenty of money so just relax.”

“It eats at my nerves to sit around and do nothing.” the first man replied and drank more of the beer before bringing the glass down onto the table with a thud.

“Then go and do something. Reconnoitre. Take one of the ladies for a walk or upstairs . Go outside and see if there is anything happening out there.” another said with a sly grin at the two other men.

“I’ll go and see what is happening outside.” the disgruntled one mumbled and rose to his feet, “oh-h, did you see? The table moved.”

“Of course it moved, you idiot, you’re drunk and knocked into it, now go, before you do something worse.”

“I feel my legs are weak, I think fresh air will be good for me.”

“Da, and for us also.” one of his companions laughed.

They watched as he staggered and rolled to the door, pushed it open and disappeared into the street. Sergei Kossoff, the man who was in charge of the assignment, smiled and looked around him at the clientele in the saloon. It was not particularly busy. An elderly man was sweeping around the tables with a birch broom and stopping to talk to the ladies as he passed them, getting a smile from each of them as his reward. Several miners were muttering private things between themselves at a table closer to the gambling room, and some citizens were playing Faro . The bar tender was doing what most did … polishing glasses and cleaning the counter.

“I don’t like this place,” one of the other men whispered to Sergei, “I think I shall go and join Peter outside.”

Sergei only shrugged and watched him go, he looked over at his now sole companion, a man from Vladivostock who had the strong accent, in Russian he whispered something to him to the equivalent of wishing he had been the only one sent on this mission as the other two were useless.

The man called Peter was leaning against a post that held the porch roof up on the saloon. He was watching as a tall man dressed all in black entered the hardware store on the opposite side of the road. He glanced briefly at his companion, “Man in black went into the store, weren’t we looking for a man in black?”

“Da. Is right.” came the reply and the two men started to cross the road, before Peter stopped, “You had better go and tell Sergei.”

“Tell him what? We don’t know for sure he is our man yet.”

“True. I shall find out.”

Peter continued on to the other side of the road and stopped in front of the store. He peered through the window where the man in black was talking to a woman inside. A man wearing the badge of an officer of the law approached and gave Peter a sidelong glance which prompted the Russian to ask in his very best English if the sheriff knew if Adam Cartwright were in town.

The sheriff looked up and down the street before nodding “Sure, that’s his horse -.” he indicated the big chestnut animal who was nodding at the hitching rail. “Should be anywhere around, probably inside.” he jerked his thumb at the store where he had seen Peter staring into the window, then with a grin and a slight shrug of the shoulders he continued on his way.

Peter crossed the road and joined his companion. Together they waited until a man came out of the store, tucked something into the saddlebags of the waiting horse and mounted into the saddle. He jabbed the other man in the ribs “Tell Sergei, we have found him.”

Chapter 13

Sergei Kossoff was a small man with a big opinion of himself and in order to maintain such a big opinion he relied heavily on exaggerating the truth as much as he possibly could. When Peter came rushing in, knocking into the table and whispering loud enough for most in the saloon to hear that they had ‘found him’ Sergei felt a slight wave of panic wash over him.

He had told Lebedev that he knew the Commodore by sight, but the truth was that he did not. He had announced loudly and for his companions to hear that he had spoken face to face with the American, but he had not. The truth was that he had only ever seen Adam from a distance when the Commodore ventured onto the bridge after he had recovered from the injuries sustained by Count Alexei’s attack.

He licked his lips and scowled “Are you sure? How can you be so sure?”

Peter leaned closer to him, the smell of beer and garlic wafted into Sergei’s face “The policeman said so…”

Peter was also able to embroider on the truth but the fact had been stated and Sergei rose to his feet, nodded and ordered the other man to show him in order for there to be a confirmation of the fact.

Peter looked up and down the main street and then pointed triumphantly to the chestnut horse now waiting for its rider outside the Telegraph Depot. “That’s his horse, he got onto it and rode over there.”

Sergei nodded “Wait here, I’ll go and confirm this to make sure. After all,” he gave Peter a sickly grin “We don’t want to make any mistakes. You wait inside with the others.”

Walking quickly to the Depot it only took a matter of a few minutes to reach the building and step inside. The man leaning against the counter talking to the Post Master was as tall as Sergei could recall the Commodore to have been, and as broad shouldered, the fact that he was wearing so much black and had black hair confirmed to Sergei some of the facts that had been mentioned to him about this particular Cartwright. He stayed close to the door and watched, hopeful that some gesture or mannerism would be familiar enough for him to feel totally convinced about having the right man.

Tom the clerk grinned over at Sergei “Be with you in a moment, sir. Well, here’s the Ponderosa mail for you,” he passed over a thick wad of letters which Candy accepted with a grin and a nod of thanks, Tom continued to chatter on “How’s Ben this morning? He sure was enjoying himself last night at the party.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but he was just fine this morning when I saw him. How’s the family?”

“Doing well, thanks. How are your kids? I hear the little girls at school now?”

“She is, and doing well, but David’s determined to stay out of it for as long as he can.”

“He should be grateful Abigail Jones isn’t teaching anymore…” Tom laughed upon which the other man turned to leave the premises, Tom turned, still smiling to where Sergei had been standing “Yes, sir, what – ?”

Sergei had slipped away and was now striding down the sidewalk; with a nod of the head in satisfaction . He had been told that the Commodore had a daughter and a son, and that fact had been confirmed, he had heard it with his own ears, there was no chance of a mistake now. Sergei returned to the saloon where his three companions looked up at him expectantly.

“Come, it’s time…” was all Sergei needed to say for the three of them to get to their feet and follow him out of the building.

They had already prepared their route, it hadn’t taken a mastermind to learn the way from town that the Cartwrights would customarily take to the Ponderosa. They were all four expert riders which was unusual for seamen, but then Russia demanded their men to be able to handle any situation that could befall them. After leaving the Telegraph office Candy slipped the mail into his saddle bags and made his way to the Mercantile, after which he mounted Sport and began his journey back to the Ponderosa. The four Russians were already well ahead of him and heading for the arranged site for the attack.

Sergei had initially thought of just riding to the Commodore’s property and setting fire to it, but Peter and the man from Vladivastock thought that was too extreme, the thought of young children dying in a fire that they had caused made them squeamish. “We are not at war, Sergei Kossoff.” he had been told and therefore had backed down.

Perhaps this was better, he surmised as he took the lead along the road, a dead man leaves a widow and children to grieve, which was quite satisfying in a way. He turned his horse into the direction of the rocks behind which he dismounted, pulled his rifle from its scabbard and waited.

Candy had taken his time in leaving town. An opportunity to have a drink and relax before returning to work was appealing for a man who never stinted himself, he had enjoyed his drink and talking to several of the other men in the saloon, finally he glanced at the clock, drained his glass and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand,

“Well, I’d better be going.” Candy smiled and when Sam said to give his regards to ‘that pretty wife of your’n’ he grinned more broadly than ever and with a nod of the head made his way to the door.

Sport was always more restless when a different rider was in the saddle but even so he went at a good canter out of town and was soon heading out on the road to the Ponderosa. It was not an overly hot day and the sky was cloudy so that as he rode along Candy found himself wishing he had worn his jacket as the breeze had a chill to it. He urged the horse to go that bit faster and had just lowered his head when a bullet winged past him to hiss and splat into a rock opposite.

There were rocks and boulders on either side of the track, a perfect place for an ambush and Candy lost no time in digging his heels into Sport’s flanks to get him to move faster while he pulled out his own gun. He fired blind, unable to see what was happening behind him and just hoping that his own gunfire would deter the robbers – as he assumed them to be – from following more closely.

Seeing how the big horse was enabling his rider to get away Sergei promptly mounted his own horse, the other three did likewise, and still firing their guns at Candy the four men galloped from behind the rocks and gave chase to the lone rider.

Candy turned his head, fired several shots, turned his head to the other side and checked on the two men who were rapidly gaining on him. Four men… his mind tried to think of how significant that fact was while he reached for his rifle but before it was halfway out of the scabbard a bullet impacted into his back, and then another … he felt his fingers loosen on t he reins and his body growing heavy in the saddle. He was going to fall and there was nothing to stop him …
…………..

Luke Dent and one of his men, Matt Moffatt, had heard the gun shots as they were on their way to take the track that would lead them to the Double D ranch. It took them less time that it takes to tell to reach the site of the attack and to pursue the four men with gunfire of their own. “Its Adam Cartwright…” Matt yelled to Luke who merely nodded and fired again with the satisfaction of seeing one of the men roll out of the saddle and fall into the rocks.

“They’ve got him.” Luke cried as he watched the man in the lead fall beneath the hail of bullets , “Get them, Matt. I’ll go check Adam and see if he’s alright.”

Sergei looked behind him and gave a groan of annoyance as he saw Peter on the ground and the riderless horse cantering on wildly with reins flapping. The only satisfaction was having seen their quarry fall as well. He turned his horse’s head and took the faint track between the boulders that they had found the previous day, behind him he heard the other men following him, their heavy breathing testimony to the hard ride they had just undergone.

Their pursuer fired off several more shots and then abandoned the chase which suited Sergei well enough as he headed towards the open road towards town. Matt spun his horse round to join Luke who was kneeling beside the body of the man they had assumed to be Adam Cartwright.

Luke glanced up, saw that it was Matt and relaxed a little, “It isn’t Adam, its Candy Canady.”

“What? I thought for sure…” Matt pushed back his hat, “Is he dead?”

“Not yet. We need to get a doctor to him, fast. “ Luke stood up and wiped the sweat from the palms of his hands over his pants, “Which would be the best … leave him here while you get the doctor?”

“Can’t leave him here, Luke. For sure he’ll bleed to death.” Matt looked down at his boss and then at the prostrate man on the ground “I’ll get the doc, reckon he’d be best off at the Ponderosa.”

Matt nodded and looked down the track where the dust was still settling from where Sport had shown them a clean pair of hooves and continued his gallop home.
“What about the other man?”

“I’ll check him out while you go and get the doctor.” Luke said and with a nod of the head he watched Matt gallop back towards town.

. Immediately he had seen Matt leave Luke returned to attending to the wounded man, he pressed pads of linen against the open bleeding wounds, tearing his own spare shirt from his saddlebag into strips to do so. He poured a little water from his cupped hand into Candy’s mouth only to give a slight groan of despair as it dribbled out from between the clenched teeth. “Come on, Candy, come on…” but there was no movement, no response to his promptings.

Feeling that he had now done all that he could for the time being for his friend, Luke now turned his attention to the other man. His ministrations were certainly not as gentle, especially when he was able to confirm that the man was dead, a bullet having struck him between the shoulder blades and another in the base of his skull. With a shake of the head Luke stood for a moment to consider his options …
……………..

Sport galloped at a steady pace towards home and a comfortable stall. He was a wise old horse and he had got to an age where he liked his comforts. Hester was the first to see him as he trotted into the yard and when she hurried towards him he tossed his head and then came to a halt just yards from her.

“Pa – Pa” Hester gathered up her skirts and ran towards the house, “Pa, Sports come back with out Candy.”

It was one of those fortuitous days when Ben had decided that instead of riding out with Hoss and Joe he would remain at home to check over the figures of a logging contract for the YellowJack mine, so that he was soon able to check the horse over, located the blood on its hide where a bullet had furrowed a groove and also found the blood on the saddle. Within minutes he had his own horse ready and was calling out to several hands to get a wagon ready to follow him… just in case. He didn’t say what ‘just in case’ entailed but each man, and Hester, didn’t really need to be told.

Chapter 14

Candy was carried with great care up the stairs to the spare room at the Ponderosa and while Hop Sing removed the soiled clothing and prepared him for the doctor Ben returned down to the main room. Luke was standing anxiously turning his hat round and round between his hands and staring upwards as though once he saw the older man some kind of evil spell would be broken.

“So, Matt’s gone to the town for the doctor?” Ben said as he came down the final section of stairway and Luke nodded “I sent him right away, Ben. I’ve got the dead man’s body as well. A complete stranger, never seen him before in my life.”

Ben glanced over at him as though to dismiss that statement, after all strangers were always arriving in Virginia City and Luke was seldom there anyway. He nodded rather vaguely and then looked at Hester who was hovering by the table “My dear, I think it may be a good idea if you went to get Ann, it may come better from you, as you’re family.”

Hester had anticipated such a request, had in fact been about to suggest going anyway but even so now that she was about to leave for the Canady’s house she felt rather afraid of what to say “How bad is he, Pa? What should I tell Ann?”

“Just tell her the truth, Candy was ambushed on the way home from town and we’re getting the doctor to attend to him. “

“Yes, but -”

Ben smiled gently, reassuringly and placed a kindly hand on her shoulder “You’ll know what to say, my dear. Candy was shot, he isn’t dead, but Ann should be here with her husband…now, don’t take too long in getting back, will you?”

She shivered slightly at the last words and pulled on her coat as quickly as possible. Ben looked at Luke and with a sigh suggested he sit down and tell him exactly how he had come to be involved in the shoot out. Little Hannah stopped playing with her dolls to approach her grandfather and clamber up into his lap, where she sat quietly looking at the other man with her big blue eyes. Luke explained as best he could, mentioned that there were four men and how both he and Matt had thought they were shooting at Adam initially. It was only afterwards when they went to the injured man’s aid that they recognised Candy.

Movement from the landing caused both men to stop talking as they waited for HopSing to appear to tell them what he could about Candy’s condition. From the sombre look on Hop Sings face it was obviously not good news.
…………..

Sergei Kossoff and his two companions rode some distance from the public road to town. Sergei took the lead and as usual the other two men followed. Once they had stilled the horses Sergei suggested that they waited for a while before entering town and returning to their lodgings. “We do not want to arouse suspicion.”

“Why should they suspect us? We’re strangers here after all.” Marek Belinsky, the man from Vladavastock said gruffly.

“How do we explain about Peter?” Jakob Wolsky demanded, “We should go back for him, now.” and he jerked at his horses reins only to be restrained by Sergei who told him to calm down.

“It is too late to go back now. No doubt the Americans will have taken him away, if we ride in to get him we could be riding into a trap and be caught .”

“So, what do we do now?” Marek said “Do we return to the ship?”

“We find out first that we did the job right.” Sergei leaned forward, “A man can be shot, he can fall from his horse, but it doesn’t mean that he is dead.”

The other two men looked at one another uncomfortably but agreed that Sergei was right. They also knew from experience that Lebedev would want to know every detail, every finite detail, of how the assignment had gone. Marek glanced around him, at the huge boulders and the high scree that towered about them “This is not a pleasant country, I think I would rather be back on board ship.”

“Once we know we have killed Adam Cartwright -”

“Sergei, no one could have survived that fall.” Marek looked at the other man and shook his head, “He was shot, he fell, I assure you, he is dead.”

“We wait until we know for sure.” Sergei hissed between clenched teeth, “I shall go into town first, you two follow, you return separately from different directions, allow some time between arriving, do you understand?”

They said nothing more but Marek looked with anger at Sergei’s retreating back and muttered dire threats beneath his breath.
……………

Adam, Olivia and Sofia were home in time for lunch which Cheng Ho Lee had prepared for them. It had been a pleasant time made all the more intriguing by Johnny Tall Bear’s appearance and as Adam drank his coffee and ate his food he found his mind going over and over the Bannock’s conversation, particularly concerning Stalking Horse. Question after question trickled through his head, and every so often he found himself having to ask Olivia or Sofia to repeat what they had said so that in the end Olivia laughingly told him to go and find Joe to let him know about his friend being in the area. “It is obviously on your mind, darling. I know you are longing to tell him.”

He smiled and nodded “I doubt if Joe would now anymore than I do, but -”

“Shoo, away with you.” she said with one of her smiles that made her eyes go a darker green, “come kiss me first.”

He kissed her then, warmly for he loved it when she laughed at him like this, and then he tweaked Sofia’s nose and told her to be good before hurrying out of the house. Olivia watched him go and then turned to her daughter to persuade her to eat more of her lunch.

Adam decided that the first thing he would do would be to ride to the main house and check with Hester as to where Hoss and Joe would have gone for work. He was surprised to find the doctors buggy in the yard along with an unknown horse that obviously had a body roped to its saddle. He glanced around the yard and wondered about the wagon being left in front of the house with the horses, Cinnamon and one he was familiar with but couldn’t place for the moment close by. He looked at the face of the dead man as he passed by but failed to recognise him so walked on into the house, removing his hat slowly as he did so.

Luke jumped to his feet immediately he entered and Ben, who was on the way down the stairs upon seeing his son appear raised a hand in welcome “Glad you got here, son, Candy was ambushed on the way back from town.”

“What? Candy? Any reason why?” he turned then to Luke, “I’ve not long left your place, Luke, how did you happen to get involved in all this?”

He listened to what Luke told him and then looked at his father, “Why would anyone try to kill Candy?”

“Well, hopefully the sheriff will find out for us, when he gets here.” Ben muttered and then took hold of Adam by the arm “Is there any chance that these men could have been intending to ambush you, Adam?”

“Me?” Adam looked surprised, then glanced at Luke “Why’d you ask?”

Luke cleared his throat “It’s just that when we rode up we thought at first that the man being shot at was you… after all he was riding Sport, and wearing black clothes, if we thought it was you, perhaps his ambushers thought the same.”

Adam nodded slowly “I see what you mean” he murmured and looked thoughtfully at his father who was staring over at the fire as though deep in thought, “Just how bad is he?”

“Dr Martins with him now, he’s in a bad condition, Adam. I don’t think that Paul’s too sure if he’ll pull through.”

“And the dead man outside?”

“One of the attackers,” Luke said quickly, “The other three rode off and we were more concerned with attending to Candy than chasing after them.”

Adam nodded and shook his head, “Well, you did the best thing. Did you recognise the man?”

Luke and Ben both shook their heads in denial, and were about to speak when the door opened and Ann entered, followed by David who was holding tightly to Hester’s hand. “Ben? Where is he? Is he – is he alright?”

Ann Buchanan Canady was not a woman who would break down and weep before she knew the full extent of any harm or danger that was to be faced, but her face was pale and her eyes had that wide staring look about them that indicated shock as she stood in front of them plucking nervously at the buttons on her jacket.

“The doctors with him now, Ann.” Ben said, moving towards her in order to put a hand gently upon her shoulder “Why not come in and sit down, wait until Paul’s finished.”

She walked like someone in their sleep, propelled to a chair and helped to lower herself into it. Then she looked from one face to the other before finally settling upon David who immediately ran to her and clung to her skirts “Rosie? I forgot – what about Rosie?”

“It’s alright, Ann.” Hester said immediately, “I’ll ask Hop Sing to go and ask Hank to bring her home along with Reuben.”

“She’ll be scared,” Ann explained as though the need for the explanation was of paramount importance “If she were to get home and there was no one there, and she’d be by herself …”

Her eyes flicked to the stairs where there was the sound of a closing door and footsteps on the landing, each man there if seated rose to their feet or turned to face the doctor as he came down to join them. He looked at them all before turning his eyes to Ann, “Mrs Canady, perhaps you would like to see your husband now?”

“Yes, yes please.” she rose to her feet immediately with David clinging to her hand but Paul shook his head “It would probably be better if your boy stayed here, he may be frightened – you understand?”

“How is Candy, Paul?” Ben asked as Ann passed him to mount the stairs, “Is he going to be alright?”

Paul had turned in order to accompany Ann to the injured mans room, but now he paused a moment “It’s very grave, Ben, it’s really up to him now to fight, and it will be a hard fight I‘m afraid,.” he said slowly, “I’ve done all that I can, but -” he shrugged very slightly “I can’t guarantee anything.”

Adam caught his breath sharply, and turned to one side before looking quickly over at his father but Ben was looking up at the couple going up stairs and then with a sigh looked to Hester and suggested she made everyone some coffee seeing that Hop Sing was out trying to locate Hank.

Luke cleared his throat “I’d best be getting along, Ben. I don’t want to leave Marcy too long.” he frowned and looked down at his hat before bidding them goodbye, as he left the room Adam followed behind him.

“Do you think Pa was right, Luke? That they thought that it was me they were ambushing?”

Luke glanced over at the dead man’s body before looking at anxiously at his brother in law “Well, as I said, Candy was wearing a black shirt and vest, like how you often used to dress, Adam, and being on Sport as well… I mean, even Matt and me thought it were you, Adam.”

“ Someone who we would know in town perhaps?” Adam stared now at the dead body draped over the saddle of the hired horse.

“I don’t know, Adam, I couldn’t say for sure. I’d have thought anyone who knew you would have recognised Candy when he was in town, an ambush doesn’t git set up by accident, does it?” Luke frowned, “Darn it, this hasn’t been the best of weeks, that dumb bull I went to buy had keeled over and died before we got there.”

Adam grimaced and slapped his brother in law on the back in commiseration. “The sheriff will probably want to see you, Luke -”

“Sure, just tell him to ride on over. No, it might be best if I go into town in the morning and give him a statement.” Luke sighed, shook Adam’s hand and mounted his horse “See you soon, Adam.”

For a moment Adam watched as Luke galloped out of the yard and then slowly walked over to the body, stroking his chin thoughtfully he looked at the mans face carefully and then shook his head, a complete stranger, no one he knew or could ever have had a grudge against. Feeling slightly reassured now he returned to the house.
……………….

Ann Canady had maintained her dignity and self control all through the doctors explanation of her husbands injuries and subsequent health issues, she had listened to him as he told her that her husbands life hung in the balance and she had stared at Candys white face and dry ashen lips and just longed to lay beside him, hold him in her arms and kiss new life back into him.

She sat down beside the bed and stretched out a hand to touch Candy’s, it was cold to her touch and sent a shiver running through her. But she couldn’t let go now, she had to hold it and infuse it with warmth from her own body, she just had to. She felt the doctor’s hand on her shoulder and heard him say something about being brave, being patient and then the door had closed and she was alone with him, with her husband.

Now she allowed the tears to flow and with heartbreaking sobs she bowed over his body and begged him to live, ‘Live for me, my darling, for Rosie and David. You can’t leave us, you can’t, you can’t.’

Chapter 15

With so much going on in the house Adam felt it was better to ride back home which he did before Hoss or Joe had returned from their work, thus the message from Johnny Tall Bear was consigned to the back burner while he thought over other issues with which he and the family were now involved.

As his horse loped at a gentle pace to his own home Adam thought over all the details and events that had just confronted him. There were so many questions pounding around in his head that he didn’t want to have answered, not in the way he was tending to at that moment in time.

He dismounted and tied the reins to the rail, glanced around the yard as though something was making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He cautiously made his way to the house calling his wifes name as he stepped into the porch “Olivia?” he unbuckled his gun belt and then raised his head “Olivia?”

Cheng Ho Lee appeared from the back and smilingly informed Adam that Missy was outside in the garden with the little Missy. Wisely discerning the black cloud that seemed to be hovering over Adam’s head he suggested that Mr Adam would perhaps like to have some coffee.

“I’ll be in my study.” Adam replied curtly and with a nod of the head as he turned to wards the room he had designated as his office. Once there he opened several drawers one after the other until he found what he was looking for, the letters from Grant and Daniel.

He read them through several times over concentrating on various phrases, trying vainly to read into them more than perhaps was intended. Daniels’ warning that Lebedev was quite mad at him, Adam, and determined to avenge his brothers death; that the Chancellor felt that he had meddled too often in Russian affairs and Lebedevs hatred would be used for reasons not only of revenge. Grants letter saying much the same, tying in Gorchakov’s desire to remove the Commodore due to his interference in various matters and using Lebedev as a tool to do just that made Adam’s mouth go dry.

He drank some coffee and was about to pour himself another cup when he realised that his wife was standing in the doorway watching him. He smiled and nodded towards the coffee pot in his hand, “Would you like some?” but she shook her head and stepped into the room holding a bunch of late flowering roses in her hands,

“You looked worried, has something happened? Did you see Joe and Hoss?”

“No, I left before they got home.” he put the coffee pot down and stood up to approach her, kissed her cheek and then led her gently to a chair “Sit down, sweetheart, I have some worrying news to give you.”

She opened her mouth to ask what it could possibly be, but her mind suddenly filled with too many possibilities so she drew in a deep breath, sat down very conscious that the thorns on the stems of the roses were prickling the palms of her hands. She forced a smile as he seemed hesitant to speak “You look very serious, darling.”

“It is – rather serious.” he leaned forward and took the roses from her and set them down on the desk so that he could take hold of her hands in his “Candy was shot today.”

Her eyes widened in shock, she had expected him to say something about Ben being ill or worse, but not this – and Candy of all people “Candy? How did it happen?”

“He was ambushed by four men. Luke and Matt rode in on it and shot one of the ambushers, may well have saved Candy’s life.”

“He isn’t seriously hurt then?”

“Well, yes, it is serious. Paul said that it all depends on his will to live, to fight if he is to survive.”

“I see.” she looked bleakly over at the desk where the roses remained beautifully vibrant and full of colour, “Poor Ann, does she know?”

“She’s with him now.” he cleared his throat, “Er – I think it’s possible that he was shot because the ambushers thought it was me.”

“You? But why would they think that? You’ve only just got back to town and – and no one we know has a grudge against you that would -”

He put a finger to her lips “It’s involved and not that easy to explain.”

“But, Adam …?”

“I’m thinking that it has something to do with the Russian delegation that came over to discuss that matter of the Alaskan purchase. One of the men was a Count Lebedev.”

She nodded and looked at him intently knowing that he was going to tell her a fraction of what had happened; knowing that some aspects were going to be kept concealed from her. She watched his face and waited until he continued to speak “This mans brother was a sadistic murdering Russian aristocrat who was responsible for killing Irena Pestchouroff in Alaska. This particular man was killed by O’Brien” he paused and looked at her, “at the time Rostov and Lawson were killed, and I was to all intents and purposes dead as well. “

“I understand what you’re saying, Adam. But, if you were not the man who killed this person, how can you be blamed? I mean – why would this – this other man send those men after you?”

“This is where it gets complicated -” Adam paused for thought “You see, quite a few of my assignments have involved the Russians, and – well, without telling you anything that’s classified – I’ve caused them some trouble as a result. It seems to me, I mean, thinking it over -” he paused and recalled the words Grant and Daniel had written, then nodded as though confirming in his own mind what he felt was right “well, it seems to me that the Russian Chancellor might be using Lebedev’s hate to get me removed.”

“But why? You’re not involved in anything that could affect them now, are you?” she frowned then and looked more intently into his face “Are you?”

He smiled briefly and shook his head “No, not that I’m aware of.” he squeezed her hands gently within his own and leaned closer towards her “Russia is becoming a very important figure on the world stage now, they’re building up into something really big. While I’m in service there’s always the possibility that I will come up against them again while America and Britain are united against them. “ he looked intently into her eyes, “I told you, it was complicated. Politics isn’t something that usually intrudes upon our lives, is it?”

“Politics?” she shook her head, “No, of course not, I mean, no, it doesn’t. Adam, are you sure of this?”

“I’ve no proof if that’s what you mean? I can more or less guarantee that the man that was killed will have papers on him proving that he was an American citizen with an American name and an American family somewhere … I doubt if Armitage would believe me.”

“But Roy would, wouldn’t he?”

He smiled, again fleetingly “He isn’t in a position to help anymore, nor is Grant.”

“You mean, President Grant?”

“Hmmm,” he nodded slowly and then released her hands “I think, my sweet, that it may be a good idea if you were to take the children and go to the Ponderosa, I would feel that you were safer there than being here.”

She frowned, her smooth forehead furrowed into the little lines that he loved to soothe out with kisses but which now he did nothing to eradicate. She shook her head “Why should I leave here, Adam? This is our home.”

“They’ll know that, they’ll have done their homework and found out all about me…that’s probably why they thought Candy was me, they must have heard or seen something in town that led them to assume he was me and he was riding Sport. All they needed to do was ask someone if that horse belonged to Adam Cartwright.”

“I don’t like this, Adam, I don’t like how this is involving us, and our friends. What if Candy dies? What will Ann and the children do?” she cleared her throat realising that she was beginning to get a little hysterical, and now was not the time for hysterics. She looked at him with her sea shifting eyes “Adam, what if I go to Luke and Marcy’s?”

He shook his head “No, this is nothing to do with them, I don’t think it would be fair to involve them more than they are already.”

“How do you mean?” a quaver of fear trickled through her and she reached out and touched his arm “What are you saying?”

“Well, Luke and Matt were the ones who rode in on them, and one of them shot that Russian off his horse.”

She swallowed and put a hand to her throat, another hand dropped to her skirts beneath which the baby was stirring. “Are they in danger? Could they be hurt?”

“I don’t know, so long as those men fix their attention on me, Luke could be alright.” he shrugged slightly “The dead man will be considered a casualty of war and nothing else done about it.”

“Have you mentioned this to your father?”

“I managed to tell him enough for him to agree that it would be better for you to go there with the children.” he once again took hold of her hands and leaned in towards her, “Will you go? For my sake?”

“But what about you? What do you intend to do?” she tightened her grip on his hands “You will be coming with us, won’t you?”

“’I’ll have to go into town tomorrow morning. It may be possible to get this matter cleared up more quickly if I can track those other men down.”

“How will you be able to do that if they are so cleverly made to appear Americans?”

“Well, possibly one or more of them may know me, in which case I may recognise them. Other than that it will be a case of working blind, but it won’t be impossible.” he smiled and kissed her fingertips “You’d best start getting some things packed.”

She had just risen to her feet when Sofia came running into the room with her arms cradling her newest doll, her prized possession, “Daddy, Mommy, there’s a funny man wanting to see you.” she smiled and looked over his shoulder “He’s sitting by the fire.”

Adam and Olivia exchanged looks before getting up to follow their daughter into the other room, but even before seeing the man a familiar smell drifted towards Adam and he momentarily paused in his stride. Surely it couldn’t be possible? But then he recalled that the man who was possibly sitting in his house had been one of the delegates named to be attending the meeting. He cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows before following his wife and confronting the man “Hello, Dimitri …” he said quietly, “I’m surprised to see you here.”

……..

Marek Belinsky was staring out of the window and watching the activities of the people in the town. It occurred to him that there wasn’t much difference in this town to the one he came from, and was about to make such a comment to his two companions when he noticed the attention that was being paid to two men who were bringing a horse on a lead rein through the main street. By peering closer he was finally able to see that a body swayed in the saddle of the horse, bound by his wrists and ankles by a rope that passed under the belly of the animal and from the clothing on the dead man he had more than a vague idea as to who was being brought in.

“They’ve brought in Peter.” he said with a thickening his throat.

Jakob and Sergei immediately hurried to the window to look down at the scene for themselves, Jakob nodded “Da, is Peter alright.”

Sergei felt a slight uneasiness as he watched a tall man in the black suit of an undertaker hurry forwards, then he shrugged “It’s better they bring him in than leave him to rot on the roadside.”

The other two men nodded and watched as Sergei walked over to the chair he has just vacated and proceeded to continue eating an apple. Jakob shook his head “You don’t care that he’s dead?”

“Of course I care.” Sergei replied, “He was a good shipmate, but there is nothing we can do for him now. It makes things a little complicated.” he shrugged and scowled at them, “But no one need know he was one of us.”

“You think so?” Marek said wiping his broad hand across his nose, “They saw the four of us together when we were drinking in the saloon, didn’t they?”

“So? We can say he was in the same boarding house as me and he joined us for a drink. We know what to say in these circumstances…” he shrugged again “Or should do.”

“What about the man who rented out the horses?” Jakob said in a low voice as though afraid even the walls could hear and betray them.

“We hired them at different times, alone, you and he -” he pointed to Jakob “You should keep a control of our nerves. We rented the horses from different stables just to make sure they wouldn’t see us together.”

The other two men didn’t look optimistic, Jakob shook his head “I think we should leave here – now.”

“Not before I know that the job has been done.” Sergei replied and tossed the remains of the apple into a basket, he wiped his hands down his vest and stood up “You two go to your lodgings, don’t let the old woman see you leave here, we stay apart now when in town. Just act normally and don’t raise suspicion, I‘ll contact you with instructions later.”

Sergei watched as the two men, still shaking their heads and looking doleful, left his room. Without a word he closed the door behind them and returned to survey the events going on in the main street.

Peter’s body was being carried over to the undertakers now, he watched as several men bore him away. The tall man with the star on his shirt was walking to his office looking through some papers, obviously those he had taken from the body, and someone was leading the rented horse away, Sergei assumed it was the livery stable owner claiming what was rightfully his property.

The mans death was a complication, as Sergei had rightly said, and as he followed the unwieldy procession to the undertakers he thought over what he was going to have to do next.

Chapter 16

Dimitri Doestov stood politely at attention as Adam did the introductions and once they had been concluded he took Olivia by the hand and with a click of the heels bowed low over it “Enchanted, Madam.”

Olivia’s slight recoil indicated that she did not reciprocate the feeling so once he had relinquished her hand Dimitri glanced down at the little girl “Ah, now, who is this little princess who so beautifully smiles at this poor stranger. Enchanted, Mademoiselle.”

Sofia wriggled coquettishly as little girls seem to have an instinctive ability to do, she smiled and simpered at this man who was so different from any she had seen before “I’m Sofia.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sofia.” Dimitri bowed again and smiled with a genuine softening of his face and his large eyes twinkled, then immediately his expression changed as he turned towards Adam who was standing watching his every move. “Well, I apologise, Commodore Cartwright, for intruding into your home and upon your time in this manner. There was little more that I could do…”

Adam raised his hand slightly, just enough for Doestov to stop speaking and allowing his host to turn to Olivia “My dear, if you just get on with what you were going to do while Count Doestov and I discuss some matters in my study. Sofia, be a good girl and ask Cheng Ho Lee to make fresh coffee for our guest.”

“No – no – no coffee.” Dimitri said with a slight shudder “American coffee -” he looked whimsically at Olivia “Better perhaps some tea – with lemon”

Sofia giggled, she thought this was a wonderful performance and ran off to the kitchen while Olivia hurriedly removed the roses from the study and then made her way up stairs to their rooms. Curiousity about this visitor niggled at her and so she left the doors open in the hope of hearing something, anything, that would give her an idea of what was going on. Unfortunately for her, Adam closed the door of his study as soon as his guest was inside the room.

“Well? What are you doing here? Did you have anything to do with the attack on my friend today?”

Dimitri looked initially composed and then surprised, he shook his head and calmly took a seat, checking that the crease in his trousers was unimpaired “I know nothing about an attack on your friend today. As for why I am here -” he shrugged, he spread out his hands as though in appeal “I owe you my life, twice over, so I came, at risk of my life let me tell you, to tell you a few things you need to know.”

Adam allowed a slight scowl to darken his features as he took his own seat and faced the Russian who was now taking a small cheroot from his silver case. “Dimitri, you came over to America as part of a delegation to discuss the land deal on Alaska, isn’t that so?”

“Da, I came, I listened and learned little. It was as I expected it to be merely an excuse to flex the muscle and do nothing.”

“Then why come at all?”

“There was a chance that perhaps some of our requests would be met by your Government. Gorchakov was quite prepared to at least try, but, very little came from it.” he shrugged and while he lit up his cheroot the door opened for Cheng Ho Lee to enter with a tray upon which was the tea Doestov had requested.

The door closed and Dimitri leaned forward “You know Lebedev came also? Brother to Alexei and equally as mad.”

“I know.”

“You know that -” he paused and delicately poured tea into the fine china cup “You know that your friend, Captain O’Brien is dead?”

Adam felt the colour drain from his face and rush back, no matter how inscrutable he attempted to keep his features this news was a blow, a severe blow. O’Brien … he shook his head “No, I don’t believe you. I had a letter from him …”

“My apologies, I see, you did not know.” Doestov sighed heavily and shook his head, “Commodore, what does a letter mean? One moment one writes a letter and sends it off and the next – pouf – it happens. Sadly, for Captain O’Brien -” he raised his shoulders and sighed, then picked up the cup of tea and drank a little.

“How ? Why?” Adam had his fists clenched, and he narrowed his eyes to look at the other man, as though somehow he would detect the lie in the words that would come from him now, he wanted to catch a lie, he wanted a denial in some form so that he could hope the news about O’Brien was wrong.

“Let us go back a little while, Commodore, shall we?” Dimitri smiled sweetly, “You and Captain O’Brien interfered with a purchase that was being made with a lady called Cassandra Pelman? You and Captain O’Brien prevented Count Lebedev receiving the papers from Irena Pestchouroff and add to that the fact that your friend actually killed the Count …” Dimitri sighed and shook his head “Chancellor Gorchakov really wanted that ship, my friend.”

“Don’t call me your friend, Dimitri.” Adam snarled and stood up, walked to the window and looked out over to the mountains, “This is Lebedev’s revenge for his brothers death? But he wasn’t involved with the Baltimore situation…was he?”

“Tchah, politics. How ignorant you are, Commodore. You are like the faithful loyal blood hound that is told to go and fetch the bone and off you go, you run off and collect the bone without thinking to ask yourself why? Of course Lebedev was not involved in the Baltimore situation, but Gorchakov was … and he had promised the Czar a prototype ship which did not materialise. Think how invaluable such a ship would have been for our country? Now, this piffling war with Turkey consumes our money and our men and our armaments. Gorchakov -”

Adam raised a hand “I don’t want to hear anymore about your Chancellor. Tell me about O’Brien. What about his wife, his children?”

“His wife – ah yes, such a pretty lady. I saw her in Paris with him, they were intending to return to America. I believe he had resigned and, unlike yourself, his resignation was accepted.” he sipped the tea and nodded “Very good tea, Commodore, very good.”

Adam passed a hand over his brow, he closed his eyes and stared at the mountains so hard that they shimmered into a misty haze and he had to lower his head and pinch the bridge of his nose in order to gain some self control before he turned to the other man again “Dimitri – forget the politics and the play acting, just tell me before I wring your neck.”

Dimitri finished the tea and slowly replaced the cup upon its saucer. He nodded and looked with some sympathy at the other man “Your friend was with his wife and children when it happened. It was very quick, very quick. They would have known nothing about it at all, a storm, lightning flashing, horses that went out of control and collided with another carriage. This carriage was bigger, heavier, it pushed that of your friend against the parapet of the bridge and within minutes she is crushed.”

Adam swallowed a lump in his throat, a huge lump it seemed to him, he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue “It was an accident then?”

“That is what the French gendarmes has put it down to be, yes, an accident.” Dimitri pursed his lips and gave a slight shrug.

“A – contrived – accident?” Adams voice thickened.

“Perhaps we should leave it at that – da.”

Adam returned to look out of the window, his fingers tapped against his thigh and he tried to remember what O’Brien was like the last time they met, but it was a fragile image, and disappeared quickly. He remembered he had never seen the children and when he asked about them Dimitri only said ‘It was quick, they felt no pain.”

“Were you there?” he turned now, lips thinned and eyes narrowed, “Did you have anything to do with this, Doestov?”

“No, I had nothing to do with this, Adam. But you must understand that -” he paused and frowned, “O’Brien killed Alexei Lebedev, who was related to the Czar. Vladamir Lebedev has the ear of the Czar and we know that the ear of the Czar is Gorchakov. “

Adam said nothing but continued to stare at the Russian who sighed and then poured himself another cup of tea, “Come, sit down, Adam Cartwright. Tell me what happened to your friend …this one who was attacked.”

Adam sat down as though he was walking through fog, he shook his head “No, first of all – how did you find out about O’Brien? Who told you? Why are you telling me now?”

Dimitri shrugged and with a slow movement of the hand tapped ash into the little silver box, he stared at it for a moment before he looked back at the other man “I thought you had heard of their deaths already, I am sorry that it was I who brought you the bad news. As to who told me -” he shrugged “I was in Paris when the accident took place -” he raised a hand immediately to prevent any action or words from Adam to interrupt him “I promise you faithfully I was not involved, in fact when I read the account in the news paper of the accident I believed it to be just that until -”

“Until?”

“I have spent some time on board ship with a young man who seems to know a great deal about everything. He told me – more details, you understand?”

“Did Lebedev order it? Did he?”

“I don’t know, perhaps, perhaps not – but if he did it would be with Gorchakov’s permission to proceed.”

“Was Lebedev in France at the time?”

“Pouffff, he doesn’t have to be in any particular place at any time to see things are done.” Dimitri frowned, “There is another thing I need to tell you …”

“About the incident today?” Adam asked and pushing himself up from the desk to go to where the coffee pot stood, he poured himself some coffee and then stood, as though frozen, with the cup held in between his fingers “Well?”

Dimitri opened his mouth and then closed it again, he bowed his head and then sighed “Commodore, the things I am telling you here, in this room, are not to be repeated to anyone, you do understand that, do you not? It would mean my life if …” he looked up at Adam and cleared his throat “if certain ones think I have been indiscreet.”

“Then why tell me anything? Why do I need to know? If I can’t do anything about the information you give me then keep it to yourself. I wish to heaven that you had done so …” he now gulped down the coffee which was lukewarm now and he shook his head in annoyance “Well, go on, speak up. What do you have to say?”

“You will say nothing?”

“I will say nothing…” Adam replied petulantly “It isn’t as if I am in a position to tell anyone anything, is it?” he snapped.

“Not now perhaps, but one day in another place, another time -”

“Look, Dimitri -” he stared into the other mans face “I did not ask you to come here, nor for you to divulge these dirty little secrets, you chose to do that yourself, now – make up your mind what you’re going to say now or get out.”

Dimitri nodded and inhaled deeply on the cheroot before slowly releasing the smoke in a plume that encircled his head before drifting into nothingness “The Virginian…”

Adam felt as though his world had rocked slightly out of orbit, he wanted to move, he wanted desperately to get hold of Dimitri Doestov and shake him out of his skin, but he couldn’t move. Ice trickled down his back and he shuddered “Go on.”

“The Italian Corelli paid to cause the ship to sink . The incident was not meant to result in such a catastrophe as it did, but -”

“Wait – you’re telling me this was another of those contrived accidents is that it?”

“Da. You see, Corelli was a drunkard, he was given a lot of money, too much too soon perhaps because he misjudged the speed and the weather conditions were not favourable for him to get – how you say – a manouvre out of the way. Perhaps it was a good thing he and his ship also was destroyed.”

“Aaron Hathaway was the Captain, he wasn’t involved in any dealings that involved the Russians, he …”

“He was in the Kurils with you and Captain O’Brien, and in Eygpt.”

“Just how far reaching is Gorchakov’s arm, Dimitri?”

“I don’t know, I do not like to think about that too much otherwise I would not be here now, talking to you like this.” he looked intently at Adam, “You are in great danger, my friend.”

“I know that already, Dimitri, a friend of mine has been shot today because some idiot Russians – and don’t pretend they weren’t Russians – thought he was me.”

“I see. That means I was later in getting here than I thought… well, do you think anyone will believe you? I mean, when you go to your policeman will he believe that crazy Russians are out to get you?” Dimitri raised an eyebrow and then shrugged “Niet, I think not.”

“Do you know the men? Could you identify them for me?”

“ I know them.” Dimitri nodded, “I shall help you stop them, but perhaps it would be better if you were to go from here, Adam, take your family and go somewhere safe.”

“Abandon ship, you mean?” Adam’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the other man. “You have already told me how unsafe this world is for anyone who crosses Lebedev or Gorchakov. Paris didn’t keep Daniel safe, a good stout ship in Tripoli didn’t protect Hathaway … who had nothing to do with anything except be on board ship with me. Dimitri, are your countrymen all crazy?”

Dimitri Doestov stubbed out his cheroot and snapped the lid of the silver box shut upon it. He leaned forwards “No, my friend, not at all. But understand this, Russia is growing very big, very fast. Soon it will be a vast power that will dominate this world, perhaps even more so than your own country or the British Empire. The people in control of this country -” he paused and then leaned back in his chair, slowly, “well, perhaps they act crazy in order to protect the future for Russia.”

“Politics?”

“Da … is so.”

They were at stalemate, each staring at the other and unsure how to proceed. Finally Adam sat down at his desk and said very quietly “Well, you came here with more than bad news to tell me. What do you suggest now?”

“You will not go away? Perhaps to your friend Laurence Willoughby in England?”

Adam laughed coldly and shook his head “Don’t you think your friends would know all about Laurence in England? Look, I have a family and a wife to care for, to keep safe, and I intend to do just that, Dimitri. I’m not going to cut and run, after all, there isn’t anywhere to run too according to you. I’m not going to let those murdering thugs get away with murder, even if I have to deal with them by myself.”

“You will – how did you phrase it to me once – take the battle to the enemy. Da?”

“That’s right, Doestov. That’s exactly what I intend to do.”

Chapter 17

Reuben ran into the house with his books swinging from one hand and his lunch pail from the other. His boots clattered over the floor as he ran to tell his parents the events of the day, particularly the fact that Rose Canady had been brought from school by Hank and taken on to the Ponderosa. “Pa. Ma. Pa. Ma.”

Adam caught him by the arm as he swung past the kitchen “Hey, not so fast, young man, you’ll fall over your own feet if you keep going at that pace.”

“Sorry, Pa.” he grinned at Adam didn’t even mind when his father ruffled his hair and made it stick up on end, “Rosie Canady -.”

“We know, son.” Adam put his arm around the boys shoulders and led him to the settee, “Sit down now and catch your breath. Better?” he raised his eyebrows and smiled, nodded as Reuben said he was fine “Now then, we had some bad news about Rosie’s Pa -”

“Uncle Candy?” Reuben leaned forward “What happened to him?”

“He was shot, some men ambushed him on the way back from town and Uncle Luke and Matt were close by to help bring him to the Ponderosa. “

“Is he dead?” the boys eyes widened ghoulishly although in his heart of hearts the last thing he wanted to hear was the affirmative.

“No, but he is very ill. Now – er -” he paused when Olivia came down the stairs to join them, she kissed her son on the head “Has Pa told you about Uncle Candy?”

“Yes’m”

She sat down next to Adam and slipped her hand into his, then smiled at them both so that Adam was able to tell Reuben that for the next few days they would be staying with Granpa. Olivia sighed, smiled “You’ll like that, won’t you, Reuben?”

“Sure, but why -?” he frowned “Will there be room – I mean – what about Rose and David, where will they sleep?”

“That’s all been arranged, Reuben. Now, go up and collect the things you’d like to have with you and then we can leave.” Adam stood up as he was speaking as though his mind was already on other things, his hand settled upon Olivia’s shoulder even as Reuben ran upstairs with a clatter and calling out for his sister in a boisterous boyish manner. Adam smiled down at his wife, “He doesn’t do anything quietly, does he?”

“Not any more.” she said and with a sigh wrapped her arms around him and held him closer “Are you sure this is what you think is best?”

“Quite sure, sweetheart.”

“That Russian – will he be coming back?”

“I don’t know; perhaps.” he was stroking her back in an absent minded manner, but the closeness of her drew him from his thoughts so that he hugged her involuntarily before releasing her “Have you everything you need?”

“It will only be for a few days, won’t it?” she still held his hand, her fingers entwined around his so loosely that there was barely any grip.

“Perhaps even less than that.”

Cheng Ho Lee came in to the room and after a slight bow told them that the rig was now ready. “Little Missy already in and waiting.”

“Thank you, Cheng Ho Lee.” Olivia smiled and went to the bottom of the stairs, “Reuben, we’re leaving now.”

“Just coming.” and with a thud and a bang the boy emerged from his room with some of his favourite toys in a box.

“You won’t need all of those.” Olivia laughed but he shook his head in disagreement

“I left my best of all toys here, just in case Hannah gets hold of them and breaks them.” he said in a very patronising manner that made his father laugh before he was swung up onto his shoulders and carried aloft to the waiting vehicle.
………………..

Candy Canady’s world consisted of colours – there was black, purple, violet with sudden flashes of brilliant vermilion and every so often a light would spark across the whole spectrum of colour and it was that which would cause him to jerk as though in physical pain.

Paul Martin closed his bag with a snap and shook his head thoughtfully, “He’s putting up a good fight, Ann. I really do think he will pull through.” he put a cool hand to Candy’s brow and then at his throat, “Feverish still though. I’d have liked to have seen that much lower by now.”

Ann glanced over at Hester who was standing by the door with Ben, who had his arm around his daughter in laws shoulders. He left her now and approached Ann to place a gentle reassuring hand upon her shoulder “What do we need to do to help, Paul?”

“You can only continue doing what you are doing now, Ben. I’m sorry that I can’ t do more than I am, but in cases like this it takes time, a physician is at best merely a tool, the human body has to now restore itself.”

“But he won’t die, will he?” Ann whispered, while with one hand she groped for the reassuring touch of Ben’s hand.

“I can’t even promise you that, my dear. He’s fighting, he’s strong and determined with a will to live. If I were a betting man -” he frowned and looked down at Candy who lay so still in the bed “I’d say the odds were 40-60, in his favour.”

“They’re good odds, Paul.” Ben said with a slight smile as he looked over at Hester who nodded as though she agreed.

“I thought so,” Paul agreed and then turned to Ann “Mrs Canady, Ann, I have to ask you to take care of yourself now. Rest while you can, even if it is just lying on your bed for an hour, you need to take nourishment and make sure you are not too worn down by staying too long with him. I’m sure someone will come for you immediately if you are needed for any reason.”

Ann merely nodded and smiled, assured him that of course he was right, and yes, she would do as he suggested and remained in her chair. When the door closed behind Paul she leaned closer to her husband and held his hand against her cheek while Hester drew up a chair and sat by her side.
……………..

Olivia sat as close to her husband as she possibly could, hugging his arm close into her side as though somehow she could protect him from all the evils that seemed to be coalescing around him. As she rode alongside him for the few miles to the Ponderosa main house, she thought over all that he had told her once the Russian had left.

She still felt that tightening of the throat when she remembered how he had looked at her when she had walked into that study; how he had taken hold of her hand and then drawn her into his arms and held her very tightly as though she had been the one needed the consolation from losing a dearly loved friend.

She had listened without interruption as he had told her about Daniel and his family, and then about Aaron Hathaway who had gone down with his ship in Tripoli. She had the right answers and given him only what she could offer, which was her unfailing love and support. It was afterwards that the impact of what he had said, and left unsaid, had been felt. As she had taken hold of Sofia’s hand and led her down the stairs she realised that he hadn’t given her a solution to the problem, he hadn’t told her what he had planned to do.

She had watched him with Sofia and the way he had laughed and teased her, and how he had been the same with Reuben. She had watched and wondered what was going on in his mind as he acted as though he hadn’t a care in the world, that going to spend a few days with Gran’pa was just another of life’s adventures.

She had grabbed at his arm just before they had got to the rig and called him by name so that he had turned, given her a half smile and just said “Not now, Olivia.”

Now they rode side by side and in silence to the main house and she felt frightened. She stared at the road ahead and realised she had felt fearful from the time she had seen that Dimitri Doestov sitting by the fire in their home. When had he arrived? How had he got into the house? What really had been discussed between him and her husband?

She felt Adam turn towards her so looked around to face him, his smile was as gentle as always, his brown eyes were soft and tender as he caught her gaze “Sweetheart, don’t worry. It’ll be alright.”

“What will be alright, Adam?” she shivered into his side and hugged him closer “I don’t know … “

“You don’t have to, Livvy.” he winked at her and then turned to look ahead, “I hope Candy’s pulled through. I’d hate for him to die because of me.”

“It wasn’t because of you.” she whispered.

“Wasn’t it?” he turned and raised an eyebrow, gave her that half grimace half grin that implied self doubt if nothing else. “Livvy, he was riding Sport and -”

She put her hand to his mouth to silence the words, she was tired of hearing them, if not from him from the constant going round and round in her own head. “Don’t talk about it.”

Perhaps he thought she meant that they shouldn’t talk about it with the children able to hear, but what she had really meant was that she didn’t want to hear about it and face that fear that was eating her up so that now she looked over her shoulder. Reuben was watching them and she saw that his face was anxious so she smiled, mother’s reassuring ’everything’s alright’ smile.

“Pa?” Reuben immediately said as the horses turned into the last part of the track that would take them into the Ponderosa’s yard.

“Yes, Reuben?”

“Will we be staying at Gran’pa’s very long?”

“Could be a few days. Why?”

“I was just wondering about my essay for school. I promised Miss Brandon that I’d hand it in tomorrow. Will I still be going to school?”

Adam paused, he glanced at his wife who was wondering the same thing “I’ll take your essay into Miss Brandon tomorrow when I go to town. Have you written it out already?”

“I was going to do it tonight.”

“Then you’d best make sure it’s done.”

They skirted the stables and entered the yard just as Paul Martin was clambering into his buggy. He stopped and turned round to face them as Adam pulled the horses up beside the old doctors buggy “Good day Olivia, Adam…”

“How’s Candy?” Olivia asked immediately while Adam jumped down and then walked around the back of the rig to go to help her down.

“Holding his own, Olivia. I can’t really say more than that just now.” he looked at her closely as she stepped closer to him, behind her Adam was swinging Sofia down onto the ground while Reuben managed it on his own. “How are you, Olivia, you’re looking a mite peaky.”

“I’m alright, Dr Martin. Just tired.”

Sofia looked up at Paul and smiled “Do you know what, Dr Martin, my mommy is going to have a baby.”

“Well, I never -.” Paul replied scrunching down to her level “Is that so? What do you want – a brother or a sister?”

“I already got a brother, so I think I’d like a sister best.” the little girl replied and then looked at Olivia “Can we have a little baby girl, mommy, please?”

Adam grinned and his eyes twinkled, the thought of that baby was something that brought a lightness to the dark of the day and he stroked Sofia’s blonde curls gently, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to make do with what we get, Sofia. What do you think, Reuben?”

Reuben shrugged and frowned “I don’t care. A baby’s just a baby for a long time, isn’t it?”

They laughed a little at that very matter of fact comment which made Reuben blush a little and feel as though he had said something stupid so he ran into the house, followed quickly by his sister. Adam watched them go through the door and then turned to Paul “Seriously though, how is Candy?”

“He’s got a long fight ahead of him, Adam. I gave them 40-60 odds in there, but I may have been too generous. “ he stroked his chin thoughtfully, “A lot of blood loss, internal bleeding. But he is a fighter, and he has a lot to fight for -”

Adam reached out and took hold of Olivia’s hand, he nodded and thanked Paul who said he would be coming back in the morning unless called out. As he got into the buggy Ben joined them on the porch with Hannah in his arms “Has he told you?”

“Yes.” Adam nodded while Olivia stepped up to kiss Ben and enter the house, “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes. But it could be worse. He could already be dead.”

It was a sombre thought for it to be put forward as good news, but Adam said nothing but entered the house with Ben and Hannah immediately behind him. Mary Ann and Joe were already there, both looking serious and talking in soft voices to Olivia, while Hoss was attempting to cajole Rosie and David from their worries by tempting them with playing. Adam looked around the room and then at Olivia who was watching him anxiously.

Daniel was crawling towards Sofia with a determination that indicated true Cartwright grit while Hope was mewling softly from her crib which diverted Hoss’ attentions from the Canady children to looking after the baby. Sofia ran up to Rosie to show her the new doll which left them to wander off together. Reuben was pulling paper and pencils from his school pack and setting it out on the table to which David Canady wandered with a listless sadness hovering upon his shoulders.

Adam felt a misery well up within him and tighten around his gut as he looked on at them all. Ben was talking but he couldn’t seem to hear what his father was saying until Ben took hold of him by the arm “Come over here, where we can talk more privately.”

Adam followed Ben but often glanced over his shoulder at those in the main part of the room before reaching the desk, where Ben sat down and he pulled out the other chair to sit. “Well?”

Ben cleared his throat “The sheriff came and took the body away.”

“What did he say?”

“Not much. He asked what had happened but all we could offer was hearsay. He’s going to see Luke tomorrow.”

“What does he intend to do?”

“I guess he’s going to try and find the men who did it.” Ben leaned forward “The papers on the mans body show him to be a Peter White, there was a letter addressed to him in Bedrock.”

“I know Bedrock.” Adam murmured with a nod of the head.

“Well, that must have been his last known address -”

“I don’t think so.”

“Adam -?” Ben shook his head in exasperation “Do you still think he has any connection with you? Couldn’t it possibly be that, even if they did mistake Candy for you, that is was just a spur of the moment ambush in the hope of getting some money from him, of robbing him?”

“That would be the easier option, wouldn’t it?” Adam sighed and leaned against the back of the chair “But I don’t think it was that, and I don’t think that dead man was called Peter White either.”

“Adam -!” Ben bowed his head, sighed and then looked up at him “What makes you so sure you could be right?”

Adam was about to speak when Joe approached and after clearing his voice asked if he could say something, after a swift glance at Adam, Ben nodded “Speak your mind, son.”

“I was just thinking – well – Mary Ann and I were just thinking that perhaps it would be better if Olivia and the children stayed with us, after all, there’s room to spare and – and with Ann here -” he looked at Adam “What do you think, Adam?”

“What does Olivia say?” Adam replied

“She’s fine about it. Hank can take Reuben into school -”

“No, he won’t be going to school for a while.” Adam said quietly, “I’d prefer him to stay hereabouts, I don’t want any of them near the town for a few days.”

Joe gave his brother a long penetrating look and after a sideways glance at Ben he nodded “Alright, if that’s what you want, Mary Ann will be only too pleased to help him with his school work so he won’t get behind.”

“Thanks, Joe. I’d appreciate that -.” Adam watched as Joe turned to walk back to the others then stopped him “Joe – one moment -”

“What is it?” Joe half turned, his face looked anxious, strained. “Anything wrong?”

“No, it’s just that I forgot to mention before but Stalking Horse is here -”

“Here?” Joe’s eyebrows shot up as his eyes widened “Stalking Horse?”

In as few words as possible Adam explained how Johnny Tall Bear had been at the Double D and told him about the Cheyenne. “He wants to see you, Joe.”

“Me? What about?”

Adam shrugged and shook his head. Joe fidgeted about a little and then asked whereabouts was he supposed to meet up with the Indian to which Adam said he hadn’t been told, but no doubt they would eventually find out.

Chapter 18

The undertaker opened the door to the attractive looking man waiting on his threshold. He smiled “You can just walk in, you know. No need to knock.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Sergei mumbled and looked around him and wondered if perhaps he had made a mistake to have come, he looked at Jenkins and cleared his throat as he removed his hat, “You have a man here, just – I mean – he was dead.”

“They usually are.” Jenkins replied with a grimace “You mean the man who was shot and brought back from the Ponderosa?”

“Yes.” Sergei was very careful to pronounce the words right, it was so easy to slip into his natural tongue. One of the reasons Lebedev had selected him for this assignment was because he spoke the American English so well but even so it was easy to lose concentration and forget.

“He’s in the back.” Jenkins said and led Sergei through the shop to the rear of the building where coffins lined the walls and where the late departed was reclining in a cheap pine box set on some boxes. “No one seems to know who he is – you a relative?”

“No.. I only met him yesterday, he was in the same boarding house – Mrs Beaumonts – and I thought I should come and pay my respects.”

“Mrs Beaumonts huh? She cooks a good breakfast I hear – well, here he is, Peter White, last known address Bedrock. You know the place?”

Sergei shook his head, he didn’t want to disappoint Mr Jenkins by saying they had picked the name of the place randomly. He sighed “So how he was shot?”

“S’right, got the bullets here.” Jenkins nodded over to an enamel bowl where three bullets nestled, “Not all from the same gun but effective shooting. Any three of them would have been the killing shot.”

“What was he doing on the Ponderosa? Do you know?” Sergei took one last look at the dead man and turned to leave the room, this time Jenkins followed behind him.

“Well, from what the sheriff ‘s nephew told me he, along with three others, ambushed Candy Canady and tried to kill him.”

“Candy Canady? Who’s he?” Sergei frowned and felt a deep pit of foreboding opening up before him.

“Only Ben Cartwrights foreman. “ Jenkins replied in surprise “I thought everyone knew him by now.”

Sergei shrugged “I’m new in town. “

“Ah I see, mining is it?” Jenkins raised his eyebrows as Sergei looked blankly back at him, “Are you in mining or looking for work on a ranch ?”

“No, I’m just passing through on my way to San Francisco, I’m – I’m a clerk.”

Jenkins nodded and gave a thin smile “I see.”

He watched as Sergei left the building, the little bell tinkled above the door as it closed and with a sigh he walked over and turned the notice to indicate they were now closed. He watched as the Russian crossed the road and shook his head “Oddest looking clerk I’ve seen, still, takes all kinds to make a world, I guess.”

Sergei was greeted at the Boarding House by Mrs Beaumont who smiled and greeted him with a cheery ‘Good evening, Mr Lorimer, the evening meal is about to be served. I’m afraid one of my guests won’t be joining us though, Mr White – such a shame -”

He listened to her without paying any attention except to nod and mutter something beneath his breath every so often. He couldn’t believe that they had made such a mistake … Candy Canady, they had shot Candy Canady and not Adam Cartwright. He shook his head and like a man in a trance made his way to the dining room.
……………….

Olivia walked beside her husband with her hand in his and her steps matching his own. She wasn’t wanting to talk, because there was just too much to say and she knew that she would have to choose her words carefully. Every so often she would glance up at the window of the room in which Candy was fighting to live and it reminded her of what Adam had always said about death, how it could come and snatch a man away, he didn’t have to be on the high seas in a ship to be taken

“Here, Livvy, sit here.” he indicated the bench and gently helped her onto it, not that she needed any help but it was his way and she appreciated the touch of his free hand on her elbow. He sat down beside her, squeezed her fingers between his own and smiled at her, she could see his features by the moonlight “Are you angry with me?”

“No. I’m frightened though.”

“Why?” he sounded surprised and she wondered why, it seemed strange to her that he would have expected her to be angry but not frightened.

“That man, Doestov?”

“What about him?”

“There’s something about him that made me feel – scared. He’s a strange man and just some kind of feeling about him.” she shook her head “I can’t explain it, but since I’ve met him I keep getting shivers down my back.”

“You aren’t the first to say that about him, and you’re right to feel that way too, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. “

“Then why did he come? Why did he have to come and cause all these problems?”

Adam raised his eyebrows and shook his head “He didn’t cause the problems, dear, they already existed. He wants to help us sort the problem out.”

“Why? Do you trust him enough to believe him?”

He chuckled then, not with mirth, just a dry laugh “No, not really, but we shall see what happens, take him at his word and see what the outcome is.”

“Adam, can’t you come and stay with us at Joe’s? I don’t like you going into town and staying there, please don’t go.”

He looked at her then, looked deep into those wide open eyes the colour of which he could not see in the darkening gloom of night, but which he could imagine as being dark like emeralds. “I have to go, Livvy. It’s something that needs to be done, and there’s not much point in trying to get me to change my mind, because I won’t.” he stroked her face gently, tracing the contours of her features “What would you rather I do? Wait here for them to come for me and see someone else harmed as a result? What if it were one of the children? What if it were you…” and when she gasped at those words he pulled her roughly towards him and kissed her, kissed her hard so that she would know how precious, and how ghastly such a thought, such a fear was to him.
………………..

Ben stood in the centre of the yard and watched as Adam rode out on one of the spare horses. They had checked Sport’s wound and decided it was not right to take the animal out when it was still being treated, although Hoss said it would heal well enough it was still raw. Adam had fussed the horse and given him a handful of oats before asking his father for another mount.

“Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit too far, Adam?” Ben had said as he had watched his son saddle the animal.

“No.”

“You could stay here, we’ve enough men, enough guns to fight an army off.”

“It isn’t that kind of fight, Pa.”

“Then what kind is it?” Ben had snorted petulantly, “If four men could ride out and ambush Candy like they did, what’s so different about them?”

Adam hadn’t replied but just checked the stirrups and then proceeded to walk the horse from the stall, he had led it out to the yard and then mounted into the saddle, “Pa, make sure that Olivia and the children don’t leave here, will you? Take care of them for me?”

“You know that I will, son, but -”

“No ‘buts’, Pa. This is just a case of tying up some loose ends, that’s all.”

“Adam -”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

So now Ben stood and watched as his son rode out into the night. Of course it hadn’t been the first time, it had happened many a time before, but this time was different and Ben felt as though the facts about which he had not been told, made it somehow evil.

“Pa?” Hoss’ footsteps on the ground approached him and the older man turned “Yes, what’s wrong, Hoss?”

“Nothing, Pa. Just to tell you that Candy seems to be coming round.” Hoss turned to look in the direction his brother had taken and shook his head “Did he tell you anything more about what was going on?”

“Just that he was tying up loose ends.” Ben murmured still staring into the distance although the rider had long disappeared. In the silence they could hear the thud of the horses hoofs fading into the distance, “He told me, when we were in San Francisco, that the Secretary of State had told him to make himself invisible, stay clear of what was going on…”

“Yeah, well, it ain’t his fault that the business in San Francisco followed him here, is it, Pa?”

Ben looked at Hoss thoughtfully and then put his arm around his sons shoulders as they both turned back to the house, “No, you’re right.”

At the door they both turned to look up at the night sky, Ben forced a smile “So Candy seems to be improving?”

“Yeah, he opened his eyes and recognised Ann.”

“Well, that’s some good news.”

“Sure is, if he keeps it up he’ll be up and about in no time at all.” his optimistic son replied and then as he turned to close the door he said as though it hardly really needed to be said “Joe and I will ride into town first thing in the morning, Pa. Don’t you worry none, we’ll keep an eye on him.
………………….

Count Dimitri Doestov had signed the hotel register with a flourish and seen his case taken to his suite of rooms. As he mounted the stairs behind the bell boy he thought over his conversation with Adam Cartwright and wondered what the outcome of it would be and how it would result for him, Doestov.

He gave the boy some coins and dismissed him with a wave of the hand, slowly removing his grey kid gloves as he walked into the centre of the room. The lamps had already been lit and a fire glowed in the grate all designed to make the traveller feel warm and welcomed no doubt.

Doestov poured himself some brandy from a decanter on the bureau and then carried the glass to a chair in to which he seated himself. Logic told him that Lebedev would have known exactly where he was going as soon as he had been told that he had left the ship. Would he have known the reason why? He sipped the brandy slowly as he recalled to mind his last words with the Count, and shook his head, yes, Lebedev would know exactly why he had left the ship and followed in the tracks of the four men that had been sent to kill Adam Cartwright.

He stared out across the room at the picture hanging on the wall and concluded that it was a very cheap painting by a very unskilled artist, but having said that, it still retained some charm. He sipped more of the brandy and asked himself, as he had done many times before, why Gorchakov had sent him on this charade of a mission. Had it been in order to prevent Lebedev carrying out his personal desires and in some way circumventing those of the State Chancellor?

He emptied the glass and decided that even if the painting was cheap, the brandy certainly was not. A superior vintage. He remained seated however as he thought over what would happen to him if they knew he had told Adam Cartwright so much… after some minutes of contemplation about the various ways in which they would dispose of him, Dimitri Doestov rose to his feet and walked over to the bureau where he poured himself another glass of brandy.
……………..

Adam didn’t sleep in the big bed he shared with Olivia but instead made up the bed in the spare room. There was so much to think about and to mull over in his mind that he expected sleep to elude him for hours but he had no sooner put his head on the pillow than he had fallen asleep.

Outside in the stalls the horses shifted about until they also settled into sleep, a light wind brushed through the boughs of the trees and the swing Sofia enjoyed so much swayed back and forth with the breeze.

In the main house Ben tried to sleep aware of the anxious woman in the room across the passage who was keeping vigil at her husband’s bedside. He tossed and turned until eventually he had to get up and pull on his dressing gown. Taking up a lamp he crossed the corridor and tapped lightly on the door . In the lamp light Ann Canady looked as though she were fading away with her eyes overlarge in her pretty face.

“How is he?” Ben whispered.

“Not much change, I thought -” she turned to glance over at the man in the bed “I thought he was showing some improvement but nothing since then.”

Ben nodded and stepped into the room, “Ann, why not go and get some sleep. I’ll keep an eye on Candy and will let you know as soon as anything happens.”

She hesitated for a moment and then reluctantly nodded “Thank you, Ben.”

She kissed Candy’s brow, smoothed back his dark hair and looked lovingly down at his face. “His given name’s William, you know?” she whispered over to Ben, “It was his father’s name and he – he didn’t want to be known by it, so when people started calling him Candy, he just let it stick.”

“I remember him telling me,” Ben said as he walked her to the door

“His father wasn’t like you, Ben. He was a cruel man -.” Ann paused by the door and looked back at the bed “You will call me if – if there’s any change?”

“I promise.”

She hovered for a moment more and then very quietly, like a shadow, passed along the corridor to the room where her children slept and a bed had been prepared for her. Ben closed the door and returned to the bedside where Candy Canady silently and resolutely fought to live.

Chapter 19

It was still dark when Adam woke up and once he had tidied away the things in the guest room and completed his ablutions he went downstairs to make himself some coffee and breakfast. Immediately that was finished he went to his study and sat down to write several letters.

Each letter contained the full extent of Dimitri’s disclosures plus the events of the previous day with Candy having been shot. After each one had been sealed in their envelopes and the addresses carefully written down he went to the other room and buckled on his gun belt and shrugged himself into his old yellow coat, checked that the envelopes were snug in his pocket and carefully placed his black hat over his head.

Cheng Ho Lee appeared from his own room and apologised profusely for not being ready, apologies that Adam brushed aside “Cheng Ho Lee, I’m relying on you to look after my wife and the children when they come back here, take good care of them, alright?”

The other man frowned, his round smooth face furrowed up in confusion “You not coming back?”

Adam smiled as he tied the leather thong of his holster around his thigh “I intend to, Cheng Ho Lee, but just in case -” he winked and after a nod of the head opened the door, paused and then thanked him.

The door closed with a finality that caused the Cheng Ho Lee’s heart to sink.
………………

Dimitri had his morning meal in his suite and then spent some time looking out of the window to watch the people coming and going. It wasn’t long before he recognised a familiar figure and with a nod of the head followed him with his eyes to see where he would go and what he would do.

Unaware of being under anyone’s scrutiny, least of all Doestov’s, Sergei walked to a livery stable and slipped innocuously inside. Looking around him to ensure that he was not being observed he went to a stall where he found Marek busy grooming one of the horses. “Where’s Jakob?” he demanded immediately.

Marek shrugged “He was in the saloon last time I saw him.”

“This early?”

“It’s his business what he does.”

“No, it is not.” Segei frowned, he glanced uneasily over his shoulder “Have you heard anything?”

“No.”

“Then let me tell you ..” and as briefly as possible he told Marek about Candy and their error in shooting the wrong man. Marek paused in brushing the horse and then nodded “So, now we murder innocent men.” he shook his head “I think we should return to our ship and leave this business to someone else.”

“Good, you return to the ship if you want to do so, but what will you tell Lebedev, huh? Do you think you will come out of that interview alive? Do you think he cares how many innocent people die? Look, I was with his brother in Alaska when we were given orders to get rid of a whole village of what you call innocent people. Count Alexei didn’t care anymore than his brother will … so long as we get the man he is after.”

“I see, the end justifies the means, is that it?”

“Just keep yourself available for when I need you again.” he was about to move away when he paused “What are you doing here anyway with that horse?”

“I got a job.” Marek said simply and with his customary shrug, “You said to act naturally, so – for me I would work so I found some work – is that wrong?”

Sergei grinned “No, no it’s not wrong.”

Marek said nothing to that but resumed his grooming and concentrating on the job he was doing. He watched the other man leave the stables and close the door behind him.
……………..

Tom glanced up as the bell tinkled and announced a client, with a grin and a nod he immediately turned to the pigeon hole marked Ponderosa “Here you are, Adam.”

Adam Cartwright took the mail and then slipped the letters he had previously written out of his pocket and placed them on the counter “Send these off for me, Tom.”

“Sure will, Adam. How’s Candy making out now?”

“Holding his own last I heard, thank you.” Adam watched as Tom weighed and then stamped the post knowing that the clerk was bursting at the seams with curiosity and pleasure at seeing the names on the envelopes. No doubt it would be a source of conversation at his mother’s dining table later in the day.

“You know, Adam, I was thinking about what happened to Candy,” Tom said while staring at the address of the Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, “When he came in and collected his mail there was some other guy here, just stood right there at the door as though waiting ‘cept he didn’t come into here, but stood there as though listening.”

“What else did he do?” Adam placed some coins on the counter and continued to shuffle the mail he’d been given until he came to those addressed to him.

“Nothing, he jest went.”

“Went?”

“Yep, soon as Candy had turned round and got the mail I noticed the other man had gone.”

“Did you mention this to the sheriff?”

“Nope, should I have done?” Toms brow clouded, his bottom lip twitched, “Sheriff Armitage ain’t like Roy, Adam.”

Adam only shrugged “He’s still the law around here, what information you give him may help him track down the men who ambushed Candy.”

“Yeah, yeah I guess you’re right at that…I’ll go tell him later.”

Adam nodded and slowly made his way out into the street putting the mail to the Ponderosa in his pocket before he opened the letter addressed to him. It was brief and to the point and from Laurence Willoughby informing him of the death in a traffic accident of the O’Brien family. There was no mention of there being any suspicion of it being anything other than an accident.

Dan deQuille stepped onto the sidewalk just as Adam was passing the door of the building to the Territorial Enterprise, “’Morning, Adam. You’re very early.”

“Came for my mail.” Adam replied coolly

“Really? And how is Candy today?”

“Last night he was holding his own, today I couldn’t tell you.” Adam nodded and took a step forward but was prevented by a hand on his chest “What do you want, deQuille?”

“A story.”

Adam narrowed his eyes and looked at the other man as though he were something one found on the bottom of his boot, he shook his head “What do you mean . a story?”

“Talk in town is that Candy was shot because the ambushers thought he was you, he was riding your horse and -”

“No story, Dan.” he recommenced walking on towards the sheriffs office without looking back although deQuille stood there waiting for him to do so for quite some time.

Sheriff Armitage looked up from his desk as the door opened and narrowed his eyes, then he scratched his head, his chest and rose to his feet, “Well, you’re the early bird.”

“I had things to do in town.” Adam explained removing his hat and approaching the sheriff while his dark eyes looked more closely at this man who had replaced Roy, “I wondered if you had found out any more information about the men who had ambushed Candy.”

Armitage shrugged and pursed his lips, “I’m going to see Luke Dent later this morning to get his statement. Good thing he happened to be riding by or your friend Candy would be dead by now… “ he frowned “He isn’t dead is he?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Adam replied twisting his hat round and round between his fingers.

“The man who was killed was a Peter White. From the contents of his papers he was some kind of itinerant worker, no family to speak of, no evidence of one anyway. He came here about ten days ago, stayed at Mrs Beaumonts Boarding House. She said he was a quiet man, she didn’t see much of him at all. “

“And -?”

“And what?”

“Well, anything else? Where did he come from? Any references on his body? What about the weapons he was carrying? His clothes …?”

“His clothes? What’s his clothes got to do with anything?” Armitage narrowed his eyes and then gave a thin lipped smile, then raised a finger which he pointed at the other man “Ah, I know what you’re doing, you’re trying to find out the information I’ve got to tell Roy Coffee, ain’t’cha?”

“Nope, Roy Coffee didn’t even enter my head. I just wanted to know what information you had found about the man – one of the men – who had thought they were ambushing me.”

“Why would you get to think that? What reason would anyone have to ambush you?”
Armitage turned his back on Adam and walked over to the stove where coffee was brewing, it was obvious he had no desire to speak any further on the subject so Adam replaced his hat and turned to leave,

“Just one thing, Sheriff, have you found any reason yet why anyone would want to ambush Candy?”

With those words hanging on the air, Adam left the office, passing Clem as he did so and awarding him only a curt nod in acknowledgement.

Jenkins the Undertaker had just turned the card to indicate he was open for business when Adam stepped into the store. He removed his hat and smiled, “G’morning, Mr. Jenkins.”

“Adam Cartwright, well, it sure is a pleasure to see you, sir. How are you? Nothing wrong I hope?” he leaned forward with a half smile on his face that made Adam feel uncomfortable as though by stepping through the door he was under some kind of obligation to produce a dead body for the man to work on “How is Mr Canady?”

Adam replied as usual and then cleared his throat “I – er – I came to ask you a favour, Mr. Jenkins. I wondered if I could look at the man who was brought in here yesterday.”

“Oh, the man who shot Mr. Canady? Of course, come right this way…mind your head on that lamp, that’s right, just duck here and down this step.”

The dead man hadn’t changed since the previous evenings visit by Sergei. The cold temperature of the room ensured that putrefaction was kept to a minimum. Adam stepped up to the coffin and looked at the dead mans face with a scrutiny that didn’t escape Jenkins’ notice “Did you know him, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, I didn’t. I did wonder if perhaps I would have done.” he continued to look over the man so carefully that Jenkins became fidgety, “No relatives I believe?”

“Not that we can see.”

“Who’ll pay for the funeral?”

“Oh he had plenty of money on him, more than I would have expected. I’ll take what’s owing me from that and the rest the sheriff will keep until some one claims it, I suppose.”

“Who’s likely to claim it?

Jenkins shrugged “Well, might be some relative come riding in some day.”

Adam just nodded and after thanking Jenkins he left the building. Across the road Joe nudged Hoss in the ribs and indicated with a nod of the head that Adam was coming into view. Keeping their heads down they tried to blend in with the shadows while watching the direction their brother took next.
………………

Miss Brandon was more than pleased to see Adam when he presented himself at her door for the morning was still young and she had yet to start her walk to the school. When he handed her Reuben’s school work she looked immediately anxious “Is he ill?”

“No, he isn’t, but as things stand at present it’s best he stays home.” he gave her a warm smile, with bright eyes and deep dimples as though to reassure her that there was nothing to concern herself over his son. “Mary Ann will be making sure he keeps up with his school work so he doesn’t drop behind the others, and the same with Rosie.”

“Oh yes, poor Rosie…” she sighed, “I heard about her father being shot yesterday, I do hope that he recovers very soon.”

“Yes indeed, so do we all.” he nodded politely and bade her goodbye, leaving her gazing at him in a little day dream of her own as she watched him walk away.
……………

Dimitri Doestov was standing at the window watching people going too and fro on the streets of the town when the knock came to his door. He knew it was Adam having seen him enter the hotel moments earlier so didn’t hesitate to call out for him to enter. He nodded a greeting and then returned to his scrutiny of the people, “Your policeman has gone from his office and ridden out of town.”

“He said he was going to see the men who interrupted your countrymen’s attempts to kill Candy.”

“Humph, he doesn’t look the most confident of men.”

“Could you judge that just by looking at him from the window?” Adam walked over to stand beside the other man and Dimitri replied that yes, he could, body language spoke a universal tongue to those who understood it.

After a pause of a few moments he nodded over to the livery stables “One of the men works in there, his name is Marek Belinsky. The one who is – how you say – in charge – is Sergei Kossoff. You may recognise him.”

“How so?”

“He was one of Alexei Lebedevs men who was among those your men rescued along with me all that time ago in Alaska.”

“A pity …”

Dimitri frowned “A pity that you had rescued him?”

“No, a pity that he’s here now.”

The Russian shrugged and inhaled on his cigarette, “You have been followed for some while now.”

“Followed?”

“Over there – two men keeping to the shadows and watching the hotel. They came just after you went into get your mail and have been following you ever since.”

Adam followed the direction of Dimitri’s finger and then shook his head, sighed and said sorrowfully “They’re not following me…”

“I beg to disagree …”

“I meant, that they are but not for the reasons you think, I know them – they’re my brothers.”

Chapter 20

As Adam turned to pick up his hat he asked the Count what he intended to do now. For a moment Dimitri looked surprised at having been asked such a question and then he shrugged “I shall wait and see who gets back….if it is you then I shall go to Lebedev and tell him he has failed, but if it is Sergei then I shall go and celebrate with them and tell Lebedev my congratulations.”

Adams lips merely twisted into a parody of a smile before he nodded “I guess that’s the sensible thing to do , in your position.”

Dimitri merely bowed his head, tapped ash into the little silver box and returned to watch the two men who were trying to appear inconspicuous as they huddled into the shadows of the Gentlemans Outfitters.

It took Adam no time at all to slip out of the hotel by the back entrance and to then make his way to Roy Coffees home. Rachel Darrow opened the door with a swiftness that indicated she had seen him coming and offered him coffee which he was only too happy to accept. Roy was reading a letter from the comfort of a sturdy arm chair, his spectacles balanced precariously at the end of his nose and his lips moving to frame each word. A familiar sight in unfamiliar surroundings and for a moment Adam stood there watching him and thinking over other times when he would watch the old sheriff doing just the same.

“Roy?”

Roy continued to mutter on, squinting his eyes in order to see more clearly until Adam cleared his throat and said more loudly “Roy?”

“Well, look who we have here – and what brings you to this place, Adam? Can’t be my sister’s coffee or baking? “ Roy beamed with delight and rose from his chair with an agility that belied his age, he shook Adam’s hand and ushered him to where he could sit down. “What can I do for you, Adam? You got that look in your eyes that spells trouble. .. And while I’m about it, I heard about what happened to young Candy. Now, that was a surprise. I could never imagine anyone wanting to harm that young man.”

“No, well, the thing is, Roy, you’re right, I do need your help and -”

“What you got to remember, Adam, is that I ain’t sheriff here no more. You been to see our new Sheriff? Ain’t he a pleasure to behold? Ain’t never seen a man sprigged out so nicely jest to polish the seat of the chair behind that thar desk so much..anyhow what did you want to see me about?”

Adam sighed and cleared his throat but before he could utter a word Rachel Darrow appeared with a tray load of coffee things and cakes. She set these down on the table and smiled “Now, Adam, you don’t mind if I call you Adam right off, do you? It’s just that Roy has talked so often about you all that I feel as though I know you almost like family. How do you like your coffee?”

Adam opened his mouth, then paused “Actually, Mrs Darrow, I wonder if you would do me a favour? My brothers, Joe and Hoss, they’d just love to have some coffee and some of your cake but they’re kicking their heels out by the Gents Outfitters right now, waiting for me. I’d – er – I’d feel pretty mean if I was sitting here enjoying all this while they were just -”

“Say no more, I’ll go and get them right away.” Rachel smiled and looked at Roy, “This is so pleasant, Roy, isn’t it? And you thinking that no one would bother to visit now you’re retired.”

Adam looked at Roy and smiled innocently, his face completely blank as Rachel bustled about getting herself ready to go out. The two men watched her go and as soon as the door closed Adam stood up, “Roy, I can’t explain much, not as I had intended because those two loons will be here soon. Help me out here, will you? Keep them here for a few hours, don’t let them out of your sight and don’t let them follow me.”

“Are you in trouble, young man?” Roy stood up and peeled off his spectacles, “What can I do to help?”

“Just what I’ve asked, Roy, keep them both here – until dark if possible.”

“It’s early morning, for Pete’s sake, how’m I going to keep them that long.”

Adam shrugged and slipped on his hat, “Oh, here’s the mail for the Ponderosa, you could give them that to take home.”

Taking the mail from his pocket he put it down on the table, gave Roy a nod of the head and hurried out of the back door. By the time Hoss and Joe were being bustled through Roy’s front door Adam was already in the General Store buying up a stock of food to last him a few days.

He took the horse from the hitching rail to Ridleys Livery where Dimitri had already mentioned Marek Belinsky was apparently working. Seeing Adam entering the building with the horse on a rein, Anderson, Amanda’s manager, came towards him with a smile, “Good to see you, Adam.” he took the reins as Adam handed them over, “What can I do for you?”

“Care for this horse until I get back, will you? And – cut me out a good strong animal that won’t mind some rough terrain for a few days.”

“Oh , going far?”

“Not too sure yet, just need to go check a few things further south.”

“You want your own saddle and tack?”

“I would – thanks.” he glanced around and soon noticed Marek Belinsky who seemed to be keeping busy although it was more than obvious he was also listening quite intently to what was going on, “New hand?”

“Hired him this morning. He’s a good worker. He’s just passing through and wanted to get some money to pay his way.” Anderson grinned, “Hey, Mark, get that sorrel would you? That’s the one – bring him over.”

Marek did as he was told and watched as Adam gave the horse a good look before nodding and saying it would do, whereupon Anderson instructed Marek to get the horse saddled up for Mr Cartwright. Adam paid his dues and watched as the Russian carried out the work. “Where are you from then, Mark?”

Marek gulped and cleared his throat “Long ways off, near Arizona” he said in muffled tones

“Where you headed?” Adam tossed his saddlebags behind the saddle and buckled them down, stowing the supplies he’d purchased earlier into them.

“I don’t know yet, I have not yet decided.” came the gruff reply.

Adam nodded and then thanked them before leading the horse out from the stables and into the main street. He glanced up and down, then turned the horse in the direction he had already indicated to Anderson. The sorrel was a good horse, nimble footed and broad chested with a good head on him. With a smile Adam eased the rifle in its scabbard, lowered his hat to shade his eyes and allowed the horse to settle into a comfortable canter.

Anderson watched him go and then turned back into the stables “Got to admire him, he’s been places and seen things we only ever get to read about, you know, those Cartwrights -” he paused and looked around him but Mark was gone, only the leather apron he’d been wearing was draped over the bars of a stall to indicate he had ever been there.
………………

Hoss was getting itchy, he’d eaten three slices of seed cake and downed two cups of coffee and was beginning to wonder if Roy would ever stop talking. Even worse, would his sister ever stop interrupting and adding bits here and there about things she knew nothing about; he glanced over at the clock and could barely believe his eyes “Shucks a’mighty, Joe, we bin here two hours already.” he exclaimed and jumped to his feet.

“Two hours!” Joe nearly choked, he’d dozed off during some interminable rambling story Roy was telling them, and Hoss’ exclamation had startled him awake. The cup rattled in the saucer and slopped cold coffee “Roy, we’ve gotta go. “

“What? Already?” Roy sighed and shook his head, “I thought you boys had come to visit me and cheer me up in my retirement, didn’t think you were just going to step in and out so quick.”

“Well, at least they stayed some,” Rachel declared as she took the dripping cup and saucer out of Joe’s hands “Better than his brother, he literally did just step in and then out again…didn’t stay even long enough for a cup of coffee.”

“Adam’s been here? Today?” Hoss said and glanced at Joe, then at Roy “He’s bin here?”

“I thought you knew,” Roy said innocently “He sent Rachel out to get you boys in for some cake and coffee after all said and done.”

“That conniving snake.” Hoss hissed, “He gone done that on purpose to keep us from keeping tabs on him.”

“C’mon, let’s get outa here, he may still be in town.” Joe grabbed at his hat, had enough sense to thank Rachel for the coffee and glared at Roy before hurrying out of the house closely pursued by his brother.

“Where do you think he’s gone?” Hoss asked walking quickly down the street only to stop at the sound of his name being called “Shucks, now what does that woman want, all she’s done since we saw her is jaw.”

Rachel came bustling down towards them waving a wad of letters in her hand “Your brother left these behind … he said for you to deliver them back home.”

Joe swallowed, forced a smile and thanked her before turning round and hurrying to catch Hoss up. “Look at that, he even got the mail and left it at Roys. He’s expecting us to take it home.”

They glared at one another, Hoss shook his head “Reckon he was onto us following him?”

“Yeah, I reckon.” Joe hissed and practically fell over his own feet in his haste to avoid a mess in the road.

Ian Anderson watched them and smiled as he watched Joe regain his feet, he’d been to school with the youngest Cartwright and had lots of memories of the boy, some of which he would enjoy telling his own children now. He raised a hand and then remembered the horse “Hey, Joe – you gotta minute?”

“Not now, Ian. I’m in a hurry.” Joe yelled back.

Hoss dug his elbow into his brothers ribs “Look at that, Joe -”

“What?”

“Adams horse -”

“What about it?”

“It ain’t there.” Hoss sighed and took off his hat as though that would enable him to see the evidence of his own eyes more clearly, “It’s gone.”

Ian Anderson chuckled “No, it ain’t. It’s in my livery. Adam said to leave it there for a few days but if you boys want to return it to the Ponderosa where it belongs …?”

“Why’d he bring his horse to the livery and leave it there?” Hoss asked, looking totally bemused.

Ian shrugged “Said he needed a horse that wouldn’t mind a few days out there in the wilds. Gave him a real nimble footed sorrel.”

“He’s going riding in the wilds? Is that what he said?” Joe asked his face screwed up in disbelief.

“Yeah, clear as could be, had enough grub in his bags to last as well. I thought it odd though, the horse he was riding seemed decent enough and -.”

“He had Mistral, he’s a fine horse, would have carried him anywhere no trouble.” Hoss growled and looked at Ian as though he doubted his word, “What kind of horse did you give him?”

“ One of our best, I know your brothers got an eye for horseflesh so wouldn’t sell him short. I was going to tell Mark -” Ian frowned and scratched his head “That was odd too, he came in this morning keen to get a job, then the next thing I know he ups and goes.”

“When?” Hoss asked and Joe echoed “When, when did he u p and go?”

“While Adam was taking the horse out of the stable. “

“What was he like this – Mark?” Hoss’ blue eyes were beginning to bulge slightly and Ian was wondering if the man was about to lose his temper “What was he like? He – er – he was a big man, fair headed, ruddy complexion, had an accent.”

“What kind of accent?” Joe straightened his back and narrowed his eyes, he looked around him as though this Mark would appear at any second, “Was it Russian?”

“I dunno. I don’t know what Russian sounds like, do I? He was furrin, that’s all I know.”

Joe and Hoss turned to face one another “You got any idea what he’s up to, Hoss?”

“Yeah, reckon I do. But if he thinks he’s shaken us off, he’s got another think coming to him.”

Joe turned to Anderson, “Look, Ian, do us a favour, here’s the mail for the Ponderosa, will you get it to our Pa, oh, and return the horse as well.”

“Yeah, and tell ’em we’ll be back in a few days.” Hoss added.

Anderson watched them go and then looked down at the package of letters in his hands, he shook his head and in a slight daze – because altercations with the Cartwright boys always had that effect on him – he returned to the livery wondering how he was going to get the mail and a horse back to the Ponderosa.

Chapter 21

Adam rode the horse at a gentle lope, he was in no hurry to get any place although his destination was clear in his own mind he knew that he would be leading those who would want to follow him into regions with which they would be totally unfamiliar. Every so often he would pause and lead the horse off the track and wind his way through the rocks as though to tease Candy’s ambushers into thinking that he had disappeared which would mean they would lose time picking up the trail again.

Riding alone in this fashion gave him plenty of time to think about the things that Dimitri had told him about O’Brien’s family. He had accepted it as true when Doestov had told him and then it had become so surreal, so unbelievable that he had chosen to set it aside, to ignore it, to tell himself that it was a lie; for some reason the wretched man was lying in order to create as much misery as possible. But then there was Laurence’s letter, and he now put those facts along with those that O’Brien and Grant had both set out in their letters to him.

Once or twice he had to force himself to stop thinking about the matter as he found himself floundering into such sadness that the horse would slow down and stop due to the slackness in the reins and his riders body. He would urge the horse on once more and then find his brain ticking over the same facts, the same brutal truths and the same refusal to believe them. By noon he had exhausted the subject mentally, but his heart ached for his friend and the thought of the young woman and the children made his throat tighten from the emotion of it all.

He made a brief camp for the horse to rest and graze awhile, he made some coffee and ate some biscuits before killing the fire and climbing behind some rocks. With the help of the telescope he always carried in his saddlebags he checked to see if he had anyone following him.
………………

The two horsemen carefully edged their horses around the boulders that took them off the faint track and scoured the earth for evidence that a rider had passed that way. Finally one of them gave a shout to indicate the trail had been found again and they continued onwards in their pursuit.

“Seems to me he’s one minute making the trail as easy as possible for anyone to find and then giving them some trouble re-finding it.” Joe muttered as he glanced around him as though the person they sought would appear before their very eyes at any moment.

“Yeah, I reckon he wants them to find him but not too quickly. Forcing ‘em to go looking for sign of where he’s gone makes ‘em lose time and that way he gets them to follow him right to where he wants them to go.” Hoss thumbed back his hat and glanced up at the rim rock “You know, Joe, he could be just about anywhere. Reckon he’s still some hours ahead of us.”

“What about the others? “

“How’d you mean?” Hoss narrowed his eyes and stared at Joe as though his comment had left an uncomfortable feeling to grow in his gut.

“How close to him are they? How great a head start on us did they get”

Hoss scowled, “Stop trying to second guess ‘em, Joe, you’re making me nervous doing that… reckon they may be about an hour behind him by the look of those tracks though it’s hard to tell, they take a time to work out where he’s going and make a right mess of any sign left … one thing for sure, he’s leading them away from the Ponderosa and out to the desert.”

“Hoss?”

“What?”

“Don’t it all seem a bit strange?” Joe reached for his canteen and began to slowly unscrew the top before taking it to his mouth, after a few gulps he wiped his mouth and replaced the stopper, “I mean, why didn’t he just tell Armitage and get them arrested?”

“Guess because Armitage don’t know our brother and what he gits himself involved in. He don’t know the kind of things Adam has had to do, the kind of people he’s had to be involved in. Guess to a man like Armitage it wouldn’t make any sense at all no matter how it was spelled out.”

“It hardly makes any sense to me either, to be honest.” Joe sighed and looked up at the sky again “It’s clouding over.”

“Yeah, gitting colder too.”
……………..

Ann Canady gratefully accepted the bowl of stew that Hester brought up to her. She set the tray upon the table and began to eat it slowly. Her chair was close to the bedside, as near to Candy as she could get it and as she ate her eyes never seemed to leave his face.

Hester pulled up a chair and sat by her cousin’s side so that she could watch her and make sure the food was eaten. “Ann, do try and eat it all. You need to think of yourself, dear.”

“I can’t eat anymore, Hester, it sticks in my throat and I can’t swallow.”

“But you must try. Would some coffee help?”

Ann pushed aside the table and shook her head “I’ve drank so much coffee, Hester. I don’t think I could drink anymore for a while, thank you.” she turned now to look at her husband, “Oh Hester, it’s been so long since he opened his eyes and looked at me. I – I can’t bear the thought that he could be unable to have the strength to do it again. What if he dies?”

“Paul said he will be coming today, he could be here any minute. He won’t let Candy die.”

“He’s not God, Hester.” Ann said miserably and seized hold of Candy’s hand in both hers and raised it to her lips in order to kiss it. “Candy, oh my darling, please open your eyes.”

Hester rose to her feet and picked up the tray and quietly left the room. Downstairs little David watched as his aunt brought it down, his solemn face searched her own and saw there no comfort to calm down his fears and worries

Ben noticed the boy and approached him carefully before placing a gentle hand on the lads shoulder “It’s alright, David. Your Pa will be well again soon.”

“Promise, d’you promise?”

Ben could only smile and pass his hand over the boys head, who could make such a promise when so long had passed already with Candy showing no sign of recovery except that one time when he had opened his eyes. David looked up at Ben “Can I go up and see him? See my Ma?”

A sharp knock on the door stopped Ben from answering and they both turned to see who would step into the big room. Dr Timothy Schofield glanced around at those standing looking at him and nodded an abrupt greeting “Where’s the patient?”

“Where’s Paul?” Ben asked in return and then bearing in mind that Candy needed the help of a doctor and now was not the time to turn the matter into a battle of words he turned to lead the way to the stairs.

“Dr Martin was called out on another emergency so asked me to come here, if its all the same to you.” Schofield’s words dripped with ice, he was obviously in ill humour.

Schofield looked longingly over at the fire before following Ben up the stairs and along the landing, all the time rubbing his hands together and blowing on them to indicate to Ben he had been forced to take the ride from Virginia City in unpleasant weather conditions. Ben ignored that and without a word opened the door to where Candy lay. Ann rose immediately to her feet and cleared her throat as though to prepare for battle with the newcomer. She had heard enough about him from Hester and even though he had somehow redeemed himself in the family’s eyes in the way he had delivered little Hope Cartwright, he still had a long way to go to wind them over totally.

He didn’t speak nor acknowledge the woman but strode over to the bed and looked at Candy very intently. Then he checked his vital signs, looked into his eyes and then pulled back the bedcovers to look at his body. With a loud humph he cut through the bandages with some scissors and then looked carefully at the exposed wounds. Candy shivered and his eyelids fluttered “Cold…”

The whispered word seemed to hang upon the air and Schofield looked over at Ben and then at Ann, “He seems to be regaining consciousness.” he said and leaned down to place a hand close to where the wounds were in order to feel for any infection.

“Cold …” Candy whispered again “Hands.”

Ann hovered by the bedside, so close in fact that Schofield had to elbow her out of his way in order to continue with his examination “Mrs Cartwright, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Canady.” Ann said, bristling now, “I’m Ann Canady, your patients wife.”

Schofield looked at her as though he could barely credit the truth of the statement and then resumed his pressing here and touching there, before stepping back with another ‘humph’. As he stepped back Ann took his place and grabbed at Candy’s hand “Candy? Candy?”

Candy’s eyes fluttered open and for a second or two seemed to fix upon the ceiling before he sighed deeply and turned to look at Ann. He smiled slowly “Ann? You here?”

“Of course I’m here, silly, where else would I be?” she whispered and leaned down to kiss his brow.

“You go and tell your father that I don’t give a damn about his opinion …you and me … we’re getting married first thing in the morning.” he closed his eyes and sighed softly, a smile drifted across his mouth and this she gently kissed.

Schofield came and nudged her out of the way “If you don’t mind, Madam?”

Candy opened his eyes again and saw Schofield “Who are you?”

“Your doctor for the next five minutes. Please stay still and stop talking so I can check these wounds and rebandage you.”

“Wounds?” Candy frowned, “Where’s Ann? Where am I? What happened?”

Schofield shook his head “I did say … stay still and stop talking.”

In the big room everyone waited, hardly daring to speak in case it indicated their fear of what Schofield may have to say about their dear friend. When the door closed and footsteps were heard along the landing Hester rose to her feet, baby Hope in her arms and her face pale, the children grouped together in fearful dread of some further bad news “How is he?” Hester cried as soon as Schofield and Ben appeared at the top of the stairs.

Schofield looked at her and nodded “Plenty of bed rest, beef tea to build up his blood, his dressings will need to be changed every day.” he fixed Hop Sing with a pair of bulging eyes “You can deal with that, I hear tell you fancy yourself as a physician.” he looked around him and raised his eyebrows “Well, having come all this way for just a brief examination I would think I could be offered at least a cup of coffee for my troubles.”

By the time the ‘good doctor’ had left the Ponderosa he had insulted and upset everyone in the house except Ann who was so happy and floating on cloud nine that she wouldn’t have noticed anyway.
…………………..

Adam felt a degree of satisfaction knowing that he was leading the three men further and further away from the Ponderosa. He felt further pleasure in the fact that he knew where he was leading them but they had no idea whatsoever of the terrain they were about to encounter. Every so often he would turn in the saddle and glance behind him to see if they were coming any closer, the faint dust cloud that hovered on the immediate horizon assuring him that they were still on his trail even if the gap had not narrowed.
If he felt they were getting too close too soon he would meander into the rocks and boulders so that the tracks would be obscured and in some places totally lost. A good tracker, like Hoss for instances, would find them easily enough but three seamen who knew so little about the locality and how to follow tracks would find it much harder.

He pulled up the collar of his coat as the day was drawing closer to an end and any warmth of the October day was ebbing away. He knew he would have to make camp soon and headed for a small box canyon where he could be easily concealed from anyone following him. As his horse loped gently forwards Adam smiled at the memory of when he and Hoss had found it first, quite a few years ago, and his smile broadened at the thought of his brothers following his trail now.

Despite any delaying tactics Roy may have used Adam knew his brothers well enough to know of their tenacity when it came to following him, no doubt on their fathers orders, even perhaps because of their own anxieties. He wondered now how far behind they were, obviously some distance from the Russians because he knew for a fact that his opponents would have left within the hour, if not sooner, to pick up his trail.

Adam was more than aware of the fact that Hoss would recognise the area and without having to look for a trail would bring himself and Joe right to where he would, hopefully, be hidden. He smiled at the thought of the three of them being together again like this, even though he had done all he could to prevent it, the fact now brought a feeling of immense pleasure. He kept close to the rocks and as the last of the daylight faded into the gloom of evening he located the cleft in the rock and rode his horse into the cavern concealed behind it.
………………

The three Russians huddled into their coats and rode close together staring ahead of them rather than look at each other in case they saw the confusion they felt in their comrades eyes. Sergei, the best of the riders, kept slightly in the lead, straining his eyes upon the ground in order to pick up the faint trail that was still showing itself to them. Marek was far from happy, he was not a natural rider although he enjoyed being with the animals. He suddenly broke the silence “We must stop now. Make camp.”

“We stop when I say so.” Sergei replied sourly and looked over at Jakob, “You best say nothing.”

Jakob shrugged but Marek stopped his horse “I’m stopping here and making a fire to warm myself and make something to eat and drink. My back aches, my backside aches, and I’m hungry and thirsty. No more tracking this man. It is getting dark now. We shall find him in the morning.”

Jakob nodded now and agreed with Marek “Makes sense to me,” he said loudly and dismounted immediately, “Go ahead if you want to, Sergei, but I agree with Marek here, I ache all over, even my teeth ache.”

“You’re fools, all of you.” Sergei sighed and brought his own horse to a halt.

“Are we?” Jakob muttered with some malevolence in his voice “You didn’t think so when we were in Paris on that last little job for Gorchakov.”

Marek looked through the gloom at the two other Russians and scowled “What job is that? I was not in Paris with you …when did this take place?”

“It has nothing to do with you.” Jakob said while Sergei pushed past them both and muttered something beneath his breath that sounded like ’Keep your mouth shut.’

Marek looked at them both doubtfully and then with a shake of the head walked away saying loudly that he was going to get wood for the fire. Sergei came closer to Jakob, “Don’t talk so freely in front of Marek, he wouldn’t want to know that there were children involved in the last job…he’s soft like that.”

“He’s good with explosives though, knew what he was doing when we had to blow that ship in Tripoli.” Jakob laughed as he pulled out a bottle of something alcoholic from his saddlebags. “Pity Peter isn’t here with us now, he was the best marksman of us all.”

Sergei said nothing to that except to shrug and spit on the ground.
………………

Adam reached out a hand for his rifle at the sound of approaching horses. Moving slowly and carefully he placed himself in what he hoped was a strategic position for whoever was coming through the canyon. Moving the safety catch off he readied it for firing, squinted along the sights and then smiled as Hoss and Joe rode their horses through the cleft into the canyon.

“Adam?” Hoss whispered, his voice bouncing lightly from the walls to create the slightest of echoes.

Adam moved away from the rocks and came into view, he looked at them both, nodded slowly and smiled “You two took your time getting here.”

“We’d have been here sooner if you hadn’t set up a little soiree with Roy and his sister, “ Joe complained irritably.

“Yeah, we were stuck there two hours because of you.” Hoss dismounted and led his horse to the further recess of the cavern.

“Perhaps it was because I didn’t want you to be in on this party.” Adam replied with a slight shrug of the shoulders although he never lost the smile on his face and shook their hands with a warmth that somewhat belied his words.

“So what made you change your mind?” Hoss asked as he unsaddled Chubb II.

“When I saw the pair of you following my trail like a pair of lost bloodhounds.” Adam chuckled, “C’mon, I got something cooking for supper further along.”

Joe sidled up to Hoss “How come he’d be able to see us from that distance.” he whispered but Hoss only shrugged and followed his elder brother to where a fire burned and food was indeed cooking along with coffee boiling.

Chapter 22

The evening drifted into night in a manner that the three brothers had often shared together in the past. Voices kept muted they talked over the things relative to the matter in hand. Adam told them more about O’Brien and Maria’s death and also about the loss of the Virginian and how those responsible were the ones that sent out the men to now kill him.

“I made myself as obvious as possible while in town so that they would see me and come after me.” he said as he placed some more wood on the fire.

“That was rather stupid wasn’t it? They could have had you in their sights and killed you the moment you walked into town.” Joe retorted rather sharply.

“No, they wouldn’t do anything in town. It would have drawn attention to them. Even Armitage may have had the sense to think that perhaps the dead man in Jenkins place needed further investigation and that could have led to them.”

Hoss and Joe exchanged a look that could only have been described as meaningful and which Adam chose to ignore. The dark unsavoury world of politics was one so unique to the two younger Cartwrights that Adam, with his limited awareness, felt disinclined to reveal more to them. He poured out coffee for them and passed out the mugs, “How’s Saturn getting along, Joe? Reckon he’s up to riding range yet?”

Appreciating the change of subject for what it was Joe accepted the topic opened up to him and the conversation turned to more general themes which made them all relax more and settle into the night ahead of them with their usual harmony.
…………….

Olivia found it difficult to sleep in the room Mary Ann had provided for her. The moon was clouded over and the wind buffeted against the shingles. She lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling with her hands folded over the bulge of her belly. She could feel the infant moving around and for a few minutes she allowed her mind to imagine it stretching and yawning, curling up its little legs and toes, sucking its thumb.

Ben had sent a message to them to let them know that Candy had regained consciousness and apart from some fever and loss of blood was on the road to recovery. It had lightened the mood for everyone and ‘Flannel’ had promised Sofia and Reuben one of her chocolate cakes the next day, and, yes, of course they could help her make it so long as it didn’t interfere with their lessons.

She shivered now, a long shiver that went down her spine to her toes as she thought that it could have been Adam and she could have been there by his bedside praying for his recovery. The baby within her lurched and she placed her hand down to feel its movements. This little miracle within her was such a blessing at this time and she closed her eyes and struggled once again to sleep.

Where was he now? She sighed deeply and turned her head towards the window … wherever he was could he see the moon? Was he warm and protected from the wind that was making the shingles rattle overhead? Had Joe and Hoss found him or had the other men who were hunting for him, had they found him instead?

Sleep eluded her and the bed was becoming uncomfortable along with her thoughts and fears. Pulling on her dressing gown she left the room and made her way to where the children were sleeping to peek in to see if they were alright. Sofia slept with Clarabelle tucked in with her and the new doll wrapped in a blanket in her own ‘bed’ on the large wicker chair nearby. Reuben was snoring with the blanket up to his ears and when Olivia leaned down to kiss him on the brow he muttered under his breath and snuggled down deeper.

There was no sound in the house. As she made her way down the stairs Olivia pondered on how different houses had their own little noises that became so familiar to those living in them that they barely registered as sounds at all. It was only when in another home that one realised they were missing from the background of their lives.

She was able to make her way easily to the kitchen by the light that did shine through the windows and she smiled as she remembered that Adam had designed this house, and although, like their own, it was based on the original Ponderosa ranch house, this one had been specifically built to provide light and space. She put a match to a lamp in the kitchen and set it down on the middle of the table before setting about making herself some coffee.

It was while she was pouring the coffee into a cup that the door opened and Bridie O’Flannery came into the room. Both women were startled at the sight of the other and then laughed at their foolishness “Lordy, I never expected anyone to be here at this time of night” ‘Flannel’ exclaimed with one hand to where her heart was and walking on to the stove which she began to feed with more wood. “I like this time of night, when it’s all quiet. Are you feeling alright, Mrs Cartwright? I didn’t frighten you too much, did I?” she chuckled a little “I know I can’t be looking my best that’s for sure and good reason for not having a mirror in the room.”

“Oh Mrs O’Flannery as if you could frighten me, and please don’t call me Mrs Cartwright, it sounds so formal. You used to call me Miss Livvy, remember?”

Bridie smiled and nodded as she set down the lamp she had brought from her room. After a pause she opened a cupboard and brought out a tin which she carried to the table, “Now, my dear, tell me how you are feeling now? Worried about your man no doubt?”

She took off the lid from the tin and produced a rich fruit cake, a knife, two plates and before Olivia had time to take a breath there was a fine slab of the cake on each plate. She sat down and smiled at her old cook, “You haven’t forgotten how I used to come down during the night when in ‘Frisco, then, Mrs O’Flannery?”

“Not at all. But then we had our own problems back then, didn’t we? There was that awful Mr Booth fellow, and poor Miss Abigail. Such a shame she couldn’t have held on a while longer to see you so happy now.” she sat down and looked across the table at the younger woman seated opposite her and reached out a hand to touch her arm “You are happy, arnt you, Miss Livvy?”

“Yes, I am.” Olivia smiled, “Just worried about Adam and this situation. It’s so complicated and I don’t quite understand it all but I so wish he were safe home with me.”

“Ah well, a man has to do what a man has to do…” Bridie nodded and bit into the cake, “Now then, take a bite of the cake and stop twiddling it into crumbs.”

Olivia laughed and gathered the crumbs together which she ate, “It’s been a big change to our lives coming here, Mrs O’Flannery. I think Reuben is settling down well now, and Sofia so loves Adam and everything that I have no concerns for them at all. Are you happy here, Mrs O’Flannery?”

“Oh yes indeed, Miss Mary Ann and Mr Joe are a lovely couple and the babe no trouble at all with all his charming sweet mischief that he is… and are you feeling well now? How much longer have you to go before the baby comes?”

“Two and a half months if the dates are correct.”

“We’ll say two months to be safe then… end of December beginning of January.” she bit into the cake again and munched for a while with her eyes thoughtful as she looked at the other woman “Yes, that just about works right, you have a nice rounded shape, not too big and carrying low. But you have had two before so know what to expect.”

“I’m hoping that things will go more smoothly than it has for Hester and Mary Ann.” Olivia said quietly nibbling now at her slice of cake.

“That was unfortunate with Miss Hester but she’s a strong lady. Miss Mary Ann did very well, the delivery was very quick and easy although you would never think it to listen to her talk.” ‘Flannel’ chuckled, “I think she was rather annoyed with me when I told her about some of the babies I’ve brought into the world and the struggles their poor mothers went through.”

“Mrs O’Flannery – Mary Ann was so grateful to you for helping her, imagine what could have happened if she had been entirely on her own, which could have happened if you had not been here?”

‘Flannel’ nodded slowly and smiled “That young lady underestimates herself, she’s far tougher than she thinks and would no doubt have delivered the baby herself with no problem at all.” she finished her cake and drank some of the coffee before getting to her feet, “Well, I’m off back to bed. I’d advise you to do the same and get as much sleep as you possibly can, you won’t be getting much in a few months time.”

Olivia smiled and nodded sleepily, put aside the cup and plate and then made her way back to the bed. It was cold in the bedroom for the temperature had plummeted and as she looked out of the window she wondered once more if Adam were safe, and if Joe and Hoss were with him.

Surprisingly she fell asleep within a few moments after thinking of the old kitchen in the house at San Francisco with Marcy and ‘Flannel’ cooking and the children licking chocolate sauce out of a bowl.
……………..

Before 5 a.m Adam, Hoss and Joe were saddling their horses and making their way from the canyon which had been such a providential hiding place. In the gloom of early morning there was no sign of any other campfires nor of their pursuers. The wind had finally calmed and a stillness seemed to cover the whole earth.

They broke the journey regularly in order to keep the horses and themselves as fresh as possible. Not one of them spoke about the reason for the journey but they talked about their wives, the children. They had a chuckle over Roy and his sister and speculated on whether or not she would make a suitable wife for Ben. By mid-day there was still no sign of pursuit, no dust cloud or smoke from a camp fire to indicate any other living soul existed in that locality.

The day meandered towards another evening and now they were reaching the area that Adam had designated as the place to make a stand. He drew up the horse and dismounted, “Look, this is my fight and I don’t think there is any reason for you both to be here when they arrive. Perhaps now would be a good time to turn back.”

The other two men looked first at him as though he were mad and then at themselves. Joe shook his head “No, brother, I’m staying right here, with you. If I had intended to go back I would have done long before now.”

Hoss dismounted and looked about him at the rocks, he brushed his hands against the back of his pants “This is a pretty good enough place … if they reckon on ambushing you, Adam, they’d want to do it here.”

“Yeah,” Joe looked to his left and nodded towards the flat salt land that extended beyond “Nothing there but miles of that -, wouldn’t want to chance going over it.”

“Where do you want us to go, Adam? And I don’t mean home…” Hoss murmured.

Adam smiled and his eyes gleamed as though mischief lurked there, he nodded “I figured it would be hard getting rid of the two of you.”

“Then you figgered right.” Hoss said and withdrew his rifle and checked it for ammunition.

Joe frowned as he took his canteen from the saddle horn and unstoppered it, “You Don’t think they’ve turned back, do you? What if they’ve decided to attack the Ponderosa?”

“Not without me being there,” Adam replied taking a swig of water from his own canteen and allowing the coolness of it refresh his throat.

“They seem to be taking their time…” Joe sighed and replaced the canteen while he withdrew his rifle with his other hand.

“There’s no hurry for them, they know where I am.” Adam took his gun from its holster and spun the chamber, checked that it was fully loaded and then reached out for his rifle, “They’ll be here before dark.”

Chapter 23

The sound of horses coming into the yard could not be heard by those in the back room where Mary Ann was conducting a history lesson with Reuben while Olivia sat in a comfortable chair and continued with her knitting of the little ‘polka’ jacket for Sofia. Bridie O’Flannery heard it however and hurried to the front door thinking that in all probability it was Ben or someone from the main house to tell them how Candy was getting on, and with this in mind she flung open the door with a wide smile on her face. Her smile faded as rapidly as the colour of her complexion as she stared wide eyed at the two men seated on their horses close to the house.

Johnny Tall Bear stared at the woman and then looked over the house before returning to look at her “Where Joe Cartwright?”

“He’s not here…” ‘Flannel’ replied very quickly and then looked at the other Indian who was sitting on his horse looking more like a wooden statue than a living being, “Why do you want to see him?”

“It is for his friend to tell him, not I.” Johnny replied with a scowl “You tell – Stalking Horse go away soon but must speak with his friend first. You tell…” his dark eyes bore into her own and made her shiver, but she shook her head and assured him that she would tell him as soon as he got back.

“We return – 7 daytimes.”

The woman opened her mouth and managed to squeak “Alright.” and then closed the door, leaning against it as though by doing so it would prevent then intruding any further into her domain. The sound of the horses galloping out of the yard slowly faded away into the distance and with a sigh of relief she managed to find the strength in her legs to get to the room to tell Mary Ann and Olivia who had paid them a visit.

Olivia stood up and smiled kindly, putting her arm across Flannel’s shoulders and helping her into a comfortable chair, “Sit down, Mrs O’Flannery, you look really shaken up.”

“I am that alright,” ‘Flannel’ replied breathing heavily, “Heavens, I thought my last hour had come.”

“You were perfectly safe with Johnny Tall Bear, he’s an old friend of ours and would have done no harm to you at all.” Olivia assured her.

“Perhaps not, but I wasn’t so sure of the other chappie.” ‘Flannel’ picked up some paper from the table and began to wave it too and fro in front of her face to cool down a little.

“I’ll go and make us a cup of tea.” Olivia put her knitting in her workbag and looked at her son who was paying more attention to what was being said than to writing down the facts Mary Ann had given him. “Reuben, get on with your work. Sofia, come along and help me, I think ‘Flannel’ needs a cup of tea and slice of cake.”

“So do I.” Mary Ann said from her side of the desk, and she smiled at Reuben “And I think Reuben and Sofia would as well.”

Bridie O’Flannery closed her eyes and waited for her heart to settle down, this was certainly one shock more than she had bargained for although it was somewhat reassuring to know that at least one of the men would have been friendly, thus negating any danger brought about by the other.
……………..

Sergei stopped his horse and gazed around him at the rocks and boulders that seemed to proclaim to the world that normality ended there, beyond them was a hell on earth. He turned to look at his companions who were easing their rifles from the scabbards and slowly dismounting. If his hands were sweating he wasn’t going to acknowledge the fact so slid from the saddle and walked carefully towards the cover of one large boulder. He had his hand upon it and was about to step behind it when Adam Cartwright’s voice floated towards them “That’s as far as you go. Put your weapons down and stand clear of the rocks where I can see you.”
Judging the direction of the man from the sound of his voice Jakob fired off a shot which struck a rock with a whine as it ricocheted off it, immediately there came answering fire that spat up the ground at his feet. “Put your weapons down now.”

Marek grabbed at his horse’s reins for cover and ran to t he rocks where he fired off several shots as he began to clamber up the scree covered incline, hiding behind boulders and rocks as he went. Jakob dithered, and then dived and rolled to where a large boulder stood close to the track firing his rifle blindly as he did so. The horses squealed, reared and turned to canter to some source of safety.

Sergei had also taken advantage of the fireplay from his companions and found a vantage point behind which he was able to fire at the solitary man who returned gunfire with a calm that was more than irritating to the Russian. He clambered higher and from his position was able to see Adam quite clearly, he raised his rifle and fired.

It was unfortunate that he missed because Adam’s aim was far more accurate and got Sergei in the shoulder of his gun arm. As tingling numbness filtered through to his fingers so the rifle fell with a clatter among the rocks. Now he withdrew his revolver and carefully aimed at his opponent only to stop as the hard jab into his spine brought along with it the realisation that Adam was not alone.

“Drop it and tell your men to stop firing.” Hoss said with a coldness to his voice that convinced Sergei that the man meant a threat even if he hadn’t ventured to voice one.

But Sergei was not about to give up without a fight, shouting in Russian to Jakob and Marek to make sure they got the job done this time, he rolled away from Hoss and fired at random at the big man. He could hear the gunfire rattling around him even as a bullet slammed into his back and through a haze of darkness the sounds became like echoes in his head… he called out a few words before his body slumped onto the ground.

Hoss stepped down and turned him onto his back, placed a hand to the man’s throat and shook his head. Around him bullets continued to whine and bounce from the rocks so he quickly ducked for cover and added his gun to those of his brothers.
Ignorant of Sergei’s death Jakob and Marek fought on. They moved position several times, and caught a glimpse of Joe, Adam and Hoss occasionally which encouraged them to continue to shoot until Adam called out to them to put their weapons down and give up.

Jakob, hot headed and playing the hero, yelled in Russian “Never” and rashly exposed himself as he attempted to gain better access to the Cartwright brothers. He paid for it when several bullets cut him down and left him rolling down the incline to the track below.

Marek did the sensible thing and threw down his gun, “No more fighting .”

The three brothers waited for more evidence than words before they showed themselves by which time Marek was out in the open with his hands in the air. He looked from one to the other of them as though surprised to see three instead of the one man he had thought they were pursuing. “I do not understand …” he muttered but then shut his mouth firmly and wouldn’t elucidate on what exactly it was he didn’t understand.

Adam looked up at the sky and nodded to himself before he turned to Marek “What’s your name?”

Marek merely shrugged and tightened his mouth as he watched Hoss and Joe deal with Sergei and Jakob. Their pockets were searched and the papers taken, then handed over to Adam who looked at them and then put them in his jacket pocket. He said nothing to Marek, merely twitched his shoulders in a familiar shrug and walked over to his horse in order to slip his rifle into its scabbard. Hoss joined him “It’ll be dark soon, shall we make camp here or take advantage of what lights left to back track a little?”

“We’ll find a place better than this to camp, Hoss.” Adam replied quietly and tapped his brother affectionately on the chest “Thanks for your help.”

Hoss grinned and winked, then joined Joe in bringing the bodies over to the waiting horses.
…………………

At the main house Candy Canady was sitting up in bed and enjoying his supper. Ann was carefully spoon feeding him while little David sat on the side of the bed watching his father and Rose stood at the head of the bed holding a glass of water in her hands which Candy insisted of sipping every so often just to make his little daughter feel she was doing something wonderful for her father.

It seemed to Ann that the nightmare was over at last as she saw the blue eyes shining brightly at her again, and the wide mouth curved in that familiar loving smile. When Candy eventually said that he couldn’t eat another mouthful she put the bowl down and sat back in the chair to gaze at him, “Oh Candy, I can’t believe every things alright at last, you – you were so ill.”

“I could sense you by my side all the time, my love.” Candy said quietly and reached out to take her hand in his, then he closed his eyes “I can’t believe how tired I am.”

Ann squeezed his fingers and stood up to lean over to kiss him, then she beckoned to David and Rose to leave the room and very quietly followed behind them, closed the door and made her way down to the big room with the tray of fixings in her hands. Behind her David and Rosie almost bounced down the stairs with childish excitement and relief only to be told to ‘shush’ by their mother.

As night fell the occupants of the houses went to their separate beds to sleep. Ann curled up in a camp bed that was arranged beside Candy’s so that she could at last get some sleep but be close at hand should he need her.

Hester slipped into her bed and looked at the empty expanse by her side where Hoss would have normally be sleeping. Baby Hope whimpered in her crib but settled almost immediately but Hester found it far more difficult to do so. She wondered where her husband was now, and just how safe this latest venture had been that had taken him from her side.

In Mary Ann’s house she and Olivia sat up until late talking among themselves about their lives before they had met the Cartwrights. Olivia learned a little more about Joe as a result as Mary Ann told her about the fateful trip to Calico during which her brother Frank had been killed and Joe was mourning the loss of his sweetheart, Little Moon.

Eventually both made their way to their beds to slip between cool sheets and mourn the fact that their husbands were not at their sides. Both lay staring up at the ceiling praying the safety of their loved ones until finally sleep did arrive and close their eyes.

Two days ride away Hoss, Joe and Adam camped by their fire and ate rabbit washed down with coffee, their silent companion, bound securely, was fed and treated kindly although he himself was lamenting that there was further trials and tribulations waiting ahead of him.

That night the moon shone brightly as though knowing that soon winter would be arriving . The wind had died down now and all was calm.

Chapter 24

People paused in whatever they were doing as the three Cartwrights rode into Virginia City with one man bound and two men shrouded in tarpaulins tied to the saddles of their horses. They followed the small entourage to the sheriff’s office and the bolder among them pushed forwards to ask what had happened, who were these men only to be ignored and made to feel foolish for asking.

Dan deQuille came hurrying over, although of course he didn’t give the appearance of hurrying, but sauntering over slightly more quickly than usual in order to see what was going on and hopeful that some gem would therefore drop into his lap as a result. When Adam Cartwright pushed the prisoner through the door of the building it was Dan who stepped forward and asked who the man was, what had happened?

For a moment Adam hesitated about whether or not to say anything at all, but then said quietly “These men shot Candy”

“And? Anything else?” Dan asked hopefully.

Adam grimaced and pushed Marek into the office while Hoss and Joe followed closely behind him. Dan asked Hoss what had happened and the big man just shook his head while Joe just managed to slip into the building before Hoss and thereby avoided being accosted by the over enthusiastic writer.

From the hotel window which had been Dimitri’s sole contact with the world around him, the Russian watched as the crowds dispersed muttering and murmuring among themselves. He narrowed his eyes and stared down at the shrouded bodies before shaking his head and retreating to the shadows of his room. He had to think over things now, make some decisions as to where to go and what to do next.

Armitage almost dropped his cup of coffee when Adam, Hoss and Joe entered the office with Marek. He looked at the four of them slowly and then with a scowl demanded to know what was going on.

“This man was one of the four who shot Candy Canady. We – er – apprehended them for you, sheriff.” Hoss said in his most amiable manner.

“Them? I only see one man here?”

“The other two are outside, sheriff.” Joe muttered in a co-operative way and with a nod towards the window.

Adam stepped to the desk and placed the personal papers onto the desk “These are the details of the men who ambushed Candy, and who attacked us a few days ago. This man will, I am sure, give you any extra information.” and he gave Marek a cold stare which made the Russian turn away with a proud toss of the head and curse.

“You’ll have to make statements about this …” Armitage said, “You should have waited for posse so’s it would have been legal like.”

“Wasn’t sure how long it would take for you to form a posse, Sheriff, and the trail was growing colder by the day. Besides, these men were taken in as legal like a manner as they would have been if you had formed a posse and gone after them.” Adam raised his eyebrows and his hooded eyes looked very dark and cold as he surveyed the lawman.

“I had to get statements from Luke Dent and his foreman.” Armitage mumbled and rose to his feet “Alright you, follow me.”

Marek did as he was told although he cast an anxious look at the Cartwright brothers as he passed them on the way to the cells. Clem was watching and shook his head before going over to stand by Hoss “So what happened?”

Hoss shrugged, Joe shook his head and Adam rolled his eyes; Clem frowned, “Well, something must have happened? Two dead men, a prisoner … you going to tell me?”

Adam gave a slight smile “We have statements to write out, Clem. We’d best get on with them before we can get home to our families.”

“Yeah, that’s a fact.” Hoss said picking up paper and a pencil “I’m hoping to get back home before supper tonight.”

Clem trailed behind them as they went to the desk to sit and write out their statements, “Did you know them? Suspect them?”

Adam stared at the far wall for a moment before turning to look at Clem, he nodded slowly “You got Luke and Matt’s statements?”

“Yeah. Sure …” Clem rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, “So?”

“Well, that’s it really,” Adam stared at the paper and began to write, “I came to town, went for a ride, they followed and there was a shoot out… that’s all you need to know.”

“Yeah, and how did these two brothers of your’n git involved?” he jerked a thumb at Joe and Hoss.

Adam shrugged “You know what younger brothers are like, Clem, they just like tagging along to see what’s going on and next thing you know … they get caught up in the whole thing.”

“Oh. I see.” Clem nodded and glanced again at Hoss and Joe before shaking his head and walking over to the stove “You want some coffee?”

There came a unanimous no thank you which led to more shaking of Clem’s head as he poured himself some of the thick brew. Armitage came out and looked over at the three men busily scribbling away “He’s a quiet one, wouldn’t even give me his name.”

Adam shrugged once more “Probably couldn’t remember which one to give you.” he muttered and continued with his writing.

……………

Once they had seen to their statements the three brothers took themselves to the saloon for a drink, something long, cool and refreshing. Joe leaned on the counter and frowned “You didn’t say anything to Armitage about the true identity of those men or what they were really after, Adam?”

“No point. They’re dead and the situation isn‘t one our sheriff could handle.” he dropped a few coins on the counter and smiled at Sam as the glasses of beer were pushed over to them, “Look, I’ve some cables to send just now. Take my beer over there and I’ll see you in a minute.”

As he made his way to the telegraph office Adam thought over what he had written in his statement. The simple facts only, facts that Armitage would understand and not have to worry over, that was all he had written. He wondered if Marek would speak, demand to see someone in a higher authority, or even if Doestov would appear to speak on his behalf. As he passed the hotel he glanced up at the window, but there was no sign or shadow of the man there.

He sent off his cables and asked Tom to make sure they went immediately. He also told Tom to say nothing at all about their contents, even if Dan deQuille were to offer him top dollor or his mother promise her best pie for supper, he was not to mention what he was to post off.

Having done that Adam Cartwright strolled over to the saloon where, unsurprisingly, deQuille was sitting at the table with Hoss and Joe nursing a glass of whiskey and notepad set out, pencil in hand and looking eager for information. Adam pulled out his chair and sat down, listened to the questions and the answers his brothers gave which were sparse and to the point. DeQuille glanced anxiously at Adam “There’s a bigger story behind this, I know there is, Adam.”

Adam shook his head “No, I don’t think so.”

“Look, I’m a reporter, I smell these things … there’s something here you’re not telling me. Has it to do with your time at sea? I know about the meeting between the Russian and British with Fish, I know that you brought the British over for the meeting and that the Russian ship is still in harbour – I just know that what has happened here had something to do with that meeting.”

Adam shook his head again and sipped some of his beer, “I don’t know what you’re implying, Dan. You think those gents are British? Russian ?”

Hoss and Joe looked at one another and then anxiously at their elder brother, Dan saw neither but shook his head “I don’t know, just that it seems to me that there’s something bigger than a simple ambush going on here.”

Adam scratched his nose “Look, those three men ambushed Candy- do you know how he is, by the way?”

“Doing well and recovering from what Doc Martin told me this morning.” Dan said frowning darkly at the other men.

“That’s good news, ain’t it Joe?” Hoss nudged his little brother who nodded and agreed that that was really good news.

“So? You think these are the same men?” Dan responded with pencil raised in anticipation.

“I know they’re the same men, four went out to shoot Candy, and then the three remaining ones followed me in an attempt to shoot me but thankfully my brothers came along and saved my hide.”

Hoss winked at Joe “Again.” he said with a grin.

“Again?” Dan frowned, “Oh I see what you mean. Is that it? Nothing more?”

The three brothers looked at one another, emptied their glasses and stood up “Nothing more.” Joe said as he pushed aside his chair.

“Sorry Dan, you’ll have to make do with that ..” Hoss slapped the reporter on the shoulder and with a grin strolled out of the saloon.

Adam said nothing but once out on the sidewalk he looked over at the hotel and at the window where he expected to see Dimitri, but again, there was no sign of life behind the curtains.
………………

It was Reuben who heard the horses trotting into the yard. He had been to feed Saturn an apple and had just reached the porch when the sounds came causing him to turn to look in anticipation for the horsemen. When Adam and Joe actually appeared and waved to him he gave a bellow of delight, then found that he didn’t know in which direction to run first so he yelled “Ma, Ma, Aunty Mary Ann …” while he ran from the house to where the two men were now dismounting.

“Hey, son, how are you?” Adam caught the boy and swung him from the ground “Been good?”

“Really good, Pa.” Reuben laughed and hugged the man tight, “Oh Pa, I’m so glad you’re home safe. I was so worried something horrible could happen to you and Uncle Joe and Uncle Hoss.”

“Hey,” Joe ruffled the boys hair just the way he hated having had it done to him in the past, “We were altogether, nothing could happen to us when we’re altogether.”

“Is that right?” Reuben cried his eyes swivelling from one man to the other, “is that right, Pa?”

“Your Uncle Joe thinks it is,” Adam chuckled and then beyond Reuben to where Olivia and Mary Ann were running to meet them with Sofia not far behind. “Hey, sweetheart, we’re home.”

Such a simple statement but to both women it meant the whole world captured in the palm of their hands and safe again.

“Daddy -” Sofia ran up and clung to Adams leg, so that he bent down to swing her up into his arms and hug her tight while he kissed his wife and held her close to him.

“It seems as though you have been gone away for so long.” Livvy cried, “Has everything gone – satisfactory?”

He laughed at the use of such a word and kissed her nose “Yes, everything has gone ‘satisfactory’ to the best of my knowledge.”

Mary Ann and Joe led the way into the house where Bridie O’Flannery was beaming with delight at the sight of the two men, “Is Mr Hoss alright too?” she asked.

“Perfectly alright,” Joe assured her, hugging his wife close to his side, “Only very hungry as we were short of rations.”

“Then you’ll both be wanting a good meal inside of you .” Bridie declared and smiled fondly at them all for she loved them as dearly as her own family, “And Mr Candy is out of the woods now, and quite safe and well.”

Sofia shook her head “He’s wasn’t in no woods, Flannel. He was in bed in Gran’pa’s house.” she looked up at her father and Uncle, “We had to stay here in case we made a lot of noise and Rosie came here as well.”

“Is that so?” Joe smiled and squatted down on his haunches to her level “And have you all been really good? Did you do what teacher told you?”

“Aunty Mary Ann is a nice teacher.” Sofia nodded primly, “Reuben said she was nicer than Miss Brandon.”

Reuben went rather pink in the cheeks but Joe only smiled, “I agree with him,” he nodded as he rose to his feet, “but then I’m biased.”

“So Candy’s recovering well?” Adam asked as he strolled with his wife into the sitting room still holding her hand and smiling into her eyes, “Dan deQuille did say so when we saw him in town.”

“Yes he’s already insisting that he returns home tomorrow, but Paul won’t let him.” Livvy replied. “Dr Schofield came out several times as well but I don’t think he’s broken down any barriers between himself and your father and Hester.”

Mary Ann laughed “He really is such an arrogant little man.”

Olivia turned to look at her husband more closely and raised a hand to touch his face, smiled at him fondly “You need a shave.”

“And a bath.” he replied and sighed “You’ve been alright here, haven’t you? No unexpected visitors?”

“No, why? Who do you mean?” her brow furrowed and when he mentioned Dimitri’s name she shook her head “No, we’ve not seen him here at all. Ben wouldn’t let us go into town either so have really enjoyed quite a peaceful few days.”

Mary Ann passed the settee on the way to check on Daniel “We did have some visitors though, didn’t we? Scared poor Bridie to death.”

“Really?” Joe looked sharply over at Adam who had immediately looked alarmed, “Who was it?”

“Who were they?” Mary Ann said correcting her husband with a smile “Johnny Tall Bear and another Indian.”

Joe nodded and released his breath “Stalking Horse.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Mary Ann replied turning to him now with the baby in her arms and soothing him for he was fretful and had began to cry. “He said he wanted to see you before he left. He was going to leave in seven days time.”

“That was nearly three days ago.” Olivia said quietly and was about to say more when Bridie announced the meal was ready for them.

Joe looked at Adam and raised his eyebrows “I wonder why he’s so insistent on seeing me?”

“Do you want me to come with you to see him?” Adam asked as they walked to the large table where the food was sending out the most tempting smells.

“I don’t know,” Joe said doubtfully, and looked a trifle concerned although he tried to conceal it with a smile, “We were good friends for some time.”

“Well, then.” Adam took his seat and sat down “I guess that explains why he wants to see you in particular.”

Joe nodded but he couldn’t shake off a feeling of foreboding about his old friend risking so much to travel so far to see him.

Chapter 25

It was good to be back home although for differing reasons both Joe and Adam were nervous and slightly tetchy as a result. Adam because of Dimitri and the feeling that Marek posed a loose thread in the pattern that revolved around the Russian Lebedev. For Joe it was due to the knowledge that Stalking Horse was nearby and wanting to see him. It was, he told himself, always good to see old friends, but not one with so much history behind him as this Cheyenne shaman. If he had but known it Adam was feeling exactly the same about Doestov.

Several days drifted by with all three brothers working hard on the range. Joe had taken the chance of testing Saturn out by riding him along with Hoss and Adam, the result was pleasing as the black horse appeared relaxed and congenial with Chubb and Sport. Reuben and Rosie were back at school with Miss Brandon who was not told of Reuben’s preferences so continued to believe that she was his favourite teacher of all.

Candy was in his own bed in his own home being tenderly cared for by his wife who managed the chores with the help of little David. Ann had proven herself a resourceful woman ever since she had defied her father and sought out the man she loved in order to marry and set up home with him. It had all taken time, but her determination had paid off, and as she sat by his bedside sharing the days events with him she was more than grateful that the time had been allowed her .

Marek remained obstinately silent. He took the food given him, and the coffee which he found disgusting. Apart from groans and grimaces Armitage was unable to get a word from him. Dan deQuille came to question him in order to put an article about the mysterious prisoner but nothing came of that either. Armitage was beginning to think that Marek was a ’white elephant’ and wished he had been brought back to town in the same manner as his two friends.

It was several days later that a group of men rode into town. There were six men in total, but only two dismounted outside the sheriffs office and entered the building. Quick to spot something that could be of interest to his readers Dan deQuille picked up pen and paper and crossed the road only to have his pathway blocked by one of the men who rode his horse in such a way as to block his passage.

“Sorry, sir, no admittance.”

Dan was not a man to stand and bluster, he merely stepped back and nodded, retreated and returned to his offices. From his window he watched with avid interest.

Armitage was cleaning his rifle and Clem Foster and Deputy Dodds were sorting through old wanted posters when the two men entered the building, closing the door gently behind them. Armitage looked up “What can I do for you gents?”

One of the men stepped forwards in order to approach the desk, he took out some papers which he handed to Armitage. “What’s this? Some kind of deputation?” the sheriff said uneasily.

“Just read the papers, sheriff.” Jotham Morton replied as he glanced around the office, “Where’s Sheriff Coffee?”

“Retired – about time too, he was too old for the job.” Armitage muttered sucking at his teeth as he read through the papers.

“Nothing takes the place of age and experience,” Jotham said quietly and then stood politely waiting for Armitage to finish his reading.

“You want me to hand over my prisoner? And release the papers I’ve got that were taken from the four men?”

“That’s quite correct, sir.” Jotham nodded with his customary politeness.

“May I ask why?”

“You may ask, sir, but the papers you have just read should be self explanatory. You don’t need me to give you a verbal resume of them.”

“A verbal resume?” Armitage shook his head, then narrowed his eyes “You’re from some Government Department I take it? A friend of Adam Cartwright?”

“I do know the Commodore.” Jotham inclined his head, “But this matter is a classified
category and I’m not at liberty to discuss it further with you. I have to ask you to sign the form, and hand over your prisoner and the documents as requested.”

Armitage looked as though he were about to argue, then looked again at the insignia that was stamped on the papers that had been given him, he nodded “Very well. You won’t find him very talkative. Not said a word since Cartwright brought him in.”

“The other three men – have they been buried?”

“Yep, up on Boots Hill. If you want to dig ‘em up you’ll need an exhumation order from the Coroner.”

Jotham shook his head “Just give me their papers.”

Armitage handed over the papers and as his hand hovered over the wallets that had been taken from the mens bodies he looked up “They got any kin at all?”

“Not that I’m aware of…”

“Just that someone has to pay for their funerals and the cost of keeping this prisoner in luxury for the past few days.” Armitage frowned, “They had some money on them … reckon it might cover the cost.”

Jotham nodded “American money?”

Armitage grinned “Yeah, of course American money what else would it be?”

Jotham clamped his mouth shut, aware he had perhaps said too much so he inclined his head towards the cells “If you wouldn’t mind?”

Marek came from the cell looking surly and defensive, when he saw Jotham his face dropped even further for he had secretly been hoping that Lebedev had sent someone to provide him with a chance to escape. Jotham was reading through the papers he had been handed and then glanced up, saw Marek and nodded. Without a word he beckoned to the other man with him to deal with the prisoner, then saluted Armitage and turned to go.

“Hey, what about signing the release papers?” Armitage said feeling smugly pleased that he was able to put the man down a peg or two in front of his men and the prisoner. “It’s just a matter of procedure.” he sneered.

The papers duly signed Jotham Morton led the way outside followed by Marek and the other officer. Standing on the sidewalk Jotham looked up and down the main street before turning to his subordinate “Take the prisoner and the detail out of town. I’ll meet you as arranged in a few hours time.”

“Yes, sir.” a snappy salute and the man turned, took the prisoner by the arm and led him to the spare horse.

If any man there looked longingly at the saloons as they left the town it was too bad, the weather was closing in as winter arrived. It was November now and there was still a long way for them to go before the prisoner was safely delivered to the men who had the means to make the silent man talk.

Once he had seen his detail of men ride out of town Jotham mounted his horse and took the opposite direction in order to ride to the Ponderosa. He had an excellent memory and as he cantered along the track recalled the first time he had taken this route, with O’Brien in a hired buggy. His lips twisted into a bitter grimace at the reminder of his cousin and he found it an irony that O’Brien could now be dead while he lived to take this journey once again.

He rode to the main ranch house as that was the one with which he was most familiar and having dismounted approached, dusting down his jacket and hoping that he looked formal and presentable. The door was opened by Hester who looked at him with some confusion on her face “I’m sorry, I thought it was my husband …”

“No, Madam, it’s I who should apologise. I’ve actually been here before, you’re Mrs Hester Cartwright, aren’t you?”

She nodded and smiled “Yes, that’s right, and you do look familiar but -”

“Again, my apologies, “Captain Jotham Morton as your service.” he gave a slight bow having removed his hat already and she smiled more warmly then and stepped to one side “Please do come in, Captain Morton, my father in law’s here, I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see you again. Would you like some coffee or tea?”

“Thank you, Mrs Cartwright, some coffee would be very acceptable.” he watched her go and then after briefly looking around him he turned to face the man walking towards him.

Ben Cartwright had instant recall of this man and frowned sullenly as the thought crossed his mind that the man had come to haul Adam back to sea. He nodded a welcome but there was no smile to give it any warmth. Jotham extended his hand “Mr Cartwright, a pleasure to meet you again.”

“I hope I can say the same of you, young man.” Ben said as he shook the proffered hand “Sit down, sir.”

Jotham did as he had been told, feeling that there were not many who would refuse to do anything that Ben told them, the air of authority he older man had was a force to be reckoned with… he smiled, now he knew where Adam got it from and the thought gave him some small amusement.

“Well, Captain Morton, you’ve come a long way,” Ben stated having noted the amount of dust the officer had collected along the way, “May I ask for what reason?”

“Well, I actually came to see Adam, the Commodore… is he available?”

“Not here he isn’t.” Ben muttered, “He’s with Hoss and Joe working, should be back in about an hour.”

Jotham nodded although he frowned a little at the prospect of kicking his heels here for another hour, he was about to speak when Hester arrived with the coffee fixings and set the tray down on the table. Ben waited for her to pour out the coffee before asking again why the Captain had come to see Adam.

“It is classified, sir.”

“Nonsense.” Ben snorted although he knew perfectly well that it wasn’t, and that the word meant that there would be some secret conflab between this visitor and his son which would exclude everyone else. He seethed inwardly and glanced over at Hester who was getting anxious at the way Ben was acting, she smiled at Jotham “How have you been since we last saw you, Captain Morton?”

“Well, quite well, thank you.” Jotham replied but the sadness in his eyes didn’t fade and he concentrated on drinking his coffee rather than look at her kind face.

“We were very sorry to hear about Captain O’Brien.” she said gently, “Adam was terribly upset.”

Ben’s cup rattled in the saucer, he had forgotten the connection between the two men and felt ashamed not to have remembered, he also murmured his condolences to which Jotham nodded and thanked them kindly. Ben cleared his throat “A traffic accident I understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Jotham buried his face in his cup and nearly choked in his haste to drink the bitter tasting brew.

He was spared from further embarrassment by the sound of horses entering the yard and promptly put the cup and saucer on the tray in order to stand up to face the men, and in particular, one man, as they entered the room.

Hoss, Joe and Adam all slowed down perceptibly as they saw the man standing by the settee, their eyes turned immediately to t heir father who was also on his feet, but it was Hoss who broke the silence as he unbuckled his gun belt “Captain Morton, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mr Cartwright, it is.”

Hands were shaken, greetings exchanged. He turned to Adam who was looking at him gravely, memories of O’Brien chasing through both their minds as the Commodore stepped further into the room. “Why are you here, Jotham?”

The younger man swallowed, nothing like coming to the point immediately he thought to himself, and he said as politely as he could that he had come on official business. Adam nodded and looked darkly at the man, “They got my letters then?”

“Yes, sir. I was despatched immediately to come here.” Jotham glanced at the others still in the room, “It is classified, sir.”

Ben her-umphed very loudly and Hoss raised his eyebrows and looked awkward whereas Adam stared at Jotham for a moment then inclined his head, “Over here.” and led Jotham to his fathers study. Having seated himself he nodded at the younger man “Jotham, I was more than sorry to hear about Daniel… I do know the real cause of his death and …”

“I know, your letters confirmed what was already being investigated and I thank you, Adam, sir, for being the friend that you were to him, and to his wife.”

There was a momentary silence before Adam asked him what had brought him to the Ponderosa and Jotham brought out an envelope which he handed to over, “I was told to bring these to you, sir. Also to tell you that I had to take charge of the prisoner or prisoners, and take them back with me.”

“Back with you?” Adam raised an eyebrow, received a blank look in return and then nodded, “I see.” he looked at the envelope which was marked Private and confidential, “Is there anything else?”

“We know that one of those four men was responsible for the explosion that caused the Virginian to go down with Captain Hathaway. The man we – I – shall be taking back with me will hopefully give us the information that we need about that, perhaps even more on who was responsible for Daniel’s death.” he paused a moment “Count Lebedev is still on board his ship in San Francisco.”

“I daresay.” Adam nodded slowly and glanced up at Jotham

“He’s no doubt waiting to hear how his men got on with their assignment.”

“No doubt he’ll have got to know by now.” Adam assured him with a wry smile.

“Dimitri Doestov…” he looked at the man sitting opposite him with a sharp glance
“It’s been assumed that he was the person who gave you the details about Daniel and the Virginian. You never mentioned who had done so in your letters and – it might be helpful if we knew who it was?”

“We?” Adam frowned, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed, “Who exactly is – we?”

Jotham nodded “Mr Fish said you would no doubt ask, and I’m to tell you that we work closely with Lord Willoughby’s department in foreign matters of this kind.”

Adam waved an impatient hand as though dismissing such propaganda and rose to his feet “Very well, Jotham. There’s little point in keeping you here any longer. You need to get back to your prisoner before he’s spirited away from under your nose. I’m sure that Count Lebedev would hardly want him wandering about telling all that he knew about the matters with which you concern yourself. “

“And Doestov?”

What about him?” Adam frowned, “Do you know where he is?”

“Not exactly, but he left Virginia City two days ago, we are assuming that he is returning to discuss events with Lebedev.”

Adam nodded and clamped his mouth shut, “That makes sense,” he said quietly and then looked at Jotham, smiled and extended his hand “Take care, Jotham.”

“Thank you, sir.” without pretension Jotham saluted his superior officer smartly and then walked back into the body of the room, “Thank you for the coffee, Mrs Cartwright.”

Once the door was closed upon Jotham Morton , Ben turned to Adam who was walking towards them opening an envelope “He didn’t want you to go with him then?”

“No.”

“What’s that letter about? Not asking you to go back to sea is it?”

Adam glanced up at his irate parent, and then looked down to resume his reading, he shook his head “No, it’s just to confirm what Jotham told me about Daniel and Maria’s deaths, and about the Virginian. Nothing for you to worry about, Pa.”

Ben shook his head doubtfully and watched as his son walked to the bureau and picked up his hat, “Well, Pa, brothers, Hester, I’ll see you all in the morning. “

They murmured their goodbyes, as the door closed upon him, and Joe raised his very expressive eyebrows and smiled “Well, that was odd, wasn’t it?”

Ben said nothing, but continued to shake his head and stare at the closed door, he then flung his arms in the air and exclaimed aloud that no one told him anything but before he could say anymore Hop Sing appeared with a smile to tell them that their meal was now ready to eat.

“I’d better get home then,” Joe said with a sigh and sniffing the air, “Ah, that smells great, hope I’ve something as good waiting for me.”

“We’d invite you to stay,” Hester said with a laugh “but we’d hate you to incur the wrath of Bridie O’Flanagan.”

Joe gave a mock grimace and with a chuckle grabbed at his hat and left the house. Saturn was waiting for him and tossed his head in pleasure at seeing him, the dust from Adams horse was still settling upon the ground when Joe finally rode out of the yard and towards his own house.

Chapter 26

The chess board was set up for a new game and Dimitri Doestov looked at the pieces without expression as he passed it. He sighed and wondered if Lebedev would appreciate that his latest game of chess played out in Virginia City was one that he had lost.

He picked up a beautifully carved knight and was thinking about the skill of the workman who produced it when the door to the cabin was opened. He didn’t move to look around or change his position, but remained turning the knight around and around between his fingers.

“Returned then? “ Lebedev said slowly and stood by the now closed door to observe the other man who only nodded and replaced the chess piece on the board. “Did you sneak back on board the same way you left? I’m surprised you bothered to come back. Do you think we’d not have noticed the way you slunk away from here?”

Dimitri shrugged slightly and walked to the port hole to look out at the city “I would have thought you would have left by now, Vlad.”

“I needed to know how things had gone in Virginia City.” the Count replied as he walked further into the room and sat down at the small table upon which the chess board was set out, “So? Where did you go? What – more significantly – do you know?”

“Vlad, I may not rate high in your estimation but I am Russian, and it is in the interests of my country that I left the ship and followed after those four -” he pursed his lips, shrugged and then turned his back upon the Count in order to look down at the chess board again, “I can tell you now Commodore Cartwright is not dead. Very much alive in fact.” he turned to face the Count then with a frown on his face “Your men made a mistake and as a result they suffered the consequences.”

For a moment Lebedev was silent as he stared into the rather vindictive and triumphant face of the other man, “My men are dead?” he eventually managed to say.

“Yes.” Dimitri began to assemble his cigarette, lighting it and drawing heavily upon it, smoke drifted from his nostrils and into the air, “You sent out the wrong men for the job.”

“I sent out my best men. Trained assassins.”

“Pouf, rubbish, they were rank amateurs. Firstly they shoot down the wrong man, with the result that one of them is killed. Secondly they then go after the Commodore into territory about which they know nothing and find that he is not alone as they first thought, and that they were in a location that defied belief. Sergei and Jakob were both killed.”

“Who told you this?”

“Marek. I – like a thief in the night let me tell you – had a hurried conversation with him through the bars of his cell the night before I left. He told me to tell you that he has told the police nothing. He has acted as though a man who cannot speak. You have nothing to fear.”

Lebedev laughed at that, and shook his head “You think I have something to fear – from him. Marek?”

“He could tell them everything, how the papers are false, how they were financed by you to kill the Commodore.”

“So what if he did, what does it matter … here on board ship I am safe. Anyway, we could sail from here now should I so wish.” he paused a moment “You said they were all dead, all four of them?”

Dimitri shrugged “Yes, that’s right. I gave Marek a small gift before I left, he knows when to take it … he won’t talk.”

Lebedev’s face went slightly pale and he looked at Dimitri as though seeing him for the first time, “You really are a devil aren’t you? What was it? Arsenic?”

“No. Something quicker.” Dimitri drew upon the cigarette, “In that place no one will think twice about people getting shot or dying unexpectedly. It is a crazy place. It will cause no problem that these men are dead, they will think, because of the papers and money they possess, that they are Americans and won’t bother to find out the truth.”

“And him? Will he not try to find out?”

Again Dimitri shrugged and allowed the smoke to envelop his face as he spoke “He knows but will say nothing, he is tied to silence because of his position as an officer in their navy.”

“But Marek -?” Lebedev narrowed his eyes, “A man taking poison, a man who says nothing but then kills himself ?”

“Is a man who is dead without having spoken.” Dimitri replied with a lift of his eyebrows and a shrug of the shoulders.

Lebedev picked up one of the chess pieces, a bishop with his grand vestments and crook, he fingered it thoughtfully “But the Commodore is still alive?”

Dimitri nodded but said nothing although he watched the other man through eyes that looked like those of a rodent. For some moments the silence in the cabin was weighed down by the feeling of malevolence until Lebedev tossed the ivory carved piece down and stood up. “Very well. I shall deal with him myself … and you come with me, Dimitri.”

Doestov said nothing to that either, although his heart quailed within him. He simply drew on his cigarette and tapped the ash into the little silver box in his other hand.
………………

Joseph Cartwright had been more than pleased with Saturn’s performance over the past few days. Since he had returned home Joe had ridden the black horse regularly when going to work, or just for a ride in the early evening. He had told Mary Ann that the animal was enjoying the experience as much as he himself and had hugged her close, “It’s a long time since I had a horse like this one,” he said smiling at her now, “I’ve missed Cochise and Saturn is the best horse I’ve owned since Cooch got shot.”

Mary Ann slipped her arm around her husbands waist and together they strolled out into the yard and out over to the corral where Saturn and several other horses had been put for the coming night. She breathed in the night air and looked up at the stars, then over to the husband “Joe, I can’t believe how happy I am,” she leaned her head upon his shoulder, “It’s been a wonderful year. So much has happened, such good things…”

“Some not so good.” he cautioned and dropped a kiss upon her nose, “But I agree, Mary Ann, I’ve never been so happy in all my life.” he laughed softly then, and shook his head, “Funny how often we say that, isn’t it? I’ve never been so happy in my life, and yet looking back there have been some wonderfully happy times …”

“I know what you mean,” she said as they turned now to go back to the house, “I can remember such happy times when I was a girl, back home with Frank and my parents.”

They laughed gently together and then he pulled her roughly towards him and kissed her “Mary Ann, I want you to know that I love you so much, I – I am so glad you came to Virginia City to find me.”

“Joe, life without you became totally meaningless, I had to come here and just hope, hope that you could care for me enough -.”

“And I did, didn’t I?” he caressed her face with his fingers, looked into her grey eyes and kissed her again. “Let’s get inside,” he whispered, “It’s getting colder out here.”

He closed the door behind him and together they stepped into the house where the warmth of the fire drifted to them, the sound of Bridie setting out the table for their meal together, and the coo-ing call of their son as he sat in his high chair playing – or rather chewing – on his latest toy, seemed to confirm everything they had said to each other. They could not have been so happy anywhere else.
………………

In the morning Joe saddled Saturn and assured Mary Ann he would be back “This is the seventh day that Stalking Horse was talking about, sweetheart, so I’ll just ride out and see what he has come to see me about.” he slipped the bridle over Saturns head “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright.”

“Can’t you take Hoss or Adam with you? What about your Pa?” Mary Ann asked, hugging the shawl closer around her.

“No, they’ve work to do and doesn’t concern them anyway.” he leaned down from the back of the horse in order to kiss her and smiled into her face, “See you later.”

She stepped back and raised a hand to wave him out of the yard, when he had reached the end of the stable block he turned to catch sight of her before turning the corner and disappearing from view.

He allowed Saturn a little freedom so that the big horse could get into a gallop. Joe had always loved speed and enjoyed now the feeling of the wind against his face, the strength and power of the horses limbs and muscles working in harmony beneath him, being borne along and feeling the same sense of liberty that the horse was enjoying. After some time he slowed the horse down and jogged comfortably along until he felt he was in an area suitable for his meeting with the Indian.

Stalking Horse had been watching the man and horse for some time. He had been sitting astride his own weary animal and remembering the times when he also had had a horse that would carry him swiftly across the land especially when in pursuit of the buffalo. He watched Joe without envy, but with some pleasure as he enjoyed the sight of him on Saturn. Noticing that Joe had slowed the horse and was heading towards where a large tree sprawled over the crisp grass Stalking Horse turned his horse around and slowly followed in Saturn’s tracks.

Joe had dismounted by the time the Cheyenne had reached him and watched his friend as he approached with a wide smile on his face. When Stalking Horse slipped from his horse’s back Joe stepped forward to greet him. “I never thought to see you again, Stalking Horse.”

“Nor did I expect my eyes to see you, my friend.”

They laughed together, and shook hands the way a Cheyenne would do, then Stalking Horse indicated the grass at their feet and sat down. Joe joined him. “Why do we have to meet like this, Stalking Horse? You should know you would have been more than welcome in the house of my father and brothers.”

Stalking Horse shook his head and chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully, then he looked steadily at Joe “Would I have been welcome, my brother? You must remember that to many wasicu I am an enemy. I came here expecting at any time to die by the hand of a white man because of the battle of the thousand dead.”

Joe frowned “Battle of the thousand dead? What are you talking about, Stalking Horse?”

“The battle in which Custer was killed.” the dark eyes widened and when he saw realisation dawning in Joe’s eyes he nodded “Yes, you see, I was there and now, like all Cheyenne and Souix I am an enemy to the white men.”

“Not to me, Stalking Horse, nor to Adam and Hoss.” he nodded and added quickly “My father knows how much we owe you, you would be among friends on the Ponderosa.”

“This is what Johnny Tall Bear also said -” the Cheyenne nodded, “But times and what take place during those times, change people.”

Joe nodded and turned his face from his friend to stare out across the valley and towards the mountain ridges. “So, you were at the Big Horn?”

“Yes. But before the fight I was living in the village with Two Moons. We felt safe on our own land. The ground was hard with ice when the soldiers attacked us and we were driven from there, what we could do to protect our women and children we did… but they burned down our tepees with everything in them. They stole all our horses…” he looked at Joe and smiled “Then next night we crept to the soldiers camp and stole them all back.”

“Stalking Horse, you don’t have to explain…”

“I must speak, then you will know why I felt the need to fight. For a while after what happened we stayed at Crazy Horses’ village. There was much talk, many council meetings between the different tribes that were gathered in the Black Hills now. It was decided that we must fight. The white soldiers were everywhere in our land, attacking our villages, stealing our horses and women. There were many thousands of us gathered along the Rosebud, and in the valley of the greasy grass.

“One day there was a big battle along the Rosebud, it was the battle where Buffalo Calf Road Woman* rescued her brother Chief Comes In sight* from the soldiers fire. We call it the battle where the girl saved her brother* but the white men call it the battle of the Rosebud.”

They were silent for a while, Joe plucked grass from the ground and twisted it between his fingers as he listened to the slow tones of his friends voice, and his mind travelled back to those days when he had ridden with the Cheyenne and understood their ways. He nodded “What happened?”

“We saw the flashing of their swords in the sun light, they were attacking our camps, we heard the screams of our women, our children. We could not believe that white soldiers would attack such a large camp … we had felt safe… some of us did not believe it when the cry came that the soldiers were coming, but then we heard the bullets and the rattle of the big guns.” he cleared his throat “Galls family were all killed by Reno’s soldiers. He led an attack against the soldiers and chased them into the woods. But then the soldiers of the Long Hair was seen and we gathered our forces together to attack him. My friend Kill Eagle* a Blackfoot Sioux Chief, said that it was like a hurricane, like bees swarming from out of a hive* there were so many of us. We took no prisoners although there were those white men who stood up and begged us to spare them. But our blood was hot, we took no prisoners that day…”

“Did – did you see how Custer and his brothers were killed?” Joe stammered.

Stalking Horse shook his head “It was like a dust storm, from this many horses ran free with empty saddles. I do not know of Custers brothers, only that he had died. We watched the soldiers throughout the night, those who had come to help the ones already dead. The next day we fought with them but reports came that many more soldiers were coming, so we returned, broke camp and left the valley towards the Bighorn Mountains. As we went many tribes separated and went to their own ways.”
He paused again and looked at Joe “There is more now I have to tell you.”

Joe cleared his throat, he rubbed at his jaw upon realising he had sat with his teeth clamped together so tight they now ached. When Stalking Horse got to his feet Joe scrambled up upon his and waited for his friend to speak b ut instead the Cheyenne began to walk to h is horse, turned his head and nodded “Come. I have more to tell you, but you must come with me now.”

“Where to?” Joe asked rather naively.

“To where I am camped. It is close by. We can talk as we ride there so that you will understand.”

“Understand what?”

“What it is that I have to tell you.” Stalking Horse replied patiently.

Chapter 27

Stalking Horse didn’t speak for some time but they rode along in companionable silence, Joe thinking about the battles that his friend had mentioned and imagining the horrors felt by the white soldiers as well as the terror of the Indians, particularly of the women and children.

Eventually Joe was able to see several tepees standing close by to the river, shrouded by trees and the incline of grassy slopes for they were riding into a valley. He glanced behind him, and recognised that they had passed the Ponderosa border several miles further back. Had he been daydreaming so much he had not noticed? He had to admit that he had and sighed, shook his head and glanced over at Stalking Horse.

“This is Paiute land.”

“They have said we may stay here. You are safe and among friends, Joseph Cartwright.”

Joe nodded and glanced around him “There are not many women or children here.”

“Not as many as could be, but there are some.” Stalking Horse stopped his horse outside one tepee but did not dismount. “Now I must tell you more… one day scouts came to tell us that they had heard of a Mission house where the white soldiers went. It was not where the men in black robes kneel and pray, but where Cheyenne and Sioux women were kept captive, and the soldiers came and used them like play things. Many women since the time of Washita and after were taken from their villages and families to be abused…so we rode there, a war party, and we have taken back as many women as we could, as many as we were able.”

“And the white people at the mission?”

“We killed them all. They were not good people to let the soldiers come and spoil our women.”

Joe looked thoughtful at this and his friend noticed, shook his head and said angrily “I tell you, my friend, they were not the men who knelt to pray, nor were there the women in black clothes who teach us to talk like the white man, they were not there. Only the bad faces who kept our women prisoners to be -” he paused, “Come, you will see.”

They had dismounted now and were walking towards the tepee when a woman scurried past them, drawing her hair across her face to obscure her features.

“Do you remember her?” Stalking Horse asked Joe who shook his head, “It is the wife of Bald Eagle. But you would not know her, Bald Eagle hardly recognised her either.”

“She was one of the women from the mission?”

“Yes. “

They walked onwards, but now the briskness had gone from Stalking Horses step, their pace slowed. Joe wondered what else his friend was going to tell him, and why it was that he was brought here with such earnestness. “Stalking Horse, what else is it that you have to tell me?”

Stalking Horse paused now and turned to face his friend, he nodded slowly, “The one you loved, do you remember her now? After all these years, do you think of her?”

“Little Moon? Yes, I remember her. How could I forget her?” Joe looked and felt perplexed, he licked his lips, remembered the horror of that time when Adam had told him that his lovely Indian girl was dead. “She died years ago, if you recall?”

Stalking Horse sighed heavily and placed a gentle hand upon Joe’s arm, “At the mission there were girls, young women… from different tribes. Some I knew and had known … Little Moon was among them.”

Joe shook his head “What do you mean? Among those you had known or among those you found?”

“Among those I had found. She was there … she was not dead but had been taken to that place. She was not dead but may as well have been…” his voice trailed away and he turned his head to look over to another tepee into which Bald Eagle’s wife had entered. Joe stood still, so still that he thought his heart had stopped. He then gave a gasp, shivered “Little Moon is alive? “

“Yes.”

“Here?”

Stalking Horse raised a hand as though to halt whatever else Joe wanted to say, it was also a request for patience. Joe stifled his feelings with difficulty while Stalking Horse continued to speak “We learned from others that she had been taken with some other women to a Fort. After a while she was taken to the mission home. “

They were silent, it was as though Stalking Horse accepted that Joe needed time to master and control his emotions. Then he bowed his head “You would wish to see her?”

Joe nodded and followed the other man to a tepee that was unadorned by any painting, a woman came out and stood up and stared at them, then her eyes widened and she clapped her hands in delight at seeing and recognising Joe. “He brought you here, he said that he would…” she cried.

Joe started back and then remembered Little Moon’s close friend, and took her hand in his, “Evening? Is it you?”

“Yes, yes, it is Evening. It is I.” and her smile illuminated her face, so changed from the freshness of girlhood, now she looked old and tired as though life had worn her down with its horrors and heart aches. “You have come to see Little Moon?”
“Yes, is she here?” Joe whispered, barely able to get the words through his lips.

“She is always here.” Evening replied as she stepped aside to admit them into the lodge, it was dim inside and Joe had to let his eyes get accustomed to the shadows before he saw a child playing among a bundle of rags.

“This is their child.” Stalking Horse whispered. “Little Moon’s and a white soldiers.”

Joe felt his heart shiver and his hands went cold. He wished he had never come with Stalking Horse, felt it was cruel and unfair that the Cheyenne had come and dumped this secret upon him. The child looked up and saw them and whimpered, its eyes filled with tears and for a moment he didn’t realise how blue they were, nor how fair its skin and that the curls that framed its face were a strange muddy brown. Cold tentacles of foreboding trickled through his body and down his spine. He looked at Stalking Horse’s face and then at Evenings and realised the significance of what the Cheyenne had said. The child was Little Moon’s and some white soldiers …

A strange mewing sound came from the corner, from the darkest corner of the lodge. Then a scurrying sound, and suddenly the figure of a woman scuttled past them, a thin woman with black hair trailing like black shrouds about her. She ran on all fours like a cat, darting towards the child and scooping it up and then disappearing back into the dark corner.

“Little Moon.” Stalking Horse said with a strange finality in his voice.

“Little Moon?” Joe gasped.

“This is all that is left of her, better for her to have died.”

“The child?”

“A girl, one of the Long Hairs soldiers no doubt.”

Joe looked into the dark corner where the woman sat with the child in her arms. She held it close to her breast, and kissed hits pale cheek and moaned softly into its ear. The bleak sadness of it all, the horror of it all, made Joe feel sick. He reeled away, stumbled out of the lodge and reached the safety of a tree against which he leaned for support. Stalking Horse was all too suddenly standing beside him a bitter smile on his face. Joe stared down at the ground unable to speak, his head full of the sight of the lovely girl he had known looking like a wild animal, mewing and slobbering over her half breed child. He shook his head and looked up at his friend “Were – were others like that?”

“No, only Little Moon. Some women killed themselves, others mutilated their bodies and faces so that the soldiers would not go near them. Some died of the coughing sickness. Of the 53 women that were taken we were able to bring back 12.* It is said that they were being kept as Interpreters by Custer.”

“Was she – she – found like that?”

“Yes, she became like that after that child was born. Until then, by all accounts, she had been very brave. Then she became as you see her now.” Stalking Horse looked over his shoulder back to the tepee and sighed, “I know that the Great Spirit has a reason for this, perhaps it protects her from horrors we know nothing about.” he sighed again, “Sometimes she will not touch the child, refuses food, other times she is as you saw her. She plays with the infant like a girl child plays with a rag and bone doll.” he stared into the far distance and then continued “When we found her in the cell I thought of leaving her there, she fought against me, teeth, nails, like a demented animal caught in a snare for so long. The old woman says that she will one day come to her senses, that the Great Spirit will put it back, but I don’t know, do you think it is possible, Joseph Cartwright?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen or known anything like it before.” Joe mumbled and shook his head. He wanted to leave now, he felt a desperate yearning to get on his horse and ride miles from this place, leave it behind and perhaps rid himself of the memories of what was taking place. He looked at Stalking Horse who was staring intensely at him “Why did you bring her here?”

The Cheyenne frowned and shook his head “Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do, but you loved her once. As for me -” he looked wistfully over at the tepee “I have always loved Little Moon Wind. I just thought I should bring her here, you should know what happened otherwise you would live your whole life believing in a lie.”

Joe nodded, he wanted to say that he preferred that idea, living a lie, it was far better than having to confront this truth and to live with it for the rest of his life. He swallowed a gulp and placed a hand on his friends arm and could only nod again as though he understood.

Stalking Horse had seen and noticed the horror in Joe’s eyes, the way he had recoiled and the distress still evident on the younger mans face. He turned away and walked towards his own tepee, inviting Joe to come with him and eat the mid day meal. It struck Joe as he watched his friend walk away from him that Stalking Horse had aged, the black hair was streaked with white and grey, the handsome face was haggard and hollow eyed and the once sturdy sinewy body was now thin and gaunt. With a sigh he followed the Indian to the other tepee and stepped inside.

Chapter 28

They spoke a little during the course of the meal which Evening had prepared for them. Sitting cross legged on the ground and eating the rich meaty stew the two men shared the experiences that had befallen them during the intervening years. It seemed mutually agreed without words being spoken that there was no longer any mention of Little Moon. Joe told Stalking Horse of his wife and his son, how important they were to his life, how much he cared about them. To this the Cheyenne nodded and told his friend that it was good that he had found someone to love him and to love in return.

It was past the middle of the day when they emerged from the tepee, and Joe was thinking that perhaps he could now return home. Stalking Horse had paused to talk to another man so Joe wandered on alone, every so often casting a look over at the tepee in which he had seen Little Moon. As he was thinking about what to do next, for he was sorely tempted to step back into the tepee to see her again, he caught sight of her walking with her child. She was walking quite normally beside an older woman whose hand she held like a trusting child. The baby girl slept in the back cradle strapped to her back, it’s strange muddy coloured hair caught the sunlight and made it shine. They approached the tepee and in doing so cut across Joe’s path and she looked so demure that it made his heart beat in his ribs like a crazy mans. He reached out and touched her arm, and she turned large blank eyes to stare into his face, “LIttle Moon Wind,” he whispered very softly, “It’s Joseph, it’s me – Joseph Cartwright.”

She said nothing, her face remained unmoved. The other woman plucked at her sleeve and she turned to follow her back to the tepee, not once looking back at the man who stood as though fixed to the spot by the brief encounter. Looking to see where Stalking Horse was and noticing that now another Indian had joined them and the discussion was obviously very intense, Joe decided there was only one thing he could do, he had to go in and confront her. He had to be able to say to himself if not to anyone else, that he had made some attempt to form a bridge of communication with her. Why was it so necessary, he asked himself as he walked determinedly to the tepee, she wouldn’t remember him, after all, he had failed to find her, to look for her and bring her to safety. Why should she remember him with affection, with any feeling other than hate.

He stopped once, faltered and bowed his head. He had failed her, he remonstrated to himself, he had left her to suffer the most terrible fate that could befall a woman such as she. Perhaps he had to see her now in order to be able to tell himself later that it was alright, that she didn’t hate him, that – just perhaps – she did remember him with some form of loving affection.

Little Moon Wind sat in the corner of the lodge with her long black hair falling over her shoulders in thick braids which reached down to her tiny waist. Her hands were clasped in her lap, and were very still as though she had willed them to have no life of their own. She had her eyes open, watching the baby as it tottered on fat little legs across the floor. Her lips were unsmiling but were still beautiful, graven like those of marble statues he had seen in the homes of the wealthier families in Virginia City.

He stared at her as though he were staring at the most beautiful statue he had ever seen, and in some ways that was what she was, for she could sit as still as a statue for hours on end. That was the way she had survived all those years of abuse.

He turned slightly sensing that someone had entered the tepee, and Evening came and stood by his side. “They used to come and stare at her,” she whispered to Joe, “The wasicu soldiers. They would stare at her as though they had never seen anything or anyone so lovely. Then they would stroke her hair, that’s how it would start …” she shook her head and scowled, then turned away from him, “Come here now, come here..” she clucked at the child who turned and seeing her nurse tottered towards her, falling mid way, then struggling back to walk a few steps more. Joe noticed that the child’s clothing was soiled, that although it had fair skin and blue eyes she had her mothers mouth and nose, and the high cheek bones and features of the Cheyenne. He stroked the child’s hair as he walked past her and then knelt in front of Little Moon.

“Do you remember me, Little Moon Wind? It is me, Joseph Cartwright. There was a time when you and I spoke of love and marriage, and how …” she turned and looked at him, her eyes were dull and emotionless causing his mouth to go dry and the words to fail him. He sat for a moment and wondered what memories she had locked away in the recesses of whatever mind she had left, or perhaps there were no memories, just a black void. “I should never have let you go with your Uncle, Little Moon. I should have insisted that you stayed with me. If you had stayed Black Kettle would have married us, you would have been my wife and we would have lived on the Rosebud. All those years would have been happy ones for you, just as I had promised that they would be. Little Moon Wind, look into my face and try to remember who I am.”

“Aaaah, “ she sighed softly but her eyes had merely widened, the pupils black, so black that it was hard to distinguish any other colour.

Joe was about to say something when she sighed again, a long withdrawn sigh and Evening came and touched his shoulder and told him to leave right away. As he moved to stand up Little Moon rose to her feet “Aaaaaaaaaaaahh” she wailed and her hands came up and her fingers arched like claws and she reached out with them with a swiftness that caught him totally unawares.

He jumped back, startled, and then stepped forward and took her hands in his, surprised at the strength of her as her wail became the keening shriek of the demented woman she had become. She kicked and screamed and struggled valiantly until Evening came and threw a blanket over her shoulders and grabbed at her hands in order to force her fingers to touch the soft wool. The calmness that followed was as surprisingly swift and equally as terrifying as the violence that had preceded it. The fear and terror left her face leaving her with a passive emptiness. She clasped the blanket close to her and whispered “Ah, ah,”

It was too much. He shook his head in dismay and reeled away to find a quiet place to sit and think. But he found he could not think, his mind was in too much turmoil so that it went over and over what he had witnessed. Every so often the memory of her face that day they had parted years earlier would flash before his eyes and make him feel like weeping. He felt like great shaking sobs were rattling his insides but could not be released.

It was unfair, unfair. It was all wrong, so wrong. Why had it happened? What reason could there be to justify what had happened to her, and not only to her, but to the others, faceless hundreds, nations upon nations of them?

A shadow fell over him so that he looked up and saw Stalking Horse standing in front of him with an expression of sadness on his face. As Joe rose to his feet he looked again at the tepee and then shook his head “What are you going to do now, Stalking Horse? Are you going to stay here?”

“No.” Stalking Horse half turned and beckoned to the other two men who were still talking over something with some urgency “We have decided to move on. Your friend the Bannock, John Tall Bear, has told us where we could go and live in safety with them. It is far enough from the land of the Paiute for you to never have to see us again.” he paused at the expression on Joe’s face and put a kindly hand on the younger mans arm “It is what you would wish, is it not?”

Joe felt ashamed now, but it was true, he didn’t want to think that she was here, so close to the Ponderosa, to his own home and family. He clamped his lips together and looked at the ground “Stalking Horse, if I had known what had happened to her, that she had been taken, I would never have left her. I would have searched for her until she had been found and would have kept her safe. Believe me, I would have done.”

He didn’t want to cry in front of this man who had far more cause to weep than any man he currently knew, but the tears rose to his eyes and thickened in his throat. The Cheyenne nodded “It took a long time for us to know that she had been taken. Like you we believed what we had been told.” his mouth curved in a downturn “By the time we knew it was too late.”

“Would you have married her if … if you had had the chance?” Joe whispered in a husky emotional voice.

“Yes.” Stalking Horse replied and looked at the tepee again, before bowing his head “We of the nation do not think in the same way as the white man about those who are – not of a whole mind. She will be loved and cared for, no harm will befall her or her child.”

They were walking towards the horses now, Saturn and the Indian pony were grazing on the rich grass and ignorant of the plight of their masters. Joe looked at Stalking Horse in order to say his goodbyes when he noticed the gleam in the man’s eyes, the look of hunger and longing as he stared at the black horse. Realising he had been noticed Stalking Horse gave a wry smile and shrug of the shoulders “A beautiful horse, my friend.”

“Yes. He is.” Joe agreed and his eyes travelled to look at the worn out creature upon which Stalking Horse had travelled all those miles to reach the Ponderosa. He thought of the herds of wild horses that roamed the hills, free and at liberty to go where they wished. He wondered how far and for how much longer the poor beast would last. “Stalking Horse…”

With a sigh the shaman turned to him and nodded “This then is goodbye, my friend.”

“Will we meet again?”

“Maybe. “ he smiled and glanced again at the black horse, then turned to look at Joe, “I never thought I would see you again when last we parted – those days when we dreamed great things never knowing that after the great things had happened we would become an outcast nation of people.”

Joe nodded, recalling to mind the time when Adam and he had hidden in the undergrowth to watch the long vast column of Cheyenne and Sioux riding out of the reservation in order to travel the long route to the Black Hills. So much had happened since that time and he reached out his hand in order to take hold of Stalking Horses when there came a scream from behind them.

They both turned with one thought in mind…Little Moon… and they both saw her at the same time as she ran as fast as she could from the tepee. Something gleamed in her hand as she waved it too and fro, her feet seemed so light as they covered the ground to come towards them. “Little Moon Wind.” Stalking Horse cried as he stepped towards her and raised his arms as though to catch hold and prevent her head long dash for freedom.

The knife glittered as the late afternoon sun caught it in sunbeams, and Stalking Horse gave a gasp and leapt backwards, his hand still outstretched to catch hold of her and another held against his face to stem back the blood from where the weapon had slashed through the flesh.

“Aii-yeee-” she screamed and ran towards Joe with the knife held high in her hand. They were a mere feet apart and she stared at him with wide demented eyes, horror and terror and fear transfigured her beautiful features “Wasicu …wasicu…” she screamed and the knife plunged down.

Chapter 29

The sky was streaked vermilion and purple with gold and cream slashed through like brush strokes. It was a backdrop so beautiful that poets would have woven words around it and artists sighed to find the right colours but for Joseph Cartwright it meant nothing.

He sat alone on a ledge that overhang the land and from where he could see far into the distance. Mountain tops and thickly dense woodland and smoke from countless chimneys. It was cold and the wind upon that higher elevation was brisk and stung his eyes and face. He knew that some miles away the small group of Cheyenne would be straggling along the track towards the land of the Bannock and Shoshone, led by Johnny Tall Bear as their guide. He was certain that he would never see Stalking Horse again.

He thought of Little Moon Wind as he had first known her, that large eyed silent girl who had tended his wounds and fallen in love with him. Her love for him then had brought back her speech, and he could recall how proud he felt when told the first words she had said was his name. Perhaps he had hoped that same miracle would reoccur when she had ran at him with that knife in her hand and that crazed look on her face and he had called her name; perhaps he had just wanted to end the nightmare and see it end in a way that would bring joy, not misery.

He had stood there in front of her and said her name, and she had plunged the knife down, doubled over and fallen to the ground. Silent, no sound, no gasp and no word of recognition. He had remained standing there motionless as her blood spilled out at his feet and her long black hair, free now of its braids, had spread like a mantle across her body. Stalking Horse had come followed by Evening and some others, Joe heard his friend calling her name in the Cheyenne tongue, and then had looked up at Joe with a groan as he whispered “She is dead… she will never come back to me now.”

A sound by their side had startled them both and they had turned to see the child crawling towards them, here head down, crying for her mother as a lamb bleats for her own. Stalking Horse made a strange sound, then pulled the knife from Little Moon’s fingers and grabbed at the childs hair.

It was that action that really brought Joe back to his senses as he yelled to him to stop, and grabbed at his arm “No, you can’t do that, Stalking Horse, you can’t do that.”

The knife fell from his hand, the child released now crawled away weeping and was caught up by some woman who carried it to her lodge. Stalking Horse now fell upon his knees beside Little Moons body and wept.

Now on the ledge Joe sat and surveyed the land beneath him. He felt exhausted, empty and his mind was in a tumult of confusion and emotion. The wind blew harder and shadows grew longer. Night had come.
…………….

Mary Ann returned to the window and looked out into the darkness before turning to look at the clock. It was mid-night, the fires were dying down and Bridie had already gone to her bed over an hour earlier. Upstairs in his own little crib Daniel slept soundly, his thumb in his mouth and his curls dark upon the white pillow beneath his head.

She paced up and down, clasped and unclasped her hands, back and forth she walked until in the end she was tired of even doing that so she forced herself to sit by the dying embers of the fire and to read the book that she had picked up hours earlier when she realised Joe was not going to return home in time for supper.

Where was he? Where could he have gone? Was he safe? She put the book down, stood up and then sat down again. This was childish and stupid, there was no need to act in this way, she told herself, after all, anything could have happened to have delayed him. Anything.

The clock struck one o’clock. She walked to the front door and opened it, out in the yard she heard the sound of the horses stirring in their stalls, an owl hooted and swooped from its tree, she could hear the swoosh of its flight. Stars twinkled in the sky and the moon was hidden by cloud. She could see nothing. As she closed the door the sound of her son crying for her caused her to turn away from the sitting room and climb the stairs to the bedroom.
…….

Ben Cartwright sat at his desk with a cup of coffee at his elbow and the ledgers opened up in front of him. His eldest son was perched on the corner of the desk watching as his fathers pen travelled down the lists ticking off item by item.

Hannah was playing with her rag doll while Hester sat in her chair with Hope in her arms, playing with the baby’s fingers and toes, tapping her on the nose and singing quietly to the baby as she did so in an attempt to gain a gummy smile. Hoss was smiling at them lost in the thought of a happy man contemplating the blessings before him that were all his own.

The sound of a horse coming into the yard hardly disturbed them as they were in anticipation of Joes arrival so that work for the day could commence. They were all confounded when the door burst open and Mary Ann appeared with her hair dishevelled and her eyes wild “Is Joe here? Is he?”

From being a scene of pleasant relaxation the change to startled anxiety was instantaneous as she came into the room, looked around and then promptly burst into tears. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be – I mean – Joe said he was going to be home , he said he wouldn’t be long but he hasn’t come home. “

“Hush now,” Hoss hurried over to his sister in law and placed an arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer to Hester who was on her feet now and reaching out for her hand “Where did he say he was going ? Was he with anyone?”

“He went to see Stalking Horse. He said it was about time – the seventh day – and that Stalking Horse would be expecting him.” Mary Ann drew in a long deep breath in order to control her emotions, “I’m sorry, its just that – I couldn’t – can’t help but worry in case there has been some accident. What if he’s hurt?”

Ben was already by the door buckling on his gun belt “I told him not to go and see that Cheyenne, nothing good would come of it, but he insisted.”

“You knew he was going, Pa?” Hoss looked confused and looked over at Adam, “Did you know he was going?”

“I knew he intended to see Stalking Horse, but not when exactly.” Adam replied as he walked across the room towards his father and brother, “I offered to go with him but he said he’d prefer to go alone.”

It was at that point that the door burst open and Joe stepped into the room. Before anyone could speak he had hurled himself at Adam and thrown a punch at his brother that caught Adam under the jaw sending him staggering backwards “You lied to me,” he shouted, “You lied, you said she was dead and she wasn’t …”

His clenched fist came back for another attempt to get at his brother while Adam, mindful of the women and little Hannah who was now screaming in terror, managed to keep his own temper in check “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Joe …”

The next punch caught Adam another blow to the face but before Joe could throw another Hoss had grabbed at his brother’s wrist and wrapped an arm around his chest while yelling to him to calm down and get a control on himself.

Mary Ann seeing that her husband was now restrained by Hoss’ arms and that Ben was standing like a referee between Adam and Joe, now ran to him crying his name and begging him to stop what he was doing before he caused more damage.

Realising his wife was there, seeing his father’s anger blazing at him from those black eyes and hearing Hoss’ heavy breathing down his ear forced Joe to stop what he had intended on doing, although now he wasn’t even sure what those intentions had been. He stood there, lost, fearful and shocked as he looked from one to the other of them. Ben drew himself up “Care to explain just what all that was about, young man?”

Joe shrugged his brothers arm away “You can let go, Hoss, it’s alright, I won’t hit him anymore.”

“That’s for sure you won’t,” Ben growled, “You had better have a good explanation for bursting in here like this, Joseph.”

“I do. I just hope he has a good explanation for what he did as well.” Joe retorted still breathing hard and his eyes flashing green as he glared at Adam who was feeling his jaw to make sure it hadn’t been broken.

Mary Ann stepped back a pace and looked at Joe as though she had never seen him before , this was her dear husband and acting like this? Striking his brother, looking as though he would have liked to have killed him, what, she wondered, had happened to cause him to be like this… she looked over at Hester and saw the same thoughts on her friends face that were flickering through her own mind.

Hester had placed Hope back in the crib and picked up Hannah who was still wailing, after patting the little girl on the back she said very coldly “I’ll go and get some coffee, perhaps you’ll have calmed down by then, Joe.”

Mary Ann watched as Hester hurried from the room with Hannah. She stood there lost in doubt, not sure where to go, what to do or say. Hoss came and touched her arm, “Do you want to go with Hester, honey?”

“No, I don’t know, Hoss. I don’t know what to do.” she was still looking at her husband who had his head down and one hand shielding his eyes, “Joe? Do you want to come and sit down with me and tell us what has happened?”

Adam looked at his father who raised his eyebrows and shook his head, “Joseph,” Ben snapped, “Perhaps you’d have the courtesy to answer your wife at least!”

Joe raised his head and turned to look at Mary Ann, he felt as though he had just woken up from a bad dream, as though he had been sleep walking for the past few hours and only just now come to his senses. He reached out a hand towards her and was more than grateful when she reached out for it, “Mary Ann, I’m so sorry, I – I just couldn’t control my self, I don’t know -.” he paused, and shook his head, raised a hand to his brow and rubbed at his temples then he looked over at Adam “You should have told me the truth.”

“What are you talking about? The truth about what?” Adam snapped and then winced at the pain in his jaw.

“Joe, come and sit down. Calm down now, just tell us what’s happened?” Mary Ann’s quiet gentle voice trickled through to Joe’s brain and he nodded and allowed her to lead him to the settee where she pulled him down to sit beside her.

Ben was still bristling with anger, it was all well and good that Joe was calming down but Ben was boiling hotter and hotter. He came and stood in front of Joe with his hands on his hips and his chest thrust out, “Well, explain yourself.”

“I don’t have to explain myself, Pa. It’s him who has the explaining to do.” Joe snapped back, and glared at his brother who was becoming more confused by the minute.

The rattle of cups indicated that Hester had returned. Hoss went to help her noticing that the rattling had more to do with his wife shaking in shock than anything else. Ben was not to be diverted from his determination for an explanation and demanded once again that Joe spoke up and told them what was going on.

Staring at Adam and holding onto Mary Ann’s hand Joe told them how he had met Stalking Horse, he told them everything, spared them no detail as he ended with describing Little Moon’s death and the departure of the Cheyenne from Paiute land They listened in silence, looked at one another, left their coffee to get cold. Finally the talking stopped and Joe turned his eyes once again to Adam. “If you had told me the truth I could have gone to find her and spared her what she had gone through.”

“I did tell you the truth, Joe.” Adam replied, his voice was controlled, perhaps it sounded cold and emotionless but he was as shocked by what was being said as anyone else there. “I told you what I had been told by the girls in the cell, that she had been killed with her Uncle. Don’t you remember that even Raven, the woman in Wynkoops cabin, told us the same thing?”

Joe shook his head and then with a groan buried his face in his hands “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”

“Look, if I lied to you it was only because I believed I was being told the truth. It was perfectly unintentional. “ Adam bit down on his lip and realised it was cut, it was stinging and he could taste blood. “Everyone believed her to have been killed, Joe.”

Mary Ann had withdrawn her hand from Joe’s, she had them clasped in her lap, her fingers intertwined. She was aware of her own breathing, the pulses in her ears beating like drums. She turned to Hester “Is there any water, Hester?”

Her voice sounded miles away, she wondered if Hester had actually heard her and was surprised when her sister in law pushed a glass of water into her hands. When Hester sat down beside her and put an arm gently around her waist Mary Ann fought the desire to lay her head upon her shoulder and cry. She looked at Joe who seemed to be struggling to accept what Adam had said, then she looked over at Ben who was stroking his jaw as though thinking it over very carefully. Taking a deep breath she looked at Joe “Why did Stalking Horse bring her here, Joe? What was the point of that?”

He looked up at her then with a slight frown and his hazel eyes looked darker than she had known them “He said that it wasn’t right that I should live without knowing the truth.”

He sounded as though surprised that none of them could see that, it made perfect sense to him. Mary Ann sipped some of the water and then set the glass down, “Well, I wish he hadn’t bothered, I wish he had stayed away from here.”

Adam looked from Joe to the young woman who sat by his brother’s side struggling so hard to remain calm, he shook his head “Joe, you have to believe me, everyone I spoke to told me the same story, that Little Moon Wind had been shot down at that camp with her uncle. I didn’t want to tell you then that she had died, but it seemed only right and proper to tell you what I had been told, after all, you needed to know. Then Wynkoop’s cook told you the same, why or how could we ever suspect that it wasn’t so? Some soldier must have noticed life in her later as they were checking the bodies, and -”

“You didn’t see her yesterday, Adam. She was like an animal.” Joe whispered shaking his head, “Then when she killed herself, the look on her face, the hate she had for me… she only saw me as a white man and she wanted to kill me.”

Hoss sighed “Then why didn’t she?”

“What?” Joe blinked and looked up at Hoss, “What?”

“What made her change her mind? Instead of killing you she killed herself, ain’t that right?”

Joe nodded slowly “Yes, that’s right.”

“So she’s dead now ain’t she?” Hoss said in his most matter of fact voice.

“Yes, she’s dead. Stalking Horse has taken her body away.” Joe released his breath and closed his eyes, then looked up at Adam. “She’s dead.”

Adam wasn’t sure what to say to that statement so he said nothing. Hoss looked at Hester and raised his eyebrows so that his wife stood up and went over to him, “I’ll go and see if Hannah is alright now.” she said quietly and hurried to the kitchen where the little girl had been left with Hop Sing.

Ben looked at Joe and then at Mary Ann, he shook his head and said that there was work to do, “I don’t want to hear any more about this, Joe, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe mumbled and once again shot a swift look in Adam’s direction. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’ve been thinking too much about it and I guess it got too big in my head.”

“Yeah, well.” Adam shrugged and looked at Mary Ann “You had better take your husband home, Mary Ann.” and then noticing the pale face and big eyes said in a gentler voice “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m alright.” she smiled her thanks and rose to her feet, “Come on, Joe. Let’s get home.”

Joe rose to his feet slowly and looked from his father to his brothers and then to his wife, he took her hand in his and raised it to his lips, kissed her fingers “Thank you, sweetheart.”

His voice shook a little, it was quiet and husky and touched her heart so that she offered up a small smile. Adam watched as they left the room together and the door was closed. He looked at his father, then at Hoss, scratched his nose and followed Ben into the study. All their thoughts were on Mary Ann and how she was going to deal with the matter, after all, the ghost that had haunted their marriage had now returned.

Chapter 30

“Well,” Adam said as the atmosphere in the room thawed upon the closure of the door, “He certainly hasn’t lost his touch,” he put a hand to his jaw again and winced, “Just like old times.”

Ben sighed “I don’t like it, he shouldn’t have gone off like that. Not in front of Mary Ann and Hester.”

“Aw Pa,” Hoss immediately went on the defensive for his little brother, “He weren’t thinking straight. It weren’t his fault, he just had a shock and had to get it out of his system. That’s all.”

“Some years ago I would have accepted that,” Ben replied quietly while rubbing the back of his neck anxiously, “But not now, he should have just come and talked it over and worked it out of his system in that way.”

Adam shook his head and grimaced, then shrugged “It was grim to listen to, Pa. It must have been pretty terrible for him to have seen her like that after all these years and – and have learned all that had happened.”

Hester began to collect up the cups and saucers, “What will happen to the child? The one she had -”

“Half breed girl? I should imagine they’ll find a woman to care for her. She won’t be unhappy with them.” Adam replied, “She’s better off with them than trying to integrate her into white society just now, that’s for sure.”

“What about her father?” Hester suggested hopefully but Ben shook his head and after looking at his sons ventured the opinion that he was probably dead, having been one of Custer’s men.

“Probably would never know who was her father, Hester. She was ’used’ by quite a number of men by the sound of it.” Hoss said gravely.

“I guess we had better get to work,” Adam now suggested as he reached out for his hat, “Coming, Hoss?”

His brother nodded and followed him out of the house, grabbing at his own hat as he passed the bureau. For a while Hester continued to tidy up the crockery and looked anxiously over at Ben who seemed lost in thought, “Are you alright, Pa?”

“Yes, I’m just sorry about what happened, Hester.” He sighed and put a gentle hand on her shoulder, “It’s a long time since I saw Joe react so violently.”

“Adam won’t hold it against him.” Hester smiled although her eyes looked clouded over with anxiety.

“No, but it isn’t Adam I’m worried about,” Ben replied, “I’m more concerned about Mary Ann.”
……………..

When Mary Ann and Joe had left the house they walked together in silence to where the horses were waiting, nodding their heads over the water trough patiently. She had stopped and looked around “Where’s Saturn? You rode out on Saturn yesterday, where is he?”

Joe chewed on his bottom lip for a second or two then shrugged and pulled a face, “I gave him to Stalking Horse. It was the least I could do.” he saw the expression on her face and grabbed at her arm, pulling her towards him, so that she faced him, “Mary Ann, I’m so sorry for the way I acted in there just now. I was so confused and angry, and it boiled up in my head, when I saw Adam I just kind of exploded.”

“Yes, you did.” she replied slowly and pulled her arm away, “It wasn’t very pleasant to see, Joe.”

“I thought he had lied to me, and after what I had seen, I – I -”

“I know, you were angry.” Mary Ann intoned and walked towards her horse, then paused at the other animal “Is this what you got in exchange for Saturn?”

“Yes, poor creature, he’ll need feeding up and good care for awhile but he’ll make a good stock animal.”

“It’s an Indian pony, Joe.”

“I know, but he’ll be a good horse. Look, Mary Ann, Stalking Horse is a shaman, he’s kind of important to the people, he deserved a horse worthy of him.” he stood by her side and watched as she mounted into the saddle of her horse, “He loved her, Mary Ann, he wanted her to come to her senses one day and marry him. Try and imagine what it must have been like for him all these weeks travelling through Indian territory with her, hoping and waiting. Loving her all that time and riding a worn out horse like this one? I couldn’t let him ride away without giving him something -”

“He loved her?” she looked at him thoughtfully and he nodded slowly, “Yes, he did. He had always loved her.”

He mounted the other horse now and followed her out of the yard, side by side they walked the horses past the stables and out onto the track that would lead to the fork in the road, one that led to their house and the other to Adams and then onto Virginia City.

“It wouldn’t have been a real gift if it hadn’t been something I was fond of, it wouldn’t have had the same meaning to it.” Joe said in an attempt to explain why he had felt the need to give such a splendid animal to the Cheyenne, “It wasn’t easy to give Saturn away but it seemed the right thing to do and – and I wanted to do it, for him, Stalking Horse.”

Mary Ann said nothing but continued to walk the horse towards their home. She kept her face looking forwards so that she didn’t see him as he rode beside her. In her mind she could understand what he was saying, and the reason why he had done what he did with regard to the horse. In her heart however, there were too many other things warring inside her causing her pain, confusion and misery.

Joe stopped talking, he wanted to think because even now the events of the previous day were receding into some surreal world that made him wonder if he had dreamt it or imagined it. He wanted to let go of the memory but at the same time he had to remember that it was a memory of a real event, something tangible that had happened. He wanted to understand his own feelings and most of all he wanted Mary Ann to understand them as well.

He looked at her for a moment and saw how pale her face was with her cheeks rouged red with some emotion, or he told himself, perhaps the wind was cold upon her skin for it blew briskly from the north.

Chapter 31

Bridie O’Flannery had a little tradition carried on from her grandmother that whenever she baked cookies she would give the children a cookie for each hand, one for the right and one for the left. It meant that the children would be occupied with puzzling out which hand had the best tasting cookie or the biggest one or the crumbliest, and while they were figuring that out she was able to get on with more work. It also meant that when they clamoured for more she could tell them no, two was more than enough … it was a custom she was now continuing with Daniel who just loved having his hands full of crumbs and chocolate.

She turned to smile a greeting to the couple as they entered the house, and Daniel waved a chubby hand in the direction of his parents. She was about to tell them that their little boy had yet another new tooth when she realised that something was very much amiss “Is something wrong? Has something happened?”

“Yes,” Mary Ann said in a voice that trembled with emotion, “Thank you, Bridie, I’ll see to Daniel now.”

“Well, of course.” Bridie stepped back as Mary Ann came and took her little boy out of the high chair and hurried away from the room.. They could hear her footsteps upon the stairs and Bridie looked at Joe with something akin to horror on her face “What’s wrong? Has – I s- Miss Mary Ann, is she ill?”

Joe shook his head and for a moment or two just stood in total silence before turning and rushing out of the room and up the stairs, all the while calling out his wife’s name while Bridie stood in the middle of the kitchen wondering if she was going mad.

“Mary Ann? Mary Ann?” Joe put his hand on the door and pushed it open, “Mary Ann – ?”

She was standing by the window which overlooked the corral. It was here she would watch him every morning as he exercised the big black horse, here she would hold Daniel so that he could wave to his daddy and clap his hands when Mary Ann would say “Isn’t daddy clever? Isn’t daddy handsome?” Now she just stood there with Daniel in her arms, holding him close against her as though he needed protecting from some alien force. Joe approached and put his hand upon her back, his other hand upon Daniel’s “I’m sorry, Mary Ann. I wish I could turn the clock back and not have acted like that but -.”

“Do you still love her?” it was half whispered and half choked in a sob. “Do you, Joe?”

“Love her?” Joe looked at his wife with dismay “Do you really think I could love anyone else other than you?”

“Yes, I could. After the way you acted this morning I could believe that, quite easily.”

“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong, believe me, you couldn’t have got it more wrong, I only love you, I couldn’t love anyone else but you.”

She looked at him then, stared into his face with her grey eyes wide and full of tears, then she turned away, “I don’t know, Joe, it seemed to me that no one would have reacted like that, in the way that you did, unless there was some feeling involved.”

“Of course there was some feeling involved.” Joe cried in exasperation and ran his fingers through his thick hair and turned away from her before he turned back to reach for her hand “I – I would have had to have had a heart of stone not to have felt something for her, after all she was someone I loved enough to want to marry.”

She flinched at that and turned her head away before leaving the window to take the child to where some toys had been left on the floor, she settled Daniel down with them and then turned to face her husband, “I know how you felt for her back then, Joe, don’t forget I met you shortly after you had been told she was dead.” she frowned, “But from what you said earlier, had you known she was still alive you would have gone to find her, to have saved her from what she had to suffer – isn’t that right?”

“Yes, I know, that’s what I said -.” he licked his lips and realised how dry his mouth was, “And it’s true, the way I felt for her then it would have been the most natural thing for me to have done, and I daresay Hoss and Adam would have helped me find her too.”

“And then you would have married her?”

“I guess so, what was there to have stopped me? If I’d known about her then I wouldn’t have been in that town taking you to Calico, I would never have met you.”

“I know, I understand that,” she twisted her fingers round and round, her eyes looked away from him and then back again “But that was then, wasn’t it? And today you came home and attacked your brother, accused him of lying to you about a woman you now profess not to love.”

“Mary Ann, don’t you think that -” he paused, he was going to say that she was being unreasonable but something in the set of her mouth stopped him and he shook his head and reached out for her hand which she drew away from him as though his touch would have been unthinkable, “I love you, sweetheart, more than anything in the world.”

“Then why did you act like that today? “

“Because of what happened yesterday and the feelings I felt were so confused and I’d spent too long thinking things over and over until I just felt as though I were going to explode.” he tried to reach her hand again but she turned away, “Mary Ann, try and see things from how it was for me? I had spent all these years thinking she was dead, just a dry memory from the past. I never thought about her anymore, her memory had faded into something that had been pleasant, heart breaking but a long time ago. Then suddenly there she is right under my nose … and she was lovely, so beautiful as though time had stood still and kept her perfect, except that she wasn’t, she was -” how could he describe her? He searched for a word and shook his head in frustration, “She wasn’t Little Moon Wind anymore. She was a beautiful woman who had suffered so much that her mind was gone, shattered.”

“What if she hadn’t been like that, Joe? What if she had been still as beautiful, and when she saw you she had told you how much she loved you still, that her love had kept her sane all these years? What then?”

“Mary Ann, it didn’t happen like that.” he reassured her, and put his hands upon her shoulders to force her to turn towards him and look into his face “It didn’t happen. She didn’t recognise me.”

“But what if she had?” her voice was still shaking, her face pale but resolute. He shook his head “But she didn’t, so why try and make more of it than there is …” he drew her now towards the chair and sat her down, then kneeled beside her, “Look, if Stalking Horse had found her and she had been perfectly normal, he would have married her, they would have had children of their own, and until now, they would have been happy.”

She shook her head and lowered her eyes, tears trickled down her cheeks which she impatiently brushed away with her fingers “Why didn’t you just come home after she had died? Instead you stayed away and then came home so distressed that you – you acted in a horrible way, Joe. Don’t you have any idea of how awful it was for us to see you like that? You frightened Hester and me, and poor little Hannah was terrified.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” he sighed and felt shame well up within in, he could even feel the heat of humiliation burning around his neck and cheeks, “I -I’m really sorry, I feel ashamed for acting like that, but -” he nodded then “You’re right, of course, I should have come home right away but Stalking Horse wanted me to stay and be with them while they put her to rest. He was heart broken, all his hopes and dreams that he had for her, for them, were gone. He so wanted her to regain her mind, to become the girl he loved again. He – he thought one day they could be married but that was gone, all hope lost forever.”

She shook her head and wiped away more tears “I’m sorry, Joe, I don’t understand. I want to because I love you so much, but I can’t, I just feel hurt and confused.”

“Please don’t be, my darling. I never wanted to upset you, or anyone -”

“How can you say that, Joe, after what you did this morning?” she sounded angry now, and her face flushed, the eyes darkened.

“Are you always going to keep on talking about what I did this morning?” Joe snapped and rose to his feet, “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? Don’t’ you have any idea of what I went through yesterday? Can’t you even try to consider that?”

“I am trying.” Mary Ann replied rising now to her feet and the colour mounting in her cheeks, “And if you loved me as you say you do, then you wouldn’t have felt that way about it. You wouldn’t have felt so hurt and confused and angry.”

“How would you know? You weren’t there? You didn’t see her, or know what she had to suffer to reduce her to what she had become? How could you be so self righteous, Mary Ann, as to not feel some sympathy for her?”

They stood inches apart, their faces flushed and their eyes wide, glaring at one another. The angry voices were so unusual in that house that Daniel began to cry, his wails brought both parents turning towards him “You’ve upset Daniel now.” Mary Ann said with a sob in her voice and she hurried over to the little boy who was crawling determinedly towards them with tears running down his cheeks, she picked him up and stroked his back, kissed his brow and wiped the tears from his face.”It’s alright, darling, mommy’s here. Shush, shush, now.”

Joe stood there in the middle of the room looking at the two beings on this earth whom he loved more than anything in the world. He thought of the angry words, they stung just as much in retrospect as they had when uttered so that with a grunt of annoyance he turned and stalked out of the room. Mary Ann didn’t turn to watch him go, nor did she call out to him to stay. She just stood swaying too and fro in an effort to calm down her son stroking his back and making soft shushing sounds. She only stopped when the door was heard to close behind Joe and all that could be heard was the sound of his footsteps upon the stairs.

Bridie stood in the big room looking up at him as he descended, her face betraying the fact that she had heard some of what had been said upstairs, but Joe didn’t stop to talk, he merely brushed past her and reached for his hat and coat.

“I s- is Mary Ann alright? Should I go up and see if she needs anything?” she ventured to say as he struggled to get his coat on and then he paused and looked at her, “Yes, if you wouldn’t mind.”

She nodded dumbly and looked at him with wide eyes before glancing up the stairs, “Will you be back for your supper?”

“I don’t know.” Joe snapped and then felt guilty for he tried to smile although it faltered somewhat “I’m sorry, Bridie…”

“IS there anything I can do to help at all?”

He hauled in a deep breath at that and only shook his head, then shrugged “I’ll see you later,” was all he managed to say.

Bridie O’FLanagan watched him leave and shook her head with tears in her eyes. She had never heard a cross word said between this couple before, never known them to be unhappy in each others company and now, as things stood, she wondered if this breach would do more damage than if it had happened to a couple constantly at war with each other.

Chapter 32

Hoss Cartwright looked up and glanced over at the horseman approaching them. He wiped sweat from his face and squinted his eyes “Hey, Adam, it’s Joe.”

Adam straightened up and tugged at his ear lobe, then shrugged “Well, we could do with some help. Here, Hoss, take this end of the post and we’ll get it set in place by the time he gets here.”

Hoss did as his brother suggested and together they slipped the post into position, Hoss picked up the mallet with which to use when Joe drew up and dismounted, leaving the horse ground hobbled.

His brothers both glanced over at him and then continued with what they were doing while Joe pulled on some gloves and picked up a spade. Hoss whacked down the mallet upon the post that Adam was holding steady and it sank several inches into the ground, he repeated the procedure several times before wiping his brow again and stepping back for Joe to use the spade to fill the hole so that the post became rigid. By the time he had finished Adam was drinking water from his canteen while Hoss was digging out a new hole, the dirt piling up into a mound at his feet.

Adam screwed the stopper back into place “How’s Mary Ann?”

Joe shrugged but didn’t look at his brother, he pulled at his gloves and struck his spade into the ground, “She’s alright.”

“Alright as – happy about the situation alright or -?” Adam raised his eyebrows and Joe sighed and shrugged but still kept his face turned away from his as he muttered that she was a trifle upset but that was only to be expected after all to which Hoss gave a loud “Herumph.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe snapped immediately.

“Well, if I were Mary Ann I’d be more than a trifle upset at your reaction today.” Hoss replied honestly as he swung his spade up and carried it on his shoulder as he joined them. Adam handed him over the water canteen and he continued to say “Dang it, little brother, I’d be skeered to go home later, you might well find your supper decorating the wall.”

“I’ve already apologised about that,” Joe replied coldly and then looked at Adam, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Adam. I shouldn’t have lashed out at you as I did.” he bit down on his bottom lip and sighed, “I guess if I’d be on one of your ships, you’d have had me court martialed.”

“Well, thrown into the brig that’s for sure.” Adam replied as he put a hand to his jaw as though suddenly remembering what was causing it to ache so much. Joe could see that there was a good bruise developing on his brothers cheek bone and he shook his head miserably, “To be honest,” he said reluctantly, “Mary Ann isn’t too happy with me. She thinks I still love Little Moon.”

“I can understand why she would think that,” Hoss replied, “Don’t you, Adam?”

Adam sighed and shrugged “Well, I guess so.”

“Thanks, you two are a real pair of Job’s comforters.” Joe sighed and rubbed his head as though the situation had given him a head ache “I don’t know how to deal with it. Mary Ann and I have never quarrelled before and this isn’t just a little thing to argue over, is it?”

Hoss and Adam looked at one another, and then agreed that no, it wasn’t and yet it needed to be sorted out quickly before more permanent damage was done. Joe sighed “She seemed even angrier when I told her about Saturn.”

“What about Saturn?” Both brothers asked immediately and showing new signs of interest in their little brother’s situation.

Joe groaned inwardly and then slowly explained how he had given the horse to Stalking Horse and the reason why, Hoss shook his head “Dang blast it, Joe, if that ain’t jest about the stupidest thing you could have done on top of the worse stupidest thing in what you done already. Don’t you agree, Adam?”

Adam passed a hand over his jaw and shook his head “I don’t know, I can understand why he did it, after all Stalking Horse is a shaman, and if his pony was in such a bad condition as Joe says, then having a good horse gives him some prestige especially with starting over with the Bannock.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda what I thought too.” Joe nodded, relief that there wasn’t going to be a verbal wrangle with his brothers about the horse providing him with some comfort of mind.

“Cheyenne have a great sense of pride,” Adam continued, “ I don’t blame you giving him Saturn, but sure wish it were some other horse.”

Joe nodded and agreed as he walked over to the next post to be dealt with before he stopped and looked at them, “I wish you had seen Little Moon as I saw her yesterday, then you would have understood -.”

“Understood what exactly?” Hoss said as he spat on his hands and gave them a good rub before picking up the mallet again.

“Well, understood why I reacted like I did, of course.” Joe’s eyes swung from looking at Hoss to the mallet and then to Adam, “Why I couldn’t come home right away.”

Hoss looked at Adam and shook his head as though the vaguaries of his little brother were more than he could understand. Adam only sighed, grimaced and raised an eyebrow “It isn’t us you need to worry about , Joe. It’s your wife…”

Joe groaned inwardly, Adam was right, as usual but how was he going to mollify Mary Ann ? He couldn’t think of anything and very much doubted that his brothers would either.

Hoss gave a jerk of his head and pointed to the work that was still to be done, a clear indication that he wanted to pursue physical labours rather than sit around discussing Joe’s marital problems. The three brothers soon fell into a companionable team although each one of them had their minds occupied on the situation with Joe. Joe felt at odds with himself and the fact that he had hurt his little wife so much cut him to the heart.

As he got into the rhythm of the work he constantly tried to go over the conversation he had had with Mary Ann to see where he had said the wrong thing but had to accept that at the end of the day his action of the morning had created the whole mess.

Adam looked at his younger brother constantly as they worked together. It seemed to the older man that Joe was suffering and confused, eventually he put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and nodded towards the trees where the horses were grazing “Come on, Joe, let’s have ourselves a break. “

Joe looked over at Hoss who nodded in agreement with them so that they made their way to where they could sit and have some thing to eat and drink. As Joe had come out of the house with nothing his brothers shared their food with him and for a while they just sat in silence as they chewed and stared out at the work they had achieved and that which was still to be carried out. “Well, Joe, do you want to talk about it some more?” Adam asked kindly, “We’ll try and help where we can, you know that, don’t you?”

“I guess so,” Joe sighed in a lacklustre voice and bowed his head, “Fact is, I should have just come home after she’d died. Instead of which I got caught up with their funeral and emotions. I just wanted to be on my own for a while, you know?”

“Sure,” Hoss frowned, “But it ain’t always the best idea to do that, is it? Not when there’s wives to think about now.”

“I wanted to get it straight in my head all that had happened, what could have happened – you know, all that kind of thing?” Joe looked from one to the other of them and then rubbed his face with his hands, “I got angrier and angrier with you, Adam. I got to thinking you hadn’t told me the truth because you didn’t want me to know what was going on with Custer and his so called ‘interpreters’.”

Adam looked over at Hoss and raised his eyebrows, “Yeah, well, it seems you stopped thinking sense somewhere along the line, Joe. I wouldn’t have lied to you, not at any time.”

“It seemed to make sense to me last night though, more sense than anything else and I felt so angry with myself too, and guilty. Thinking of her suffering all that time, and then after having that baby going insane.”

Hoss frowned “You’d have thought having a baby to care for would have made her feel protective and fight to keep her senses, can’t see how she’d let herself go like she did.”

“You’ve got to realise and remember what she had endured for years, Hoss. Perhaps she thought that one day I’d come and save her from that place, she could have spent days wondering why I hadn’t come … and the more I thought of her thinking and hoping like that the angrier I got.” he cast a hasty look at Adam who was looking rather melancholy, “Adam, I’m sorry I hit out at you. I should have had more sense than to do that.”

“Yes, I agree there.” Adam said with a slight smile, “A flash of the Little Joe from way back.” he sighed then and his smile changed to a frown, “You can understand why Mary Ann would assume that you still loved Moon Wind.”

“Adam, isn’t it true that Pa still loved Inger and your Ma, even though he loved my Ma? How do you just turn off love? I hadn’t thought of Moon Wind for so long in that way but -”

“You saying what I think you’re saying, little brother?” Hoss said slowly and looking at Joe with rather a bemused look on his face.

“I’m saying that when I saw her again, Little Moon Wind, she reminded me of why I had loved her all that time ago. I remembered the way she had cared for me when I’d been shot, and how my name had been the first words she had spoken since her husbands death. There were so many things I had forgotten that came to the surface and I felt – I felt -” he gulped “not love in the way I love Mary Ann, but something – a deep affection, something that I couldn’t admit to Mary Ann, but – aw heck,” he put his hands to his face and with his fingers pressed against his eyes for a while before he lowered them and raised his eyes to the sky “I’d give the world not to have hurt Mary Ann but it’s happened now and I love her so much.” he paused and looked at them both “Why can’t she trust me? Why can’t she try and see it from my point of view?”

“Perhaps she senses that you don’t trust yourself, Joe.” Adam said slowly.

“Yeah, women are strange critters, they kind of get the sense of how we feel even when we don’t realise it ourselves.” Hoss frowned and shook his head “You can’t expect her to understand how you could love little Moon and yet tell her you love her.”

“Perhaps you should talk to Pa about it, Joe.” Adam said quietly, “After all, as you said yourself, he has been in that position, he’s loved three women and according to him, he still loves each one of them.”

Joe groaned aloud at that suggestion, the thought of talking over such a thing with Ben made him feel more ashamed than ever. Hoss sighed deeply and put his arm around his brother’s shoulders “You need to talk it out between you both, you know, otherwise Mary Ann will think things are worse than they really are.”

Joe shook his head then shrugged “I don’t think they could be worse than they are now.”

Adam rose to his feet and pursed his lips in his familiar fashion “You’re being pretty naïve if you think that, Joe… one thing I’ve learned about women is that they are unpredictable.”

“Yeah, and they think things,” Hoss frowned “Like you and me – we think in a straight line, right? Kind of A to B, ain’t that so? But women, they got to niggle away at every turning and go round all the cul-de-sacs imaginable.”

Adam nodded “S’right, they’ll ask themselves questions like ‘what if this and what if that’ and then believe the answers they give themselves.” he looked at his brothers pale face and sympathised sincerely although even he didn’t realise just how serious the matter had already become in Mary Ann’s eyes, “You need to talk to her and, if possible, Joe, curb your temper, be patient and listen to what she’s saying.”

“Yeah, and make sure you listen to the things she ain’t saying as well.” Hoss added sagely.

“What?” Joe scowled “What’s that mean?”

Hoss shook his head and sighed deeply “I don’t know, but Hester tells me that all the time so it must mean something.”

Chapter 33

It was hard for Mary Ann to put into words how she felt and when Bridie came up the stairs with such a worried look on her face the younger woman felt a confusion of emotions welling up inside her. On the one hand she wanted the comfort of Bridie’s arms and to pour out all the hurt, the doubts and misgivings she was feeling in order to get the sympathy she felt she deserved. On the other hand however, she felt a loyalty to Joe, and a fear of putting her worries into words, as though by doing so it would create a reality to the fears she felt now.

So when Bridie put her arm around her and hugged her, then asked her what was wrong Mary Ann only said that she and Joe had had a misunderstanding about something . The longing to just hold onto this dear woman and cry was so tempting that it was all she could do not to break down and sob.

“Are you sure? Is there anything I can do to help at all?” Bridie asked gently.

“No, nothing. Really, there’s nothing.” but her voice wobbled and she had to turn away and put her little boy down to play with his toys, although Daniel didn’t want to be put down and turned to her, his chubby arms raised “Mom-mom?”

“I’ll be alright, Bridie. It’s just that we’ve not had a – a misunderstanding before so it upset me.” she said as she knelt down on the floor beside her son, “It’ll blow over very soon, you’ll see.”

Bridie nodded slowly and rather doubtfully turned to leave the room “Would you like a hot drink?”

“Yes please.” Mary Ann looked at her and forced a smile but Bridie could see that the smile didn’t reach her eyes which were swimming with tears but she nodded anyway and quickly left the room. Once she was alone Mary Ann just sat there on the carpet with Daniel playing by her side, but the tears fell unchecked until eventually she had to pull the baby to her and hold him tight and sob into the little boys body until he began to push himself away and eventually broke into sobs himself.
……………

Sofia stood very still as Olivia buttoned up the ‘polka’ and then stood back to look at her and ensure that the little knitted garment fitted neatly. She was more than pleased with the little scrimshaw buttons that Adam had given her, a gift from some seaman who had spent the time to etch a ship on the little buttons. “Do I look pretty, mommy?”

“Very pretty, I think daddy will think you look really very special.” Olivia replied giving the back of the garment a little tweak to make sure it ‘sat’ well over Sofia’s skirt.

A ‘polka’ was a neatly fitted jacket that ended at the waistline in front but flared out at the back in order to accommodate the ladies dresses at that time with their bustles, the flared ‘skirt’ of the jacket would rest neatly over the bustle and Olivia was pleased to see that she had got the measure just right for her daughters skirts. The colours of blush pink and soft moss green were attractive and feminine and as she smiled at her daughter and unfastened the buttons she decided to knit herself one, once she was no longer pregnant.

Chang Ho Lee came into the room with a tray of coffee fixings and set it down on the table and as he did so there came a knock on the outer door which sent him scurrying off to admit whoever had come to visit. Olivia stood up and after telling Sofia she could go and play, she folded the garment neatly into the work basket and turned to greet her guest. Her face lost its smile as Mary Ann came into the room with a tightness around her face and a glassiness to her eyes that made Olivia feel weak at the knees “Mary Ann, for goodness’ sake, what’s happened? Is Daniel alright?”

She reached out to take hold of the other woman’s hand, the fact that the baby wasn’t with Mary Ann causing her to assume the worse, but as Mary Ann just stood there as though she wasn’t sure where she was Olivia hurried to the table and poured out coffee for herself and her sister in law. “Sit down, Mary Ann, before you fall down.”

Mary Ann did as she was told with all the grace of an automation and accepted the cup of coffee in much the same manner. It startled Olivia even more when the cup rattled against Mary Ann’s teeth because of her hand shaking so much and she had to reach out and take it from her, set it down on the little table and seize hold of the hands in her own, “Mary Ann, please tell me what’s happened, you’re scaring me, please talk to me.”

Mary Ann tried to say something but the words got stuck in her throat. She stared at Olivia and in her mind she was seeing herself leaving the house and calmly fixing up the buggy, she could feel the calmness that had possessed her then, the determination to come to this woman and talk to her about Joe. It was only as she turned into the yard that the calm deserted her and left her drained, feeling empty and weak. Her lips twitched as though she had a nervous tic, her eyes filled with tears “Oh Olivia – it’s Joe.”

Olivia felt her heart beat faster as she immediately feared the worse, she put a hand to her chest as though to stop the rapid movements that nearly choked her. “Joe? Oh no, no, not Joe? What happened? Where is he? Oh no, no, not Joe.”

She wanted to cry, she knew her voice must have sounded like a wail, and when Mary Ann flung her arms around her then Olivia held her tight, both women began to sob. On her way down the stairs Sofia saw them and heard them and began to cry as well.

“What happened, tell me, Mary Ann? What happened?” Olivia wept drawing away from her friend and pulling a handkerchief from her pocket.

“It’s Joe,” Mary Ann repeated with a sob between each word, “He doesn’t love me anymore.”

Olivia wiped her eyes, blinked and looked at Mary Ann in disbelief “I thought – I – I was thinking – that he was hurt, dead.” and she gripped hold of the trembling hands in an effort to calm them, “What do you mean, he doesn’t love you anymore?”

“He didn’t come home last night -.” Mary Ann sniffled and daintily blew her nose.

“Oh no” Olivia felt as though a shock wave had hit her, she slumped back against the settee as she imagined her brother in law visiting some other woman, or worse, perhaps he had gone to one of the towns brothels. She shivered, realised that Sofia was clinging to her side, “Sofia, go with Chang Ho Lee – get some lemonade and a cookie.”

“Mommy?” the childs big blue eyes swam in tears “Aunty Mary Anns upset.”

“Hush now, go and do as I said.”

Once Sofia had disappeared into the kitchen Olivia turned her attention to her sister in law who was now staring into space as though behind her eyes nothing was happening, nothing at all.

“He went to see Stalking Horse.” Mary Ann whispered so softly that Olivia had to bow her head in order to catch the words.

“Oh yes, I remember that – and – and what happened?” she frowned trying to connect Stalking Horse the Cheyenne with the brothels in town.

“Little Moon – you remember her?” Mary Ann looked at the other woman, saw the clear sea green eyes darkening “She was the Cheyenne girl that Joe fell in love with, they were going to get married but then they were told she had died, been killed in an attack on their camp.”

Olivia mentally scratched out any thoughts of brothels or ‘the other lady in town’
“Yes, go on.”

“Well, she was alive after all. Stalking Horse had found her and rescued her. She’d had a baby by some soldier …” Mary Ann frowned, somewhere during the long sessions of talking to herself about the matter she had almost convinced herself that the baby was Joe’s but she felt that saying so, or even hinting such a thing would be too disloyal to her husband, she shivered “The years of abuse and then having this baby had sent her mad.”

“Oh poor soul.” Olivia sighed and tightened her grip on her friend’s hands. “Did Joe tell you all this? Did he see her?”

“Yes,” Mary Ann’s voice rose with a slight hysteria “Yes, he told me, and everyone else. He didn’t come home so I went to the Ponderosa to ask them if he had been there, and while I – I was – I was -” she wept for a few minutes, her head resting on Olivia’s shoulder, “Oh Olivia, it wasn’t like my Joe at all, not like him – he just burst into the house and hit Adam.”

“Hit – Adam?” Olivia’s eyes widened, she shook her head, “Hit Adam?” she repeated.

“Yes, because he said that Adam had lied to him about Moon Wind, Little Moon, or whatever they called her… oh, Livvy, it was horrible, horrible. “

“Did Adam hit him back?”

“No, I thought he was going to but he restrained himself. He couldn’t understand what Joe was babbling on about, none of us could … then he told us about her, and how she was mad and had attacked him, but the knife – well, she killed herself instead. Then he stayed with Stalking Horse all night, he said he had to stay and think things over.”

“Think things over?” Olivia mumbled, “Think what things over?”

“His feelings for her.” Mary Ann sighed and looked down at her hands “He still loves her, Livvy.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You didn’t see him this morning, the way he looked. He was – so distressed. Anguished. You know? That way people look when their hearts are broken?”

“You must be imagining things, Mary Ann. He can’t possibly love her like that, not when he loves you so much.” Olivia tightened her hold on those trembling hands, hoping that her words made some sense while inwardly she was wondering, thinking, dreading that Mary Ann was right.

“He got angry with me when we tried to talk about it at home.”

“He’s probably feeling shocked, Mary Ann. It must have been a terrible thing for him to see her after all these years and to find her as she was … then witnessing her death like that.”

“I know.” Mary Ann sighed almost as though she had no more strength in her to argue, her shoulders slumped, “I know it must have been but if he loved me surely he would have come to me and talked tome about it all instead of going and attacking Adam like he did…” she looked at Olivia now with her grey eyes swimming with tears, “Don’t you see? He’s wishing he had been with her, that he had found her and married her instead of me.”

Olivia frowned and shook her head, “No, I don’t think it’s like that, Mary Ann. I think he may feel guilty for not finding her, knowing what she had gone through as a result, but I don’t think he regrets marrying you instead.”

Mary Ann only shook her head again and whispered “You didn’t see his face, you weren’t there.”

Olivia was at a loss as to what to say now, she could only hold Mary Ann’s hands and sit there thinking over and over what she had been told until finally she said that she couldn’t believe that Joe had stopped loving her or regretted marrying her, that Mary Ann was too distressed to see things from Joe’s perspective but Mary Ann only shook her head and repeated the fact that Olivia hadn’t been there and if she had seen it for herself then she would have understood what was obvious to everyone else, that Joe still loved Little Moon.

Chapter 34

Ben struck a match and put the flame to the tobacco, his dark eyes were fixed on his youngest sons face however, “Well, speak up, boy, what’s on your mind?”

They were alone in the big room as Joe had left his brothers in order to catch his father by himself. Hester had taken the children to visit Ann Canady, to see how Candy was progressing, and no doubt to tell Ann about the drama that had taken place that morning so there was no problem in having to avoid her. Now Joe sat on the blue chair wringing his hands and staring wild eyed at the fire, and thinking how he wished the flames would warm him, he had never felt so cold in his life, cold right down to the very fibre of his being.

“You know I’m more than sorry about this morning, Pa.”

“So you should be,” Ben said sternly, “You should have grown out of those tantrums by now, son.”

“I know.” Joe said quietly with a sigh and bowed his head to stare at the carpet. Odd how some things in the old house never changed he thought, the same patterned rug and the worn floorboards with their burn marks where the hot embers of the fire had at times fallen onto the wood and scorched it. He drew in his breath “Pa, Mary Ann’s really upset by what happened and – and I want to be able to explain to her – how I feel.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Ben puffed on the pipe and the tobacco glowed red, “How do you feel?”

Joe raised a hand to his forehead, his fingers, trembling slightly, pressed against his temples for a moment, “I love her, Mary Ann, but she thinks I love Little Moon. She says that I wouldn’t have acted like I had – that what I said and did proved I loved Little Moon and not her.”

Ben released his breath in a long drawn out sigh “Well, a woman was bound to think that, it’s up to you to reassure her that she’s wrong.”

“But I don’t love anyone else but her, I don’t love – I didn’t love – Little Moon .”

“Didn’t you?“ Bens dark eyes seemed to penetrate into the very heart of his son and Joe shook his head and whispered that no, he didn’t, but Ben shook his head “There was a time, Joseph, when you actually loved her very much or have you forgotten ?”

Joe shivered, his hands were sweating now and he lowered his eyes to study the rug once again before he said “I didn’t mean about how I felt then – when I knew her all those years ago.”

“All those years ago were not actually so long ago, son. Another thing you need to remember is that Mary Ann met you during the time you were grieving Little Moons death. She knew then how you felt about her and today, she may very well feel that your actions prove you still feel the same way.”

“Then you’ve got it wrong,” Joe immediately snapped back, jumping up out of his seat, “There, you see? If I can’t even convince my own father that I don’t love anyone other than Mary Ann, how can I expect her to believe it.”

“Sit down, Joseph,” Ben pointed to the chair with the stem of his pipe and gave his son a long hard glare, “Are you telling me that when you saw this young woman you didn’t feel something stirring inside of you? You’ve told me enough times how you had loved her, I saw the grief over her loss myself to have believed that, and from what you told us she was beautiful. So, when confronted with her again after all this time, are you sure that you didn’t feel love for her again?”

“No.” Joe whispered and shook his head, then narrowed his eyes, “I – well – the thing is that she is – was – still beautiful, Pa. Kind of like a marble statue, remote, and kind of untouchable, but very beautiful. Seeing her again after thinking she had been dead was a shock, and I -”

“And – you?” Ben said quietly with his face softening at the sight of his son’s struggles.

“I felt this overwhelming emotion for her, but it wasn’t love, not the kind of love I have for Mary Ann. I can’t explain it, Pa, except that I know deep down that it wasn’t – I thought you’d understand and be able to explain it to me, Pa, because of how things have been for you.”

“You mean because of Elizabeth and Inger? Do I love them still? Even when I had fallen in love with your mother?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe looked at his father and then turned away, “It’s easy to say the words, you know, the words we’ve heard you say so often, how you loved Elizabeth and never stopped loving her even after marrying Inger, and then the same with her when you married Ma. But when you get to look deeper into the words… did you really love them still? How did Inger feel about that? And my Ma? How did she feel knowing you loved two other women apart from her?”

Ben clamped his teeth on the pipe stem and stared at the stones of the chimney, beyond the stones he could see the faces of his wives and thought back over time, then with a sigh returned his gaze to look upon Joes’ face. “You’re right, Joe, words come easy, but the meaning behind them is much harder to explain. The truth of the matter is that I can’t explain it to you easily except to say that both Inger, and then Marie, took it for granted that I had loved the woman who preceded them. We didn’t have to discuss it much because in both cases I was a widower and – and it was easier for them to accept that what was past was in the past. Does that make sense?”

Joe frowned then shook his head, “Not really. The thing is that I’m not a widower, and – and this seems complicated because of how I acted today.”

“How you acted today -” Ben shrugged and shook his head, “wouldn’t make much difference to Mary Ann. Women have an instinct about things, that I think we men lack. You could have gone right home yesterday after seeing Little Moon and told her about it very calmly and rationally, but she would have known how you felt, Joe. She may blow it out of proportion because of feeling hurt, or sensitive, but she would have known.”

“Known what? There was nothing to know? Pa, my feelings for Little Moon died over the years, I – .” he paused and swallowed, remembered the rush of emotion he had felt when seeing her again, and looked at Ben, “I just felt overwhelmed at seeing her again.”

“I can understand that, son. Mary Ann will in time, you just have to talk to her. Calmly.”

Joe looked at his father for a moment or two as though trying to understand exactly what had been said, and the things that had been left unsaid. He shook his head finally and rose to his feet, “Ma accepted the fact that you still loved Elizabeth and Inger, and that you loved her – is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right. You can’t stop loving a person because they’ve died, Joe. That’s why I think you should stop lying to yourself, and to your wife, and then let her know that she’s the most precious thing in your life right now.”

Joe frowned and shook his head, “My Ma was a pretty fiery, passionate woman by all accounts… didn’t she feel jealous at all?”

“She’d been married before, Joe. She understood exactly how I felt about Elizabeth and Inger…” Ben rose to his feet now and approached his son before putting an arm around his shoulders, “Talk to Mary Ann, explain how you feel, and have felt. Love comes in a lot of different forms, Joe, just because someone you have loved has died doesn’t mean you stop loving them, but it’s a love that can no longer grow between you, it remains as it was and perhaps somehow takes on a reverential aura because of the past, the memories belong to that person alone and to you. It means that a person can move on, fall in love again – does that make sense to you?”

Joe shrugged and shook his head “Mary Ann isn’t like Ma, or Inger, Pa. She’s hurt and I’m the one who has caused that hurt.” he moved away slowly, picked his hat up from the bureau and paused as he was about to open the door, “Thanks for trying to explain, Pa.”

Ben said nothing but watched his son close the door behind him and then, with a shake of his head, slowly returned to his chair.

Joe stood on the porch for a few moments as though he couldn’t think of what to do next or where to go. Finally he rammed his hat over his head and mounted his horse, Navajo, and cantered slowly out of the Ponderosa yard to the track leading home.

Bridie opened the door at the sound of the horses approach and waited for the young man to dismount and see to his horse. The slowness of his actions indicated to her the turmoil that was going on inside his head, his lack of desire to return to the house which was such a contrast to how it was usually. She caught his eye as he glanced at the doorway, neither one of them looked happy.

“Is – is Mary Ann home, Bridie?” he asked hesitantly as he walked to the house and when she shook her head he paused for a moment and looked back as though wondering whether or not to remount his horse and go in search of her.

“She went to see Miss Olivia.” Bridie’s voice was soft, there was no hint of accusation or recrimination in her words for which Joe was more than grateful, “Daniel is here though, she left the baby with me.”

He nodded and stepped into the house and closed the door behind him, then followed her into the kitchen where coffee was boiling. He sat down at the table and watched as she prepared a cup of the hot beverage for him and placed it down by his elbow. “Did she say anything to you about what has happened, Bridie?”

“No, she didn’t.” Bridie frowned slightly and sighed, “It isn’t my place to know either.”

He looked at her thoughtfully then, and frowned, “Bridie, you’re our friend as well as anything else. You could be trusted with knowing how she felt about what happened today… “ he paused and bowed his head as he cradled the cup between his hands, its warmth took away the chill from his fingers.

“That’s kind of you to say so, but it’s best not to tell me too much, I don’t want to be in a position where I may take sides because I love you both and I doubt if I could be of much help to either of you if I were to do that, would I?”

He looked at her again, her honest open countenance which was usually so full of smiles was now crest fallen and sad. He nodded and in an awkward gesture reached out and placed a hand over hers, “Thank you, Bridie.”

“Why not go and see Daniel, he isn’t asleep yet, or wasn’t when I last saw him a few moments ago. I should imagine he’ll have woken up on hearing your voice anyway -.”

“Yes, I’ll do that,” he nodded but didn’t move from the chair instead he continued to hug the cup between his fingers and stare down into its muddy contents.

Chapter 35

Olivia gave Sofia a book to read and some paper with pencils to draw on, then returned to her chair next to Mary Ann who was still sitting on the settee staring into the fire. “You have to talk about this to Joe, Mary Ann. Try and see it from his point of view, dear.”

“No, I can’t.” Mary Ann shook her head and closed her eyes in an attempt to prevent more tears, “Olivia, I felt so angry with him, so angry, I couldn’t believe how angry I felt. When we left the Ponderosa I couldn’t even bear to look at him and words were going round and round in my head, all mixed up and confused. Then later -” she paused and rubbed her hands together slowly as though trying to get some warmth into her fingers which prompted Olivia to look at the fire to make sure it was well laden with logs, before looking at her and reaching out to take hold of her hands “What happened later?”

“I just kept thinking of what it was like that first time we met. Joe was grieving for Little Moon, he thought she was dead. He was so miserable and I remember how irritated I was by him, especially when I found out he was feeling that way for an Indian woman.” she looked at Olivia then and gave a slight smile, “I learned a lot on that journey, it taught me some good lessons about humility and respect for others, no matter what their race or culture. But, today, all that kept going through my mind was how Joe had spoken about her back then, just after he’d learned that she was dead. It was as though he was unable to stop tormenting himself by constantly talking about her , how lovely she was, and how he loved her.”

“That was back then, Mary Ann. It doesn’t mean -” but she stopped at the look of anguish on Mary Ann’s face and lowered her eyes as she tried to think of something else more up building and encouraging to say.

“But I can remember how he felt for her, Olivia. I can’t forget how he spoke about her to me, when I was a stranger to him. Right now I don’t think he realises how he still feels about her.” Mary Ann whispered, “But I know, and it – it hurts so much to think that – that he could still love her. Oh Olivia, what do I do? I’m so – so unhappy.”

Olivia once again took her into her arms and held her close, she made the placating sounds of anyone who was in that situation as she rubbed Mary Ann’s hands or back, and tried to get the tears to stop. Glancing now at the clock she realised that it wouldn’t be long before Adam returned home, already there were the smells of food wafting its way into the big room and soon Reuben would be bouncing into the house and he would be wondering what on earth was happening at seeing his aunt crying so bitterly.

“My dear, I think you should go and wash your face, tidy your hair and return home.” she said finally, and forced Mary Ann to face her, gently brushed back some chestnut coloured curls from Mary Ann’s face “Your little boy will be wanting his mommy back, and – and you need to talk to Joe about this before it becomes worse than it already is.”

“I’m sorry, I’m being very selfish and – and you’re right, I should get back home.”

“ I’m glad you came to me, Mary Ann, and I wish I knew exactly what to say that would have wiped out all this unhappiness for you both.” she stood up, her hand still linked to Mary Anns, “Please, my dear, talk to Joe, don’t hold it in and keep torturing yourself over and over about it, just talk and listen to him. It’s really the only thing that will solve the matter.”

“Livvy, you don’t understand how I feel -” Mary Ann hic-coughed and shook her head, several more curls tumbled free.

“I try to, Mary Ann. I was thinking about my own dear Robert whom I loved so much. I thought as I listened to what you were saying, how would I react if he were to walk through that door right this moment. Would I be happy seeing him – yes, of course I would. Would I still love him ? Yes, but not as I did before, it would be changed because of how I feel for Adam. “

“Oh Olivia, I -” Mary Ann began but Olivia ignored her and taking her hand led her towards the bathroom, talking to her as she went, “You don’t stop loving someone just because they die and depart from your life, but it’s a different kind of love, Mary Ann. If Robert came back into my life now -” she frowned, a little pucker appeared upon her brow and her eyes went lighter, she shook her head, “It would be awful for everyone concerned. At least you both now know that she is dead, and she needn’t haunt your marriage – unless you let it.”

Mary Ann gave her sister in law a strange look before shaking her head “She’s always haunted our marriage, Olivia, I’ve always had her at the back of my mind wondering if Joe loves me as much as he loved her, or if I compared to her in so many different ways. I can’t forget the way he was when I first met him, you see, and I know that I didn’t come out of that situation very favourably at the time.”

She sighed and then entered the bathroom, as she closed the door she gave Olivia a tearful glance “I told you, Livvy, you don’t really understand …”
……………

Daniel laughed and chuckled as his father tickled his tummy, his hazel eyes were fixed upon Joe’s face and his fingers gripped his father’s hair in delight as he pulled and tugged at the thick curls. Joe loved the little boys laughter and tickled him all the more and the infants gurgles of giggles momentarily lifted the dark shadows that were clouding Joe’s mind at that moment.

He heard the arrival of the buggy in the yard and whispered to Daniel “Mommy’s home.” and then untangled the fingers from his hair so that he could hold the child in the crook of his arm and go downstairs to meet his wife. He forced a smile as Mary Ann stepped into the house, evidence of tears were obvious and he felt a pang of guilt for being the cause of them “Are you alright, Mary Ann? Did – did you talk things over with Olivia?”

He tried to sound nonchalant about it, he didn’t want to sound as though accusing her of talking behind his back when the one person she should be talking to was himself, but his smile quailed as she only nodded and removed her coat and bonnet very slowly. He reached out for her hand but she avoided the touch of his fingers and walked into the big room as though he didn’t exist.

Bridie came into the sitting room and looked at them both, then she also put on a smile “Well, shall I serve supper now, my dear?”

“I’m not hungry, Bridie.” Mary Ann replied and turned her head away at the look of disappointment on ‘Flannel’s face. “I’ll go and feed Daniel and get him settled for bed.”

She turned and took the infant from Joe, avoided looking at her husband as she did so and hurried upstairs. Joe watched her go, one half telling himself that he should follow her and talk it out here and now, the other half relieved to have this respite. He turned to Bridie “I’m hungry, Bridie, we’ll eat together, shall we?”
……………
Adam returned home feeling tired and out of sorts, the whole day had been a busy one. Hard physical labour on a colder than usual day was always tiring but the emotional clouds that Joe had brought along with him had added to the problems. He slung his hat down and pulled off his coat, “Anyone home?”

“I’m home, daddy.” Sofia came running to the porch to greet him with wide smiles and her blonde hair bouncing upon her shoulders “Mommy done me a new jacket and – oh, daddy -.”

He swung her up into his arms as usual and raised his eyebrows “What’s the matter, pumpkin? Cat got your tongue?”

She immediately stuck her tongue out to show him that nothing had got hold of it, then she put her hand upon his cheekbone “Oh Daddy, you hurting?”

“No, it’s alright, it doesn’t hurt.” he smiled and walked into the living room where Reuben was seated, “How’re you, Reuben?”

“I got to write an essay about – .” Reuben rose to his feet and his eyes widened “Wow, Pa, what happened? Did Uncle Hoss hit you instead of the fence post?”

Adam laughed and was about to reply to that question when Olivia came in from the kitchen, looked at her husband and shook her head with a sigh “Oh dear, I didn’t expect it to be that bad.”

“You heard about it, huh?” he grimaced and slowly let Sofia down so that he could turn to his wife, “Who told you? “

“Mary Ann.” Olivia said quietly and was about to say more when Sofia piped up with “Aunt Mary Ann was crying, she cried all the time she was here for ages and ages.”

Adam looked from Olivia who nodded slightly to his daughter, he put his finger to the tip of her nose “Little girls should be seen and not heard, young lady. Now then, off you go while I talk to mommy.”

Sofia opened her mouth to say something more but realised from the seriousness of his voice that daddy meant what he said, so she sighed comically and wandered off to play with her dolls. Adam took hold of Olivia’s hands and leaned in to kiss her after which they walked together into t he kitchen. Cheng Ho Lee was outside and in some privacy she looked at his bruises and shook her head “Oh Adam, Joe certainly packs a punch, doesn’t he?”

“Just like old times,” he smiled, winced and put a hand to his jaw, “This is nothing compared to some of the bruises he left me with after some falling out or other.”

“This is more serious than just a falling out though, isn’t it?” she wrung out a wet cloth and dabbed at the bruises gently, “Mary Ann came here and told me all about it.”

“From her viewpoint, of course.” Adam muttered with a slight frown.

“Yes, at the moment it’s difficult for her to see it from any other perspective. Stand still, you’re worse than Reuben.” she concentrated for a moment on tending to her husbands face and then put the cloth down, leaned forward and gave him a kiss, “I got to thinking how it would be if Robert were to walk into the house, how would we react to that.”

“It’s not quite the same though, is it?” he slipped his arms around her waist and brought her closer to him, “I mean, I think we’re rational enough to deal with it better than Joe and Mary Ann.”

“He doesn’t seem to realise how frightened she’s always been about how he felt over Little Moon”

“She had no need to be …” he drew back from her a little and frowned, “Joe loved Little Moon, that’s true, but he loves Mary Ann.”

“And now? How does he feel about them both now? “

He released her with a sigh and walked to the sink where he worked the sluice in order to rinse his hands, “He feels the same way about them both. You have to remember he saw the woman kill herself, her blood was still on his clothes … but it doesn’t mean his love for his wife has changed at all. It’s just a rather torrid conclusion to something that happened a long time back.”

She looked at him thoughtfully and wondered how it was that men could see things so black and white without any meandering down side alleys of what if’s and if only’s…she placed a hand on his back “But Joe isn’t rational like you, Adam. The way he came and struck you is proof of that, he didn’t even seem to notice that Mary Ann was there at first, he just came and took his feelings out on you.”

“Well, that’s reasonable I guess. I was the one that told him she was dead back then, Joe, being Joe, was bound to settle on me to blame.”

“Mary Ann just saw it as proof that he still loved her.”

He didn’t speak for a while but dried his hands on the towel and then slowly turned to look at her, “Have you been crying?” he said quietly, much as he would have asked Sofia the same question.

“Just a little bit, it upset me, poor Mary Ann…she’s heart broken.”

“She has no reason to be,” he replied gently, and touched her cheek lightly with his fingers, “She has to know that Joe loves her, once she realises that this will all blow over.”

“Do you think so?”

He shrugged very slightly, “Well, knowing my brother and the way Mary Ann is, I should say it will do, but it’ll take some time.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of, Adam. How much will they hurt one another during that time.”

He was about to speak when Cheng Ho Lee came into the room, nodded at them both and began to clatter about the stove. Reuben ran in with his book in one hand, pen in the other “Pa, I’m stuck with my math..”
…………
Mary Ann didn’t come down to eat at all and Joe ate an uncomfortable meal with a rather subdued Bridie as his companion. When it was time for bed Joe found that his wife was already asleep with no intention of waking up. It was the first time in his married life that Joe and Mary Ann had slept with distance between them.

Chapter 36

The cold wind blew hard down the main street of the town causing women to hold onto their hats and hurry on their errands, while men put their heads down and cursed the wind for blowing the dust into their eyes and up their noses. Horses were skittish as the wind blew up their tails and the sign posts outside the stores creaked and rattled as they swung back and forth.

Tom nodded over at Adam Cartwright and went to the pigeon hole that contained the Ponderosa mail “How’s Candy, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Coming along well, thanks Tom.” Adam replied and took the packages and letters which he slipped into his saddle bag. He had half turned when Tom stopped him “Just a moment, Mr. Cartwright, a telegram came for you just a few minutes ago.”

Adam nodded, frowned slightly and waited until Tom had it to hand over, “Best wishes to your wife and family, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Thanks, Tom.”

Adam walked out slowly with his head bent in order to read the contents of the telegram. He pursed his lips slightly and shook his head before he slipped it into his pocket but before he took another step towards his horse he heard someone ask him if it were bad news. He sighed and turned to observe deQuille standing beside him with a slight grin on his smug face and just momentarily he wondered if the wretched man had read the contents of his cable from over his shoulder “You’re up early, Dan.”

“Early bird catches the worm,” Dan laughed remembering another time when he had said much the same thing to this man. He walked some steps along the sidewalk with Adam “I’m still waiting for that story you promised me.”

“I don’t recall promising you any story, Dan.” Adam reached out and took the reins of his horse into his hand, “Perhaps you could remind me what it was … sometime.” he quickly mounted into the saddle and turned the horse around, touched the brim of his hat and walked the horse into the mainstream of traffic before getting into a canter and heading out of town.

Sheriff Armitage was standing outside the sheriff’s office and watched the man in the yellow jacket and black hat, he shook his head thoughtfully and was about to cross the road when he realised Clem Foster was standing beside him, “That man gives me the creeps.” he muttered to the deputy who looked at Adam’s retreating back and muttered that he couldn’t think why.

“Don’t know anyone more honest and reliable than Adam Cartwright, Sheriff. Roy used to think very highly of him, knew he could rely on him when he needed it.”

Armitage merely scowled more darkly and stepped into the road in order to get to the saloon opposite.

Clem watched and shook his head, more than anything he wished Roy Coffee was back in charge of the law in that part of town. He noticed Paul Martin and Jimmy Chan coming out of the doctors surgery and raised a hand in greeting. In some ways it was reassuring to know that some things remained the same and he was glad not to have seen Schofields sour countenance to remind him that some things had changed there as well.

Once he was out of town Adam stopped his horse and took the cable from his pocket to re-read it. He had some difficulty as the wind kept pulling at the piece of paper as though wanting to play games but the message in itself brought a dark cloud hovering over Adam as he re-read that the man Jotham Morton had taken into custody for further questioning had died by his own hand, suspected poisoning. He sat in the saddle and read it again then after shaking his head he replaced it into his pocket and continued on his way home.

By the time he had reached the Ponderosa it had began to rain so he led the horse into the stable before heading to the ranch house. “Where’s everyone?” he asked Hester who was busy peeling vegetables in the kitchen. Little Hannah was sitting at the table eating an apple and gave her uncle a wide grin. Hester smiled “Hop Sing has gone to town with the laundry, didn’t you pass him on the way?”

“No.” he leaned forward and tickled Hannah who laughed and then nearly choked on the piece of apple still in her mouth.

“Pa, Hoss and Joe have gone to check timber. McManus came early this morning wanting their help with something or other.” she frowned and tossed another potato into the pot, “Hannah, finish that apple – no, you cant have another one. Finish that one first…”

Adam pulled out the mail from the saddle bags and flicked through the letters and packages, he set down a pile onto the table “These are for Pa and Hoss. How’s Joe this morning?”

“Very quiet. He didn’t want to talk …” she looked at Adam and sighed “How’s your face?”

“Aching. But it’s been worse.” Adam smiled, and leaned against the table with his arms folded across his chest, “Has Mary Ann been here yet?”

“No, I was thinking of going to see her though. Has Olivia seen her ?”

“She went to see Livvy yesterday.” Adam sighed and stared thoughtfully at the cabbage that Hester was about to deal with, “It’s not good, Hester. I don’t like to think of them both hurting over something that couldn’t be helped.”

“I just wish that Stalking Horse had stayed away from here and left things alone. You know that Joe gave him that horse?” she shook her head as Adam said that he did, “Well, I don’t understand that either. All the time Joe took to train up that horse and then he gives it away.”

“Joe always acts on impulse. It was a good thing to do, after all Stalking Horse was grieving too, had been for much longer as well.”

Hester sniffed and shrugged and brought the knife down onto the cabbage with a thud that made Hannah jump. “How’s Olivia?”

“She’s doing well, thank you.”

“Not much longer to go now, is it?” she smiled then, shyly and Adam equally as shy smiled back and said no, only a few months.

“If you’re going to see Mary Ann, perhaps you could give her their mail…” Adam said and put down the few letters that had been addressed to his brother and wife, “I had better get on and do some work. See you later, Hester.”

He tipped his hat politely, tweaked Hannah’s nose and then left the house. As the door closed behind him the baby began to cry from the other room and with a sigh Hester lifted Hannah from her chair “Come along, sweetpea, we had better go and see what’s wrong with your sister now.”

……………..

The house was quiet when Adam returned home. After stabling the horse and making sure that it was clean, fed and watered he made his way indoors. Olivia was putting another log onto the fire as he stepped into the room and greeted him with a smile as she rose, with some difficulty, to her feet. He was immediately beside her, his hands raising her up “Hey, now, you should be careful…”

She shook her head at him and smiled “It’s alright, I shouldn’t have knelt down, I got my skirts caught awkwardly in the heel of my shoe“.

“You’re alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” her smile broadened and she looked at him, frowned slightly and touched the bruise on his jaw line “He really caught you a good one there, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he did that,” he put his hand over hers and then looked down at her, noticing the anxious look on her face “Have you spoken to Mary Ann again today?”

“No,” she kissed him them and wrapped her arms around him, “’Flannel’ came though, she’d promised the children a cake.” her head nestled against his chest and he could smell perfume in her hair “ She’s worried about them both, she didn’t say much just that it’s upsetting to see them tip toeing around each other and not speaking. She’s tried to get them to talk but either one does and the other won’t or vice versa.”

“Mary Ann’s had a shock,” Adam said running his hand down her back very gently, “Not as big a one as Joe, but it’s still something she would have preferred not to have experienced. She’ll be alright once she’s got things settled in her own mind.”

“I don’t know -” Olivia sighed.

“Are the children in bed?”

“Yes, you are late home – are you hungry?” she released him and stepped back so that he caught hold of her hand and was about to speak when there came a loud rapping at the door.

Cheng Ho Lee was first to open the door to admit a tall young man in naval uniform. He must have asked if the Commodore was available so that Cheng Ho Lee stepped back to admit him. Adam smiled and extended his hand “Jotham? You here? I got your cable this morning.”

“That’s good, I wondered if you would have done.” Jotham removed his hat and looked at Olivia so that Adam made the necessary introductions, “Have you eaten?”

“Not since some jerky on the way here.” Jotham smiled as Olivia released her husbands hand and said something about getting them both some food,

“I’ll see to your horse, Jotham. It’s late, so I don’t expect you’ll be leaving here later, will you?”

“Well, if you have somewhere I could bunk for the night, sir.”

Olivia shook her head and laughed “You’re welcome to the guest room, Mr. Morton. Follow me.”

………..

In the Commodore’s office Jotham unbuttoned his jacket a little and sat at ease. He had enjoyed his meal but the matter he had come to discuss with Adam was something he wanted to get dealt with as soon as possible so as soon as it was over he was relieved when Adam asked his wife to excuse them and led the Captain to his study.

“So, the last prisoner didn’t tell you much before he died? What was it? Cyanide?”
Adam sat down and sprawled out his long legs, before looking at Jotham who nodded, “It was quick and not pleasant, and he did tell us something, his name was Marek Belinsky, Russian by birth. “

“Nothing else?”

“He admitted being responsible for the destruction of the ship in Tripoli. He fitted it up with explosives while they were in harbour, the Italian tug that is… it was just a matter of detonating it at the right time, when t hit Captain Hansworths ship.”

“I’m surprised he told you so much, Jotham. Was it shortly before he took the poison?”

“He took it while he was talking, it was as though he knew he was going to die and wanted to ‘cleanse his soul’ which is more than the others did.”

Adam nodded and stroked his upped lip thoughtfully “Any mention of them at all?”

“Only that they were all three Russian connected to Lebedev.”

Jotham looked thoughtfully at Adam and frowned, “Er – we have news that the Russian ship has left San Francisco now.”

“Really? Any news about Dimitri Doestov?”

“Yes, sir. He was seen boarding the ship yesterday. There’s been no sign of him or anyone else leaving the ship since.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, as far as I know, the report I received said the ship had left with Doestov and Lebedev still on board.”

Adam shook his head and leaned against the back of his chair, his long fingers rolled a pencil back and forth on the desk, Jotham looked anxious and bit his lip “Er – isn’t that a good thing, sir? I mean, that they’re still on board ship and the ships gone?”

“If it’s true and the ship is actually on its way to Russia.” Adam frowned and nodded, “Yes, it would be a good thing, in fact, almost too good to be true.”

Chapter 37

It was Saturday morning and Reuben bounced out of bed with a whoop, ran into Sofia’s room yelling that it was a ‘no school day’.

“Go ‘way, go ‘way.” Sofia whined and pulled her quilt over her head.

Reuben loved it when there was no school for on a Saturday after chores and breakfast he would go to see Saturn and Uncle Joe. He hurried downstairs and came to an abrupt halt at the sight of the tall man in the naval uniform standing in the living room talking to his father. Adam looked over at Reuben with a slight frown to remind him of his manners at which the boy quietened and approached to stand beside him. Adam placed a gentle hand on the boys shoulder “Reuben this is Captain Jotham Morton. Jotham, this is my son, Reuben.”

Jotham smiled, “Good morning, it’s a pleasure to meet you, young man.”

“Thank you, sir, and a pleasure to meet you as well.” Reuben put out his hand in a very grown up manner which was accepted and duly shaken.

“Off you go, son, you’ve chores to do.” Adam reminded him so although he was bursting to know what the other man was doing in his house Reuben gave a flash of a smile and promptly disappeared. Adam watched him go and once the door was closed recommenced his conversation.

In the kitchen Olivia set out the table while Cheng Ho Lee cooked the meal. Usually Olivia preferred to prepare breakfast herself rather than share the task with him but she was feeling heavy as a result of her pregnancy, just heavy, lethargic and tired. Having Jotham Morton arrive so late at night, the long conversations he was having with her husband, all contributed to her having had a sleepless night. It had been somewhat reassuring that Adam had convinced her that he was not about to go back to sea but even so, the sight of that uniform and brass buttons first thing in the morning didn’t help her feel any more positive.

“Daddy…” Sofia’s voice floated down the stairs and the little girl wandered down with her dress half unbuttoned and a hair ribbon trailing in her hand. She blinked woebegone blue eyes up at her father and then looked thoughtfully at Jotham before saying to Adam “I can’t reach my buttons.”

“Sofia, I was talking to Jotham. You should know by now that you do not interrupt when adults are speaking.” Adam frowned at her severely and she looked duly mollified, “Say hello to Captain Morton.”

“Good morning, Captain Morton. I’m Sofia Phillips Cartwright.” she smiled and dimpled at him very sweetly so that Jotham laughed and scolded Adam for being too severe with her. This made Sofia smile even more as she looked up at the stranger, “My daddys got a jacket with buttons like that .”

“I believe he has, Sofia.” Jotham replied and smiled as she ran into the kitchen with her dress open to the world as she called out to Olivia that she needed help and daddy was too busy to help.

Breakfast was a pleasant meal as both children ate quietly and behaved themselves. Jotham ate until he was convinced he’d be too heavy for his horse to carry him far . Olivia poured out more coffee “How far do you have to go, Captain Morton?”

“To San Francisco. “ Jotham smiled and thanked her for the coffee, before turning to Adam, “ I’ll get the train from Gold Hill this morning, sir.”

Adam nodded and looked over at Olivia, “I’ll ride with the Captain to Virginia City, Livvy. Is there anything you would want me to get for you while I’m there?”

She frowned and shook her head. She would have liked to have said how pleasant it would have been if they could have all gone into town together, perhaps had a meal at Del Monico’s, but there was no point in making matters worse. She passed some bread to Reuben and quietly told Sofia to stop swinging her legs under the table.

“Pa, I’m going to see Uncle Joe after breakfast, do you think he’ll let me ride Saturn today?”

Adam opened his mouth and then closed it again, he glanced over at Olivia and raised his eyebrows. Reuben turned to Jotham “Saturn is my Uncle Joe’s horse, it’s black and he got it himself from the wild horses, he’s trained it real good. He let’s me feed it and -” he paused and looked at his parents, “It’s alright, isn’t it, Pa?”

“I meant to tell you, son, Uncle Joe doesn’t have Saturn anymore. He – er- he gave it as a gift to a friend of his…” Adam frowned at the dismay that flashed over the boys face, and the way tears came up into his eyes. “But I’m sure that when he gets his next horse he’ll want you to help him as much as you have done with Saturn.”

“Aw, pa, it won’t be the same.” Reuben struggled to control his emotions, he didn’t want to cry in front of this stranger after all, he took in a big gulp, “Why didn’t he keep the horse, Pa, why’d he have to give it away?”

“He wanted to, it was a special gift for a special friend.” Adam replied and looked at Livvy, “How about if I get the buggy fixed up, then you can bring the children into town and meet me there. Perhaps we could have lunch at Del Monico’s? How’d you like that?” he smiled, his eyes looked into hers and knew she was pleased, but Reuben said he didn’t want to go, he wanted to see Uncle Joe.

“Reuben,” Olivia said quietly, “We’ll discuss this later. Finish your meal.”

Jotham put down his napkin and after thanking Olivia for a fine meal rose to his feet, “I really need to get going. Thank you again, Mrs Cartwright.”

Adam darted a look over at the clock on the wall, and after wiping his mouth on the napkin also rose to his feet. He kissed his wife on the brow, “I’ll see you in town. Don’t worry, I’ll get the rig ready for you…” he looked at Reuben, “No fuss from you, son, do as your mother asks of you. Sofia ..” he tweaked her curls and got a kiss for his pains.

Jotham Morton left the house looking pensive and thoughtful. He followed Adam to the stable and saddled his horse while Adam saw to the buggy, then saw to his own horse. After a time had elapsed the two men loped slowly from the stables and out of the yard. Jotham glanced back at the house and after a moment remarked to his companion that he quite envied him. “I used to envy Daniel, with his wife and children. But it seems to me, sir, that you have much to be proud of here.”

“I know,” Adam replied quietly, “It’s something that frightens me at times, Jotham. “

“Really sir, but why?”

“Because it’s so easy to lose it all.” Adam replied slowly and pulled his hat lower to shield his eyes.

Jotham said nothing to that, he had always thought Adam to be particularly introverted in many ways and had to think over the implications of what had been said before realising the significance of it all. He looked thoughtfully at the tall broad shouldered man riding alongside him and nodded “I see your point, sir.”

Adam said nothing to that but began to discuss the Ponderosa, pointing out various aspects of the land as they rode along until they finally reached the main track into town. Niether of them wanted to discuss the Russians, the reasons why the four men had been sent to kill Adam, or how well the forth man had been disposed of by Dimitri. At the same time it was the one thing that both of them were thinking about all the way into town.
………….

Joe Cartwright stood at the window of the bedroom looking down at the empty corral. It had always given him immense pleasure to look down and watch the big horse there before he would go down to spend time with it. It seemed to him that the corral illustrated the way he was feeling, big and empty.

Mary Ann had dressed and gone downstairs with Daniel well before her husband had woken up. It had been another night where she had made sure she was sleeping before Joe had gone to bed, and although he had dropped a kiss on her bare shoulder she had not moved to respond in any way. Considering the lack of conversation or communication that had passed between them all evening Joe had not been surprised.

He didn’t hurry to get downstairs although the sounds of her laughing and talking to Daniel and to Bridie drifted up to him and stretched his nerves as he convinced himself that as soon as he’d appear the laughter would stop.

When he finally did make it to the breakfast room, he was proven correct. It didn’t help him feel any happier about the whole situation and flinging his napkin down onto table he left the house without speaking, not even a farewell to his little son who stared wide eyed at the door as it slammed shut.

Chapter 38

Sheriff Armitage noticed Adam and Jotham riding in together and peeled himself from the post that supported the sheriff’s office porch. He walked towards them both as they dismounted outside Amanda’s livery where Jotham was going to leave the horse.

“Cartwright?”

Jothams’ eyebrows shot right up at the manner in which the sheriff addressed Adam, he looked at the man whom he acknowledged as his superior officer and wondered how he was going to handle such ‘insubordination’. Adam pursed his lips and looked slightly bemused before turning to face the “Sheriff?”

“Care to explain to me what’s been going on around here?” Armitage scowled, his hands on his hips, one close to the butt of his gun.

“About what around here?” Adam frowned and concentrated on fastening the reins over the hitching rail and keeping his face down so that he didn’t have to look at the other man.

“Why it is that this gentleman-” he indicated Jotham with a contemptuous nod of the head “demands custody of my prisoner one day, and two days later brings him back into town, dead, over the back of a horse. Claims he was poisoned. Now, at least when he was in my cells, he was alive.”

“Well, if you want an answer, sheriff, then you had best put your question to the Officer here.“ Adam asked in a manner that was cold and aloof .

Armitage frowned more deeply now, his sallow skin flushed a little as
he turned to Jotham, “It’s just odd that he returned to town as dead
as the other three men who were involved in that shooting of Mr
Canady, and poisoned into the bargain.”

Jotham bowed his head and frowned, “Sheriff, you’ll have to take my word for it that the matter comes under a Government classification. That means I’m not free to discuss it with you. I brought the prisoner back here for burial, which I thought was only fitting in the circumstances.”

“Classified business huh?” Armitage frowned, his narrow eyes switched from Adam to Jotham and he shook his head, “To my way of thinking that implies a cover up if ever I saw one.”

“Cover up for what, sheriff?” Adam asked looking at Armitage as though he was seeing in him a spark of intelligence that hadn’t been so obvious beforehand.

“Murder, perhaps?” Armitage nodded and rocked back and forth on the heels of his boots, “Poison don’t seem to fit any other category to my way of thinking.”

Jotham cleared his throat “What about suicide, sheriff? Would that fit in better for you?”

Armitage stopped rocking and looked immediately alert and interested, “Suicide? Yes, I guess that does kind of fit in well enough. “ he paused allowing Jotham and Adam to assume they could proceed with their journey when Armitage stopped them again, “But why would he want to commit suicide?”

Adam looked at Jotham and raised his eyebrows as though he’d like to hear an explanation for suicide as well, Jotham nodded slowly “Well, while he was in your custody, sheriff, he didn’t talk much did he?”

“Didn’t get a peep out of him” Armitage agreed with a nod of the head.

“Which indicates that he had knowledge of confidential matters that he didn’t want to divulge to you, or anyone else.”

“Alright, I’ll accept that,” Armitage said and looked at Adam who smiled and nodded as though he was pleased at what the sheriff had said.

“As an official representing the American Gpvernment I was under orders to take the prisoner elsewhere for questioning, and rather than be put through that interrogation the prisoner preferred to take poison. “ Jotham leaned forward, and in a lower voice whispered “Sheriff, this is entirely confidential you understand?”

Armitage looked at the honest but earnest face of the officer and nodded “I see. Well, that puts a different complexion on things, I guess.” he frowned “What about the other three men?”

Jotham shook his head “They’re already dead and buried. There‘s not much we can do about them.”

Armitage looked at Adam and frowned, he pursed his lips before saying “I see.” in the manner of one who doesn’t see at all. After darting another look at them both he turned and made haste to return to his office.

“Well, I’m not sure how much of that he’ll believe, but it was the truth as far as I could tell him.” Jotham sighed and together the two men continued to direct their steps towards the depot.

“You know, Captain, the more I think about it the less likely it seems, to me, that Doestov and Lebedev would have gone on that ship back to Russia, if, in fact the ship has actually gone very far at all.”

Jotham frowned and shrugged “No one saw any sign of them leaving the ship, sir.”

“There’s more than one way to leave a ship, Jotham.” Adam said with a slow grin, “Look at it this way, Lebedev sends four men to do a simple job, but what happens? The four men end up dead instead of me. How’s he going to report that back to Gorchakov? Doestov is involved as well, he won’t want to tell Lebedev that he told me as much as he did while he was here, and he’ll have to report back to Gorchakov as well because he’ll have been sent on that ship to watch that Lebedev did what he was told.”

“You have a suspicious mind, sir.” Jotham grinned.

“It pays to have one with Dimitri Doestov involved in anything.” Adam replied and shook his head before he pulled his hat slightly lower over his eyes. “And he was here in town while Blenisky was in prison, leaving just before you arrived to haul the man to wherever you were going to take him. I think that is too much of a co-incidence.

“So if Lebedev and Doestov have left that ship do you think that they’ll head back here?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re here already, somewhere or other.” Adam glanced up and down the street, his smile was slow and he shrugged “I don’t think they’ll have booked into the Hotel Internationale nor the Whitney hotel this time though.”

“I’m sorry if they are, sir, it means we failed to pick up on something that would have prevented them causing you any trouble.”

“Dimitri Doestov is a past master in his trade, Jotham. There’s no point in wasting time worrying about it.”

“Politics is a dirty business, sir.”

Adam smiled and nodded “I’ve heard that said before, Captain, and it’s quite true.”

Once again they walked some distance in silence, Adam tipped his hat several times to those who passed by and acknowledged him while Jotham remained deep in thought, “Sir?”

“Yes, Jotham?”

“Whereabouts would Lebedev and Doestov hide out, I can’t imagine them disguising themselves as miners or such, Lebedev is too much of an aristo for that kind of thing.”

Adam smiled and looked at the younger man with something like amusement on his face, “Well, I wouldn’t like to pretend I know Count Lebedev very well, Jotham, but I think Dimitri likes to be comfortable and clean. I’m sure there are quite a few wealthy gentlemen who would enjoy having such elegant house guests for a few days. Then, when the deed is done -”

“They’ll need to return home?”

“To Russia?” Adam raised one eyebrow and stared at the building opposite, and when Jotham nodded he smiled “Well, they’d need a ship to take them back home, wouldn’t they?”

Jotham nodded thoughtfully “You’ll need to find them first, surely? “
“That’s the logical thing to do, of course.” Adam tipped his hat to Mr and Mrs Jenkins as they passed them by, “If I had any confidence in the sheriff I’d ask for his help, but as it stands with him just now I can’t afford to risk it.”

“What will you do?”

Adam smiled slowly “Oh, there’s one or two people I can call on for help. Anyway, this is where we have to part. It’s been good to meet you again, Jotham.”

“And you, sir.” Jotham frowned, “I wish I could stay and be of assistance here but my orders were to get back to base right away.”

“Understood.” Adam shook the officer’s hand and then stepped back, and once he was assured that Jotham had boarded the vehicle that would take him to Gold Hill, he directed his steps back into town and to the premises of an old friend.

Rachel had already taken herself out to one of her friends so the ex-sheriff was quite alone when the knock came to his door. Adam had barely removed his hat when he found himself face to face with the older man, who smiled and nodded “Well, good to see you here again, Adam. Why not come on in for a spell.”

“Had every intention of doing just that, Roy.”

Adam followed Roy into the living room and sat down in the chair that Roy indicated was available, “What can I do for you, Adam? Any coffee?”

“No, thank you.” Adam shook his head and looked at his old friend with a keen eye that Roy noticed but did not comment on, he just settled down into his chair and picked up the cup of coffee he’d been drinking before there had been the knock on the door “Roy, I need to ask you a favour. The thing is I don’t want to tell you too much because it would seem just too fanciful to you…”

“Don’t you go under estimating me, young man.” Roy grumbled and scowled which merely brought a wider smile to Adams face. “What do you want me to do ?”

“Basically keep your eyes and ears open … someone somewhere will have two strangers in their home at present. These men are Russian, they’re wealthy and well connected, they – er- have a kinda grudge against me and I want to find out just whereabouts they could be staying.”

“You want to find them before they find you, is that it?”

“That’s it, Roy.”

Roy gulped down the last of the coffee and nodded “Consider it done, I’ll get Clem Foster in on it if it’s all the same to you, Adam. He’s a good man to have on your side in a fight.”

Adam smiled and nodded “I’m hoping it won’t come to that, Roy.” he stood up and picked up his hat, “ Thank you.”

“It’ll be like old times, son.” Roy grinned and rose to his feet in order to follow Adam out of the house. He nodded and smiled as Adam left and walked down into the main street, suddenly he felt ten, no, twenty years younger.

Chapter 39

It proved to be an interesting and pleasant morning with Olivia and the children. Adam quite enjoyed strolling through town and into the stores with his wife and being stopped every so often for neighbourly chats, mostly other women interested in how Olivia was ‘getting on’ and ‘how much longer now’ and then turning coy eyes to Adam who just stood there, nodded and smiled.

The mid-day meal at Del Monico’s was enjoyable, Reuben and Sofia behaved well and received commendation as a result from various patrons who would smile and nod over at them, or pass their table and say ‘What good children you have, Adam.’ or ‘Your children are so well behaved, Mrs Cartwright.’

Miss Brandon was there with her fiance, and waved over to them which made Reuben blush so much that even his ears went red which would have caused Sofia to tease him had they been at home.

Eventually the meal was over and they made a leisurely walk back to the buggy where Adam assisted Olivia back into the seat. “I’m getting too fat,” she lamented as he took her arm and put a hand to her waist “You’ll need to get a hoist for me soon.”

Adam laughed “You look beautiful,” he assured her as she settled into the seat, and it was obvious from the look on his face that he meant what he said for she leaned down to kiss him, “Now then, if you were as fat as you claim you’d not have been able to have done that, my sweet.”

She tweaked his nose just as though he were Reuben and laughed at him, “I’ll see you back home.”

“I’ll probably catch up with you -” he paused then and frowned, “Yes, I’ll see you back home.”

She followed the direction of his gaze and recognised the brown and white horse outside the Bucket of Blood. With a sigh she looked back at her husband “Be careful, Adam. You’ve enough bruises as it is …”

“Hmmm,” Adam replied shifting his eyes back to her, he smiled briefly, “It’ll be alright, there’s no harm in having a glass of beer when in town, is there?”

“No, of course not, but -” she shook her head, then adjusted her bonnet to make sure it was still tidy on her head, “but he’s rather – volatile – just now.”

“Volatile. That’s a good word, sweetheart, I’ll bear it in mind.”
Sofia leaned forwards now “Daddy, don’t be late.”

“I won’t be, So-fee, be a good girl now. Reuben, don’t forget you still have that essay to finish for school.”

“I won’t, Pa. Will you tell Uncle Joe I wish he hadn’t given Saturn away?”

Adam just raised his eyebrows at that and nodded before stepping back with a wave of the hand as the buggy lurched forwards and entered the mainstream traffic out of town.
…………..

Joe Cartwright hadn’t intended to go into town, nor had he intended to stop at the Bucket of Blood when he arrived there, but somehow it just seemed the best place to go. He’d been greeted with smiles from various old drinking pals from of old, and several of the girls looked over at him and dared to indicate their willingness to oblige should he so wish… but he just draped himself over the bar and ordered a beer.

“Not seen you in for a while, Joe, everything alright?”

“Sure, why shouldn’t it be?” Joe replied spinning a coin down onto the counter and taking the glass from Charley with a scowl.

“Just that you looked like the proverbial thundercloud when you came in through those doors.” Charley grinned, “Seen enough husbands look that way to know -.”

“Well, I’m fine, and everything’s just fine back home too, thanks, Charley.” Joe shook his head and muttered something else beneath his breath as he wandered over to a table

“Hey, Joe, got a good game going here, you want to cut in?” Sam Harris said, stretching out a hand to grab at Joe’s sleeve

“No thanks,” Joe replied as he found the table furthest from them and sat down. He wanted to be alone, to think. A glass of cold beer worked wonders for the human brain, he mused and raised it to his lips.

“Care for some company?” a familiar voice drifted above his head and he glanced up to see his brother smiling down at him with a glass of beer in his hand and prepared to pull out a chair “You looked like you could do with some.” Adam added as he settled himself at the table opposite Joe.

“Quite the contrary, I came here for some peace and quiet.” Joe stated just as there was a shout of laughter and some cheers from the gaming table. A woman laughed and Charley shouted something over to the winner who was doing his own version of an Irish jig.

“Peace and quiet?” Adam raised his eyebrows. “I could think of a million places on the Ponderosa where you’d get peace and quiet, Joe.”

“I didn’t want to be on the Ponderosa,” Joe hunched his shoulders and looked into his glass, “You can buy me another beer if you like?”

“How long have you been here?”

Joe glanced at the clock “Ten minutes.” he replied sarcastically and emptied his glass which Adam picked up, took to the counter and asked Charley to refill it.

For some moments they drank in silence, Joe slouched over his glass as though in fear that someone would steal it away from him, and Adam with his long legs sprawled out and his hat on the table looking as though he was enjoying just sitting there drinking beer and watching the goings on of the saloons clientele.

“Why are you here anyway?” Joe finally said.

“I’ve been in town with Olivia and the children.” Adam replied, “Came in earlier with Captain Morton, he turned up on the doorstep last night.” he looked at Joe, but there was no interest in that news, just a slight hitch of one shoulder, “So as she had the buggy and I was on Sport I said I’d meet her back home. Saw Navajo outside here and realised I’d not had a drink of beer with my little brother for a long while now.
Why, you don’t mind, do you?”

“Makes no odds to me.” Joe replied and raised his glass to his lips to drink more of it.
“Did Olivia tell you that Mary Ann had been to see her?”

“Of course.” Adam replied and raised his glass to drink some of the beer while he kept his eyes away from Joe who was staring at him with a lot of green in his eyes, which indicated his short fuse was getting shorter.

“Care to tell me about it?”

“No,” Adam replied turning to look at Joe now “No, I don’t. What they discussed is between them, if you want to know what it was then you should go home and talk to your wife about it.”

Joe’s lips narrowed and the hazel eyes sparked greener than ever, he emptied his glass and thumped it down on the table, “It seems to me that there’s a lot of talking going on in the family just now, and not much of it making sense to me. None of you seem to be thinking of how this has affected me, or Mary Ann. “

“None of what, Joe?”

“What happened with Little Moon…” Joe replied and rose to his feet “You don’t seem to realise -”

“Realise what, brother?” Adam asked as Joe cut short his comment and some of the men at the counter turned to see what the raised voices were all about, he put a hand towards Joe’s arm but Joe brushed it aside and turned to go, at which Adam attempted to grab at his arm only for his brother to pull it away and leave the saloon so fast that the batwing doors swung for some moments after he had gone.

Adam emptied his glass and set it down carefully upon the table. Knowing that Charley and half the men in the saloon were watching he nodded to them, touched the brim of his hat in salute, and left the building. By the time he was outside Joe was already riding out of town.

Chapter 40

It wasn’t difficult to follow Joe’s trail, he left a track that even Reuben could have kept to without fear of getting lost. Adam didn’t hurry much but took his time in the hope that when he reached Joe his brother would have calmed down enough to talk.

Joe was sitting with his back against a boulder watching the river surge over the rocks. It was a peaceful area although the sky was leaden indicating the possibility of rain. He sat with his hands hanging between his legs while he twisted some grass between his fingers and his eyes were staring out watching the waves.

The sigh he heaved at the sound of Adam’s approach was loud enough for his brother to hear, but he didn’t move away, just clamped his mouth shut and lowered his hat over his eyes.

Adam stopped a few paces from him “Do you want to talk about it, Joe?”

“Not particularly.”

“Have you spoken to Mary Ann at all?”

“Hard to talk to someone who doesn’t want to listen.” Joe snorted and he tossed the grass stalks away, then petulantly plucked at some others.

“Tchah” Adam shook his head and looked at his brother sympathetically, “Well, it’s a hard one to get around, isn’ t it? Short of tying her to a chair, if she doesn’t want to listen what do you intend to do?”

Joe shrugged and pulled a face as though to indicate he didn’t really care one way or the other. Adam cleared his throat “So you don’t really know how she feels about it, this situation with Little Moon?”

“I already told you before,” Joe stated angrily, “She thinks I love Little Moon. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She feels that -” he shrugged again “what I did when I came in and hit you proved I loved her – Little Moon that is – .”

“Look, Joe, feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help any. Sitting here and wishing it will all go away won’t either. “

“Pa says that Mary Ann must have seen that I still loved Little Moon, that she had a right to be hurt considering all the things I said to her about Little Moon when we first met.”

“That was what? Ten years ago?”

Joe bowed his head and sighed “Can you imagine what life must have been like for her, Adam?” he shook his head, “All those years being abused by those soldiers. Yet she still looked so beautiful. When I saw her …”

“Well, go on.” Adam said but Joe just shook his head, “What made you think I had lied to you, Joe?”

“I would have thought that was obvious.” Joe glanced up at his brother who now came and sat down beside him, “You told me that she was dead ten years ago and there she was, alive and – well – broken – right there in front of me a few days ago.”

“I wasn’t the only one to have told you about Little Moon having died.”

“What?” Joe glared at him and shook his head “What do you mean?”

“Don’t the names Prairie Fire and Little Brook mean anything to you? Have you forgotten them in all the thinking that you’ve been doing over the past few days…you never thought about them at all? What about Little Raven?”

“Wynkoop’s cook.”

“S’right. She gave you Little Moons ear rings, remember? Wynkoop told you that they had put her body on the scaffold and she gave you Little Moons ear rings.” he looked at Joe and watched as his brother stared out at the water and bit his lips, “Think about it, Joe?”

“I’ve been doing nothing but think about it…”

“No, you’ve been thinking about yourself, and how you feel, and how unfair we all are not listening and not understanding. What you need to do is stop feeling so sorry for yourself and get down to thinking about the facts.”

“What facts? Alright, give me some facts?”

Adam sighed and brought his hand down over his face, then tapped his chin with his long fingers…”Remember how you went back with the intention of marrying her and living with the Cheyenne, probably we’d never have seen you again, isn’t that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Joe bit down on his bottom lip and nodded, Adam could see his eyes misting with tears.

“But when you got to the camp you were told that she had gone, she didn’t want to marry you, Joe.”

“She didn’t think a white man and Cheyenne could handle the troubles to come, that’s why.”

“Alright, perhaps that was why.”

“Are you saying she didn’t love me?” Joe’s voice rose a few decibels and his eyes blazed as he glared at Adam, “Well, you’re wrong, she did love me. She was going to marry me and moved on because – -” he shook his head and looked down at the grass between his feet.

“She moved on. Then later two witnesses, Prairie Fire and Little Brook told us about the attack on her camp, how she had been killed.”

Joe nodded, “Yes, that’s right, I remember that now…” and he sighed heavily and bowed his head lower.

“They told me what they saw and believed to be true, she had been shot and fell down dead. They even told you themselves, Joe. Remember?”

“Yes. I had forgotten that, odd really, I should have remembered…” his voice trailed away and he nodded to himself.

“Think now as to how Little Raven got the ear rings, and the story about the burial scaffold.”

“What am I supposed to think?” Joe looked at Adam with his eyebrows raised and then shook his head, “I don’t know, Adam. Little Raven and Wynkoop were convinced she was dead.”

“So someone told them she was, and gave Little Raven the ear rings as proof, enough so that you would carry on home thinking she was dead…”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know why or who would have done any such thing … but the fact is that I only told you what I thought was true at the time, and someone wanted you to believe it very much.”

“How do you expect me to feel now then? Better ? All I know is that she endured ten years being abused by those white men in that mission. I’m glad that Stalking Horse and his friends killed those men … should have done it sooner. If I had known that was where she had been all that time, it makes me feel – ashamed.”

“Well, you shouldn’t, Joe. Prairie Fire and Little Brook were going to be sent to that mission, remember? We were able to save them. We couldn’t save Little Moon, but that was not your fault, nor mine…”

Joe’s shoulders slumped “So what exactly are you saying here, Adam? That all you’ve said makes everything alright?”

“Well, the only ones who can make it alright now are yourself and Mary Ann. I just thought if you had a few facts, rather than feelings, to think about, you’d feel less sorry for yourself, and perhaps would think about how your wife is feeling about all this.”

“You didn’t see her -”

“Stop it, Joe.” Adam’s voice cut in sharp and irritated “No, I didn’t see her a few days ago, and you did, and you’re wrestling over feelings that you shouldn’t have now. Don’t you love Mary Ann?”

“Of course I love Mary Ann, she’s my wife… “

“She believes that now you’re regretting your choice, that after all this time all you can think about it Little Moon and how she would have been your wife… except that Little Moon didn’t love you enough to take you up on your offer.”

“She did …” Joe jumped to his feet “But …”

Adam was already on his feet “She didn’t. You told her you would be back to marry her and she took herself off … think of the facts, Joe, and stop filling your head with what you think you lost, and start thinking of what you have gained during these past ten years. “

“Why Don’t you just back off, Adam, and leave me alone.”

“What? So you can wallow in more self pity and blame and guilt? “

He raised his arm quickly enough to block Joe’s fist and then stepped back a few more paces, raised both hands to indicate he wasn’t going to fight, but Joe came at him anyway with fists flying only to meet a perfect uppercut to the jaw that sent him staggering back, tripping over the boulder he had recently been leaning upon, and ending up flat on his back.

Adam rubbed his knuckles and shook his head “Just you stay put there, little brother. Stay and think, not about Little Moon, but about your wife, and your son.”

“You want me to forget -”

“Yes, why not try doing just that … put Little Moon back in the box, Joe. A fond sweet memory that you can cherish in your heart deep down. And then leave it there, huh?”

When Joe started to get to his feet Adam backed off some more paces, put out a warning hand and then mounted into the saddle of his horse. He looked down at Joe who was scowling up at him “Your wife loves you, Joe. I want to believe that you love her …”

“Why don’ t you just go to ….” but the sound of the horse’s hoofs drowned out the words leaving Joe shaking his fist at the retreating rider.

For a moment he stood there staring as Adam slowly disappeared into the trees. His face crumpled and he slowly sunk back down onto the ground, leaned against the boulder and closed his eyes. After a short while he covered his face with his hands, Adam was right, he knew it, and he knew he had to do something about it, soon before he threw away everything and everyone he really loved.

Chapter 41

Under the cover of darkness the rider on the black horse slowly dismounted, led the horse to what was obviously the stable and then quickly followed the track that led to the house. The track threaded its way between well laid out gardens but it was already the gathering gloom of night so it’s beauty was lost to the traveller.

He approached the door and knocked in the manner he had been told and then slipped into the house when it opened sufficiently for him to enter.

Alexander Milyutin followed the young maid into a large opulent room where Count VladimirLebedev sat before the large fire with a glass of claret in his hand. Alexander approached and bowed, the click of his heels rousing Lebedev from his meditations. “I’ve the information you requested, Excellency.”

Alexei shrugged and looked over at Dimitri Doestov who was smoking one of his cigarettes and staring at the newcomer with such a fixed look on his face that Milyutin began to feel uncomfortable, as it was he longed to get a little closer to the fire, the chill of the November air had got into his bones.

“Did you have any problems?” Lebedev asked which caused Dimitri to raise an eyebrow and casually light a match to his cigarette.

“None. The law officer in the town is stupid, and accepted everything he was told without question. Kossoff has been buried some days, Wolsky and Sergei more recently and Marek Belinsky -” he paused and frowned “He was brought in only hours before I arrived by Captain Jotham Morton.”

Dimitri straightened his shoulders and stood up away from the mantlepiece he had been lounging against “Morton? That’s Daniel O’Brien’s cousin… he works for the American Government.”

Alexender nodded “So it would seem. The undertaker was a very talkative man and told us that Belinsky – although he gave the man no name – but he told us that Belinsky had been in jail for some days, then a convoy of army or navy personnel headed by Morton came and had a release form for him to be handed over to them. Of course that fool sheriff did just that…”

“Belinsky was not supposed to be alive at that time,” Dimitri hissed, “I gave him the capsules and orders to take it right away, the fool, why didn’t he do as he was told!”

Milyutin shrugged “He did take the poison which is why Captain Morton brought him back for burial.”

Lebedev hadn’t moved at all, he had sat and listened and stared into the flames of the fire, but now he looked at Dimitri, “You should have just shot the fool there and then.”

Dimitri shook his head and threw his hands up in the air “Morton will have gone to see Cartwright. Do you know where he is now?”

“Who?” Alexander asked looking from one to the other of the two men.

“Cartwright? Morton?”

“No idea. I was just told to get the information that I have now given you. I’ve done that, I’m cold and tired and now I need to know what else I’m supposed to do.”

Lebedev sat up now and took some of the claret, he put down the glass. “Rest here for a few hours, I want you back on the road before dawn. Those men were invaluable in their time, they should have been buried in the soil of Mother Russia .” he looked at Dimitri “Get some food organised for Alexander. “

Milyutin raised his eyebrows in surprise, such sentimentality on behalf of Lededev was unusual and he looked suspiciously at Dimitri who only put a finger to his lips as a signal to say nothing.

As soon as he had seen that Milyutin had been given some food , Doestov returned to the room where Lebedev was pacing the floor, with the glass now refilled. He looked like a man controlling his rage with some difficulty for his hand shook “That fool Marek -”

“Marek Belinsky was no fool, Alexei.” Dimitri replied slowly, “I can’t explain why he didn’t take the poison as ordered but the fact remains that the Americans are obviously keeping us under closer observance than we thought. “

“How do you mean?”

“How do you explain this Captain Morton arriving to collect Marek from this place only days after he had been apprehended?”

“Do you think Cartwright could have told them something?” Lebedev stared at Dimitri who suddenly realised he was skating on very thin ice when he recalled all the information he had passed onto the Commodore.

“How could the Commodore have known anything to tell them?” Dimitri replied and the smoke from his cigarette coiled around his head like so many serpents.

“Which means that one of those men must have talked?”

“Or we have a spy on board our ship.” Dimitri said quietly hoping beyond hope that Lebedev wouldn’t point the finger at him and detect the weak link in this particular chain as the very man sitting opposite him now. Dimitri took a long drag at the cigarette now and looked thoughtfully at the Count “Perhaps we should have left well alone, getting Milyutin to ask around for information ..“ he shrugged “only draws attention to ourselves. It was a risky and perhaps foolish thing to do.”

“Are you questioning my orders, Dimitri? “

“Merely suggesting -”

“Don’t say another word. I needed to know for sure what those Americans knew, how much they may have found out.” he drank more of the wine and shook his head “It grieves me that four of my best operatives have to be left buried in this foul country.”

Doestov nodded, stood up and stubbed out his cigarette which he threw into the fire. “Well, you could hardly dig them up and take them back home with you.“ he drawled and before Lebedev had time to think too much about that he continued “What about the Commodore?”

“We shall attend to him, and we won’t fail this time.”

Dimitri simply nodded, he didn’t bother to ask exactly who the ‘we’ would actually be, he had an unerring feeling it included him.

By dawn Milyutin had slept a few hours, eaten a hasty breakfast and was on his way to where the ship Batory was berthed. Lebedev was still in bed sleeping when they left, only Dimitri Doestov and the servant who cooked and saw to their needs watched Count Alexander Milyutin leave.
………………..
Olivia Cartwright watched her husband as he undressed. She loved to see the way he moved, he had a way of holding himself that showed a man of confidence, a man proud of his body and who kept it in good condition despite the battering it underwent. By the light of the lamp she could see the scars that marked the dark skin, evidence of the many times he had evaded death. The long scar on his thigh was no longer red and ugly, and the mark of the rope around his throat had faded to nearly nothing at all. He noticed her watching him as he glanced into the mirror and turned to smile at her “You’re looking very smug, my lady, and very pleased with yourself. May I ask the reason why?”

“I was just congratulating myself on having such a handsome husband.” she smiled at him as he approached the bed, “I think I have every reason to look smug.”

“No, I’m the one who has every reason to look smug.” Adam replied as he settled into bed and pulled over the covers. His hand gently caressed her body, lingering over the mound of her belly and he smiled “He kicked. “

“I know, she always does when I get excited about something.”

“He does? Fancy that… and are you excited about something just now, my love?”

“Mmmm, possibly. “ she raised her face to accept his kiss, long, slow and passionate, and when they parted she gave a rather breathless laugh “Oh my, now she’s really kicking hard.”
“I hope he doesn’t get in the way of – er – anything.” he whispered as he kissed her throat and his hand gently stroked her bare arm, and she turned into him and sighed.

“I’m afraid she’s determined to get in the way, that’s for sure…” and she laughed which wasn’t the best thing to do when one’s husband was thinking along more serious, more amorous things, but Adam laughed too and rolled onto his back, drawing her as close to his body as he could “How much longer do we have to endure his Lordship’s presence?”

“Her ladyship will arrive when and as she pleases, sir.” she kissed him and her fingers gently caressed his face, travelled along its contours to his throat, played along the familiar lines of his collar bone and into the hair of his chest “Adam …”

Adam always believed that where there was a will, there was always a way….

Later as he was drifting into sleep his mind returned to the conversation he had had with his youngest brother. He rolled over onto his back and had to accept the fact that what had been said was now stuck in his brain and preventing him from actually sleeping. He closed his eyes shut tight as the memory of his brother’s face slipped clearly into view, and was then replaced with the memory of that same face ten years previously.

How it had hurt him to have had to tell Joe about Little Moon’s death. He could remember how he had agonised over the decision as to whether to mention it or not but had decided to do so because of Prairie Fir e and Little Brook who would have told him anyway. He shook his head against the pillow and opened his eyes, stared up at the shadows on the ceiling

“Are you alright?” Olivia whispered immediately and reached out to touch his hand.

“I was remembering when I told Joe about Little Moon being dead…” he whispered back to her, and was grateful that her fingers tightened around his as though she understood how hard it had been, “I was talking about it today with him but I don’t think he really understood.”

“Do you think he loves her still?”

“Of course he does, just as you still love Robert.” the way her hand tightened made him realise that had probably been tactless, “What I mean is -”

“No, it’s alright, I know what you mean. I tried to explain that to Mary Ann, but she didn’t understand either.”

“There’s too many unexplained facts involved…” his voice drifted away as he thought of the ear rings that had nestled in Little Raven’s plump hand, he closed his eyes again, “If I die -”

“Don’t say that, don’t say things like that, Adam .” she rose up now upon her elbow and stared down at him, “Why did you say that?”

Immediately his hand rose to touch her face, gently, tenderly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything other than if I did, I’d want you to find a good husband to care for you. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Adam, don’t talk like this, it frightens me.”

Now he put a finger to her lips and sighed, she could feel his warm breath against her face, “I’m just saying , sweetheart, that I understand that you have a corner of your heart for Robert, and I’d hope you’d keep a corner of it for me as well should -”

“No, stop it…” she pushed his hand away and kissed him to stop him talking, and when she drew back, he pulled her towards him again.

Chapter 42

Bridie O’Flannery had loved intensely in her time and borne three children as a result. They were all three married and independent of her now, living their own lives in various parts of the United States, writing her copious letters from time to time which she would read in her lonely hours.

In some small way Joe and Mary Ann Cartwright had become her family, just as at one time Olivia and her household had been when they had lived in San Francisco. The current coldness that existed between the two caused Bridie a great deal of anxiety and concern, just as it would have done had it been involving her very own sons and daughters, so when Joe returned home that evening with a bruise on his chin and a wary look in his eyes, her heart just turned over for love of him.

“What happened, Joe?” she dabbed a wet cloth and looked at him with all the tenderness a mother would feel for her injured young.

“My chin came in contact with my brother’s fist.” Joe admitted glumly.

“Adams I presume?”

“How did you guess?” he sighed

“Well, if it had been Hoss, then I’d have expected a broken jaw rather than just a bruised one – keep still now.”

“Where’s Mary Ann?” he asked now as he sat obediently allowing her to dab away at his chin.

“She went to see how Mr Canady is.”

“Oh, filling them in on all the news.” he snapped rather unpleasantly and was surprised when she slapped him on the leg “What was that for?”

“For being so unpleasant.” she replied and tossed the cloth into the sink, “How do you expect to make things better between the two of you if you feed your mind with all that kind of rubbish. As if Mary Ann would do such a thing.”

“She went off quick enough to tell Olivia all our business.” Joe retorted leaving his chair and going to the coffee pot from which he poured himself some hot coffee.

“She went to talk over her feelings with Miss Olivia which isn’t the same as gossiping over your affairs. Women have to do that at times, Joe, we tend to need someone to talk to when things get a little out of shape at times.”

“Bridie, what do you think I should do?” he looked at her, big hazel eyes wide and sad, reminding her of a spanial she had owned once back in her homeland.

“You’re asking me?” Bridie shook her head, “Lawks, lad, you shouldn’t have to ask me. You do what your heart tells you… “ she looked at him and narrowed her eyes, “You love your wife, don’t you?”

“Of course I do, you know I do.”

“Well, seems she isn’t too sure of that just now, so do what your heart tells you, you let her know.”

“She doesn’t want to listen to me.”

“Sometimes, words get in the way of loving, Joe.” she leaned forward and pinched his cheek, “There’s a time for talking … afterwards … you understand?”

Mary Ann carried Daniel into the house and set him down upon his play rug with some toys close at hand while she removed his outer clothes and little boots. She tickled his feet and he laughed, bringing a smile to her face as she did so.

“You look lovely when you smile like that, Mary Ann.” Joe said from the kitchen door

Her back stiffened momentarily and then she glanced over at him, “What happened to your chin?”

She was removing her hat now, the chestnut curls tumbled down around her shoulders and the grey eyes looked at him anxiously before resuming a guarded look as he stepped closer to her, “I had a disagreement with Adam.” he said with a smile and a shrug.

“Oh, getting his own back was he?”

“Well, no not really.” Joe replied a little sharper than intended, and he cleared his throat in order to modulate his voice as he walked towards her and reached out to touch her hair, “I think that was one of the first things I noticed about you, the way your hair shone and curled like that, you looked so cute that day you tried to persuade me and my brothers to take those wagons to Calico.”

“I’m surprised you’d remember.” she said pulling away from him but only slightly, just enough for him not to think she was ‘giving in’ so easily.

“Oh, I remember a lot about that day. I remember looking into those eyes and thinking how I’d never seen eyes so unusual before, and then I remember how you asked if you could sit with me on the wagon.”

“I did not.”

“Oh but you did, and you even asked me if I had a wife at home…” he laughed then, softly, and stroked her cheek.

“You said you didn’t, you nearly did ..but she’d died.” her voice thickened and her eyes darkened, her body tensed and she raised her chin defiantly as though challenging him to deny having said such a thing.

“Yes, so I did.” he nodded but didn’t stop winding a curl of hair around his finger, “You listened so patiently, I remember how much kindness you showed me, and then, of course, when we got to Calico you rode off in that buggy with that doctor without a backward glance at yours truly.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had, would it?”

“Oddly enough, it did matter. “ he stood closer to her, his hand slipped around her waist, she resisted, just a little. “I remember how it – er – rather hurt my vanity.”

“Mmm, I can quite understand that….” she said, her lips thinned and she tossed her head, chestnut curls loosened from their pins and slipped onto her shoulders.

“Then one day, there I was walking down the main street of Virginia City and who would I meet but the new school teacher.” he leaned down, pulled her gently towards him, “And I looked into those grey eyes and thought -.” he kissed her gently and was surprised, delighted, amazed at how she kissed him back.

“What did you think, Joe?” she whispered when he finally released her.

“I thought where did I see those eyes before …” he kissed her again, “Oh Mary Ann, I love you so much.”

She stiffened then, just slightly, she wanted to say things, to challenge that love and have him prove it, she wanted him to wipe out any memory of Little Moon, but somehow the words didn’t come , wouldn’t come, she could only think that this was her Joe, the man she loved, who had married her, so when he drew her into his arms again she gave herself willingly, sinking into him with that same delicious feeling of promise and fulfilment she had always felt with him.

Much later, with a happy Bridie O’Flanagan tucked up in her bed, and the baby snoring slightly in his crib, Mary Ann lay in her husband’s arms and listened as he told her about the meeting with Stalking Horse and Little Moon.

“It isn’t possible, my darling, to wipe out the love for someone like I had felt for her all those years ago. It’s like my Pa, he still loved Elizabeth and Inger when he married my Ma, but it was safe, kind of locked away in his memories and heart. That was how it had been for me, the love I felt for you was so strong, IS so strong, that the feeling I had for Little Moon was safely buried and tucked away.”

“But when you saw her again…” she whispered, her head on his shoulder and her eyes looking with love into his face “Didn’t you feel that you loved her again?”

“I was overwhelmed with feelings… all different kinds. Stalking Horse had told me all that had happened to her since we had parted, and I knew what pain she’d have endured and felt ashamed. I felt ashamed, Mary Ann. Yes, those were the strongest emotions I felt … shame and guilt.”

“Nothing else?”

“Oh yes, other things.. Amazement that she was still so beautiful, disgust that she had been so badly treated, pain that she – well, she was dead inside really, I guess.”

“You didn’t feel any love for her?”

“Perhaps I should have done. But my feelings for Little Moon, the girl I had loved and wanted to marry, were still locked in my heart, Mary Ann. This lovely strange woman was not the girl I had loved back then, she was tragic, and sad, and I felt guilty for not having gone to find her.”

Mary Ann said nothing, she didn’t know really what to say except that she also felt ashamed and some guilt for the way she had acted over the past few days. “Why were you so angry with Adam?”

“I guess I wanted to pass my guilt onto him, blame him for lying to me and preventing me from going to find her. Fact is I’d forgotten several important things which he reminded me about today. I realised then that she didn’t – hadn’t wanted me to find her.” he frowned, “He made me so angry, but he was right. I was trying to pass my guilt and shame onto him, and then, later, I got so full of feeling sorry for myself that I went to hit him again, but he – er – got me instead.” he grinned slightly and winced “He made me look at myself and realise that if I wallowed any deeper in self pity I could lose what I love most of all in the world, you, Daniel – us.”

“I love you, Joe.” the statement was said as simply as a child would have said it, but it conveyed everything that she felt for him. He kissed her and then turned onto his side, rested his head upon one hand and looked into her face “You know something, Mary Ann, I once read how when someone meets the person they really love God ties a golden cord around their heart and attaches it to the heart of the person loved. They can’t leave the other, you know, because they’re bound together, forever.”

“Forever.” she whispered and surrendered herself up to him once more.

Chapter 43

One thing that really ruined Sheriff Armitage’s morning was when he saw Roy Coffee strolling down the main street of town looking, as he termed it, officious. It was as though Roy had, to Armitage’s mind anyway, forgotten that he was no longer Sheriff. He greeted people and chatted to them, put a comforting reassuring hand on their shoulders, nodded as though assuring them that all would be good in the end, and generally left people walking away from him with a smile on their faces.

It made Armitage feel sick the way Roy Coffee strolled along with that narrow eyed look and casual gait of his, nodding at folk, smiling. Armitage shuddered and went back into the office where Dodds was making coffee “Where’s Clem Foster?” Armitage demanded.

“Seeing Widow Hawkins about that missing jewellery she reported yesterday.” Dodds replied quickly.

“Stupid woman, what does a woman of her age – and size – need jewellery for,” Armitage scowled and slumped into his chair. “Do you ever speak much to Coffee?”

“Roy Coffee? No, sir, I hardly see him.” Dodds turned his attention back to the coffee pot and pursed his lips thoughtfully, “He keeps to himself, now he has his sister living with him.”

“He’s in town now, striding around as though he owns the place.”

“Well, he was sheriff hereabouts for plenty of years, sir.”

“Seems to me some folk still think he is sheriff around here.” Armitage growled and pulled a pile of wanted posters closer towards him and began to flick through them.

Dodds decided it was the better part of valour to keep his mouth shut.

Clem Foster stepped into the café and ordered something to drink, he needed to get t he taste of Clemmie Hawkins sarsparilla tea out of his mouth. He hadn’t long sat down before a chair was moved from the table and Roy sat down, nodded and smiled. “Well? Anything?”

Clem smiled and leaned forward, folding his arms comfortably on top of the table, “First of all, some fella came in to ask some questions about that prisoner Captain Morton took from our cells and then brung back dead.”

“What kind of fella?” Roy leaned forward with interest.

“I can’t tell you, Dodds told me and that’s all he said.” Clem licked his lips and leaned in closer, lowering his voice a little more, “But the fella then went to see the undertaker.”

“Jenkins?”

Both men moved in almost synchronization as the young girl brought them coffee and pie, putting the plates where their arms had been previously. Clem sipped his coffee and nodded “Jenkins told me that the man was foreign and claimed he was looking for a relative who had recently moved to Virginia City but was feared killed recently.” he wrapped his teeth around the pie so that Roy had to be patient for a while until most of the pie had been devoured, “Jenkins showed him his latest arrivals, and the foreign gent identified the man we had in our cell as his relative.”

“So what’s he going to do about him?” Roy asked, nibbling his pie and realising that his sister’s breakfast had ruined his appetite, he put it back on the plate.

“He gave Jenkins money to pay for the funeral,” Clem wiped his mouth and eyed Roy’s pie with a covetous eye. “Jenkins said he looked quite sad, even said a prayer.”

“Really? What language?”

“I didn’t ask, but it was foreign. Jenkins then said that he had recently buried three of this gents friends, in fact, by rights the dead man should have been dead already except that a Captain Morton had come and taken him out of the cells.”

“And what did the gent say to that?”

“Apparently he looked embarrassed. He didn’t understand what was happening, he said his relative was always very law abiding. Anyhow, Jenkins got him to pay up for the three other funerals.”

“Jenkins should be arrested for that,” Roy said darkly, and sipped his coffee, “The funerals should have been paid for out of any money that was found on their persons when they were brung in.”

“Yeah, well, that all went missing days ago.” Clem muttered and finished off Roys pie while the old man sat quietly to think over what he had been told.

“So Jenkins hadn’t been paid?”

“Not a dime.”

“Did Jenkins ask this foreign person where he was staying or whether he was going to attend his relative’s funeral?”

“Ah now, this is where it gets strange. Jenkins did say something like ‘He’ll be buried tomorrow, shall I have you as chief mourner’ and the stranger then said that he wouldn’t be here, he had to leave early. Jenkins must have looked suspicious or something because he said that he had already spent a lot of his time here looking for his cousin or whatever, which meant he had to return back sooner otherwise he would have been at the funeral.”
“And he gave no address?”

“No, nothing.”

“That’s just about a shame, deputy, because had we been told a bit more about this a little sooner -” Roy sighed and shook his head.

“That’s what I thought.” Clem nodded, “I’ll ask all the hotels and boarding houses if they’ve had any foreign folk staying with ‘em.”

“From what Adam said they’d be staying in some private home.” Roy gave a downturn grimace and shrug.

“They? Well, this was only one man.” Clem finished his coffee, “Maybe they ain’t even connected.”

“They are, there’s too much interest being shown in that dead man for there not to be a connection.”

“Which reminds me, Jenkins asked this stranger if he knew the mans name, for the grave stone, and it seemed to Jenkins that the man wasn’t sure what to say…he said in the end that he knew him as Marek Belinisky. That ain’t the name Sheriff Armitage knew him by.”

“No doubt ,” Roy shrugged, “Stands to reason that a Russian or whatever wouldn’t have a cousin called Tom Smith or Jack Jones don’t it? Best go and check the stage depot and train station, ask around there if any foreigners were passengers this morning. If they weren’t, ask the livery, see if any horses rented out.”

“What will you do ,sher – er – Roy?”

“See if I can find out where our fine friends would be staying. Adam said they were aristocracy. You do know what that means, don’t’cha?”

Clem shrugged, and shook his head “No.” he frowned, “Sounds rude to me.”

Roy sighed and stood up, he put money down to pay for their meal and nodded his goodbye to Clem who continued to finish his coffee before getting up to return to work. Roy took his time to stroll to the General Mercantile. Years back it had belonged to Will Cass; in fact, the Cass family actually started the business in Virginia City, but then there was that trouble with Ed Payton. Roy shook his head, all happened before he became full time sheriff and now it belonged to Amanda Ridley. A lot changes over the course of the years, and Roy wasn’t ashamed to admit he was often part involved in them.

He nodded over to the Manager and sat down near the stove, and warmed his hands while he kept his ears open. It was surprising what one could learn by just sitting quiet and looking as if he was minding no one’s business but his own.
………………..

Candy Canady was rather embarrassed at the number of ladies sitting around his ‘sick – room’. Ann had ushered up, firstly, Hester who had sat by the bed side and told him all the news that would have concerned or interested him in connection with Ben, Hoss and work. Within half an hour of her arrival Ann escorted Olivia into the room who smiled at him and produced a beautifully knitted sweater which, she assured him, would keep him warm during the colder weather. Not long after that Mary Ann appeared with a sweet smile and a tin box which contained one of Bridie O’Flanagans Apricot tea loaves. A favourite of Candy’s apparently, according to Bridie.

Seeing the brightness back in Mary Ann’s eyes, and the warmth of her smiles again was a great relief to both Hester and Olivia who nodded at one another with smiles of their own, conveying the message that yes, obviously things were now resolved and all was well in the Joseph Cartwright household.

Candy expressed his gratitude with the gifts with the greatest pleasure and asked Hester, once again, to thank Ben for his generosity in paying his salary despite not being able to work for some time yet, but Hester assured him that Ben was too fond of him to lose him and would work him hard once he returned. He now turned to Mary Ann “How’s Joe getting on with that back horse of his now, Mary Ann? I saw him out on it several times before I was shot, they looked like a good team together.”

Olivia and Hester held their breaths and looked anxiously at their sister in law who simply smiled and nodded “Yes, I loved seeing them together, Joe took great pride in training that horse and working him as he did.”

“Anything happen to it?” Candy frowned and Hester and Olivia looked at him before turning to look at Mary Ann for her response. The younger woman merely smiled and sighed “Joe gave the horse to a friend.”

“He what?” Candy looked amazed, as did the two women who couldn’t believe how sweetly Mary Ann had spoken about this ‘gift’ of Joe’s. They looked at one another before turning to look once again at Mary Ann.

“Saturn was a special horse,” she said as though stating the obvious, “andJoe felt that a very special person should have it, as a gift from him, as a sign of – friendship.” she looked at Candy with a honest countenance and smiled again, “You know how impetuous Joe is, but this was important to him and it mean a lot to his friend.”

“Mmm, wonder what I’ve done wrong, wouldn’t have minded him giving me a horse like that as a gift.” Candy laughed, and Mary Ann laughed along with him, while Olivia and Hester could only smile and look at one another as though they couldn’t believe what they had heard.

…………….

Sofia had arranged her dolls in order of size which meant that the new doll with its beautiful china face and specially made silk clothes that Adam had brought her all the way from London, England, sat right on the end of the row.

Of all her dolls Sofia loved Jessie most of all, her rag doll that had come all the way from the big house in the busy city she could vaguely remember now. Jessie had been with her for so long now that she coudn’t bear to be apart from her even though it was one of the ugliest things ever made. Sofia was telling Jessie not to be jealous of Matilda, the new doll, when she heard her brother Reuben coming up the stairs “Reuben, you back now from school?”

“Obviously.” he was a ‘big boy’ now and didn’t have to answer to his little sisters every whim. He looked into her room and frowned, “What’re you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“Why’ve you got all your dolls lined up like that fer? They look silly.”

“Don’t “

“They do.” he strolled in and looked at them and then at Jessie, who fixed him her usual glassy eyed stare. “Why do you keep old Jessie, she’s horrible.”

“No, no, she’s not horrible, she’s lovely. I love her. Go away, you’re horrible.”

Reuben shrugged and sidestepped to avoid Sofia’s pushing him out of the door. Of course she slipped as a result of missing him, and fell against the bed, knocking into Matilda who fell rather daintily from the bed onto the floor. There was a terrible smashing noise.

“What was that?” Reuben asked stepping back into the room.

From downstairs Olivia called “Is everything alright? Has something broken up there?”

Sofia was speechless with horror, she couldn’t get the words out as she looked at dear darling Matilda with her poor face all smashed in making one eye look north and the other south, and her golden curls had china pieces lost within them, even her white pearly teeth had gone missing, lost somewhere in the cavern that had been her face.

“Mommy. Mommy.” she finally found her voice, screaming as loudly as possible so that Olivia appeared, breathing heavily, in the room “What’s wrong, what’s happened?” cried the frantic mother who was nearly knocked over as the little girl flung herself into her mother’s arms

Reuben shook his head and walked into his room “Girls!”

“Mommy, Reuben did it. He smashed Matilda on the floor. He said Jessie was horrible and ugly.” sobbed the little girl who looked as innocent and as sweet as ever up at her mother, tears trickled fast and dripped off her chin.

“I’m sure it was an accident, hush now, you’re a big girl now, big girls don’t cry like this over an accident.”

“Wasn’t an accident, he did it on purpose. He did it, mommy.”

Olivia looked at poor Matilda and sighed, shook her head and picked the doll up, unfortunately one of her eyes promptly popped out and fell onto the floor as she did so, sending Sofia into further sobs.

“Reuben?” Olivia cried and the boy strode in and looked at the doll, his sister and his mother in that order “Yes, Ma?”

“Sofia says you broke Matilda. What happened?”

Reuben’s eyes widened in disbelief, “I didn’t break that wretched doll. I didn’t touch it,”

Sofia flung herself from her mother’s lap and threw herself at her brother, little clenched fists hit him in the arm and chest before Olivia could grab her and restrain her while she cried “You did, you did too.”

“Didn’t .” Reuben answered, rubbing his arm “I didn’t touch it, Ma, honestly Ididn’t.”

Sofia howled and was about to launch herself at her brother once again when the boy was whisked out of her way and she found herself about to give her father’s long legs a thump.

“What’s going on here?” Adam looked from one to the other and nearly laughed at the sight of the three of them looking back at him and all as guilty as could be, even Olivia.

Sofia began to cry “Reuben broke Matilda, he smashed her on the floor and her eye fell out.”

“Didn’t” Reuben said in disgusted tones.

Adam looked at Olivia who shook her head and gave a slight shrug. He looked at Sofia who was now holding onto him sobbing, Reuben looked tense, wondering if he was about to be the victim of a terrible (to him) injustice. Adam sighed, “Sweet heart, you go downstairs, I’ll deal with this…” he grabbed her hand as she passed “Have a good day?”

“Yes, I’ll tell you about it later.”

He sat Sofia down and dabbed at her wet tears with a clean handkerchief, Reuben stood by the doorway thinking how his father was sure to believe Sofia, she was his favourite, she was the goody-goody and he’d already been proven a number of times as the trouble maker. “I didn’t do it, Pa.”

“Go to you room, Reuben, I’ll speak to you later.” Adam said without looking at the boy who opened his mouth in protest, he wanted to say, ’See, you’re blaming me already.’ but in silence he marched off to his room.

“Tell me what happened, Sofia.” Adam said in his softest voice, “Poor Matilda, she looks like she’s really been in the wars.” and he picked the doll up and sighed.

“Reuben came in – he said Jessie was horrible – he said I was silly and then he pushed Matilda off the bed and she broke.”

“He pushed Matilda off the bed. How did he do that?”

She very proudly demonstrated how she thought Reuben could have done it. Then looked at her father with her stubborn little chin sticking out as though to say “So there!”

Adam smoothed down Matilda’s golden curls and without looking at Sofia asked her if she knew what a lie was, to which Sofia nodded and said she did. “Sit here and wait for me.” Adam said and still with the doll in his hands he walked into the room where Reuben was waiting.

“What happened exactly Reuben?” Adam asked his son in a man to man tone of voice and then he listened as Reuben told him what had actually happened. “I see.” Adam nodded and looked at the boy very seriously, but Reuben stood his ground and didn’t flinch.

Sofia was hugging Jessie tightly when Adam came into the room and sat down, “Sofia, tell me again what happened? Was Reuben cross with you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“He doesn’t like Jessie.” Sofia pouted.

“So why did he break Matilda.?”

Sofia frowned, shrugged “Because he did. He threw her on the floor.”

“Show me how?”

Sofia blinked, she had to think and try to remember what she had said before but she was confused. She went to the bed and stood there “He picked Matilda up and threw her down there.” she pointed to the floor.

“I see. Well, go and wash your face. It’ll be time for supper in a moment.”

She watched him leave the room with Matilda still in his hands. A little sense of victory crept into her mind, she smiled and washed her face as she had been told. She kissed Jessie as she left the room and walked past her brother with her nose in the air.

Downstairs Adam sat holding his wife by the hand, his thumb rubbed against her wedding ring and she listened to him patiently “I’ve never had to punish a girl before, Livvy. How do I do it?” he lamented, looking with a downturn of the mouth at her.

“If you really think she’s lied …”

“No doubt about it, she’s told a whopper.”

“Then she has to be punished.”

“Do you – No? Oh!” he sighed at his wife’s shaken head and then frowned darkly at Sofia as the little girl came down the stairs, followed by her brother.

Chapter 44

It was a dilemma for Adam. For some reason he had not foreseen the day coming when he would have to discipline his little princess. Sofia had always been such a good sweet little girl and by and large her misdemeanours had been easily handled immediately by her mother. They had been such minor indiscretions that Olivia had never even bothered to tell Adam about them as his life was busy enough as it is, apart from which, with him being away at sea for stretches at a time, discipline did fall to her when he wasn’t around.

Now as he watched the two children approaching him in order to go to supper he felt rather challenged. Chastising a boy was something he could handle well enough, at times he had even had to discipline his brothers, not that they would ever have called it discipline, but Ben thought it was and so did he. To Joe and Hoss it was just big brother being bossy and giving them a thump in the jaw to let them know that fact.

He stood up and cleared his throat, “Sofia, I want you to apologise to Reuben please.”

She stood there with her mouth open and blinked her eyes before turning from her father to Reuben, and then back to her Pa by which time the blue eyes were moist with unshed tears “But why, Pa?”

“Because you blamed him for breaking your doll.”

“He did, he did.” she blubbed and rubbed her eyes with her little hands as tears dripped down her cheeks.

“No, he didn’t, and if you continue to lie, Sofia, then your punishment will be even more painful.” Adam heard himself say the words and inwardly sighed, it would be painful for him too and he watched as the little girl sniffed, wiped her eyes dry and turned to Reuben.

“I’m sorry, Boo-Boo. “ she whispered.

“Now tell us what really happened?” Adam asked kindly.

“Matilda fell off the bed because I tripped over and knocked her down.” Sofia whispered with her head down.

“I see. Well, that’s a bit different to what you said before, isn’t it?” Adam said sternly, and looked over at his wife who sat there with a smile on her face and staring at him as though to say ‘Well, go on, get on with it.”

“Yes, Daddy.” she nodded and sighed, looked at Reuben and gave him a hug for good measure to prove how sorry she actually was for blaming him.

“So what else did you do wrong?” Adam asked with that stern voice and his brows dark with his frown although he glanced over at Olivia who smiled again and raised one eyebrow rather mockingly.

“I – I – I told a lie.” she gulped.

Adam heaved a sigh, there was no getting away from it, he nodded “Out to the barn, young lady.”

“Oh da-daddy…” the little girls voice trembled and she looked up at him in horror.

“Come along, suppers waiting, and we don’t want to be eating it cold.” came Adams voice seeming very loud and terrible to his daughter who gulped, sobbed a little and trailed along after him.

The door closed on them and Reuben turned to his mother “Wow, is Pa really going to give Sofia a tanning?”

“Your father will give her the appropriate discipline, Reuben.” Olivia replied with a nod of the head but feeling rather anxious for her little girl now. She stood up “Let’s go and wait in the other room. Cheng Ho Lee must be wondering where we are.”

In the barn Adam lit the lamp and sat down on a bale of straw, he drew the child closer to him so that she was touching his knee, “Sofia, I don’t like punishing you like this, but what you did today was very wrong, you do understand that, don’t you? To tell a lie is too easy to do at times, people do it and think it doesn’t matter, but it does. It’s very important to be honest and truthful. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes, pa.”

“If you start to lie at this age and get into the habit of lying, then people won’t trust you with anything, they won’t want you to be their friend. So – although you apologised very well to Reuben, which is good,” Adam cleared his throat, “You have to learn that I and your mother won’t tolerate lies from you. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. Bend over…”

She didn’t want to, she squirmed to get out of the way, and then wriggled a bit, then put her hands over her skirts so that he couldn’t spank her but eventually he was able to administer a spanking to the degree he felt the incident merited. Afterwards he set her down and looked at her, “Sofia, you know that your mother and I love you, don’t you? If I didn’t love you, I’d not discipline you to stop you telling lies. I’d not care what people thought about you, but I love you, and I do care …so come here, give me a hug and then we will go in for supper.”

Sofia was only too happy to run into his arms and hug him tight, and feeling his arms around her gave her such a feeling of safety and protection that she clung tightly to him. She was to learn later when at school how fortunate she was to have a father who never thought for a moment to spank her backside without the protection of her skirts covering her over.

………………

Roy Coffee opened the door to the knocking upon it, a familiar knock so he wasn’t surprised to see Clem on the door step. He turned aside and indicated that Clem go into the parlour just as a voice floated from upstairs “Who is it, Roy?”

Roy sighed “Nothing to do with you, get back to bed, it’s alright.”

Clem hid a smile and followed the old man into the other room where he was invited to sit down, he put his old hat on the table and cleared his throat, “Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, Roy, that Armitage kept me in side all day doing paper work and such.”

“That’s a nuisance, so you weren’t able to find out much then?” Roy scowled and picked up his spectacles and perched them on his nose. He’d have hated to admit it but he needed them more than ever now, at least he could see Clem more clearly, he tugged at his moustache and nodded over at his deputy.

“Oh I got out and about but had to make excuses to do so,” Clem replied with an affable grin, “Now then, with regardless to this here foreign gent, he didn’t board either the stage or the train, and he didn’t hire a horse nor did he stay over in any Boarding House or hotel.”

“Humph,” Roy snorted and grunted for a moment with his brows furrowed, he tugged more fiercely at his moustache “So what conclusion do you get from that?”

Clem shrugged and looked thoughtful, before he leaned forward with a nod of the head as though to confirm what he was thinking “I’d say he had his own horse and hadn’t spent time in town at all. He knew what information he needed and after he got it went back to wherever he came from again.”

“I’d say that was as good thinking as anything else I could think of…” Roy nodded and bestowed upon his ex-deputy grin of approval, “And what about the gents we were trying to locate?”

“I drew up a list of everyone I knew who had visitors here at the moment and a list of people I thought would have foreign gents staying.” he pulled out a rather bedraggled few sheets of paper and handed them to the ex-sheriff.

Roy frowned and pushed his spectacles further up his nose to read what his deputy had written down, he sighed several times “Why’d you put down the Mayor? He’s always got guests, no point in putting him on a list – Dan DeQuille, huh, he only has family stay over, and usually they’re couples, or the odd lady or two.” he frowned and shook his head, deciding it was better not to go down that particular route. “No, not him; nor him; for Pete’s sake would you look at that? You even got Paul Martin down here on the list, jest what visitors does Paul Martin ever entertain? “

Clem got a bit downcast as the old man mumbled and stumbled his way down the list, scratching out some names with the stub of an old pencil as he did so, eventually Roy paused and nodded “Mmm, that’s possible. So -?” he looked at Clem and narrowed his eyes to keep him better in focus, “What do you know about this Miles Harley, apart from the fact he’s one of the wealthier businessmen in the territory?”

“Ah now,” Clem leaned forward eagerly, “I thought I’d put him on the list because he’s got that big house right on the outskirts of town.”

“I know it, one of the new builds, very big and fanciful.” Roy nodded, it was obvious he didn’t approve of big and fanciful, particularly when they were new builds.

“Not only that, it’s built among trees and such.”

“Meaning?”

“Well, just that anyone could come and go without being seen there.” Clem warmed to his subject and rubbed his hands, “To my way of thinking, if two gents wanted to slip into town without being noticed, where better than at that place? Could even if the other foreign gentleman who showed so much interested in the dead prisoner, he could have stayed there as well. You can’t even see the stables from the road.”

“True enough.” Roy nodded, and stared at the list again, “What about this one -?” he tapped at another name “Carl Langford. Him and his wife live alone in some fancy place as well don’t they?”

“Yeah, they do. Not so well concealed though as Mr Harley’s. You can see if anyone’s there visiting.”

“They why’d you put them on the list?”

Clem thought about it before explaining that the Langfords were in business with Miles Harley. Carl Langford also had foreign connections to do with export and import of his wares, which were expensive paintings and classical objects d’art. Roy sniffed, he obviously didn’t have a high opinion of that kind of thing either. He looked thoughtfully at the list then looked at Clem, “Good, well done. Best you get home and see about getting some sleep.” he rose from the chair with a slight grunt and then indicated he was about to show Clem the way out, Clem sighed and reached for his hat.

“What about you, Roy, did you pick up any information that would be of any help?”

“I’m not sure yet, got some thinking to do.” Roy replied with a nod of the head.

“Roy? Mind if I ask you something? What exactly is this all about?” he clutched his hat against his chest as thought to deflect any thing that could do him serious bodily harm.

“Mmm, well, I don’t rightly know myself, Clem. Just that Adam Cartwright wanted some help and I said we’d give it to him.”

He gave his deputy a pale blue eyed gaze which indicated to Clem that he should mind his own business. He nodded, “I see,” he said and bade Roy good evening and left the premises.

Roy nodded and watched as Clem left the house, closed the garden gate behind him and disappeared into the gloom of the evening.
…………..

The game of chess was an intense one and the two men sat with brows furrowed and lips clamped tight together as they stared down at the board each seeking a move that out out-manouvre the other. Olivia sat close to the fire reading a book, although every so often she would look over at the two men and smile to herself before returning to her story.

Ben had just put his hand on his Bishop when there came a loud rat-a-tat on the door, he looked up at Adam and frowned “That sounds familiar.”

“Hmm, probably for you anyway.” Adam replied tugging at his earlobe and his gaze still concentrated on the chess board “Are you going to do something with that Bishop or not?”

“I don’t know, I’ve lost my concentration now.” Ben said slowly while his dark eyes scanned the board before switching to the door to smile a greeting at Roy Coffee.
“Roy? This is a pleasant surprise, what brings you here?”

Adam and Olivia exchanged a smile, it seemed for a moment that Ben had forgotten that he wasn’t at the Ponderosa, but was spending an evening with his eldest son and his wife. Roy nodded as he removed his hat “Evening, Ben. Adam. Mrs Cartwright – Olivia.”

“Coffee, Roy?” Olivia asked as she rose to her feet and set her book to one side.

“Mighty kind of you, thank you, Mrs Cartwright – Olivia.”

She hid a smile and glanced mischievously at Adam who raised his eyebrows and winked. It seemed that Roy had given himself a singular solution to the matter of there being so many Mrs Cartwrights while at the same time observing the formalities required of the day. There was Mrs Cartwright – Hester, and Mrs Cartwright – Mary Ann and now Mrs Cartwright, Olivia.

It didn’t take long for Roy to get to the point of his visit. He told them about the investigation into the stranger who had checked out the dead man, and also the lists of people who had guests, the scrappy paper he handed over to Adam. Ben was totally bemused and ignorant of all that was going on, but held his peace while he watched his sons face as he read through the lists. Adam nodded at the notes that Roy had scribbled in beside some of the names. “Anything else, Roy?”

“I was jest going to ask you both if you knew anything at all about Miles Harley and Carl Langford? Anything that could be of any help?”

After looking at the notes Adam passed the papers over to Ben who quietly asked about what was going on now. Olivia placed a tray upon the table and started pouring out coffee for the three men and listened as they discussed the matter together. It was the first she had heard about the possibility of Counts Lebedev and Doestov taking a further interest in her husband and the fear that seized her made her feel dizzy.

“Are you alright?” It was Adam’s voice, deep and gentle asking her the question and his arms holding onto her as she was being led to her chair into which she sank gratefully, “You went – I thought you were going to faint.”

“I thought I was as well,” she admitted taking the glass of water from Ben gratefully and flashing a smile up at him, “I’m sorry, it must have been – the heat.”

Roy frowned and nodded, he didn’t have much knowledge about women and what happens when they were like this, and he felt slightly embarrassed. Adam stroked his wife’s hand and smiled reassuringly at her, “You’re not worried, are you?”

She flashed him look from her near green eyes and he raised his eyebrows while trying to look as innocent as the day. It was obvious to him that yes, she was worried. He’d no doubt hear more about it later.

“Perhaps it would be better if we talked this matter over in the study.” Ben suggested and looked meaningfully at his son who looked at his wife thoughtfully before shaking his head and saying they could continue with the conversation right there. He could tell that this suggestion met with her approval as the green in her eyes began to subside – slightly.

Chapter 45

“Miles Harley and Carl Langford” Ben frowned and stroked his upper lip thoughtfully before turning to Adam “Wasn’t Langford involved with a mining consortium at one time that tried to make a deal with the Gould and Curry set up?”

“They did, I remember it well,” Adam replied, “He’d not long been in Virginia City at the time, got himself a name for being involved in several scams.”

“That’s right,” Roy nodded, “I recall one time it backfired on him pretty big, but somehow he got out of that scrape as clean as a whistle.”

“Mmm, been straight ever since.” Adam said but still looked rather doubtful. “I’m not sure about contacts with Russia though, he never seemed to me to be a major player in the league, so to speak.”

“He married a girl from San Francisco, wealthy family so I heard and he acts as an agent for his father in laws company.” Ben added, “I remember meeting her parents one time some years back, I believe they were from Philadelphia originally.”

“What about Miles Harley ?” Roy asked, “he used to work along with Langford at one time if I recall rightly but separated and went their separate ways when some deal or other fell through. I’m sure he used to go abroad quite often for a while. Rumour had it he married a foreign wife who died somewhere unhealthy.”

“Miles Harley is ambitious, always has been.” Adam replied now perched on the arm of the settee and holding Olivia’s hand in his own, “He was involved in the mining project I had with Bill Enders that time, but then he went abroad – must have been the time you were speaking about, Roy.”

“The point is, do you think either of them the sort that would be involved in harbouring your Russian friends.” Roy sighed, he was tired and getting slightly frustrated

“I’d say either of them could,” Adam said quietly taking the list of names from his father and looking over them again, “and equally it could be said they wouldn’t.” he glanced at Ben who only grimaced and shook his head.

“Edith Langford’s grandmother was Russian,” Olivia volunteered in a quiet voice, and when silence fell heavier than a wet blanket she sighed and looked anxiously at her husband “She told me some time ago.”

Roy heaved a satisfied sigh, “Thank you, Mrs Cartwright – er – Olivia. I’ll get Clem to keep an eye on the Langfords property and report back.”

Adam and Ben glanced at one another but said nothing. After bidding Roy goodnight and not envying the long ride he would have back home, in the dark and cold, both men resumed their seats at the chess board. Olivia cleared away the coffee things and when she returned resumed reading her book.

But reading was difficult, her mind kept straying to the conversation with Roy, and the implied threat to her husband. Every so often she would allow her eyes to stray over to watch him as he deliberated over his next move, she wondered if Edith Langfords husband would actually be harbouring the men she viewed now as her mortal enemies. When Ben declared check-mate with a triumphant shout of glee Olivia was delighted, more than anything else she wanted her husband to herself, there were things about which she needed to talk to him.
……………….

Dimitri Doestov was irritated and frustrated. He paced the floor smoking his cigarettes, his mind was constantly going back and forth over the various aspects of this enterprise. But no matter what he thought he was finding his thoughts straying back to his irritation with Lebedev.

It had been hard enough working alongside Alexei Lebedev when they had been assigned to get the papers from Irena Pestchouroff. Their orders were to get them by any means available, with force if necessary. Alexei had carried his orders out to the letter, except for the fact he had never laid his hands on the papers and ended up dead he was a pretty good example of a loyal Russian.

But Vladamir Lebedev was different to his brother, whereas Alexei was driven by some inner force, an aggression that was constantly fed by the assignments he was sent on, his brother did the bare minimum to achieve the maximum result.

Dimitri sighed and shook his head. In his opinion coming to Virginia City was a mistake. Staying at the home of the American couple an even bigger mistake. People talked and he was more than convinced that no one in the household could be trusted. Their hosts may not have known the real reason as to why they were there, but the name of the Commodore had come up in conversation and everyone spoke very highly of him. It seemed to the Russian that the wisest course was to pack their bags and return to the ship.

But then there would be Gorchakov to face. He stubbed out the cigarette and threw it into the fire. He lit another immediately and drew heavily upon it with his eyes fixed on the flames that ate into the wood . He shook his head slowly, whatever he thought about Vladimir the man was a ruthless killer. He had proven hopeless as a diplomat, but Doestov had no doubt that the real purpose behind Gorchakov’s sending them here was to rid him of the Commodore.

The door opened just as Dimitri had sat down to think this over in more depth. He glanced up and saw Lebedev strolling into the room, a hand in his pocket and a glass of something intoxicating in the other. The two men didn’t speak for a moment or two until Lebedev had sat down , stretched out his legs and drank a little more, “Well?”

“Well what?” Dimitri shrugged.

“What do you think of it here? A pleasant little place in which to hide and pretend we are only visiting friends and business acquaintances, don’t you agree?”

Dimitri looked around the room in which they sat, and shrugged “It has no appeal to me.”

Lebedev smiled and emptied the glass which he set down on the table, “It hardly matters what you think, it gives us a cover for the time we are here.”

“Can we trust these people?”

“Of course.” Vladimir looked surprised at the question, “I have known them for a long time, their association with Russia is strong, just as strong as their politics. You have no need to worry about them at all.” he leaned back “You seem very – nervous, Dimitri. “

“Nervous?” Dimitri shrugged “Apprehensive perhaps.”

“What about?”

“About this assignment. There is a lot about it I don’t understand.”

Lebedev laughed and then shook his head as though he failed to see what the other man was implying “There is nothing to understand, Dimitri. We have an assignment and that is to get rid of this Commodore, Gorchakov is tired of having him involved in Russian affairs, now is the time to remove him, that’s all.”

“That’s all? We have lost four good men already, probably compromised ourselves by having Milyutin riding into town to identify Marek …and you say, that’s all? No, I don’t think so.”

Lebedev frowned darkly and his pale blue eyes fixed themselves on to Doestov as though seeing him for the first time, he shook his head “I wouldn’t want to think that you were having second thoughts about being with me here, Dimitri? This Commodore has crossed your path several times now, and come off the victor.”

“I know. It rankles my pride to remember that…” Dimitri frowned and remembered that he owed his life to this man Lebedev was in such a hurry to remove from this earthly existence.

“Then stop fussing, you are becoming like an old woman worrying about shadows. We shall enjoy the time in seeing what this Ponderosa is like, and then -” he raised his hands a little in a gesture that indicated there would be no mercy shown to Russia’s enemies, he smiled “Pouff!”

Doestov shivered and looked away, slowly extracted another cigarette and put a match to it.
…………….

Adam closed the door behind his father and then slowly turned back into the room. He knew without a word being spoken that Olivia would want to talk about Roy’s visit before they made their way to bed and in a way he would have preferred to avoid such a conversation. He looked over at where Olivia was seated resting her head upon her hand, her eyes still looking down upon the book she had been reading since before Roy’s appearance. He walked to her and sat down at her side sliding an arm behind her and drawing her closer to him, “Good book?”

“An old favourite, ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte.” she replied with a smile although she didn’t look up at him.

“I remember – didn’t she fall in love with her employer Rochester?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I didn’t like him very much as a character. “

She turned then and looked at him thoughtfully, “Why not?”

“He was too proud, arrogant. Thought too much of himself, and took advantage of a naïve innocent girl.”

“Perhaps she wanted to be taken advantage of by a strong minded handsome man.” Olivia’s smile broadened as she looked at her husband with twinkling eyes.

Adam leaned back into the settee and shook his head, while at the same time he reached out for her free hand which he held loosely between his own “Livvy, have you got to the part where his house has burned down ?”

“Yes,, and now he’s scarred and blind, not at all the handsome man she left behind.”

“Hmm, but she still loves him, he haunts her dreams, and so she has to return, just to make sure.” he kissed her fingertips rather absent mindedly.

“Make sure of what?”

“Whether she loves him, or he loves her.”

She closed the book after slipping a marker between the pages, then set it down and leaned closer to her husband “Tell me about these men Roy was talking about, Adam. ”

Adam drew in a deep breath even as he put his arm around her shoulders, “Dimitri Doestov, whom you’ve met already.”

“Oh, that funny little Russian man. Yes, he gave me a bad feeling, like seeing a snake sidle around the furniture and disappearing… you know its there but where exactly. If you go looking for it no doubt it will be in the wrong direction and then suddenly it has bitten you…” she shivered. “And Lebedev – of course, I remember now, you mentioned him before, about his brother in Alaska.”

“S’right.” he frowned, looking at the far wall and thinking back to that time, gently stroking her arm as he did so.

“And now they are somewhere in Virginia City because the four men they sent to kill you, got killed instead.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you think it might be a good idea to ask the sheriff for help?”

“No, not really. Armitage would want to know too much and I don’t trust him.”

“But he’s the sheriff, Adam, “ she pulled away slightly to look at him with a puzzled expression on her face, “He’s the law here.”

“I know.”

“Then why not get him involved?”

Adam pursed his lips and shook his head “Nope, don’t ask me why, but I just don’t like the man and I certainly don’t trust him.”

She sighed and was about to say something more when he moved away, stood up and turned towards her, “No more talking, Livvy, you’re tired and Ipromised Paul that you would get plenty of sleep.”

“How do you expect me to sleep while I’m worried about you and what’s going to happen …”

“Going to happen?” he smiled rather piquantly, “There’s no guarantee that anything’s going to happen, sweetheart.”

He drew her into his arms, stroked her face with his fingers and looked intently into her eyes, “Nothing is going to happen. Do you understand?”

She stared up into his face and wanted to say ‘yes, I believe you, nothing will happen’ but she couldn’t. She could only look into those brown eyes and feel fear fluttering at her throat, he shook his head “Don’t you believe me?” he whispered as his hand trailed down her back and then rested gently upon her skirts beneath which the mound of her belly protruded.

“I want to -” she whispered back, “But I love you too much to be so sure, don’t ask me why, Adam, but I’m frightened.”

She didn’t even understand why she had said that, she knew exactly why she was frightened and clung onto him more tightly as a result.

Chapter 46

The morning chores didn’t stop just because one had a bad nights sleep, or the weather was miserable and it was raining. Stables had to be mucked out and the horses fed and watered. Sofia had her task of collecting eggs and feeding the hens, even though she didn’t like getting her new boots muddied. Olivia milked the cow so that there was fresh creamy milk to accompany the breakfast that Cheng Ho Lee was preparing for them.

The rasp of the two handled saw was heard as the milk splashed into the buckets and she sighed to herself as it reminded her that her man was out there making sure the woodpile was well stocked up. There was the chipping sound of an axe as Reuben split wood for kindling, his task every morning after seeing to Buster.

She stood up, straightened her back and put both hands on her hips to ease the ache. The baby had changed position and as a result it seemed, to her, that she was bigger than ever. She had loosened her skirt and her top garments had to hang over the skirts with the bottom buttons undone. She shook her head as she wondered for how much longer she would be able to get down on the stool to milk the cow as doing so was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. She leaned forwards to pick up the pail only to have her hand moved away “It’s alright, Ma. Pa said to come and carry the bucket in for you. It’s my job to do that now.”

She blushed a little, “It’s alright, son, I can manage.” and she reached out for the handle again but he shook his head “No, Ma, Pa said you’re not to do it anymore. I’ll carry it in for you, honest, Ma, I won’t spill any.”

She smiled and nodded, thanked him and watched him carry the pail out of the barn. The rain was coming down sideways on and she drew up the hood of her cloak over her head to hurry through it to the house. She looked over to the woodshed where Adam was still sawing at the wood, his broad back straining against the fabric of his favourite and almost threadbare yellow jacket. He didn’t appear to have noticed her as she paused to watch him for a moment just for the satisfaction of enjoying seeing him at work. The action of sawing never ceased until a log dropped to the ground and he began to saw the next section to add to the pile.

By the time Reuben ran out to tell him that breakfast was ready Adam had finished sawing and was stacking the newly sawn logs . He nodded and carried the saw into the woodshed and hung it upon its nail. “Did you help Ma with the milk?”

“Yes, pa.”

“Good boy. Here, help me get the ‘horse’ inside.” he smiled at the boy who ran willingly to grab one end of the wood cross beam that supported the wood for sawing. Together they carried it inside and set it down.

“Pa, can I ask you something?”

“You can -.” Adam looked over the woodpile as though mentally calculating how many mornings sawing it would take to fill the whole capacity with logs.

“Why did Uncle Joe give Saturn away?”

Adam sighed and looked at the boy as though it pained him to have to even consider the subject. Reuben’s hazel eyes looked anxiously up at him, and Adam nodded, recalling to mind just how much the horse had meant to the boy. He put his arm around the lads shoulders and drew him closer “Well, I told you, Reuben, he gave the horse to a very special friend.”

“But why?” Reuben frowned and shook his head, “Did he know that his friend was coming and that was why he trained Saturn – so that he could give it to him when he got here?”

Adam scratched his nose and shook his head “No, he didn’t know his friend was coming here.”

“Uncle Joe promised I could ride Saturn one day, but I didn’t even get to have a little try out on him at all.” Reuben pouted and shook his head, “I don’t understand why he would just give him away.”

“Well, sometimes it is hard to know why any one person does anything, Reuben. You had best ask Uncle Joe when you see him again. I’m sure he’d like to tell you all about it.”

He led the boy out of the wood shed now and closed the doors. He knew there was enough wood in the house to keep Olivia and Sofia warm through the day, and the stove in the kitchen alight for Cheng ho Lee. He smiled down at the boy “Hungry?”

“Sure I am, Pa.”

“Let’s get inside then, out of this rain, or you’ll be going hungry to school today.”

Once inside and in the warmth of the house Reuben was happy to sit with them and eat his morning meal. With an eye on the clock he ate quickly, his mind however pondered over what his father had said about Saturn, and he resolved to see Uncle Joe about the matter as soon as he saw him again.

The rain had let up a little by the time he ran out to board the wagon. Hank was waiting with his tarp keeping him dry and after a brief wave at his mother and sister standing in the doorway, Reuben was off for another day at school.

Adam was already buckling his gun belt on when Olivia came back from seeing the boy off. She held out his hat to him and smiled as he looked up at her with that gentle look on his face that she loved so much. “Don’t get too wet and cold, will you?”

He laughed “I’ll try and avoid the biggest rain drops. Here, give me a kiss.”

“And be careful.” she sighed after she had kissed him and he looked into her eyes and knew that this was more than the usual admonition. He stroked her cheek and nodded, “Adam, please …”

“I know.” he assured her quietly, “I know. It’ll be alright, there’s nothing to worry about. Now, rest as much as you can, you didn’t sleep much last night, did you?”

“Nor did you.”

They looked at one another and smiled, he drew her towards him and held her close, as close as he could, “I slept more than you think, anyway, I don’t need as much sleep as you do just now. Promise me -”

“I will. “

“Good.” he released her then and looked at Sofia “Look after Mommy.”

“I do, daddy, all the time.” she replied and ran to him for her kiss.

He smiled at her and ran his hand over her curls, for she was a pretty little girl and her hair, more golden than her mothers, only added to her prettiness. He nodded, smiled and then left the house buttoning up his jacket as he walked quickly to the stable to saddle up his horse.

On the Ponderosa and at Joe’s house the mornings chores had been carried out in much the same manner as at Adams. Breakfast had been eaten and preparations were made for the days work ahead although both Adam and Joe were already soaked through as they dismounted and quickly made their way into the house, removing their hats before entering so that the rainwater that had collected in the brims could be cast outside rather that on the floor.

Hoss looked over at them and grimaced before stuffing another piece of bacon into his mouth, “Coffee?”

“No, thanks,” Joe shook his head and rubbed his hands together, whereas Adam nodded and walked over to the table to collect the cup Hoss poured out for him, “Thanks.” he glanced around the room “Where is everyone?”

“Hesters upstairs, had a bad night with Hope.” Hoss said glumly then he grinned and slapped Adam on the back so that hot coffee slopped over and onto the table “You’ll know all about that soon enough, brother.”

Joe chortled and nodded “Yeah, that’s for sure. You don’t know what it’s like to be pacing the floor at 2 in the morning with a baby wailing its head off, puking down your night shirt and -” he paused as Adam held up a hand for silence, but he continued to chuckle.

“Let me remind you, little brother, that I did a fair amount of pacing up and down with you when you arrived and created chaos.”

Hoss guffawed at that which made Joe cackle even louder so that when Ben came downstairs he looked from one to the other with some bemusement on his face, especially as Adam didn’t seem to be laughing along with them “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, just these two peasants attempting to ruin my day.” Adam replied and finished his coffee, “What do you have planned, Pa? As you can see it’s raining pretty heavy out there.”

Hoss pursed his lips and looked over at his father before glancing down to examine his fingernails, Joe was all attention and stood patiently waiting with a slight smile still on his face “I really wanted to check on McManus at the timber yard. This weather is a nuisance, there’s quite a large amount of hardware to be collected from town, someone will have to go in with the wagon.” Ben glanced from one to the other of them but each of them remained silent, he cleared his throat “Well, there’s some paperwork that I’ll need to get on with here.”

Adam nodded “Sure, of course.”

Joe scratched his chin and nodded “I thought perhaps there might be.”

Hoss sighed “I’ll go and get the stuff from town, Pa.”

Adam perched himself on the arm of the settee “What about that Burgess deal, Pa? Has there been anything more forthcoming about that?”

“Ah yes, that was what I wanted to tell you, Adam, Burgess wanted you to go and talk some points over with him as soon as possible. Any chance you could go today, I don’t want to lose out on that contract, it’ll keep everyone busy for a few months along with that work we have to complete on MacPhersons deal. Joe, when you get to see McManus today, ask him how things are going with that, will you?”

Joe mouthed ‘Me? Timberyard?” but received no vote of sympathy from his brothers who were nodding along with Ben who was now pouring a large cup of coffee for himself, “And Joe, make sure that the book work is up to date, McManus seems to have got into a habit of being rather slip shod about that lately.”

“Sure, Pa.” Joe sighed, “I’d best get going now then, seeing how wet things are out there, and everything.”

“No wetter going to the timber yard than taking the road to the Burgess place.” Adam replied picking up his rather limp hat and grimacing at the sight of it.

“Yeah, and it ain’t no more drier sitting on a wagon for hours on end either.” Hoss heaved himself up from the table “I’ll just go and say good bye to Hester.”

By the time he had reached the half landing Joe and Adam had left the house and were walking to the stables where they had left their horses. Joe pulled up the collar of his coat “How’s Olivia, Adam?”

“She’s well, thanks, Joe.” Adam replied as he pulled his tarpaulin poncho over his outer clothes, “I think you may be in for some cross examination from Reuben when you see him next.”

“Oh, really? Why’s that?” Joe shivered as he pulled the slicker over and then replaced his hat.

“He wants to know why you gave Saturn away.”

“Did n’t you tell him?”

“Not my business.” Adam replied as he mounted into the saddle. “I told him you’d given the horse to a friend, it’s up to you to explain the rest.”

Joe smiled, shook his head and landed neatly into the saddle, “I guess it would seem odd to a kid. He did love that horse.” he sighed then as he directed the horse from the warmth of the stables “I did too, he was sure a beautiful creature.”

At the head of the track they parted to go their separate ways with the rain sluicing down to make their journeys miserable and uncomfortable in any direction. Not very long after they had disappeared from view Hoss trundled up from the yard to take the road into town on the wagon, he was right when he had said how unpleasant it was to sit on a wagon for hours travelling through the mud and puddles with the rain pouring down. By the time he reached town he was thoroughly ‘fed up’.

Clem Foster saw him and raised a hand “Hi, Hoss. Not a great day, huh?”

“You can say that again.” Hoss muttered and glanced up and down the street “Not very busy in town is it?”

“Never is when it rains like this.” Clem said lowering his hat slightly “You seen Roy?”

“No, should I?”

“Guess not, just wondered.” Clem cleared his throat, “I’ve got to go to the Maitlands, seems like they had a burglary there last night.”

“Huh?” Hoss wrinkled his nose and shook his head “A burglary? Weren’t you telling me that Widow Hawkins had things stolen from her?”

“That was last week.” Clem sighed, “Sure is odd, seems to becoming a regular thing here in town. Look, I can’t stop, I’m getting soaked here. See you around, Hoss.”

Hoss nodded and quickly made his way to the Hardware store where he left the list and made his way from there to check on whether there was any mail. Tom nodded and handed him various items “There’s a letter there for Adam.” he said, as nonchalantly as a man dead curious to know what it was all about could mention it.

“Uh? Oh, thanks Tom.”

“It’s from abroad.”

“What is?”

“The letter for Adam. Reckon it sure took a long time getting here too.” Tom leaned on the counter with his arms folded, “Sure had an interesting life that brother of yours, ain’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess so, if you don’t mind nearly drowning every other week, or being shot at and left for dead any old place.”

Tom shook his head “Sure wouldn’t like to be on a boat in the middle of the ocean myself, that’s for sure.” he drawled, “But I reckon that letter sure is interesting.”

Hoss frowned and gave Tom a black look, it seemed to him that Tom was developing an old ladies habit of being too nosey for his own good. He stuffed the mail inside his jacket and hurried outside.

Roy Coffee saw him from the interior of the café and tapped at the window, beckoned and smiled as Hoss gratefully turned his feet into the direction of the warm building. He looked at Roy and nodded, ordered coffee and one of the thick beef sandwiches Mrs Abieronno made and, rubbing his hands together, was soon seated at the table opposite Roy. “How’s things, Roy? Enjoying your retirement?”

“A bit more than I was,” Roy replied honestly, and he smiled at his companion with twinkling blue eyes, “You seen Adam today?”

“Sure, he was at the house.” Hoss scratched the back of his neck “Anything going on that I should know about, Roy?”

“I don’t know, Hoss.” Roy jutted his chin out and raised his eyebrows “What do you know about Russians and such?”

“Russians? What Russians?”

“Shush, not so loud.” Roy leaned forward “Your Pa and Adam not mention anything to you then?”

“Nah, nothing.”

Roy shook his head and looked slightly annoyed, then sat upright “Wal, in that case I’d best say no more. Jest tell Adam when you see him that we were looking in the wrong places. They weren’t where we thought they were.”

“They weren’t?” Hoss thanked the waitress for the food and coffee and looked at Roy, “What are we talking about, Roy?”

“Adam will know what I mean. Jest tell him we’re looking in a different direction which seems more than likely to be the right place.”

Hoss looked confused and narrowed his eyes but the old sheriff was used to these kind of games and stood up, brushed crumbs from his jacket and nodded “See you soon, Hoss.”

“Yeah, sure.” Hoss frowned and was about to speak when Roy leaned down “You keep a close eye on that brother of yours, you understand?”

“Er – which brother d’you mean, Roy?” he mustered up a weak smile “I got two, remember?”

“Yeah, but I was referring only to the one, your eldest brother.”

Hoss nodded and then shook his head “Why? What’s going on -” but he was already talking to Roys back as the old man made his way out of the café. The bell over the door tinkled as the door closed.

Chapter 47

By the time Adam returned home the rain had long stopped and been replaced by a chill wind which had enough warmth in it to dry him through, apart from which Mrs Burgess had insisted that he and her husband sat by the fire to discuss business which had taken several hours. He returned home to his family feeling he had achieved some small measure of success and was greeted with Reuben telling him that he had a letter, ‘from a long way off.’

“Well, that sounds interesting.” Adam replied as he shrugged his coat off and pulled off his boots. He smiled at Olivia as she came to him and offered her cheek for his kiss. “Where’s Sofia?”

“I’m here, I’m here, daddy.” Sofia ran over with an envelope in her hands which she held out to her father. “I looked after it for you, Uncle Hoss broughted it over.”

Adam nodded and looked at the envelope closely. There were certainly plenty of stamps on it, and marks and stains that indicated it had certainly travelled some distance. He rolled his eyes at the looks he was getting from everyone and then said he would open it later which elicited a groan from Reuben.

“Aw Pa …”

“Chores to do first, and then supper.” Adam said with a frown to which Reuben insisted he had already done his chores “We came home early, Miss Brandon said the rain was too bad and the river would be high, so we were able to leave school and get home earlier. I did my chores right away, and my homework as well.”

“Hmm, very good.” Adam winked and nodded approval and then picked up the envelope again, turned it over in his hands and wondered if it could have come from Grant or some other Government official.

Olivia was back in the kitchen talking to Cheng Ho Lee when her husband sauntered in and joined them, he opened the envelope and frowned as he noticed the address of the sender, he shook his head thoughtfully and sat down “This is interesting.”

“Who is it from, or is it what they call ‘classified’ nowadays?” Olivia asked with a slight touch of sarcasm in her voice.

“It’s from Sheik Said el Hassam and his wife, Anna.”

“What’s a Shake?” Reuben asked.

Adam didn’t answer but was engrossed in reading the letter which was written in excellent English. He read it through twice and then slowly replaced it in its envelope then sat back in his chair and stroked his chin. “Well, now, that’s interesting.”

“What is?” Olivia asked and then gently pushed Reuben away “Let me set the table, Reuben, don’t crowd so close.”

Adam rubbed his face slowly with long fingers, he was tired, coming from the cold into a warm room after a long days work after a night with little sleep made his eyes feel heavy with weariness. He smiled and caught at her hand “Remember Laurence and Rachel? Well, this letter is from Rachel’s brother in law in Eygpt.”

“That far away? “ she smiled and paused in her work, clutching some knifes and forks against her as she stared dreamily at nothing while she imagined pyramids and camels.

“Yes, that far away.” he laughed “He’s written to say that it may have seemed that he had forgotten what I had done a while back but he had not, but had been waiting to send me something he knew I would really like by way of a gift.” in saying that he looked at Reuben who had opened his eyes wide as his father had mentioned ‘a gift’.

“What kind of gift, Pa?”

“It could be anything, these people are very wealthy and it could be a camel, or some parrots, or some -” he laughed at the look on Reuben’s face “What would you like it to be , Reuben?”

“A monkey.” the boy replied right away and laughed with excitement “That would be such fun, a real monkey.”

“Mmm, I don’t know about that, what do you think, Ma? Don’t you think we have monkeys enough in this house already?”

Olivia laughed and tweaked Reuben’s nose and told him to hurry up and get ready for supper. Sofia, who had been sitting very quietly at the far end of the table looked at her father and mother thoughtfully “I don’t want it to be a monkey.”

“Somehow, I didn’t think you would.” Adam replied seriously.

But she just shook her head and said nothing, gave Adam a smile and sat there waiting patiently for her brother to return.

“When will it be arriving, Adam?” Olivia asked as she set down a vase of flowers on the table. Like Hester she enjoyed seeing pretty things around her.

“I don’t know that, either, Livvy. El Hassim said a lot in his letter without telling me anything .” he smiled and then looked at Sofia who smiled at him, “Are you alright, sweetheart?”

“Yes, daddy. I was thinking how Egypt was where they got that baby in the basket when it was in the bulrushes.” she frowned, “I don’t think that was a nice place to put a baby, was it?”
……………………….

Dimitri Doestov felt claustrophobic. The house they were staying in was, in some ways, worse than the cabin on the ship. To be sure it was a reasonably good sized house but it was foreign and he felt uncomfortable out of his own environment.

It seemed strange to him to be feeling this way after all he had been a man immersed in secrets and well travelled as a result. He had stayed in the foulest of hotels, and out of the way places and not felt like this, as though he were trapped with no where to go.

The rain lashed the windows and outside it was grey, everywhere was grey. He tried to avoid Lebedev as much as possible but that became more difficult as the day passed for the Count seemed to be deliberately seeking him out and trying to draw him into conversation.

“Tell me, Dimitri, about the Alaskan adventure.” Vlad asked some time after they had eaten the mid day meal and their host had departed for his place of employment.

“It was not an adventure, it was a tragedy.” Dimitri replied glumly and reached for his cigarettes.

“A tragedy, yes, I suppose it would have to have been seeing how my brother died so – so bravely.”

“Your brother – ?” Dimitri shrugged, “He was a man driven by self glory, what is the word for it? Egotistical ? You may not know it, Vlad, but at times I thought he was mad.” he exhaled smoke and half closed his eyes to see through the veil it created, the other man laughed, a cold mirthless laugh.

“It was always suspected that he was, he had a cruel streak in him, I know that well enough.” the Count reached out for a book that he had been reading for time hung heavily on his hands also, and he needed distractions too. “Did you like him?”

“No.” Dimitri turned away and stared out of the window, he could see Sun Mountain covered in mist far away, obscured by the rain and cloud.

“You admired him, perhaps?”

“Not at all, there was nothing to admire in a man like your brother.” Dimitri replied, and turned to face his companion, “I might as well speak honestly to you, there are enough lies and secrecy in our business, that it is better to be honest when the chance comes along.”

Vlad shrugged “Well, it doesn’t hurt to know what you think about Alexei. Do you think he really did kill all those people in that village with Irena?”

“I would not doubt it for a moment.” Dimitri replied and then shrugged “But why ask these questions now? We’re here, and it is your determination to remove from the face of this earth anyone involved with your brothers death, is that not so?”

Vlad shrugged “Yes, but also because what Gorchakov has ordered must be done.”

“He’s an old man, he won’t be head of State for much longer, Vlad.”

“That is irrelevant. The fact remains that he is what he is now. “ Vladamir scowled and stood up, he now walked to the window and stared out “I was sorry about O’Brien and his family, I wish that could have been avoided. I liked them, I felt they were happy, I – I do regret that they had to die.”

Dimitri frowned, this was an unusual statement for Lebedev to make and he stared at the man who was standing by the window. He waited a moment for him to continue speaking but Vladamir seemed to have realised he had said something that revealed a vulnerable chink in his armour for he suddenly stood straighter and raised his chin “The rain has stopped. I am going to see what this Ponderosa looks like… are you coming?”

Doestov stubbed out his cigarette and nodded, he knew that their host good horses ready for their use and waiting in the stables. Curiosity to see this great Ponderosa niggled at him, what he had seen previously when he had gone to the house of the Commodore some weeks earlier had been fleeting, but beautiful, sufficiently so to arouse a desire to see more.
……………..

Clem Foster pushed open the door to Roy’s house and nodded as the ex-sheriff stepped aside for the deputy to enter. “Any news?” Roy asked as he led the way into the parlour.

“No trace of them. What about you?” Clem removed his hat and stood with it clutched against his chest as he looked around the room. He could see Rachel’s influence in that it was cleaner and neater and far tidier, but there was still enough of Roy’s personality there to make it the kind of room a man could sink into and relax in.

“I thought of something yesterday when I was in the Mercantile. Mrs Anderson came in and ordered extra food, staples, the kind of thing you’d expect a woman to have plenty of and when I asked her if she was expecting visitors she went rather quiet and tight lipped.”

“Mrs Anderson?” Clem frowned, “You suspect her of harbouring these men?”

“Not exactly, Clem.” Roy pursed his lip and frowned, his eyebrows and moustache bristling as a result, “But her husband could be, she would just think they were bona fide guests of her husband.”

“Why’d she go quiet then?”

“Probably because her husband told her not to mention anything to anyone about them.” Roy sighed and shook his head, “What do you know about Anderson?”

“Anderson -?” Clem rubbed his chin as thought it would have the same effect as Aladdin had on the brass lamp, except that instead of a genie there would be some idea of what was going on “I know he was a seaman for many years, only moved here about two years ago.”

Roy nodded “I know, not much to go on but see if you can find out anything.”

“I know they’re wealthy, got a big house up on the hill overlooking town.”

“So where did he get his money from?” Roy stood up and walked to the window to watch as people came and went on their daily errands. “I’ll do what I can here.”

Clem nodded, he would have appreciated some hospitality because his feet ached from all the walking about he had done that day. He turned to leave “Seems we’re getting more reports of petty thieving going on in town. Even Armitage has had to leave the office to go and see folk about it.”

“Didn’t you say that the money you’d taken from those men who attacked Candy had been taken from the sheriff’s office?”

“S’right, all of it, and the drawer wasn’t even broken open.”

“Hmm,” Roy nodded “Well, that’s interesting, don’t you think?”
………….

Dan deQuille strode over to his office and opened the door with his head full of words. He had seen something that intrigued him and he felt the creative juices inside him churning over as he considered how it would write it for the citizens of Virginia City to digest and enjoy. He sat down at his desk and was about to pick up a pen in order to commence writing when he noticed that the drawers in the desk were all open and that paper was strewn everywhere.

Carefully and in slow motion, as though doing it at normal speed may cause him to miss something, he checked all the drawers, rummaged about inside them, and then closed them one by one. Some money that was loose in the top drawer was missing. He tried to remember just how much there would have been as he rose to his feet and checked the petty cash tin which was empty.

“Sachs?”

The copywriter lumbered into the office, a big man with a sharp mind and good eye for words he nodded “What’s wrong?”

“Anyone been in the office today, apart from the usual?”

“Don’t know who you would consider the usual, Dan.” Sachs replied wiping the ink from his hands onto a dirty rag.

“Well, anyone here that you wouldn’t normally see?”

Sachs shook his head, “No, but I’ll ask in the print room.”

Dan frowned, and turned to view the room once again. It remained as secretive as previously, only the open drawers in the desks could tell him anything and the only thing they indicated was that there had been a theft right from under his nose..

Chapter 48

The two horsemen went, seemingly unnoticed, from their hosts home and rode at a leisurely pace from the town and out into the open countryside. Anderson had been considerate enough to draw a sketch of a map, rough but accurate, as to where the borders of the Ponderosa began so they were able to ride with confidence on the Cartwright property. Once he felt sure that he was across the border Lebedev put his horse into a fast canter which forced Dimitri to do likewise.

Both men were expert horsemen. Descended from a race of people who were the Russian equivalent to the plains Indians, and wealthy enough to ride only the best of horses, Lebedev and Dimitri found the ride through the Ponderosa both energising and pleasant. Had it not b een for the purpose of reconnaissance with regard to their assignment Dimitri would have found the whole thing truly enjoyable and liberating.

He deliberately held back from taking the lead and riding ahead of his companion. For some reason he felt safer not having his back exposed to Lebedev so when he finally slowed his horse and drew it to a halt Dimitri felt a twinge of anxiety, almost bordering on panic as he noticed, when the other man turned to look at him, something in his eyes, the way he held his head and firmed his lips that sent his pulses racing signals to be his brain to be wary.

“This is as good a place as any I think…” Lebedev said brusquely

“For what?” Dimitri immediately asked as he remained in his saddle.

“To talk.”

“Talk? About what? Haven’t we done enough talking already? Isn’t this now the time we should be doing something about what we were actually sent here to do?”

Lebedev shrugged, a slight sneer could have been mistaken for a smile, “Really? And so what have we been sent here to do, Dimitri?” he raised an eyebrow and slowly dismounted, “Come, dismount.”

Dimitri was loath to do so, instinct screamed in his head to just turn the horse around and make a dash from the vicinity, but at the same time he knew that to do so would cause more problems that could not be explained. At least, if he kept a cool head and did not allow his waspish tongue to run ahead of him, he may well be able to bluff his way through the coming interview. He slowly dismounted and walked past Lebedev to lead his horse next to the other mount.

It was cold and he shivered but hid the fact by drawing up the fur collar of his coat, he looked around him and shrugged “We are not near the ranch house yet?”

“Really? “ Lebedev looked surprised and glanced about him as though he expected a path to appear before him that would lead to the properties “And where exactly would they be?”

“Obviously there are no buildings nearby, Vlad. I see no smoke from the chimneys, no obvious track or road leading anywhere. Here we are in a copse of trees with barely a visible track in sight.” he shrugged as though dismissing the other man’s vagaries as irrelevant and a waste of t heir time.

Lebedev nodded “That is true, Dimitri, but it is better this way I think…”

“Better? In what way do you mean?”

Vladamir looked at his companion with his steel blue eyes as cold and as fathomless as his brothers grave. His lips were a long thin compresses line, a gash in the long saturnine features of his sallow face. “You recall, earlier, that you said Gorchakov is an old man now?”

“Yes, I did, and he is …” Dimitri nodded and fumbled in his pocket for his silver cigarette case, failed to find it and scowled slightly before he decided to grope around in his other pocket.

“Old, but not stupid.” Vladamir sighed and watched as though amused by Dimitri’s fumblings.

“I agree” Dimitri replied and shook his head “Curses, I have left my cigarettes at the house.”

Lebedev said nothing to that but leaned against a tree with his hands in the pockets of his long leather fur lined coat. Eventually he said “All those minions he employs to work for him, all of them watching one another, reporting back to someone who reports back to someone else…”

“Yes, yes, but what has this to do with anything? With the commodore?” Dimitri scowled, and looked more closely at his companion.

“It is funny really,” Lebedev said with a laugh that didn’t sound at all funny, “Gorchakov is so suspicious and distrustful of everyone that he engages people merely for the sake of getting them to watch what others do, and then of course he has to get others to watch them as well.”

“I know all about that, but I don’t see where this is leading, Vlad.” Dimitri shrugged and tried to keep his face as blank as possible while his eyes remained fixed upon his companion.

“Don’t you? Now come, Dimitri, were you not told by Gorchakov’s aide to keep close watch on me and Alexander Milyutin? I am sure that you have, somewhere in your cabin, a notebook full of all that we have done since leaving Russia.”

“Nonsense” Dimitri’s scowl deepened and he shook his head.

“The stupid thing is that Gorchakov gave Alexander the same instructions, he was to watch everything that you and I did, note it down and report back. It’ll make interesting reading for some minion back home, won’t it?”

Dimitri shrugged and made a move as though to reach for the horse’s reins and lead it away in order to remount. Lebedev’s voice curtly told him to stop, he had more to say yet. “I am like Gorchakov.” he said quietly as he stretched out his legs, “I have a suspicious nature – well, with a brother like Alexei it paid to have such for survival, you understand? So, when you disappeared from the ‘Batory’ I was not surprised, I had already cautioned Sergei to watch you, especially should you appear in Virginia City.”

“I was following orders from Gorchakov, what else was I supposed to do? I had no reason to inform you of what reason I was doing anything, Vlad.” Dimitri shook his head, how he would have enjoyed a cigarette now, he scowled more darkly as a result of the thought.

“That hardly matters, what does matter is what Sergei managed to report back to me befor e his unfortunate death.”

The two men stared at one another, a contest of wills, a combat of intellects. Niether wanting to give way to the other, finally Dimitri shrugged “Proceed.”

“You, Dimitri Doestov, are a traitor. I suspected as much during the journey. Confirmed it when I saw your face the first time you realised the Commodore was on board that ship as we passed it, constantly you betrayed yourself when he was mentioned.”

“You forget he saved my life, not only my life but also Sergei’s and eleven other Russians. He also saved my life in Eygpt.”

“Enough of your excuses. You are Russian. You have an assignment and should follow it through to the letter. Sergei did, he could have made the same excuse but did not, because he was a man who obeyed his superiors.”

“Good, so where did it get him. He’s dead..” Dimitri spat with a contemptuous curl of the lip “I have done nothing of which to be ashamed. I have not betrayed my country. I
Have not scuttled away from fulfilling my assignment but have acted as a gentleman and a Russian.”

Lebdev merely shrugged “True enough. But when we see the Commodore and have him in the sights of our guns, can I trust you to fire? Tell me, who would you kill? Him – or me?”
……………………

Hoss Cartwright was riding through the copse of trees when he heard the gunshots. For a moment he paused and raised his head to wait for the third one, indicating that there was someone in distress and in need of help. He turned to Ezra who was riding alongside him “Did you hear them shots?”

“Two – so far – and close together.” Ezra nodded

“A revolver by the sound of it.”

“That’s what I thought too.” Ezra narrowed his eyes and turned his head in the direction of the gunfire “Came from over there?”
……………………

Dimitri was aware of a gathering darkening all around him. He was incapable of movement, his arms and legs and fingers seemed detached from his body, from the promptings of his brain; he could feel a pain that had followed the two thuds in his chest from the bullets Lebedev had fired at him.

He sighed and closed his eyes as weariness enveloped him. He had done everything wrong, everything. He should never have taken on this assignment, never. He felt as though his breathing was becoming ever more laboured, there was a bubbling feeling in his lungs and he felt suffocated…

The sound of horses transmitted itself to the injured man through the ground, like the beat of drums upon the hard packed earth. He sighed, Lebedev no doubt returned to make sure he had finished the job, such a shame, such a waste.
……………….

Bridget O’Flannery drew the horses pulling the buggy to a halt as the two horsemen appeared from the edge of the copse and onto the road. She looked from one to the other of them and waited as Hoss approached her with a concerned look on his face while Ezra seemed to be supporting a dead man in his arms, a man who sagged in the saddle like a sack of flour and which Ezra was finding hard to keep a grip on.

“Ma’am, we need your help.” Hoss had removed his hat, from her position on the wagonseat Bridie could see the bald head, the scar from a bullet wound, a few strands of blond hair, she nodded as though trying to hurry him through with his request “We’ve an injured man here, I’m taking him to the Ponderosa, reckon you could go get Paul or Jim to see to him?”

“I’ll do that, Hoss.”

“Best you hurry along, Ma’am, he’s bleeding like a pig, if’n you’ll excuse the expression.”

She smiled tightly and nodded, flicked the reins and was soon trundling at a faster pace down the road while Ezra and Hoss continued on their way to the main house of the Ponderosa.
……………….

Paul Martin was about to close the door behind him when it was pushed open, with the result that he was practically propelled forwards and into his desk. He took a deep breath and turned with the intention of telling the person just what he thought about anyone who had could be so inconsiderate as to not knock before entering and thereby cause him such an embarrassment. His words were never uttered when he found himself confronted by Bridget O’Flannery

Bridget had never boasted about her looks, not even when she was a girl. She had been told too often that vanity was a major sin in her parents eyes and as far as her brothers were concerned she was barely given any consideration at all. She kept herself modestly dressed, clean and developed her skills because she was resourceful, intelligent and had an instinct for making the right decisions at the right time. Had she been constantly told how attractive she was, how lovely she would become she would probably never have accomplished half that she had done in her life.

Paul Martin was an elderly man who had denied himself marriage because his life was crammed full of all the distresses, ills and turmoils of so many other lives. There had just never been time to settle down and if he missed such intimacies he never dwelt on such, nor allowed any negative thoughts to weigh him down at all. There was too much to do, too many sick and ill needing attention to waste what precious little time he felt he still had on God’s earth.

They regarded one another steadily before Paul said “Well? What can I do for you?”

Bridie was aware that her hat – the best one she possessed and recently purchased – had tilted slightly over her left eye, and that her hair had become loose, she could feel it trailing down her back. She shook her head “I’m sorry, Dr Martin… Hoss asked me to get you, it’s urgent.”

“What’s wrong? “ Paul demanded immediately as he reached for his medical bag.

“They found an injured man… from what I could see shot, bleeding profusely, from the chest. I don’t reckon much on his chances, particularly the way he was being lugged about by that tom fool Ezra.”

Paul looked at her briefly as he now clamped his hat upon his head “You’re Joe Cartwright’s housekeeper aren’t you? If I recall right –“ he gently pushed her out of the surgery so that he could close the door behind him, “you delivered his son during the blizzards this past winter”

“That’s true enough.” Bridie nodded and watched the doctor stride towards a buggy, unharnessed, no horse in sight. “I think perhaps you would be overlong getting your rig ready for the journey, Dr Martin. Maybe you should just get up here with me and I’ll take you there.”

He dithered, nodded as he saw the sense of what she had said and clambered up beside her. Hugging tightly to his medical bag Paul Martin prepared himself for the journey ahead.
………………

Clem Foster detached himself from the shadows and mounted his horse. It took him very little time to reach Roys house only to find Rachel at home and Roy absent. With a sigh he passed her a slip of paper which read “Two rode out, only one returned.”

Chapter 49

The Russian was totally unaware of being carried into the main house of the Ponderosa; of the way Hop Sing had hurried up the stairs to prepare the bed and then ran down to get hot water and bandages ready. Hester was not at the house as it was the day she usually would visit her cousin Ann, taking the children with her. Ben was also absent but Hoss gave no time towards wondering where his father could be, he knew the wounded man was dying and the only thing he did stop to ponder on was how the man was still alive.

Hop Sing stripped the man of his clothing with a gentleness and care that had come from many years of treating the injured men who had, at times, had only him to rely upon for medical aid. Hoss looked down at the bullet holes and then looked at Hop Sing, he shook his head “Reckon it was a waste of time getting the doc to come out of town to check out a dead body, don’t you, Hop Sing?”

“Him not dead yet, Hop Sing clean wound, get ready for Dr Paul.” whether he was offended by Hoss’ remark which rather dismissed his own expertise Hop Sing gave not the least indication. He began to busy himself in cleaning the man’s body as carefully as if it had been one of the Cartwrights, not only from the blood but from the dirt and mud that had splattered Doestov as he had fallen. “Man very rich man. Not robbed. Still have fat wallet and rings on fingers.”

“Yeah, odd that, can’t see why anyone would want to shoot a total stranger on the Ponderosa for no reason.”

“He shot for reason, only you not know what reason is … “ Hop Sing replied as he dipped the cloth back into the darkening water in the bowl. “Perhap you get sheriff too?”

Hoss sighed and then frowned, “Shucks, didn’t think to do that.” he walked over to the window at the sound of a horse “Pa’s just arrived. He ain’t going to be too pleased at finding blood all over the place. I’ll leave this to you, Hop Sing, and go explain things to Pa.”

Hop Sing said nothing to that as he thought his task more important than answering a lot of tom fool questions. He heard Hoss descending the stairs but even that was muted and distant to his hearing.

Ben was unbuckling his gun belt when Hoss came downstairs, the relief on his face when he saw his son was more than obvious yet he felt compelled to ask “I saw blood stains in the yard, Hoss, are you alright?”

“Sure, Pa, I’m fine, we found someone shot some miles away. Two bullets in the chest. I got a doctor sent fer, but Hop Sings cleaning him up now. I have to admit he’s made pretty tough, I thought fer sure he would be dead before we got home, but he’s hanging on in there.”

“Anyone we know?” Ben’s dark eyes look ed thoughtful as he placed his hat on the peg and began to pull off his coat.

“No, sir, a stranger to me, never saw him before in my life.”

“Then why is he on the Ponderosa? “ Ben frowned and shook his head, “Where’s Hester?”

“At Ann and Candy’s.” Hoss replied with his eyes on his father’s face and his own brain ticking over on various things he could recall being mentioned “Pa, do you know anything about any Russians?”

Ben’s dark eyes went darker “Why’d you ask?”

“Wal, Roy mentioned ‘em, didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, and when he realised that he just told me to keep an eye on Adam. You don’t reckon that this here stranger could be one of them, do you?”

“One of – ?” Ben paused, opened his mouth and shut it again, he cleared his throat, “I don’t know, Hoss. Has he said anything at all?”

“Who?”

“The man you brought here? Has he spoken at all?”

“Oh – no – not a word. Sorry ,Pa, I thought you meant had Adam spoken to me, fact is, seems to me, no one’s spoken to me about Russians except Roy and -”

“I think I’ll go and see this gentleman, Hoss. See if he’s conscious enough to say anything at all. Leastways that’s one way we have of finding out.”

“Finding out what Pa?”

“Whether he’s a Russian or not.”

“Oh yeah…” Hoss nodded and thoughtfully followed his father up the stairs to the injured man’s room.

Hop Sing glanced up and nodded as Ben approached the bed “Man still not conscious. May be dying.”

Ben put his hand to the mans throat and felt for the pulse, there was one still beating but it was shallow and fast, it reminded him of a bird he had once caught and held in his hands for the moments before releasing it, life was so fragile and it seemed as though this one was slipping away despite the mans determination to hold onto to it.

Dimitri Doestov slowly opened his eyes and looked up at the face that was leaning down towards him. For a moment he stared into the black eyes only, thought that he had never seen a man with such dark eyes and then slowly registered other features, the white hair, the concerned gentleness of the face. He wanted to talk, to say something, but the words remained stuck in his head, unable to pass through his lips which he opened and then closed. He raised his arm slowly, it took an extreme effort of will to do just that, as though he was dragging the limb through quicksand, his fingers were clenched and the effort to loosen them was too much. His e yes closed as his arm fell heavily back upon the bed.
……………….

Vladamir Lebedev carefully checked his weapons. The thoroughness with which he performed this task was clear evidence that he knew his way around them intimately. His profession as a very highly skilled and professional assassin had been utilised to the full by Gorchakov and his various departments over the years. Always clandestine, always discreet not even Vladamir’s closest relatives knew that he augmented his family’s wealth by large payments made to him by the Russian Government.

As he carefully packed away his clothes he thought over various tasks he had undertaken over the years. Even before Alexei had met his unfortunate end his brother had been employed in this murderous employ, not that Alexei ever knew about it, for Vlad kept the matter concealed in order for Alexei not to use it to his own advantage.

The clothing now packed away and stowed in a cupboard Vladamir once again turned his attention to the weapons he had brought with him for this particular task. He picked up a rifle and balanced it in his hands, placed the stock to his shoulder and squinted down the barrel. With only a flicker of a smile to his lips he nodded with pleasure, the rifle was perfectly balanced, there couldn’t be a finer weapon anywhere this side of Russia.

Janus Anderson looked up at the stairs at the sound of footsteps and watched as the tall Russian made his descent. The outer clothing was a clear indication that the man was about to leave, the case in his hand too slim to be full of clothes and he looked at his house guest with a slightly baffled expression on his face “Is everything in order, Excellency?”

He spoke fluently in Russian, to which Lebedev replied in the same language that all was well, but it was time for him to leave. “If anyone comes asking questions you must tell them nothing, only what has been agreed upon, you understand ?”

“Of course, of course.” Janus replied with a vague shrug of the shoulders, “But why should anyone come to ask questions?”

Lebedev merely shrugged his shoulders and buttoned up the heavy fur lined coat that he favoured wearing. “I shall get your horse back to you, Janus.”

“Pouf, a horse, what does a horse matter hereabouts… take it, willingly, keep it. Anything for the sake of Mother Russia.”

“You are a good patriot.” Lebedev smiled coldly, there was no warmth in his eyes, his mind was already set on the chase, on the hunt, to be bothered with incidentals like this man, or a horse.

“And Count Doestov? When will he return?”

Lebedev shook his head “He will not be back. I have left his horse in the stable. Ask no more questions, Janus.”

The two men exchanged looks that seemed to answer any further things that Janus may have wished to ask, he merely nodded and stepped aside to let the other man open a side door to the house and disappear into the trees beyond.

Mrs Anderson came from another room and looked around the hall before she glanced at her husband “Has he gone?”

Her voice was a whisper and when Janus nodded she seemed to relax and even allowed a smile to grace her rather plain features “I am glad, he made me nervous.”

“Just forget about him, my dear, put him out of your mind completely. He is gone and won’t be returning.”

Janus put his hand on her shoulder and led her into the warm sitting room. He wished that he could have told her the truth, about himself, his background, but fear of losing her and the comforts she had brought into his life kept him from disclosing anything about his past, about the reason why they lived in Virginia City and why, at times, he told her to say nothing about the few things he did disclose to her.

Clem Foster listened intently to what Armitage was telling him. It made him seethe to hear the other man giving him orders about matters over which Clem had been overseeing for years. If anyone had asked him why he remained there, working as a deputy under such an inept sheriff, he would have told them it was because he was thinking of his long term future. It just seemed that at the way things were moving now, he couldn’t see his future being long term at all.

Roy Coffee sat by his fire staring into the flames and wondering what exactly was going on in Adam’s life for this particular search to be so important. What he had told him first off seemed to be indistinct now, a fudged picture of something much bigger. He sighed and tugged his moustache, it bothered him that Hoss hadn’t known anything about what was going on, it bothered him very much indeed.

Joe Cartwright dismounted wearily and led his horse into the stable, into his stall. After he had seen to the animal he walked to the house and stepped inside, removed his coat, hat and gun belt and then approached the fire. It was good to feel the warmth and he stood there some moments before realising how quiet everything was even though he was quite sure he had made sufficient noise to herald his arrival.

“Mary Ann?” his voice seemed to hang in the air for some seconds and he was about to repeat his wife’s name when she appeared from the kitchen “I thought everyone was out, it was so quiet here.” he smiled warmly at her and took hold of her hands in his own, “You’ve flour on your nose.”

“Oh -” she blushed a little and gave a laugh as though it barely mattered really, she leaned forward and kissed him “I got home from Ann’s and Bridie wasn’t here. She left a note to say she had gone into town for some necessary items.”

“Which doesn’t explain why you have flour on your nose, pretty though it is …” he laughed then, gently, and kissed her again.

“She had left everything out ready to make a pie, and as I could see time tickiing along I thought I had best get it ready for when you came home.”

“And is it ready?”

“I just now put it in the oven.” she said and turned to go back into the kitchen “Daniel is asleep, thankfully, otherwise I would never have been able to get on. Come, I’ve coffee waiting for you.”

“It’s not like Bridie to disappear like this, is it?” Joe frowned, and tried to recall to mind other times when Bridget O’Flannery had not been in the kitchen at this time of the day.

“No, it isn’t and I’m rather worried about her.” Mary Ann sighed and picked up the coffee pot and filled their cups, “She’s always so careful and conscientious.”

“Do you think she may have had an accident? Should I go and send someone to find her?”

Mary Ann was about to reply when the door opened and Bridie walked in looking rather flushed of face and her hair certainly not as neat as when she had left the house. She looked at them both and gave, what she hoped, was a confident smile.

“Are you alright, Bridie?” Mary Ann asked immediately while Joe pulled out a chair for Bridie to sit upon and pushed over his untouched coffee which she picked up and gulped down with a relish that was testimony to her current state of mind.

“My goodness,” she exclaimed and released her breath in a rush as she leaned back into the chair “and I never even got inside one store for any single thing. “

“What’s happened?” Mary Ann asked with her face going slightly pale and her grey eyes widening.

“Are you sure you’re alright, Bridie?” Joe leaned forwards to peer into the older womans face as though to ensure that she was really safe and sound in their kitchen.

“Yes, yes, I’m alright. I just had to drive the rig faster than usual to make sure I got to your Pa’s place before he died.”

“WHAT” Joe leaped off his chair and felt the colour drain away, “Pa? What’s happened … oh no … no…”

“No, no,” Bridie flapped a hand up and down in an effort to calm the young man “No, not your Pa, the man who got shot.”

“What man?” Joe demanded now in a rather angrier than usual voice as he felt rather embarrassed by his earlier emotional display “What are you talking about, Bridie?”

Bridie nodded, waved a hand as though to explain that she needed to catch her breath – which hadn’t affected her at all when she downed Joe’s coffee – and then said “Hoss asked me to get Dr Martin because he found a dead man – I mean – a near dead man some miles from here. A stranger seemingly, with two bullets in the chest and bleeding profusely.” she settled more comfortably into the chair “I collected Dr Martin and brought him to the Ponderosa, hopefully in time for the poor man to be saved. I had hoped to get some necessities but I’m afraid there was no time.”

Mary Ann nodded as though she completely understood, which she did, and Joe shook his head “Why didn’t Paul come in his own rig?”

“He hadn’t got the horse harnessed or anything, and if I’d left him to mess around doing that then it would be losing time. That poor man was near dying, I so swear, and I just hope that we managed to get there in time.” Bridie now heaved herself to her feet and began to untie her bonnet “Thankfully it had stopped raining.” and with a sigh she cast the bonnet onto the table “But even so, I think that ride ruined my hat.”

Chapter 50

Ruby Dexter sat down at the table and pulled off her shoes. She leaned down to massage her feet, one foot at a time. A job in a saloon was hard on the feet, walking around the tables, standing behind the men and just parading around. She sighed with contentment when Lizzie came and joined her, placing a large cup of coffee on the table. “Drink up, Ruby, this will keep you going for the evening shift,” Lizzie smiled and sat down, sipping her own coffee slowly, “Pappy sure knows how to make a good pot of coffee, my ma taught him how to make it years back in Georgia.”

Ruby nodded and smiled, it was refreshing and strong, it hit her throat and eased the ache in it. She looked around at the saloon doors as they opened and sighed with annoyance when several cowboys strolled in and looked over at them.

“Isn’t that typical, the one change a gal gets to rest up and in they troop,” she grumbled.

“it’s the weather,” Lizzie said without stirring, “Pappy always says they will keep coming in when its raining.”

They stopped talking as a tall young man approached them, smiling pleasantly. He asked them politely if they would mind if he could join them. The girls looked at one another and Lizzie shuffled her shoes back on which was a little more difficult than taking them off because her feet had become a little bit swollen.

“I just wanted to talk,” the young man said as he sat down and beckoned over for one beer.

Lizzie narrowed her eyes “Are you old enough to drink beer?”

Ruby now turned her attention to the youth and frowned “You’ve been in here before haven’t you?”

“I have,” the young man nodded, and sat down, “And I had a beer every time. “

The girls exchanged a glance and Lizzie shrugged, “Alright then, but you can keep your own company, I’ve work to do.”

“I did say I just came in here to talk.” the youth replied the colour in his cheeks rising now, “Look, I’ve money, I can pay for anything you may want to drink … even coffee.” he smirked as he nodded over to the two cups still half full on the table.

Lizzie sighed and looked at Ruby who shrugged and flounced off to attend to the cowboys who had settled in a corner with their drinks, “So? What do you want to talk about, kid?” Lizzie asked, looking at her coffee and wondering if she could continue to drink it.

Charley came and set down the glass of beer in front of the youth and gave Lizzie a scowl and then collected the coffee cups which he removed, a clear indication that her break was over, time to get back to work. The youth was not bad looking, a little bit scruffy but well dressed. His hair looked rather wild but he had handsome eyes and a generous smile, perhaps the acne spoiled his looks rather but she thought that given a few more years he would fill out and look one of the best men in town. She glanced down at his feet and noticed that the shoes he wore were well made, leather, and gleamed. He laughed making her look up sharply the feather in her hair ruffled in the breeze caused by her movement. “Do you always look at a mans boots before getting into conversation? Ain’t very polite you know.”

“I just thought they sure had a good shine on them, haven’t seen many cowboys boots or shoes shine like that for a long time. You must be one very particular person.”

“Oh I am. I like things to look smart and clean. I can afford it too, you know. Oh and I ain’t no cowboy either.”

“No? Then what are you?” she looked him up and down “Apart from being just out of school? Or perhaps you should still be in school? Does Miss Brandon know you’re out and in here?”

He scowled then, the handsome eyes darkened and the mouth went tight “I don’t go to no school. I’m old enough to look after myself now, and don’t need no mollycoddling old fools to look after me.”

“Oh yeah, I suppose you’re up every night polishing your own boots, is that it?” Lizzie laughed but the sound trickled away as he grabbed at her wrist and squeezed it tight, then took hold of her little finger and bent it down into her palm, the pain was enough to make her go pale and gasp “Leave me alone, I was only teasing.”

“Well, I don’t like being teased.”

“No, no, of course not … I’m sorry.” the pain went on, she could feel tears coming to her eyes and then he released her, nodded as though satisfied that she had suffered enough, and leaned back in his chair. She rubbed her hand and looked at him, looked over at Charley who was serving Dan deQuille and in deep conversation with him, “Well, what did you want to talk about?”

“The Cartwrights. You know them, don’t you?” he asked cautiously, and frowned when she looked warily back at him, “It’s not that I’m prying -”

“What would you call it then?” she asked perhaps too quickly because he leaned forwards as though to make a grab at her hand “Well, what do you want to know about the Cartwrights? Apart from the fact that they’ve been here since before the town was built you could ask anybody -.”

“I’m asking you.” he interrupted and began to drink the beer, slowly, as though he didn’t even like the taste of it.

Dan deQuille passed their table and nodded at Lizzie, glanced at the boy “What are you doing here, Edward? Haven’t you work to do?”

“Sure, Mr deQuille, I’ll get back to it right away.” he nodded and watched as Dan took his seat at the gaming table where several men were playing an intense game of poker.

“So you work for the newspaper?” Lizzie said, “How long have you been here anyway?” and when he sarcastically looked over at the clock she added “Not here, I meant in town?”

“Some months.”

“Some months? Then you’ll have got to know all about the Cartwrights in that time, you don’t need me to answer any questions about them.” she pushed herself away from the table and after giving him a dark glare from under her eyelashes hurried away in a flurry of red and black skirts.

Edward didn’t look back at her but finished his beer and mindful that deQuille was sitting only feet away and every so often looking over at him, he rose to his feet and left the saloon.

He was bored with the work he had at the newspaper. It didn’t test him out in any way at all, in fact, he wasn’t sure that any job would test him out to the capacity he wanted. He stopped outside the gents outfitters and looked into the window. He looked in order to see his reflection and he liked what he saw, after all he was tall, had good looks despite the pimples and slightly greasy wild hair. He gave himself a smile and wink before he sauntered off to the newspaper offices. The extra money he’d been getting certainly helped keep him in style, but the town was getting too narrow for his ventures. He had decided to venture out further afield and it seemed to him that the best and first place to ‘hit’ was the very lucrative Ponderosa.
…………………..

Adam Cartwright dismounted in the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house and hurried to the porch as another shower of rain threatened overhead. He entered the house just as Ben was pouring Paul Martin some coffee and Hoss was placing another log onto the fire. “Paul?” Adam’s voice carried a note of concern as his eyes went from Ben to Hoss and back again to the doctor.

“It’s alright, Adam, I’m attending to an injured stranger. “

Again Adam glanced at his father and then at Hoss “A stranger? In what way injured?”

Hoss straightened himself up and brushed wood dust from his hands “I found a man shot some miles back, Adam. Practically dead but I brought him here and got the doc to come out and see to him.”

“Oh I see. I – er – didn’t notice your rig outside, Paul and -”

“No, well, I had to ask Mrs O’Flannery to bring me here rather than waste time. Hop Sing has kindly offered to take me back to town when he takes the laundry in.” Paul smiled and nodded as he drank the dark coffee, “How’s Olivia?”

“She’s well, thank you, Paul.” Adam smiled and strolled over to the table to pour out the coffee into another cup, “She’s not complained of any problems and seems to be in good health.”

“Mmm, perhaps I should go and see her while I’m here.” Paul frowned and put the cup down onto the saucer “Do you think Hop Sing would mind delaying his trip to town while I check on Olivia, Ben?”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind at all, Paul.” Ben replied but then turned towards the stairs when the man in question appeared in a state of panic “What’s wrong, Hop Sing.?”

“Man in bed wake up, he say something HopSing not know what he say all jabber jabber but think maybe he want to see Mr Adam.”

“Me?” Adam raised his eyebrows and then looked at his father, shrugged and made his way to the stairs which he mounted two at a time.

Dimitri was conscious as he lay in the bed trying to keep from floating away to who knew where. Perspiration rolled in great drops from his face and on his body, making him shiver as it cooled, while at the same time he felt as though he were burning up. His eyes, bloodshot and a muddy colour, turned towards the door as he heard the sound of footsteps approaching and when Adam stepped into the room he felt so much relief that he his voice strengthened and he was able to say “Commodore – it is I.”
“Doestov?” Adam paused momentarily and then walked quickly to the bedside “What happened? What are you doing here?”

Doestov smiled weakly, his head sunk back onto the pillow for he had had enough strength to raise it and see who was coming into the room, he looked at Adam through a mist that seemed to be getting thicker “Lebedev.”

“He shot you?”

“I under estimated him. I should not have done so. Spoke too freely -” he coughed, blood streaked spittle splattered over his face and there was a gurgling sound in his throat “I don’t have long now, Adam. Look -” he gripped hold of Adam’s sleeve with fingers that seemed stronger than any dying man had the right to possess “Lebedev is Gorchakov’s assassin. He is here to kill you. Anderson -”

“What about Anderson?” Adam said very quietly and resting his hand upon Doestov’s “What about him?”

“Russian. Sent here – gold bullion – ore – useful to Russia.” Dimitri closed his eyes and tried to take a deep breath but in doing so he choked, the resulting coughing and spluttering was unpleasant to hear and the results were unsightly to see, but Adam patiently wiped around the Russians face with a damp cloth and waited for the man to continue speaking, if he could, “Lebedev here -.”

“In town, at the Andersons?”

“Niet niet – here – here -” Doestov’s voice rose higher until it was swamped by that same gurgling gushing sound and his eyes widened, rolled in his head exposing the whites and his body shook momentarily .

It didn’t take Paul’s telling them that the man was dead. As the doctor closed the dead mans eyes and drew the cover over him Adam stepped back from the bedside and joined his father and brother at the door of the room “That was Dimitri Doestov.”

“We gathered that much,” Ben replied with a sharp look at his son, “What did he mean when he said Lebedev was here?”

“I should imagine he was warning us that Lebedev was on the Ponderosa.” Adam replied quietly, he straightened his back suddenly as though a thought had struck him and he almost pushed his father to one side “I have to get back home, make sure Olivia is safe …”

“You don’t think he’d harm a woman, do you?” Ben cried following Adam across the landing, while Hoss trailed behind them asking “Who is this Lebedev anyway?”

Chapter 51

Olivia was in the dairy when she heard the sound of the horseman coming into the yard. She paused in the act of shaping the butter into its little mound with the rose motif that she liked to press upon it and looked at Sofia “Go and see who that is, dear while I finish with this.”

Sofia rather reluctantly slipped from her stool to do as she had been told, the wooden stamper still in her hand for Olivia entrusted her now with it, and sometimes even pressing it onto the little mounds of butter so that the pretty little rose would be there for every to see. She called out “It’s daddy.” before running out to greet her father who was hurrying towards them having noticed the flash of Sofia’s pink dress in the doorway.

Olivia turned and smiled, “Why, you’re early, I wasn’t expecting you home so soon.” she set down the butter and sighed “Just at the right time too, I’ve just finished. Sofia, you can stamp these three and that will be the last job.” she paused a moment and then looked more anxiously at her husband “Is something wrong?”

He seemed to be having problems finding his voice but it was the normalcy of the scene, so domestic, so calm and peaceful, that the fear and anxiety he had been feeling just drifted away. It wasn’t until she slipped her hand into his and looked up at him that he realised that there were all manner of realities existing in this world of theirs, and he had to do something to protect one from coalescing into the other. “Sweetheart, I’ve just come from Pa’s.”

“Is he alright. You’re looking so worried, Adam, your father is alright isn’t he?” her eyes dropped to observe his sleeve and she shivered “There’s blood on your sleeve.”

“What?” he was startled and glanced down, scowled slightly then nodded, “It’s not Pa’s, he’s alright, it’s Dimitri Doestov. He was shot.”

She was quiet for a moment, before nodding “The Russian?”

“Yes, the Russian.”

There was another pause as they looked down at Sofia who was tugging at Olivia’s skirt and holding the stamper up for her mother to take from her “I finished stamping the butter, Mommy.”

“That’s a good girl, now run indoors and get a cookie from Cheng Ho Lee.” she said and ushered her to the door.

“Wait -” Adam cried and holding onto Olivia’s hand he followed the child to the door, withdrew his gun and stepped outside. After some moments of careful looking around he nodded that they could now leave the building and together walked to the house.

“Whys daddy got a gun, why’d he stop me going in for some candy?” Sofia whined and then ran quickly to where Cheng Ho Lee was working in the kitchen .

“Well?” Olivia turned to her husband and raised her eyebrows “What answers have you got to those questions?”

“Come along and sit down, while I explain.” Adam replied slipping her arm through his and leading her to the big armchair by the fire.

Once she was comfortable he sat on the low table facing her, looking up at her so as to catch her expressions. Quietly he told her about Dimitri’s death, the warning he had given about Lebedev. She listened intently, her eyes darkening or getting lighter as she did so until finally he came to a stop and she reached out to touch his face with her fingers, “Do you think we are in danger from this man?”

“I’m afraid that is a possibility, Livvie. I know it is me he is after, but the kind of man he is -” he paused and frowned, realising that he didn’t really know what kind of man he was except that he was Alexei Lebedev’s brother and the murderer of Doestov.

“What do you think we should do? Where do you want us to go?”

He looked at her thoughtfully then, a slight furrow in his brow and his lips parted as though the answer, which had seemed so obvious, now needed serious consideration.

“I think I would feel better if you and the children went to stay with Pa at the main house.”

“He could still -” she paused when he put a finger to her lips and then leaned forward to kiss them, “Do you really think a different house would make any difference?” she whispered looking up into the smoky brown eyes.

“It would make a difference to me.” he whispered back before kissing her again.

She had her hand on his shoulder when there came the sound of a vehicle in the yard, the look on Adam’s face convinced her more than anything of how he felt about their safety as they both turned to look over as Paul entered the house and rather apologetically muttered “I did knock.”

Adam relaxed and stood up, smiled and nodded, “Sorry Paul, just for a moment I -”

“I know. I understand entirely.” he looked at Olivia and his face gentled “Apart from what your husband has been discussing with you, how do you feel my dear?”

She glanced from one man to the other, both looking intently at her, expecting her to say something that would set the world to rights. She shrugged slightly before standing up and after putting a hand on Adam’s arm she turned to Paul “I’m feeling well, thank you, Paul. Really well.”

“Would you mind very much if we went somewhere private where I can examine you and just make sure for my own peace of mind?”

She heaved a sigh and looked at Adam before turning to Paul and with a nod of the head led him to Adams study area. Adam watched them go and then went into the kitchen to watch Sofia and Cheng Ho Lee “Sweetheart, when you’ve finished that, I want you to go and collect your favourite dolls, and wait for Mommy in your bedroom. Will you do that?”

“Yes, daddy.” she nodded with a frown on her pretty face “All of my dolls?”

“Just your favourite.” he turned to Cheng Ho Lee “When Reuben comes back from school, if I’m not here, will you take him to Pa’s house? I’ll have his things packed ready for him -.”

Cheng Ho Lee bowed and nodded, before returning to the things he was cooking on the stove “What about food? All get spoilt?”

Adam paused a moment then nodded “It’ll be alright, I’m sure my brothers and I will eat our way through it without any trouble at all.”
………………..

Olivia buttoned up her blouse and then pulled on her warm cardigan while at the same time she watched the doctor as he put away his stethoscope. “Well, what’s your diagnosis, Dr Martin? Am I expecting a baby or an elephant?”

He chuckled and winked at her as he snapped the bag shut “A healthy baby, thank God.”

“It feels more like an elephant.”

“Mmm, do you think you are bigger now than you were with your other children?”

She paused to think about that and then shook her head “I hadn’t thought about it but to be honest, no, not at all. To be honest I feel much healthier with this confinement that with my previous ones.”

“I’m glad about that, I was worried that the stress of living with a man like Adam would have had some bad effects, but your blood pressure is good and I don’t think you have put on more weight than you should have done, nor are your ankles swollen which is a good sign.”

“Thank you, Dr Martin.” she tidied her hair and smiled “What did you mean about living with a man like Adam? He’s not exactly a monster.”

Paul laughed, a warm mellow chuckle, “True enough, but his life style is – shall we say – bordering on the extremes. I’m more than glad you have the temperment to handle that, Olivia.”

She nodded slowly and pushed a pin into her top knot, “I think we lived on the edge of chaos when we were children, my father being as he was, and then that time we were taken by the Bannocks. In a way it made me believe more in myself, if you know what I mean, it made me realise that sometimes things do happen beyond my control, so I shouldn’t become over anxious about them, but deal with them as they come.”

Dr Martin nodded and after opening the door stepped back to let her through into the living room. Sofia was sitting on the settee hugging Jessie and several other dolls, “Daddy’s packing Reuben’s clothes, he said we’re going to grandpa’s.”

Olivia nodded, smiled and looked at Paul with a whimsical smile on her face “See what I mean? Ah well, I best get back to what I was doing and tidy everything up there.” she walked alongside Paul and out into the porch where she reached for the shawl she had recently discarded upon coming indoors, “I was making butter. I suppose the cheese will have to wait now”

Paul nodded and watched her as she made her way to the dairy. Hop Sing was sitting on the wagon seat, huddled against the cold and accepted Paul’s apologies for keeping him waiting. In the back of the wagon was Dimitri Doestov’s body, perhaps Olivia noticed the shape wrapped in a tarpaulin as she passed but if she did, she never mentioned it.

……………………………

All the rooms were aired and ready for their new occupants. Hannah was highly delighted to have her cousins and their toys come to stay for a while, she followed behind Hester clapping her hands and saying “So-fee sleep here with Hannah?”

Reuben was more than confused when he arrived a little later in the rig with Cheng ho Lee driving. He soon cheered up when he saw his Uncles’ faces beaming smiles at him as he entered the room, and when Gran’pa Ben ruffled his hair he pretended not to be too annoyed about it.

While the women went about their business Ben called the younger men to his study area and with a curt nod indicated that they sit down and discuss the matter in hand. “If the sheriff were not so inept we could ask him to form a posse and flush this killer out.”

Adam nodded “I’ve got Roy and Clem on the case, Pa, they’ll deal with things in town.”

“Such as?” Joe frowned, “I mean, such as what exactly is it that we’re involved with now? Hoss has been dithering on about Russians and now what? A killer on the loose on the Ponderosa?”

Hoss shrugged “Ain’t nothing new about that, we’ve had killers on the Ponderosa times before, jest that they ain’t been Russians.”

“Does that make a difference?” Joe snapped.

Hoss shrugged and looked at Adam who, choosing his words carefully, explained the situation as regards Lebedev. .. Who he was and why he had killed Dimitri and why he was now hunting for him. He was about to say more when there came a sharp rat a tat at the door.

It was Hoss who opened up to Roy Coffee who stepped inside, removed his hat and shrugged rain drops from his shoulders. After acknowledging the four men he came to the main point “I went to see that Anderson fella. The one we suspected was harbouring those Russians. “ his pale blue eyes almost disappeared beneath the scowl of his bushy eyebrows, “ He denied ever having had any visitors, but his wife was nervous, and after a while he admitted that he’d had a cousin staying with them.”

“Who has now left for home?” Ben muttered and Roy nodded, “Yep, that’s the story he gave us. His cousin had visited for a week and returned to San Francisco. He had taken one of their horses for the journey.”

“In this weather?” Joe scoffed with a shrug.

Roy pursed his lips and nodded again, slowly, “Seems to me the wife wants to talk, probably because she doesn’t actually know exactly what has been going on and would like to flush out the truth herself. Anderson is a tricky fella … sounds authentic enough but … and it’s the ’but’ that sticks in my craw.”

“He was a seaman, wasn’t he?” Adam asked as he perched himself on the corner of Ben’s desk.

“Yes, and he retired and came here with his wife some years ago, shortly after you came back from Alaska., Adam.” Roy shot the younger man a sharp blue gaze which was received with a nod of the head, “He doesn’t work, but he’s wealthy. He doesn’t keep much company but he receives a lot of letters, mostly from foreign ports.” he cleared his throat loudly “I don’t trust him.”

“Where abouts does he actually come from?” Joe asked picking thoughtfully at his nails

“Ah now, that’s the question … I don’t rightly know. He never talks about himself. His wife comes from New Jersey but that’s all I know about them. Anyway, I went to see Armitage and asked him for help -” he raised a hand as Adam’s head jerked up and his lips tightened prior to his venting forth his opinion about that “Look, another dead Russian arrives in town, shot dead on the Ponderosa, and according to Paul there’s his killer loose around about here. I asked Armitage to form a posse.”

Ben shot a look at his boys as though to say ‘See, I told you -’ and waited for Roy to continue “Wal, he said it would be in order for me to get some men together if I felt it was necessary but he wasn’t getting involved. He wanted to know more about what was going on, and he said ‘It seems to me there’s more than the obvious going on there,’ meaning the Ponderosa ‘ how’d you know the killer ain’t one of the Cartwrights?’”

Hoss shrugged, grinned “Now, ain’t that just real clever of him to figure that out all by hisself?”

Joe shook his head and spat out some nail before looking at Roy “So have you a posse?”

“No, not yet. Clem and I thought we would join up with you all and see what we can find.”

“Well, it’s still light but not for long. We could try and see if we can pick up a trail from where Doestov was killed.” Adam suggested which everyone accepted as a good idea and began to move towards the door to collect gun belts and hats and their jackets. Adam paused at the door and turned to his father “Pa, would you mind looking after things here? “

“Play nursemaid? What do you take me for, son?” Ben growled as he slapped his hat on his head with some vigor.

Adam looked up at the stairs where Hester and Olivia stood, Ben followed his gaze and chastened, nodded, “Very well. But what about yourself?”

“I’ll go back to the house, perhaps Hoss or Joe will come with me?” he glanced at his brothers both of whom nodded, “Just keep them safe, Pa.”

They walked together to the stable where the horses were already saddled and waiting, Joe, deep in thought, wondered just how much danger Olivia and Hester could be in, and if it would affect Mary Ann. He was in two minds about what to do when Adam turned to him “I sent a message to Bridie, she’s going to get Mary Ann and Dan here as well.”

“Thanks, Adam.” Joe sighed gratefully “C‘mon, Hoss, what are you dragging your feet for?”

“I’m hungry.…” came the reply accompanied by a heavy groan.

Chapter 52

The bell over the door gave a light tinkling sound as the customer entered the shop and Mr Saville bustled out to greet the newcomer with a welcoming smile. The smile faded slightly though when he saw Edward Armitage standing in front of him, and his face paled a little “What is it this time?” he asked as he hurried to the door and turned the sign so that it read ‘Closed’.

“You don’t look very happy to see me, Mr Saville.” Edward replied as he extracted from his pocket a small leather pouch. He approached the counter and carefully let fall some jewellery upon the glass and looked up at the jeweller with a smile, “What do you think of them?”

Saville swallowed a lump in his throat and picked up the necklace gently, the diamonds and rubies slid across the palm of his hand like a lissom snake, glittering and twinkling in the sunlight that beamed through the windows and caught the facets of the jewels.

“A lovely piece.” he nodded “Very handsome.”

He picked up the ear rings that obviously belonged to the necklace, making up a complete suite of jewels, he examined them through his lense and nodded “Well, you’ll have to take them back, I won’t be able to sell them here.”

“What do you mean? Of course you can sell them.” young Edward went red in the face with anger, it flushed up crimson and ugly, making his eyes bulge slightly in their sockets.

“I can’t – I know who these belong to, I remember selling them to her husband.”

Edward leaned forward so that his face was only inches from Savilles, the jeweller could see every pock mark in the boy’s face, every pimple and every blemish seemed to waver in front of his eyes “You don’t have to sell them, you can keep them in your safe until you can dispose of them elsewhere. All you need do now is give me what you owe me.”

“I don’t owe you anything.”

“That’s where your wrong, Saville. You owe me for these jewels, and you owe me for my silence. Now get me what I’m due before I think of doubling my price.”

“Don’t threaten me, boy,” Saville hissed anger giving him some courage “One word from me to the sheriff and you’ll be in a cell quicker than you can say Jack Robertson.”

Edward stared at the man for a moment in disbelief, and then laughed, he laughed that strange cackling sound that comes from the young when they are crowing in triumph, and he stepped b ack from the older man “You are a fool, Mr Saville, I always knew you were, but I didn’t think you were such a fool as this … do you really think my Uncle would listen to you?”

Saville stepped back several paces as well, he deflated like a balloon when the air was released from it. Armitage – of course, he should have remembered, he should have known. He looked miserably down at the jewels and sighed “Very well, just wait a moment while I get the money.”

He turned, then paused in order to go back to the jewels and pick them up. He didn’t trust the lad not to take them back and still demand the money from him. No, he knew how people like Edward Armitage acted, as he had said once before some time back, it took a rogue to recognise one, and this young man was a bigger rogue than most, despite his youth.
……………………………

Joe Cartwright yawned as he sat down at the breakfast table and smiled over at his wife, and at Hester and Olivia. The children had already eaten and were playing quietly together although Reuben remained aloof, sitting on the settee reading a book. Ben regarded his youngest son with some anxiety before asking him what time he had arrived during the night.

“Sorry if I disturbed you, Pa. “

“You didn’t, I was already awake.”

Joe nodded and poured out coffee, “Hoss and Adam thought I should come back and make sure you were all safe and sound. They didn’t expect me back until this morning so I took advantage of spending the night here and enjoying one of Hop Sings breakfasts.” he smiled over at Mary Ann who dimpled a smile back at him.

Olivia paused in pushing her food around her plate to ask him if they had found any trace of the man they were seeking and Joe shook his head “No sign at all. Adam thinks that Doestov wasn’t killed outright so that he would warn us of Lebedev’s being around. Kind of like sheep knowing a wolf is near by, expecting us to panic at the fact that we know he’s about… “ he sighed and bit into some bread which he chewed for a while before drinking some coffee “Anyway, it got dark pretty quick so Roy and Clem went back to town. They’re going to force Armitage to go to Andersons and cross question him this morning.”

Hester frowned, and her blue eyes looked troubled “Mrs Andersons a pleasant quiet woman, Joe. I can’t see that she or her husband would be doing anything wrong.”

“Perhaps not, but they had those Russians staying with them, didn’t they?” Joe shrugged as though that was proof enough for him.

“It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, just that they had visitors staying from Russia, that’s all.” Hester pointed out sweetly, which brought a sigh from Olivia and a scowl from Joe.

“We’re going to look around some more today, hopefully pick up his tracks and get him before he does -” he paused and glanced at Olivia who hastily lowered her eyes, “well, anyway, I’d better get going.”

He wiped his mouth on the napkin and rose from the table. Mary Ann did likewise so that she could walk with her husband to the porch and see him away. Reuben bounced up from the settee and hurried after them, “Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe?”

“What is it, Reuben?” Joe smiled down at the boy, resisted the urge to ruffle his hair because he could recall how he disliked it himself at that age.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course, do you want to walk with me to my horse?” Joe suggested while he looked at Mary Ann and squeezed her fingers gently within his own.

“Oh yes, that would be great.” Reuben exclaimed and waited for his uncle to kiss Mary Ann goodbye, grab his hat and coat before he followed him outside.

“So, what was it you wanted to ask me?” Joe pulled his hat on and buttoned up his coat as the boy matched his stride to his own.

“I – I -” Reuben stammered and then looked down at the ground, rallied his confidence and looked up “I wanted to know why’d you give Saturn away to your friend. I mean, you said you’d let me ride him one day, and I never got to, even once.”

“True enough,” Joe replied with a frown on his brow as he recalled the many mornings the boy had stood at the corral fence while he had been training the big black horse. “Look, Rueben,” he squatted down onto his haunches and pulled the boy closer to him, “Sometimes things happen unexpectedly, out of the blue some call it, but be that as it may, it just means that when these things happen then promises become just something that belong to the past.”

Reuben stared at him, he didn’t fully understand and it didn’t fully explain or answer his questions. Joe saw the confusion in t he boys eyes and sighed, “Stalking Horse was a good friend to me, and he once saved Adams life. When he came here the other week, he had so little in comparison to all that I had, and he was an important man in his tribe. It just seemed wrong that I had so much when he had so little. Do you understand?”

“Couldn’t you have given him some money so he could buy himself some things he needed?”

Joe smiled and shook his head “No, it wasn’t that easy, and it wasn’t that kind of situation where I could do that, I just had to give him something that was important to me, it was a sign to him that I appreciated his friendship, and what he had done for us.”

“What did he do for us?” Reubens eyes narrowed, his smooth brow was furrowed.

“Well, like I said, he saved your pa’s life some time back, and he saved the life of someone else I cared about very much. When a friend does so much, and has so little, it’s good to show some gratitude, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”
Joe nodded, smiled again and then straightened up, “Well, I had better go, I promised your pa and Uncle Hoss that I wouldn’t be late this morning. Take care of your Ma and the ladies, won’t you, Reuben?”

“Sure, and Uncle Joe -”

Joe paused and turned round, Reuben gave a slight smile, “Will you tell Pa to be careful, tell him – I love him.”

Joe nodded, he felt a tightening around his throat and a prickling around the eyes, but nodded again and hurried into the stable to saddle up his horse. By the time he rode out into the yard Reuben had returned to the house, only Mary Ann stood at the porch to wave her husband good bye.
………………..

Count Vladamir Lebedev settled himself into the undergrowth, his slim lean body hidden away among the rocks and boulders from where he could look down upon the three houses spread out like a child’s toy town below him.

He sidled down flat onto his stomach and brought his telescope to his eye, he swept the lenses from one house along the track and to the older house and then back to the track that would lead to the next house along the track. There was barely a mile separating the three buildings which made them all the easier for him to survey.

It hadn’t been difficult to make himself a covert in which he could hide away or rest up. Weariness was like a death knell to a man involved in this kind of work, one had to keep ones’ senses sharp, alert and he already knew that it was quite safe for him to spend some hours sleeping during the night.

The routine of each household varied little. He knew how many occupied each house, how many were in the bunk houses. He knew what each woman looked like and that included the housekeeper at the youngest Cartwright’s home. He hadn’t discovered this hideaway at the time of Dimitri’s death and send off from the Ponderosa. But now here he was at his post with his telescope trained upon Adam Cartwright’s house. It was this particular building that held most of his interest, after all it was the Commodore’s home, and it fascinated him to observe his enemy so closely.

He wondered if Dimitri had lived long enough to have been found and as a result inform Adam of his whereabouts. He had noticed a lot of activity going on around the houses for the past two days when the three younger Cartwrights had been mounted up with some other men, forming what the Americans like to refer to as a posse. He assumed, rightly, that they were looking for him. The thought had amused him and he had waited for their return with a casualness that was cold bloodedly ruthless.

Chapter 53

It seemed to Adam that looking for Lebedev had become a hopelessly useless task. The man had either disappeared altogether or found somewhere to hide that was so cunningly well hidden that even Hoss had been unable to pick up any trace of him. Of course the weather hadn’t helped, even though the rain had stopped again now, it had already succeeded in removing any trace of prints from the area where Hoss had found Dimitri.

It was early morning of the third day since they had began to look for the Russian and Hoss had gone back to spend the night with the family at the main house. As he sat nursing his second cup of coffee Adam could hear Joe moving about upstairs and with a sigh raised his cup to his lips to sip the hot drink. Cheng Ho Lee appeared with a hot plate full of eggs and ham, bread and butter was already on the table, and when Adam looked at the little rose motif he had a fleeting memory of Olivia stamping the butter with the wooden mould, and of Sofia standing happily smiling as she helped.

He glanced up as Joe dragged himself down stairs rubbing his head and yawning, and without a word picked up the coffee pot and poured out coffee for him. Joe slumped down into the chair “Do you still think your Russian friend is out there, Adam?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seems to me he must have given up and gone back home. “ he stabbed at some ham and eggs “Perhaps he decided to go back to his friends, the Andersons wasn’t it?”

Adam shrugged “Perhaps.”

“Odd thing, I would never have thought the Andersons would be involved with Russians, although I aint’ got nothing against any Russians mind you, just this particular lot.”

“Hmmm, well, one can never tell what goes on behind another persons front door.” Adam sighed as he put his cup down and began to slice through some ham.

“So what are we going to do today? “

“Thought we could scout around towards Pennell’s Creek.”

“Seriously?” Joe crooked an eyebrow and shook his head “I don’t know, hardly seems practical to me. If I were going to shoot someone I’d want to stay close by their place, keep an eye on their routine and get the lay of the land.” he chewed methodically on his food for a moment with a frown still on his face “You know, it all seems a bit farcical to me.”

“Farcical?” Adam raised both eyebrows and gave a quirk of a smile before shaking his head “Why do you say that?”

“Well, all this hide and seek stuff.” Joe looked up and stared at the far off wall, before looking at Adam with a grin, “why not just have a face to face shoot off in town like any other gun shooter would do.”

“Because he isn’t any other gun shooter.” Adam poured out more coffee and picked up his cup, “He’s a Russian nobleman and he’s a professional assassin.”

“Isn’t that what any hired gunman is? Just a hired killer?”

“True enough, but Lebedev not only has a personal axe to grind he has also been hired by one of the most powerful men in Russia and Poland which places him slightly above the ranks of most hired gunmen.”

“And hired by this high and mighty man to kill you?”

“Apparently so. It’s a political gesture. “ Adam drank some coffee before replacing the cup down, “Politics – you see, Joe, a game of chess was the invention of the Chinese to plot out their war strategies.”

“Yeah, I know that, Pa told me years ago.” Joe scowled as though a history lesson was not the best subject to discuss first thing in the morning.

“And politics is the same, it’s like a chess game. They take out one piece, so the opposite Government takes out a piece from them and so and so forth.”

“Ah, I see, you’re a chess piece then?”

Adam gave a wry grin “Dimitri once said we were just cogs in a piece of machinery, he’d understand what I meant.”

Joe shrugged and finished his breakfast, wiped his mouth on the napkin and rose to his feet “I think riding as far as Pennell’s Creek is too wide a sweep. I still say we should look closer to home.”

Adam was the one who now shrugged and stared thoughtfully at the far wall, he merely nodded at what Joe had said while he finished drinking his coffee.
………………..
Sheriff Armitage looked at the man standing in front of him and then at the piece of paper that had been handed over to him. With a scowl he looked at Roy Coffee who was watching him with that steely blue grey gaze of his that always made Armitage feel an inch high. “Very well, Mr. Dutton, I’ll do as you’ve requested -”
“Ordered” the man Dutton intoned lifting his chin stubbornly as he said the word, just because the man wore the badge of a sheriff didn’t mean anything to him, he came from a higher authority – not a heavenly one, just a higher one.

Armitage nodded and picked up his gun belt which he buckled on with a lack of enthusiasm that didn’t go unnoticed by the stranger or by Roy. Finally, followed by Clem Foster, Roy and Dutton the sheriff led the way out to the main street.

It was a cold, blustery day with the sky a mass of swirling grey and black clouds. The fact that there had been no rainfall up to then was a surprise as the clouds had been gathering since the previous day. People hurried by with their heads bowed against the wind, women holding onto their bonnets while their skirts and coats blew wide against their legs. Men grabbed at their hats and the scarves that were wound around their necks. Litter and dust from the streets flew in the air, fluttered into doorways and against people’s feet.

It was necessary to mount their horses in order to reach the Andersons house which was built in the best area of town, high on the hills. A lot of local people referred to it as Virginia City’s version of San Francisco’s Nobs Hill which flattered those who lived there who chose to ignore the subtle insult.

The building itself was big and sprawling, set in the grounds of about an acre with trees crowding in close upon it. Armitage and Dutton dismounted and took the steps up to the front door and knocked – loudly.

They had to knock several times before there came any sound of activity from within. Some bolts were heard to be drawn back slowly before the door opened and a young woman peered out at them “Yes, sir? Oh, sheriff -” a slight pause and the door opened wider “Have you come to speak to Mr and Mrs Anderson?”

“We have,” Armitage intoned as he rested his hand upon the handle of his gun.

“But they ain’t here, sir. They’ve gone.”

“Gone?” Dutton stepped forward now, his face tense and his eyes like those of a startled rabbit “What do you mean, they’ve gone?”

She looked from one to the other patiently as though she couldn’t understand how they found it so hard to get the meaning of the words, “They up and left yesterday. They took the stage to San Francisco.”

Dutton’s Adams’ apple jerked and he glared at Armitage as though he were to blame for the Andersons disappearance, “San Francisco, did you say?”

“Yes, sir. They had a cablegram arrive the previous evening and spent almost all night packing and such, and then left with it all.”

Roy Coffee stepped forward now and looked at the girl, he touched his hat brim politely, “How do, Miss Susie.”

“Oh hello, Mr Coffee.”

“I was jest wondering if’n you might jest be able to help us out here, you see we was wondering if perhaps Mr and Mrs Anderson had visitors recently, some foreign folk maybe.”

Miss Susie nodded and smiled good humouredly, “Oh yes, you must mean Mr Andersons cousins. They were French, well, that’s what they told me but I didn’t think they were, they had the wrong kind of accent for French folk. Mr Anderson told me not to mention about them being here as they were very well placed in French society and if it got out into the papers then -” she paused and shook her head “Oh dear, he said not to mention it to anyone.”

“Wal now, I ain’t jest anyone am I, Susie. So these French folk, who you didn’t think were French – where did they go?”

Susie sighed and raised her eyes to heaven as a sign of apology to her absent employers before she looked at Roy “Well, that was the odd thing, you see. They both left here about a week ago, but only one came back.” she frowned and shook her head “I didn’t like him much, shifty looking, you know what I mean?”

Roy nodded as did Dutton, they knew exactly what she meant. She looked at Armitage in much the same manner as Dutton had earlier before returning to look at Roy, “Anyway, this one, he took a horse the next day and I’ve not seen him since. He didn’t take much luggage with him though, but he looked like a man who could take care of himself.”

Roy nodded, thanked her and returned to his horse, by the time they were remounted Susie had closed the door and hoped that she hadn’t said too much. The horsemen made their way back to the sheriffs office, each one immersed in thoughts of their own. Richard Dutton was seething with ill concealed anger. He had been sent orders to investigate a man calling himself Jonas Anderson, who had proven to be Janos Andersen, Russian civilian. What further annoyed him was the fact that somehow a warning must have been sent to the Andersons for them to have gone so abruptly. His orders had also mentioned that Counts Lebedev and Doestov were in the town, but according to the old man, Roy Coffee, Count Doestov no longer counted, being dead.
…………..

The Russian ship ‘Pyotr Velikiy’ was an ironclad turret ship and slipped into a vacant berth in San Francisco during the first week of November where she waited patiently to take on board her passengers. The first to arrive had been Count Alexander Milyutin who was immediately interrogated for a full report on all that had occurred to his knowledge since the Batory had sailed, leaving seven Russians on American soil.

News that four of those Russians would not be returning, alive, to Russia was greeted with sullen silence. Now they awaited the return of Counts Lebedev and Doestov.

It rather confused matters when the Captain Pavel Ivanov was sent a communication telling them to expect a civilian couple and to afford them every courtesy. It would seem that Janos Anderson had gained a reputation of some respect during his time in America, his American wife, of course, would have to be ‘accommodated’. Once they were on board there only remained Counts Lebedev and Doestov to await.

……………….

Vladamir Lebedev watched the brothers as they rode away from the house. Each one of them he felt he knew intimately by now, he could read from their body language that as soon as they had left the front door they were wary and guarded, watchful and conscious of the fact that they could well be under observation themselves.

He smiled and followed them with his eyes until they disappeared from sight. For a moment he sat very still thinking over the whole situation, wondering whether or not he should not now descend to lower ground, the site of which he had already picked out, so that he could fire the fatal shot. He rather liked the idea of having the American killed on his own door step, perhaps his brothers could go down with him.

He nodded, yes, that was very pleasing to him, the idea of all three brothers being despatched together. He relaxed a little and decided that he would eat a little before going to a new location. It was time to bring this matter to an end. This was going to be the day when Commodore Adam Cartwright met his end.

Lebedev felt his stomach knot in a familiar ache, just like when he had been a child about to be given a gift, the excitement would be just too much, too exhilarating for him to contain himself. Oh yes, he would love to see the Commodore’s face when first one, then the other of his brothers fell before his very eyes. Lebedev imagined how impotent the American would feel, how agonised he would be the moments before he met his own end.

Chapter 54

Saville was a skilled jeweller and after taking possession of the jewels that Edward had handed over he took them into his back room and slowly sat down to study the necklace and ear rings. He sighed heavily and shook his head knowing only too well how distressed the owner would be at their loss, for he had sold them only a few years earlier and knew what they had cost them. Checking the settings very careful he next set them down on a velvet pad and began to take the jewels apart from the gold which he placed into a crucible and once the removal of the jewels was complete he began to heat the crucible so that the gold melted down.

Now he separated the rubies and diamonds into size of carats, using his tweezers to do so and placing the different sizes into categories. Now he surveyed his materials with a critical eye and began to draw a sketch of what he wanted to create in due time. He was so engrossed in his work that the hours slowly ticked away and enjoyment of his labours even robbed him of his appetite to eat anything. It was only when darkness began to creep into the little workroom that he realised the day had passed and after stretching to get the cricks out of his spine he picked up another velvet cloth to cover everything. The gold he poured into a mould, turning off the heat from beneath the crucible .

He paused at the doorway to look around the little room, then after closing the door he locked it and bearing the sketch pad in his hand made his way to his own private quarters. It was a nuisance being beholden to someone like Edward, but while there was a profit to be made, and he would certainly make sure that there would be one, then it was well worth the irritation.
………………

The way underfoot was quite slippery but Lebedev succeeded in making his way down to the area he had chosen for his planned assassination. He had checked it out thoroughly during the time he had been hidden in his previous covert and found, upon reaching it, that it was even better than he had first anticipated. It took him no time at all to put everything together and with infinite patience he assembled the rifle and awaited the Cartwrights return.

A movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention and he turned quickly to see who or what had happened to distract him. Taking out his telescope he scanned the property below and noticed that a youth was slowly making his progress round to back of the house.

Lebedev was no naïve ignorant fool who could dismiss the mans actions as innocent. He could see immediately that the movements were those of someone who didn’t wish to be seen, even the horse he had arrived upon had been concealed some distance from the house. Intrigued Lebedev flattened himself on his stomach to wait for the youth to re-emerge.

Edward Armitage had been careful in approaching the Ponderosa. He had hidden away and waited for the three brothers to ride from the house, passing not that far from him and totally unaware of his presence. It had given him a surge of adrenalin to have known that they had ridden by him like that and he had dismounted as soon as they had disappeared into the distance.

He knew that the only person in the house would be the cook as he had overheard his uncle discussing the fact that the family would be staying at the main ranch house with old Ben Cartwright. The sheriff had found it rather amusing to think of the Cartwrights scouring the countryside for one man, scared enough to have everyone huddled together in one building. Edward found it amusing too, but for a quite different reason.

Perhaps he was over confident as a result or just clumsy for some reason that he couldn’t fathom but something alerted Cheng Ho Lee to the fact that there was someone in the house and he had come out yelling and flourishing a rifle. It was enough to force Edward to leave the rummaging around the bedroom for the jewel box he was sure must have been concealed there and as he heard the footsteps coming up the stairs and the cook’s voice getting closer he did the only thing possible and that was to climb out of the bedroom window.

Lebedev found it quite fascinating to watch the youth as he dangled by his finger tips and then slowly dropped onto the porch roof. Edward slid down to the edge and then swung himself over, dropped down onto the ground and scampered away, out of sight of the irate man who now threw open the front door and fired several shots in the direction of the person now disappearing into the shrubbery.

Some distance away Adam, Hoss and Joe paused and looked at one another. “Those shots came from the house.” Adam said tersely and swung the horse around in order to return the way he had come.

Neither of his brothers disputed the fact, the gunfire was still rolling through the air and seemed to ignite within themselves an urgency to get moving to find out the cause. Putting their horses to a quick canter they began their journey back to the house.

Edward had a canny sixth sense as to danger, he knew only too well that the Cartwrights would have heard the gunshots, and that the direction they would take would cut immediately into his path. Turning his horse now he made for higher ground and in doing so rode straight to where Lebedev had been hiding.

The horse reared up when confronting the man who had moved suddenly in order not to be trampled upon and instinctively he fired his rifle so that Edward felt the Impact of the bullets as they struck him and without a sound fell heavily from the saddle onto the ground.

Lebedev now had no choice but to retreat, he didn’t stop to check whether or not the boy was alive or dead, but caught at the reins of the horse and swung himself into the saddle, the rifle still clutched in one hand. Without a backward glance he urged the horse forwards, back into the rocks where he had previously been hidden away .

As Adam, Joe and Hoss galloped towards the house each of them caught a glimpse of the horseman who appeared to be seeking some escape through the rocks and boulders ahead of him. Without a word but united in purpose they turned their horses in quick pursuit.

Cheng Ho Lee had seen the confrontation of Edward with the man hidden away, he had noted the boy fall to the ground and now ran to wards him. Upon reaching the youth Cheng Ho Lee knelt by his side and gently turned him over onto his back, closed the blank eyes that stared up into the sky and as he rose to his feet the heavens opened up and the rain began to cascade down.

“Over there -” Joe yelled aloud and pointed in the direction of the horseman.

“Where do you think he’s heading fer? This ain’t the way to town?” Hoss looked over at Adam who was wondering the same thing, “Who’d you think he was shooting at?”

Adam shook his head, something was not sitting right that was for sure, the man seemed uncertain and confused, he was riding holding the reins one handed with his rifle still in the other hand and from what Adam could see there was a rifle still in the scabbard. It didn’t make sense. He drew out his own gun and after aiming above the horseman’s head fired off a shot.

Lebedev growled deep within his throat. Things had taken a wrong turn, the hunted were now the hunters, and he was the prey. It was a situation he had not bargained for and one he did not like at all. He urged the horse faster, leaned closer against the animals neck and when the next bullet whistled over his head he cursed, turned in the saddle and fired the rifle. He had no time to aim, and the rain was too heavy for him to see clearly anyway. His professionalism had deserted him, he was a desperate man seeking to get away from his pursuers. He knew that if he didn’t find somewhere to hide and gather his senses soon, then he would be lost, everything would be lost.

Joe was down, the random shot had struck his horse so that it had fallen and Joe had gone over its head to land, winded, on the sodden ground. Riding too close behind him Chubb collided with the falling horse, skidded, staggered and gone down taking Hoss along with him. If Lebedev had been hoping for a stroke of luck then this surely had been it.

Adam pulled Sport around, turning so that the horse was a shield to both his brothers, while at the same time he fired at the retreating horseman. The rain fell like a deluge obscuring the sight of everything around them.

Joe was struggling to get into a sitting position, his hand to his head and looking dazed. He looked blearily at Adam who was now hurrying towards him on foot, a gun in his hand and Sports reins in the other.

“Sorry, Adam -” Joe groaned and then looked over at Hoss who was still sprawled out on the ground.

The two brothers looked fearfully at one another even as they hurried to where Hoss was laying. Navejo and Chubb had scrambled to their feet now but they were more concerned about their brother than the condition of the horses and rather fearfully approached the big man, turning him carefully onto his back.

The rain washed away the mud and dead leaves that had clung to Hoss’ face, Adam gently brushed away what remained and pulling off his glove he felt at Hoss’ throat for a pulse, he was about to speak when Hoss’ voice muttered “It’s alright, I ain’t dead yet.”

“You big galoot, that’s what comes from eating so much, you’ve become too big a target for anyone to miss.” Joe hissed irritably.

Hoss put his hand to his head and groaned “Shucks, little brother, was you went down first, I jest kinda fell over ya.”

Joe looked over at Adam “Don’t worry about us, Adam, you get on after him, whoever he is has some explaining to do.”

Adam nodded, slipped his pistol back into the holster and remounted into the saddle. “You’re sure you’re both alright?”

Hoss nodded “Jest git moving, don’t let him git away from ya now.”

……………

Lebedev had succeeded in finding some shelter and was now out of the saddle and making the most of the chance he had to turn defeat into victory. He was unsure as to what had happened having been too anxious to find somewhere to hide, but now he was burrowed down, the rifle back in his hands, poised to strike at the enemy. His temper was slowly cooling down, cold logic and reason were once again becoming master of anger and fear.

He was confident that he had the advantage over the three men, he was well concealed, the horse had been sent running ahead giving the impression that he was still running away. He smiled slightly, he could get each one of them as they rode by, it hardly mattered now in which order they would fall.

As the rain poured down and drenched the open ground Lebedev slunk further into the shelter of the trees, he could wait, he had waited already for a long time so a few minutes, or hours, made little difference to him.

Encouraged by the knowledge that his brothers were safe and unharmed, and would, no doubt, follow as soon as they were able to do so, Adam continued to make his way after the gunman. He had no doubt at all that it had been Lebedev, although he was still confused as to why there had been the shooting at the house but then ignorance in this instance was bliss, and he knew it was better to shut his mind to that matter and wait for answers later on.

The track was puddling and the hoof prints of the horse ahead of him were so clear that despite the heavy rain Adam could see the trail without any problem at all. His eyes were constantly moving around him, aware of the fact that he could be following the trail of a riderless horse and that his assailant could well be hidden close by.

Chapter 55

It was while Adam was considering whether or not the gunman would still be mounted that a shot rang out and a bullet passed within an inch of his head taking his hat with it. The fact that the bullet had sufficient force behind it to do such a thing considering the ferocity of the rain was sufficient proof to Adam that Lebedev was closer than was desirable and the next shot could well be more effective. He fired immediately into the trees while at the same time dismounting and crouching as low as he could, he scrabbled through the mud to some shelter. Another bullet winged its way towards him and spat bark from the tree close to his head. He fired off two shots immediately before ducking down for cover.

The rain continued to fall, the raindrops were so heavy and fast that even though they were sheltered to some degree the four men were drenched to the skin. Hoss was now in a puddle that widened around his body while Joe was huddled close to him trying to stem the blood that was streaming from a wound in Hoss’ shoulder.

Adam’s eyes ached as he tried to see through the rain and the undergrowth as to where his adversary was hidden, his only consolation being that Lebedev must have been enduring the same conditions as himself.

Time ticked away, nerve stretching seconds. Lebedev, hidden well and protected by thick undergrowth kept his eyes fixed on the site where Adam had fired from earlier. He smiled slowly at the thought that the Commodore had got himself caught in a snare of his own making, whereas he had time and ammunition to spare.

Adam wiped rain from his face, from his eyes. He knew he had to move as there was little protection from either the rain or the gunman, so very carefully he crouched down, then began to move away with his gun ready and his nerves stretched to breaking point.

He saw a movement from the corner of his eyes and fired. At the same time the ground, heavy with rain water, gave way beneath him and he felt himself sliding through mud. His gun was knocked from his hand halfway down the descent, he slid and slithered until he finally landed on a rock large enough to resist the weight of his body.
Mud, leaves, water, pine needles all sped by, stung his face, got into his mouth and eyes and hair, and now he was falling again, until he landed in an undignified heap in a small narrow gully. The traces of his descent as obvious as that of an elephant taking a mud bath.

Lebedev stood up and waited, the rifle poised and ready. From the direction of Adam’s fall – the sound of which had been music to Lebedev’s ears – there was nothing. He was about to step forward when he heard a sound. Vladamir sidled back into the undergrowth as quietly as a serpent returns to his hole. He inched along the way he had come, and bent over double, holding tightly to his rifle he carefully and slowly made his way to the waiting horse. Sport was an obedient animal well used to remaining where his master would leave him, and it was towards this beast that Lebedev now made his slow and serpentine way.

His hand had just touched the reins when there was a repetition of the sound he had already heard.

It was a cough, a man’s cough. But there was no man nearby, not that Lebedev could see. He bent down closer to the ground to scan through the shrubs and then saw the swathe of broken foliage, brown wet mud, sweeping like a shute beneath him.
By the most miserable of chances he had come upon the very site of Adam’s tumble down the slope.

Inch by inch Adam was struggling back up by clinging to wet mud, grabbing at overhanging branches, feeling his feet slide away and the constant thud of rain beating down upon his upturned face and body. He scrabbled for his gun which lay in the mud where it had fallen. Wet leaves swung against his face as his fingers touched the handle of the revolver. Finally able to replace it in his holster he resumed his climb to the main track above him.

Vladamir watched the efforts of the man inching his way towards him. He held the rifle closely and wondered whether or not to use it now. Unaware of what had happened with Joe and Hoss, wondering where they were and when they would put in an appearance left him doubtful as to how to proceed.

He glanced down and watched as the struggling man paused in his efforts to gain his breath. The rain was beating down so heavily upon them that it hampered Adam in his attempts to find handholds, his feet were constantly slipping from any anchorage he could find. When he looked up the rain blinded him. Exhausted he leaned his head upon his arm and tried to catch his breath. The leg that had been weakened during the misadventure in the South China seas was now providing a gnawing ache of its own.

Lebedev chose to wait. He was quite prepared now to wait until Adam reached the top of the incline so that all it would need was a simple shove to send him hurtling back down. It was obvious the man was weakening and would not put up any defence at all.

Adam remained where he was for some seconds, getting a second wind and trying to make sense of some new sounds. He looked up again but the rain dashed into his eyes obscuring his vision. He waited, panting from his exertions. The sound came again as a small cascade of stones, loose gravel and mud slipped past him. Of course he told himself, the rain was loosening the bank above him, and if he were not careful the whole lot would erode and collapse on top of him. He stopped to think again, and the thought came to him that perhaps Lebedev was waiting for him up above, an impatient foot and eroding soil would obviously send such debris down the slope .

He began to move, this time instead of going up, he began to move sideways along, inch by precarious inch. Some overhanging obstinate shrub, growing from the side of the incline shielded him from the watcher above, and enabled him to get a firm grip on something substantial at last. While Lebedev wondered where his quarry had gone, Adam made significant distance between them and began to work his way up towards the track once again.

It took the maximum effort to get his hands over the edge and haul himself up onto the solid packed but puddling track. He rolled onto his stomach, then looked for his attacker. He slowly withdrew his gun, checked that the barrel was clear of any mud or obstruction, wiped his face free from rain water and slowly inched forwards, crouched low, and avoiding any low hanging boughs.

It took only minutes to see the outline of the man who knelt on one knee scanning the land beneath him. There was no doubt about the tension in Lebedev’s body, the way he clutched at the rifle, all indicated that he was waited for Adams reappearance.
Even as Adam moved slowly forwards he could see the muscles in the mans shoulders tense through the soaking wet clothes that clung to his body. Like an animal suddenly aware of danger Vladimir swung around, his eyes searching for the one who threatened him, and his rifle raised, ready, aimed … Adam flung himself stomach down onto the ground, his pistol in both hands and aimed steadily at the Russian. They were at an impasse.

Without either of them noticing the rain stopped, a miserable wintry sun straggled out from behind clouds. Lebedev straightened up, standing tall, not the handsome figure of a man he liked to appear but then this was a unique situation and he watched as Adam slowly rose to his feet “Kommodore.” he inclined his head grandly in greeting.

“Put the rifle down, Lebedev.”

Vladamir raised his eyebrows and shrugged slightly “Put your gun down, Kommodore. Perhaps we can make an agreement between us, da?”

“Niet… no deal. Just put the rifle down.”

Lebedev ran his tongue over his teeth and shook his head slowly from side to side, “I could shoot you now, like a dog.”

“You can.” Adam agreed his eyes never moving from watching Lebedev’s steel blue eyes as they bore into his, “But I could claim the same.”

The Russian nodded in agreement “Is this how you killed my brother?”

“I don’t know how your brother was killed, I was unconscious at the time.”

“Of course, it was your friend, Captain O’Brien who shot my brother, wasn’t it?”

Adams lips tightened at the mention of his friends name, his eyes narrowed slightly, enough for Lebedev to know that reference to Adam’s friend had hit its mark. He nodded “A sad shame what happened to him …and his family.”

“As you say – a sad shame.” Adam intoned, the grip on his revolver tightening.

“I could kill you right here and now with one shot, don’t you realise it?”

“Then why haven’t you tried. Why waste time talking? Get it over and done with if you must, but I can tell you this, you’ll only get the one chance and you won’t be alive to know if you failed.”

Adam pulled back the trigger and closed his eyes. The two weapons exploded instantaneously, each sending its harbinger of death winging towards the other.

Joe had been on his way to join with his brother when the shots were to be heard. He stopped but for an instant and then continued onwards. From where he sat Hoss bowed his head and prayed, Adam’s name on his lips as he screwed up his eyes and covered his face with his hand.

Joe reached the scene of the shoot out just in time to see Vladamir Lebedev crumple and fall. His rifle fell from a lifeless hand by his side into the mud. Without wasting time on him Joe ran towards where Adam standing, still holding the gun in both hands, and both hands shaking so much that Joe wondered if his brother were suffering some kind of spasm before dropping down dead as well.

“Adam? It’s me, Joe?” he cried as he put a hand out towards him, a hand on his brother’s shoulder, another on his arm, “It’s alright, I think he’s dead.”

“Are you sure?”

“Er – yeah – I’m sure.”

“Hoss?” Adam turned to look intently at Joe, who nodded, smiled “Yeah, he’s fine, the bullet went in and out. Just messy that’s all.”

Adam allowed himself a brief smile, “That’s all?” he raised an eyebrow

“Yeah, and – it’s stopped raining.”

Chapter 56

Dutton couldn’t believe the way fortune had been reversed and now smiled so benignly upon him. Having lost track of Janos Anderson had plunged him into despair, but as soon as he was informed of the arrival of Count Lebedev’s body, and that Count Doetov’s body was already at the undertakers, the whole matter took on a completely different complexion. Accompanied by Sheriff Armitage, Roy and Clem he led the way to where Jenkins was taking charge of Valdimir’s body and also that of one other person who had still to be identified.

Armitage had swaggered into the undertakers with the other three men and then stopped short at the sight of Adam ,Joe and Ben Cartwright. He had glanced dismissively at the three of them and was about to follow Dutton into the back room when Ben stepped forward to put a hand on his chest and prevent him from doing so.

“Sheriff, I need to speak to you … it’s important that I speak to you before you go any further.”

Armitage frowned, a dark scowl that seemed to be his trademark feature, he glowered, hesitated and then with a sigh turned to face Ben “What is it? Best speak up as I have official business to attend to…in there.” he inclined his head towards the other room.

Adam had stepped forward to prevent Roy and Clem from going further so that they now held back and looked from Ben to Joe to Armitage who was now standing looking patronisingly down at Ben while Adam had gone into the other room with Dutton. Armitage raised his eyebrows “Well, what is it you have to say? Speak up, man, you’re wasting official time.”

“I’m sorry, sheriff Armitage, but I haven’t got good news to tell you. “ Ben looked at Joe who raised his shoulders slightly and Ben, who had removed his hat, sighed and shook his head “I – we – brought in two bodies today.”

“Very well -” Armitage glanced at Joe, then back to Ben, his eyes narrowed as he remembered that Adam was in the other room with the undertaker and Dutton, he nodded “Your son, Hoss, he isn’t here with you?”

Ben was rather startled at the conclusion that Armitage had come to and opened his mouth but it was Joe who now stepped forward “True enough, sheriff, but Hoss is at home being attended to by his wife. He caught a bullet from Lebedev and was winged, nothing serious, you understand?”

Armitage gave a weak smile and shrugged “That’s good news. So – ?” he looked once more from one to the other, behind him Roy and Clem, realising that something more serious was about to be said, drew closer.

“I’m afraid that the other body is that of a young man. Your nephew, Edward.” Ben said very gently, while his dark eyes were fixed upon the sheriff’s countenance as though he were interested to see what reaction the news would create in the heart of a man who seemed to care about nothing or no -one.

“Edward? What do you mean? Edward’s working at the Enterprise office …” Armitage replied and he turned to look at Joe, “What’s your father talking about, young man?”

“I’m sorry, sheriff, your nephew was shot -”

“Shot?” Armitage’s eyebrows nearly shot clear off his forehead, “Shot ? By whom?”

“He was shot -” Joe began and then looked at Roy who was looking rather thoughtful, “He was shot at Adam’s place on Ponderosa land.”

“Shot?” Armitage repeated and lowered his head as though he had to think over this information, “On the Ponderosa? What was Edward doing there? Who shot him? Was it your son?” he glared at Ben who shook his head in denial so that Armitage looked at Joe “Was it you?”

Joe shook his head and ran nervous fingers through his hair, “No, sir. It was – I guess you could say your nephew was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “

“Let me see him -” Armitage said abruptly, he glared at Roy and Clem as they stepped to one side to let him pass through the doorway and into the other room where Jenkins laid out his corpses prior to attending to them.

Dutton was conversing in low tones with Adam, they were standing by the body of Vladimir Lebedev which was at the further end of the room, both men turned to look at Armitage and then resumed their conversation. It seemed to Ben that the conversation consisted of Dutton asking his son a lot of questions the answers to which were being scribbled down verbatim .

Edward Armitage lay upon the trestle with the blanket still covering his body. It was Jenkins who, upon getting the nod from Roy, pulled it away from the boy’s face to expose him to his Uncle. Armitage stared down at the boy for quite some time, he showed no emotion apart from the initial confusion of actually seeing his nephew, dead. There was a bullet that had taken part of his face and skull away, and a bullet in the throat. Lebedev may have fired his rifle in a hurry and off guard, but he still knew where to do the most damage in order to kill someone.

Armitage dropped the blanket back and looked at the other men “What happened?” he cleared his throat “Who did it?”

Ben cleared his throat “It seems your nephew was attempting to rob -”

“Rob? What are you talking about?” the sheriff’s voice snapped loud enough for the two men at the other part of the room to stop their conversation and turn to observe them. After a moment’s silence Armitage inclined his head “Go on….”

“I’m sorry, sheriff, we have a witness to the fact that your nephew was attempting to steal from Adams premises. He was disturbed and climbed out of the window. In trying to escape from – the witness – he inadvertently rode into the path of Count Lebedev who shot him.”

“Count Lebedev? Who’s he?” Armitage muttered while in the back of his head he felt he should know, but facts and details were spinning around and around so fast he couldn’t recall anything for sure.

“The dead man over there.” Ben nodded over to where Lebedev’s body was set out on another trestle.

“One of those Russians you’ve been pestering me about all these weeks?” Armitage muttered and glanced darkly at Roy who could only nod in affirmation.

Roy cleared his throat and in his usual gruff voice told Armitage that regrettable as Edward’s death was, it could have been avoided if the sheriff had followed up the information about the stealing that had been going on in town., and if he himself had been more careful with the information he gave his nephew about people’s personal habits, as to when or where they would be at any given time.

“You saying I ain’t fit to be sheriff hereabouts, Coffee?” Armitage snapped and glared at Roy with such vehemence that Clem felt it necessary to make his presence felt “If Mr Coffee ain’t saying it, Mr Armitage, then I am.” Clem said with such determination in his voice that Ben felt his lips twitch almost in a smile.

Armitage straightened his back immediately, glanced down at his nephews body and was about to say something when caution prevailed, he only nodded and without a word left the room. The thud of a door closing confirmed that he had left the building.

Mr Jenkins the Undertaker was asked by Mr Dutton to show him the body of the deceased Dimitri Doestov, and was led down to where the Count’s body had been laid to rest in the ice house. After confirming for his own peace of mind that the body really did belong to the person so named, Dutton wrote something else on his piece of paper and left the room.

Adam was still standing in the upper chamber close to Lebedev’s body when Dutton returned. He looked at the other man who nodded “Seems that this business is all wrapped up now then, Commodore. There’s no need for any of you to be involved any further. We will attend to the – er – removal of the bodies.”

Ben frowned and was about to speak when a slight action from Adam prevented him from doing so. Dutton picked up his hat “Mr Fish will be getting in touch with you, Commodore. I should think the Russian authorities will want to bury these two men in their own home land, as befits their rank.” he slipped his hat onto his head and smiled in satisfaction, “No doubt I’ll have your report on my desk tomorrow, you know where I’m staying, don’t you?”

Adam merely inclined his head while his lip curled slightly in distaste, he didn’t like Dutton and the reminder that this whole situation was political and involved Governments frustrated him enormously. He looked at Joe and nodded, Ben sighed and moved in closer behind Joe so that the two of them were at Adam’s side as he left the room.

Mr Jenkins watched as Dutton left and as Adam was about to follow suit he coughed slightly “Excuse me, Mr Cartwright, I found this in the gentleman’s jacket. It was addressed to you, private and confidential.”

“Which gentleman?” Adam asked from curiosity which they waited for the little man to open a tin box that had been locked in a drawer of his desk.

“The one on ice at the moment, sir.” Jenkins smiled, rather ghoulishly Joe thought, as he handed the letter over to Adam. “I’m presuming that from what the other gent said, the dead Russian you brought in just now will have to go on ice as well?”

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Jenkins.” Adam nodded and took the envelope from the other mans hand and slipped it into his pocket.

“It’ll raise the cost, you know? The expenses will be pretty high.” Jenkins sighed and shook his head while he rubbed his hands with delight.

“I wouldn’t worry about that, Mr Jenkins. The Russian Government can afford to pay for their keep.” Adam replied as he placed his hat upon his head and stepped out into the street.

Ben put a hand reassuringly on his son’s shoulder but said nothing. It was Joe who suggested that perhaps they needed a drink and together they made their way to the
Bucket of Blood saloon.

Several men in the saloon greeted them with amicable nods and comments as to their well being, some looked at them at though wondering what had happened to them as both Adam and Joe still carried some trace of what had taken place that day, despite the rudimentary clean up they had had at the Ponderosa before coming into town.

Ben ordered the drinks while Adam and Joe eased their bodies into the chairs at a table tucked into a corner. “Mmm,” Joe sighed and stretched out his legs “Who would have thought it, Edward Armitage the town thief.”

Adam nodded and set his hat down on the table, eased his shoulders in order to relax them a little and smiled over at his father who was bringing the beers over to the table, “Well, it didn’t do him any good in the long run.” he took his glass and nodded his thanks to Ben, “He must have made a small fortune with all the things he was stealing.”

“Yeah,” Joe leaned forward “I heard he even stole the Burma Rarity from Widow Hawkins.”

Ben sat down and placed his hat down beside Adams, tasted the beer and nodded “He tried to steal the Burma Rarity but Clemmie has some kind of alarm system rigged up so he wasn’t able to get it off the table.”

“Weighed down by ‘Arry’s 500lb dumb bell no doubt?” Adam chuckled which made Joe laugh out loud.

It was at that point when Ruby ran in with her hair all tousled and looking excitedly around the saloon announced in a loud voice “You’ll never guess what’s happened – that Edward Armitage was the one doing all the stealing around here.”

Joe sighed and raised his eyebrows, Adam shook his head and drank more of his beer and Ben leaned back to observe what was going to happen next. A long bearded miner stood up “The little varmint. He should be hanged.”

“Yeah – him and his uncle together.” someone else yelled

“Some sheriff he turned out to be, he was probably in on it all.” said a plump little man who, once the crowd parted a little, they could see was Mr Saville the jeweller.

Joe leaned forwards and whispered “This is getting interesting.”

Ruby shrugged and flounced her skirts “Can’t hang him he’s already dead.”

This led to more exclamations and declarations, Mr Saville suddenly disappeared and Ruby became the centre of attention while being plied with questions from everyone there.

“Even more interesting.” Ben muttered and nodded towards the doors as Dan deQuille stepped into the saloon, pencil and notepad in hand.

“Time for us to drink up and clear out.” Adam whispered, putting words to action as he raised his glass and emptied it.

Once they were outside and had left the hum of the crowd in the saloon, the three men made their way to where the wagon had been left, it was Ben who was mounted on Cinnamon, Joe and Adam had ridden into town in the rig. They had not gone far when a voice hailed them from the side of the street and upon turning they saw Roy with his arm raised to stop them proceeding any further.

“Anything wrong, Roy?” Ben asked anxiously for he was eager to get home now, his back was aching and he didn’t like to admit it but his bunions were killing him.

“Nothing wrong, Ben.” Roy smiled and nodded his head, then looked over at Joe and Adam, “Armitage has resigned as sheriff. He’s going back to where he came from once the boy’s been buried. “

“Probably for the best, Roy.” Ben agreed, nodding thoughtfully and his mind already dwelling on what could be for supper later on.

“Yeah, turns out young Edward had a real hoard of jewels tucked away. Stacks of money too.” Roy ran his tongue over his teeth and pursed his lips in his old familiar fashion, “They asked Clem to be sheriff.”

“That’s good.” Joe smiled and nodded, “He’ll make a good sheriff. He was always a good deputy.”

Roy chuckled “Considering you never thought him capable of finding a flea on a dog’s back, Joe, he’ll take that as a real compliment coming from you.”

“You weren’t tempted to take it back then?” Ben asked his old friend who shook his head and said gruffly “No, Ben, only a fool doesn’t know when to step down, Clem knows where I am when or if he needs me.”

He nodded and smiled, raised a hand in farewell and turned away to walk back to his house. The three Cartwrights said nothing as they made their way down the main street towards home. In the silence Adam suddenly said “Did you really say that Clem couldn’t find a flea on a dogs back?”

Joe fidgeted a little and ran a finger around the back of his collar “I might have done – once upon a time.” he admitted with such a hang dog expression on his face that Adam couldn’t hold back from laughing out loud. It seemed to Ben that was the best sound he had heard for a long time… laughter, and his eldest sons laughter at that.

Chapter 57

It was good to get back home. Olivia stood in the centre of the large living room and looked around her and felt contentment steal into her heart. The fire was burning and there were pleasant smells coming from the kitchen where Cheng Ho Lee was preparing the main meal for the day. She watched as Reuben and Sofia ran up the stairs to put their toys back in their rooms. As she slowly took off her coat and folded it over the back of a chair she wondered why it was that even a building could have such an effect, after all, what was a building but wood, stone and plaster?

As she removed her bonnet she thought of the three homes on the Ponderosa and compared them with the house on the Double D where Marcy and Luke lived so happily and that had been her home for so long. She remembered how foreboding the place had been when they had first returned and how, gradually, she had changed it so much that dear old Abigail had totally relaxed and loved it there.

‘It’s the people who make it a home,’ she thought to herself as the sound of the children’s voices reached her from above, ‘it’s what people bring to a house that makes it special.’

She was still smiling when she entered the kitchen and greeted Cheng Ho Lee who beamed a welcome at her for he loved her dearly. “I’m sorry you had such an unpleasant experience here, Cheng Ho Lee.”

He shrugged and shook his head “Very bad boy want to come take all your jewels away. Good thing he got stopped. Bad thing got stopped permanent.”

“Well, I suppose so, but it wasn’t very pleasant for you.”

“I handle worse things, Missy, you no worry about that…” he smiled and dipped a spoon into the sauce which he carefully carried over to her “Now, taste, you tell Cheng Ho Lee what you think?”

She tasted, savoured and nodded “Oh that tastes just perfect.”

“You like? Very good. I make for dinner tonight.”

She nodded again and for a moment sat at the table watching him as he prepared vegetables and sliced up meat. He was such a capable cook, and it surprised her to realise and appreciate that he had also become a good friend. The thought that he could have been injured or killed in the foray with Lebedev and Armitage made her feel sick, “Cheng Ho Lee, where did you come from before you were here?”

He paused in his chopping up some potatoes and stared out of the window “Ah, I in Virginia City, work for honourable Hop Sings cousin No. 2 in laundry.”

“But you’re a cook, not a laundry man.” she picked up some raw carrot and began to nibble at it.

“Yes, good cook. Cook for all family in Virginia City.”

“But you weren’t always in Virginia City, were you?”

He paused again, then brought the chopper down with a whack which split the potato so effectively as to send it in two directions. He sighed “No, before Virginia City Cheng Ho Lee in far off place. Missy not like it, very hot all time.”

“Was it in China?”

“Yes, Missy, some time in China. Later not, go someplace else.” he heaved in a deep breath before saying quietly “Very busy now. Get meal ready before Mr Adam back from town.”

She nodded and rose to her feet, murmured a thank you before she left the kitchen to his ministrations. She looked at the clock and noticed the time with a smile because it signified that Adam would be home very soon from his trip into town.

Even now she had to stop herself from laughing at the memory of seeing her husband when he walked into the Ponderosa living room. Oh of course everyone cried out in horror when Hoss came in, blood staining his jacket and arm in a sling, but bravely insisting that he was fine, just fine, before collapsing rather comically into an armchair. Hester had run over to him immediately while little Hannah had burst into tears because her daddy was hurt. Ben had yelled out that Dr Martin or Jim be sent for, but Hoss had muttered stoically that there was no need, it was just a flesh wound.

“Just a flesh wound,” Hester had wept, “There’s blood everywhere, Hoss.”

Hoss had heaved a heavy sigh and looked mournful until his brother Joe had come in soaked to the skin and flung his hat onto the credenza. “He’s alright, it’s just a flesh wound.” he had said as he unbuckled his gun belt.

“What happened? Where’s Adam?” Ben had demanded before Olivia could get the words out of her mouth as she was trying to console Hester while Mary Ann had cuddled Hannah.

“Just coming … we got Lebedev, he’s dead.” Joe had announced without any great fuss and he had smiled over at Mary Ann, then looked at Hoss “I said it was just a flesh wound. Ain’t no reason for him to make any big deal about it.”

“Oh there is too,” Hester cried and had stepped back for Hop Sing to take over the administrations to the wound .

“There’s a lot of blood because there’s a lot more flesh on Hoss than most folk,” Joe had stated and was about to launch forth into an explanation of what happened when Adam had walked into the room.

For a moment the whole drama of the moment had just vanished as he stood in the doorway and dripped mud and water everywhere. Olivia admitted afterwards that he had looked so unusually NOT Adam that it shook her a little to realise it was him … clothes and boots were caked in mud, streaks of it had created runnels down his face. Olivia had looked at him with her mouth wide open and then turned to look at Ben who had stared so hard it looked as though his eyes were about to pop out, Hannah had screamed and began to cry again “Bogey man”

“Thanks.” Adam had merely murmured at which point Olivia had lost control altogether and burst out laughing. In fact she had laughed so much she had to excuse herself and run to the outhouse.

She was still smiling when she entered their bedroom. She stood at the entrance of the room and looked at the mess on the floor, the tangle of clothing, the upturned drawers, the jewel box opened and her trinkets scattered over the dressing table, some left where they had fallen onto the floor. She turned slightly at a sound behind her and saw Sofia who was now reaching for her hand “What happened, mommy?”

“A bad man came and tried to steal things from us.” she said simply as she walked further into the room and began to pick the jewels up from the floor and put them neatly into the trinket box.

She remembered as she did so that the ‘bad man’ hadn’t even reached maturity, he was a youth of 17 or 18 years of age, and as a result of this attempt to steal from her, he had died. Just like that, a life snuffed out.

Reuben came in and watched them with his head inclined slightly, “Ma, why would anyone come all the way here to steal your jewels?”

“I don’t know, Reuben, it’s very hard at times to understand why people choose to do bad things.”

“Stealing IS bad.” Sofia announced very solemnly as she passed over an emerald ear ring, one that brought back memories of events not so long ago to her mother who sighed sadly as she put it back in the box.

“But he’s dead now, isn’t he?” Reuben said as he perched himself on the side of the bed, “And that other man who tried to kill Pa, he’s dead as well.”

“That’s two dead people.” Sofia nodded her head to confirm that she had her arithmetic right.

“Yeah, I saw them in the back of the wagon -” Reuben sighed, “Did Pa kill them both?”

“No, he didn’t.” Olivia replied curtly snapping the lid of the box shut and putting it in the drawer. “He shot one when that man tried to kill him. The other man had killed -” she paused and swallowed “he killed the person who was stealing from us.”
“Oh.” Reuben nodded and his young smooth brow crinkled “Why did he do that, was he a policeman or sheriff?”

“No, and I don’t know any more than that, Reuben, you will have to ask your father.” she picked up her clothes and shivered, they would have to be washed, she didn’t like to think of that youth’s hands having touched them.
…………..

Adam smoothed out the envelope and looked at the writing, it was simply and plainly addressed to him ‘Adam Cartwright’ . He glanced over to where Olivia was seated, her head bowed over her sewing, her face calm and serene as the needle flashed in and out of the little garments she was making for the coming baby’s layette. She glanced up now to smile over at him before turning to her work.

Taking the paper knife he slit the envelope open and pulled out the letter. Dimitri’s writing was like himself, small and neat and precise. Adam cleared his throat as though he were about to engage in conversation with the Russian, he was that aware of this being a very personal missive.

“My friend, Adam

Yes, it must seem strange for me to address you in this way, Kommodor, when one thinks of the times we have met, not as friends, more as adversaries is that not so?

But for you I have always known that we have a common respect for what we feel are the right things in life. Things above politics and such things that rule the lives of others. Again strange for me to say so, because I have been involved with the works – the mechanics – of politics for so long.

I believe that soon Vladimir Lebedev will either be dead or will have succeeded in killing me. It is inevitable. It is the rules Gorchakov has given me, and no doubt Vladimir. That is part of the way rules for this game are played, Russian style. There is more than one way to play Russian roulette, you see?

Let me tell you about your friend O’Brien. It was his misfortune to have been seen with his family in Paris. I tried to warn him when I saw him and yet he did not believe me. He did say he would write to you however. I told him, no, you must leave Paris, take your family away.

Perhaps he was intending to leave, who is to know? It was Sergei, and Marek, both superb men at their work – explosive genius’ – under Lebedev’s instructions they fixed a small device to the coach in which they were travelling, when it went off the vehicle crashed into the bridge wall, the horses of course went into panic. It was a mess. No one but another explosive genius would have detected the device.

It was likewise with your friend Captain Hathaway. He stood no chance of surviving the explosives set on board the ship, the Italian boat, wired also the same, could not avoid the collision. The two men were expert at their jobs which is why Lebedev wanted them here.

And how strange, such a simple task and first they nearly kill the wrong man, and then get killed themselves. How do you say it? Many a slip eh? It does not afford us to be too sure of our plans going well.

Vladimir learned that I had seen you at the hotel, he knows I have – in a sense – betrayed him. That means to him, I have betrayed Russia, or rather, Gorchakov, who is Russia. There now., that is the problem. So either I kill him, or he kills me…we shall see.

But, my friend, I think you will be all right.
k6;l6; l9;k4;l0;k6;k2;l5;l0;n3; – goodbye

Dimitri Doestov”

…………………………….

Armitage watched as his nephew was buried in the small graveyard close to town. There was Boot Hill and there was the more private cemetery where ‘decent’ townsfolk were buried. Somehow Edward Armitage managed to get himself declared ‘decent’ enough for burial there thus avoiding the stain of Boot Hill for immortality.

There were not many attending Edwards funeral. Dan deQuille was there, several others, some of the women folk including Clemmie Hawkins who had felt it her duty to attend due to Edwards youth. The ex-sheriff had not been impressed by the poor turn out but it was a reminder of the fact that he was a newcomer to town, and had not really fulfilled the expectations of the populace as far as his sheriffing was concerned.

Disgruntled and heavy hearted he made his way to the apartment he was renting and closed the door. Once inside he found a glass, a large bottle of bourbon and an armchair which faced the window overlooking the town.

Two glasses of bourbon created a headache, the third cleared the headache and made him think over the statements he had read about Edwards’ death. By the fourth glass he began to suspect that there was something not quite right about those statements, and there was something decidedly wrong about Edward and the accusations people were making against him. Surely if he had been the thief as they said he was, then he, his uncle and the sheriff, would have had some inkling ?

By the time the bottle was empty Mr Cyril Armitage, ex – sheriff of Virginia City, was convinced that his nephew had been murdered on false charges, no doubt by one of those Cartwrights, or that Chinese cook under orders of the one they called the Commodore. It just seemed so logical, after all, why would Edward be on Ponderosa land? He was a hard working young clerk kept chained to his desk at the Territorial Enterprise offices…well? Wasn’t he?

Chapter 58

The day following young Edward Armitage’s funeral the Cartwright brothers rode into town, each with their particular tasks in mind. It was wet, windy and the sky was grey and bleak. It was a day when most men preferred to be home by the fire not riding with the rain dripping down their necks through the gap between their hat brims and slickers. The three men split up to do their assigned tasks having agreed to meet at the Sazarac for a drink before heading back to the Ponderosa. Hoss was cautioned by Amanda Ridley in the Emporium that the ex-sheriff was breathing murder and goodness knew what else against the Cartwrights, particularly Adam which made Hoss guffaw with laughter “You gotta be kiddin’, Miss Amanda.”

“I’m not,” she leaned on the counter towards him “You know the boy was buried yesterday?”

“Yesterday was it?” Hoss frowned “But why has the – I mean – Mr Armitage got so’s he’s blaming us?”

“That’s exactly it, Hoss, that’s exactly what he’s doing, he’s blaming you all, saying his nephew wasn’t a thief and somehow or other you murdered him.”

“Aw, c’mon now, why’d we do that?” Hoss shook his head and shrugged, “You reckon he’s gone mad?”

“Mad with drink more like.” Amanda said, “Just warn your brothers to be careful and tread around him carefully.”

“Does Clem know – and Roy?”

“Sure, they know.” Amanda nodded her head and then had to turn away to see to another customer while Hoss pushed some money into his top pocket and walked away, scooping up some bags of groceries along the way.

In the Sazarac Adam walked to the counter and leaned against it. He had thrown his hat on the table and then stood at the counter waiting for Charley to come to take his order.

“Good to see you in town, Adam,” Charley smiled and having got the order began to fill the glasses with beer.

By the time they were filled and Adam was taking them to the table his brothers had arrived and were edging into their seats, Charley, noticing Hoss’ arm in a sling called out to enquire how it was, to which Hoss replied it could have been worse, and with a grin picked up his glass of beer.

It was a relaxed happy group of men, any onlooker could vouch that it was a pleasure to have seen the three brothers sitting around enjoying a glass of beer like in the days when they were younger and single. The fact that two were listening intently to the news that Hoss had brought them was beside the point, to all intents and purposes all was well.

A lot happened it seemed, all mixed up in a few bizarre moments. The doors of the saloon opened and Ruby and Lizzie came in, laughing together, and walked quickly to the table where some miners were seated. A tall, middle aged man also entered the saloon, glanced about him, and began to walk towards the Cartwrights table.

Cyril Armitage got so many feet to where the Cartwrights were seated when he began to yell at them, “I’ve a score to settle with you, all of you, you low down conniving liars, murderers.”

“What do you mean by that ?” Joe snapped back, jumping immediately to his feet, “You got something to say, Armitage, then say it out straight.”

“ You killed young Edward -”

Adam shook his head “We did nothing of the kind, now why not calm down and talk rational.”

“You calling me a liar now?” Armitage yelled and stepped forward with his fist flying, but too drunk to hit his target although Adam rose to his feet so abruptly that the chair toppled over with a crash to the floor.

“That’s enough -” Hoss stood up and put a restraining hand across Adam’s chest, while turning his back on Armitage who seemed suddenly confused by the sight of Hoss’ broad back only inches from him, “That’s enough. Mr Armitage, you should be ashamed of yourself accusing us like that , you got our statements, you know what happened, you know exactly what your nephew was doing.”

“Yeah, and what do you know about it, Hoss.” Armitage spat, “You tell me how come a boy gets to visit folk on the Ponderosa and ends up dead. Not even wearing a gun, nothing, nothing to defend himself with … you call that fair, you call that right?”

Joe stepped forward now pushing in between Armitage and Hoss so that his brothers could step back a pace or two “Mr Armitage, we ain’t saying it’s right or fair the way Edward died, but we weren’t responsible for his death. If he hadn’t been there at the time, doing what he was doing -”

“There you go, making those accusations again -” Armitage yelled, he jabbed a finger at Adam, “As for you, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. “

Adam raised his eyebrows and said nothing, he righted his chair and sat down. They watched as Armitage stomped out of the saloon, crashing the door behind him.

“There goes a bitter man,” Hoss sighed, “Makes you wonder what turns a man so angry.”

“It’s a pity he didn’t take as much notice of his nephew when he was alive, as he does now.” Adam murmured, and glanced over his shoulder at the other customers who had been silenced by the outburst and were now muttering among themselves “Let’s just hope that this accusation doesn’t make other people around here believe it’s true.”

“You don’t think anyone would believe it, do you?” Joe raised his eyebrows high, and shook his head, “Surely not?”

His brothers didn’t answer but decided to finish their drinks quickly and leave town. As they left the building some men at the other tables glanced at the closed doors, put their heads together and began to murmur. Some seeds mature in fertile ground, others die …

In San Francisco police were pondering over the identity of a woman found on the wharf side among crates and boxes bound for Alaska. The woman was in her early forties, reasonably attractive and dressed expensively. There was no means of identification on her whereabouts and a search for a purse or some papers revealed nothing.

Janos also known as Jonas Anderson leaned upon the rails of the ship and stared out at the fast disappearing outline of the American coast. It had broken his heart to know that his wife would not be making this journey to his homeland. He had hoped that she would understand everything once he had explained it but sadly she had been taken from him almost as soon as they had reached the ship.

Milyutin explained that she was a liability, and American. It was better for her to return to her home in Virginia City or to her family where her heart would be comforted by the things she loved and knew. In the back of his mind Janos knew that his dear wife would not be returning anywhere, and that the only problem with her heart would be the bullet or knife in it. But he couldn’t dwell upon such things as that, as a good Russian he had to accept that such sacrifices had to be made at times by loyal subjects. He preferred to tell himself that his dearly beloved was sniffling in a handkerchief in a stagecoach bound for home.

In his cabin Milyutin wrote up the daily report, noting that one Mrs Anderson had been ‘dealt with neatly’ and that the coffins of Counts Lebedev and Doestov were ‘on ice’ in the hold awaiting burial in the rich soil of their motherland.

As he put his pen down he congratulated himself as being the sole survivor of this particular assignment, something he had not envisaged when he had first ventured upon it.

Chapter 59

Adam wiped the rain from his face and glanced up at the sound of approaching horses and then looked over in the direction of his youngest brother, Joe, who was straining hard to shift the limb of a tree from the river. It had been their task that morning to clear debris from the river near Millers Creek as the amount of rain that had fallen over the week was enough to swell the rivers and bring down bridges.

Joe didn’t look up until Adam had whistled at him, and when he did it was with small grace as he watched the bough sink back into the water and float back to where it had previously settled.

Clem Foster drew his horse up and waited for the two brothers to walk up to him noting as he did so the absence of Hoss who, he thought, would have been invaluable in work of this kind. Then he remembered that Hoss had been injured during the previous weeks battle with Lebedev. Joe greeted him with a watery grin while Adam brought a hand across his face to wipe away the rain “Anything wrong. Clem?” Adam asked.

“Not sure to be honest.” Clem replied as he leaned forward on his saddle horn and his eyes turned to Joe “Hope this don’t mean trouble for you, Joe, but several folk have reported seeing a black stallion with the Ponderosa brand on it recently.”

“Whereabouts?” Joe asked, putting his hand on Clem’s horses bridle to still its head for it obviously didn’t like standing about in the rain.

“Further south.” he looked at Joe as the younger man glanced over at Adam “Fact is, they seen the horse and its rider and it’s the rider that’s got them tied up in knots.”

“Really?” Adam scowled “Why’s that?”

“Because it’s an Indian, Cheyenne some say, Sioux others think he could be…. They’ve been talking about it in the saloons, muttering an’ all. They reckon it’s been stolen from here. Some want the army called in.”

“Because of one horse?” Joe exclaimed looking disgusted at the thought.

“No, because of the rider, because there are a bunch of them Indians riding together and he seems to be their leader on a black horse with the Ponderosa brand.” Clem scowled, he hadn’t wanted to report this to the Cartwrights but even he found it hard to accept, a fine looking horse being stolen – obviously – from the Ponderosa.

“Look, Clem, there’s no need for the army to be called in. I gave that horse to that Indian, and it was given freely as a gift.” Joe said as rationally as he could although the look of incredulity on Clems face made his temper flare.

“The Cheyenne in question saved my life some time back, Clem. It was the least we could give him by way of thanks.” Adam said quietly, placing a hand on Joe’s arm as he sensed his brothers irritation mounting.

“That may be, Adam, but I don’t know how folks back in town will take that information. I can’t see them thinking much about it.”

“Too bad,” Joe snapped back “No one’s got the right to dictate to me what I do with my horses, or to whom I give them. You just tell them that from me, alright?”

Clem opened and then closed his mouth, he wished fervently that Roy was nearby he was sure to have the right words to say, he glanced at Adam as though for help, Adam shrugged slightly “Joe’s right, Clem. He has the right to give his property to whomever he wishes.”

“But – a Cheyenne? That ain’t sensible, Adam, and you knows it. Weren’t so long ago they were scalping Custer and his men, or have you forgotten that?”

“No,” Adam replied shortly and gave a shake of the head “Peace has to start somewhere, Clem, and those people came here to find peace. That’s all.”

“Mmm,” Clem shook his head now “Somehow I got me a feeling that ain’t gonna work out . Folk in town -”

“I don’t give a hoot about the folk in town, it’s my business, Clem, just tell them to mind their own.” Joe yelled and stalked away to return to his task of pulling at the tree in the river.

Clem looked at Adam “What do I do, Adam?”

“Well, you just tell the people who want to cause trouble to stop doing so. Joe’s right, the horse was his and he gave it to a friend -”

“That ain’t gonna sit well on some folk.”

“Joe gave it to a friend, a friend of his and mine. If anyone wants to cause trouble about it, tell them to come and see us about it.” he stepped back “Thanks for your time, Clem.”

Clem nodded and turned the horse round, then paused “You know Armitage is telling folk in town you killed his nephew.”

“That’s a load of nonsense, Clem. I had other things on my mind that day other than killing a boy who was stealing from us.”

“He denies that the boy was stealing from anyone.”

“Then you had better get busy proving that he was …” Adam paused and ran a hand ov er his chin “How many thefts have you had recently, Clem?”

“None.” Clem sighed as he moved his horse back the way they came “None at all.”

Adam watched him go and scratched the back of his neck where the rain water had trickled, he shivered, shook his head and returned to help his brother tug at the tree. Joe scowled “We could do with Hoss here…”

“Yeah, well, with his bad arm -” Adam murmured.

“Huh, you mean Hester’s been fussing over him so much he don’t want to move his fat backside out of that chair.”
Adam glanced up at the sky, blinked against the rain that fell into his eyes “Seems a sensible idea to me.”

“Huh!” was the only reply he received from his irate brother who certainly agreed it was a good idea, and who fervently wished he had thought of it first, except, of course, he had no injury over which his wife could fuss.

For some while the brothers continued to work in silence, speaking only when it became necessary to do so in order for their task to be completed. The rain stopped falling and a bleak sky, hidden by dark clouds, seemed to hang heavily overhead.

“Joe?” Adam leaned against the trunk of a tree and looked over at his brother who turned a stubborn face towards him as though already anticipating what was to come. “What do you intend doing about Stalking Horse?”

Joe narrowed his eyes and shrugged, he hesitated a moment or two before replying “I thought I would go and find him, suggest he takes his people and move on before there’s trouble.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully, his face was composed as he considered what Joe had said and for a while he just watched his brother as Joe collected up equipment “Look, if you don’t mind my saying this but -”

“What?” Joe snapped, “You trying to tell me not to get involved? Well, I am involved – that’s my friend out there, and the horse I gave him was mine.” he jabbed his thumb into his chest as though to emphasise the fact before turning his back on his brother who left the support of the tree to walk over to Sport and mount into the saddle.

“I was just going to suggest that whatever you decide to do, you discuss it with Mary Ann first. Then come and get me.”

“Huh?” Joe scowled, shook his head and mounted his horse, “Of course I’d discuss it with my wife…”

“I’m just saying, that’s all… in case it slipped your mind.” Adam said casually.

“And why should I come to you afterwards?”

“So that I can ride along with you and make sure you keep out of trouble, of course.”

Joe shook his head “Me? Keep out of trouble? You’re a fine one to talk after what we’ve gone through these past few weeks.”

“Mmm, well, local trouble’s different.” Adam gave a tight lipped smile, “Anyway, Stalking Horse is by way of being a friend of mine too, you know.”

Joe looked at his brother thoughtfully, then nodded, “Alright, I’ll come by and see you once I’ve talked this over with Mary Ann.”

Adam returned the nod and then nudged Sport into a trot, he could hear the sound of Joe’s horse following suit as the two brothers made their way from the engorged river towards home.
……………….

Bridie O’Flannery checked over her purchases and paid her money to Mrs Cameron, giving the woman the benefit of a generous smile. As she turned to pick up her items she saw the majestic form of Clemmie Hawkins approaching and realising that she had not yet b een seen by the widow, Bridie very quickly nipped out of the store, closing the door hurriedly behind her.

“Oh, Mrs O’Flannery -” Mrs Cameron cried with one hand aloft in which she held several coins “Oh dear, she’s left without her change.”

Dr Paul Martin put down his bag upon the counter “I’ll take it along to her, if you wish, Mrs Cameron. I’ll be going her way …”

“Would you? Thank you, Dr Martin, I do appreciate that, with the weather as it is I can’t be sure as to when she’ll be back in town.”
“I quite understand.” said the good doctor taking the money and his bag out of the shop and closing the door behind him.

Bridie was not far up the sidewalk, having stopped to gaze at some bonnets in the milliners window. Hearing her name called she turned, saw Paul and smiled “Good afternoon, Dr Martin.”

“Goodness, is it afternoon already?” Paul exclaimed and then handed the coins to her “Mrs Cameron was worried that you may not be in town for a while -.”

“Thank you.” Bridie replied and slipped the coins into her purse.

There then followed the awkward silence that happens when two people want to talk, but are unsure what to say or how to say it. Paul cleared his throat and Bridie stared harder at the bonnets. “Well,” Paul said.

“Yes?” Bridie replied.

“I was wondering – would you like to join me at the Internationale? They make excellent coffee -?”

Bridie was slightly, only slightly, taken aback but smiled and nodded and said that would be delightful. Together they turned towards the hotel, Bridie with her bag of purchases swinging from her arm and Paul with his medical bag thumping against his leg. He pursed his lips and frowned as he thought of what to say having come this far already and unprepared “Have you seen Olivia Cartwright lately, Mrs O’Flannery?”

“Certainly I have, I make a point of seeing her as often as possible to make sure she’s alright.” she frowned, “She ‘s still carrying quite high, so I’m comfortable with the fact that she will deliver on her due date.”

Paul looked at her thoughtfully, “I know you delivered Mary Ann’s child during the storms -”

“Yes, that’s right. But I was taught how to deliver and care for women during childbirth and afterwards by my mother, she was the woman who delivered the babies and looked after things back home in our village.”

“In Ireland?”

“You wouldn’t possibly have guessed from the accent would you?” she laughed, a pleasant warm laugh that brought a smile to Pauls’ often too solemn features.

“So you are experienced in nursing?”

“As far as a woman can be without actually going to medical college. I delivered my first baby when I was 16 years old.” she smiled at t he memory and nodded her thanks as Paul held open the hotel door for her to pass through.

It was warm and comfortable in the hotel restaurant and Paul led her to a table, ignoring the curious glances as they passed. Bridie noticed though, and wondered what was the problem as eyes followed the doctor and herself to where Paul ushered her into a chair. Coffee soon arrived along with some sandwiches and a selection of cakes. Paul looked at Bridie thoughtfully “The problem we have here is that we have such a vast amount of territory to cover so we are quite some distance from every patient. I mean -” he swallowed coffee and then stared at the dark liquid in his cup before looking at her “taking Olivia as a case in point – she is so far out there on the Ponderosa, and if I’m not in town or aware that she had started labour -”

“I know, I understand that problem only too well, which is another reason why I keep an eye on her. The Cartwright women are fortunate though, they have people around to help, and I shall certainly make sure I’m available at the time. But -” she sighed and looked around the restaurant before looking back at Paul “there are women here who don’t have the comforts and care the Cartwrights can afford. There’s a woman – Rosemary Hayes – she has five children already and expecting her sixth, her husband is …” she paused and tried to find a pleasant way of saying that Mr Hayes was a waste of space “well, it seems the only thing he’s good at is getting his wife in the family way every year, and the place they live in is a hovel.”

“They’re poor people.” Paul admitted with a nod, “I only just got to her in time for the last one. No room to swing a cat – literally.”

“And the baby sleeps in a drawer and the others like sardines on a truckle bed.”

“If there’s a truckle bed available.” Paul sighed. “it’s the nature of this world, sadly, some have it, most do not.”

“I saw it in Ireland… clod cottages, grass roofs, mud floors and babies birthed in straw on the floor, sleeping in a box with only their fathers clean shirt to wrap them in…if there was a clean shirt available. I thought it would be better here in the ‘land of the free’” she finished her sandwich but declined any cake, having decided that she wouldn’t pay for something that she could prepare better herself, “well, as you say, some have it, most don’t.” she smiled slowly, “Perhaps one day it’ll improve though.”

“I hope so. I’ d like to think so.” Paul replied and smiled back at her.

They separated after their little tete a tete, Paul had a patient to attend to and Bridie needed to get back home. She placed her purchases carefully on the seat of her buggy and looked up at the clouds, thankful indeed that the vehicle had a hood and canopy, but knowing that it would still be a damp ride home .

Chapter 60

In the main house of the Ponderosa Hoss Cartwright sat in his arm chair and felt contentment steal over him. He couldn’t but help look at Hester without thinking how blessed he was to have such a lovely wife. Of course many would have told him that Hester Cartwright was, in fact, quite a plain woman with a nose too large and a mouth too generous, but her amazing red gold hair that fell into natural crinkly curls and the brilliance of her blue eyes made those even dismissive of her looks think twice and look again.

Having now had two children her figure had become more matronly but her height and bearing prevented her from looking in any way stout, she looked only more stately than previously and walked with the dignity of a woman with good breeding.

Hoss sighed and smiled at her devotedly as she served him another cup of coffee and patted his cheek affectionately. Happily at play was Hannah with her black hair and blue eyes hugging her raggedy dog with the missing eye and then abandoning it for a multi coloured ball. Hope was in her little chair chewing on a biscuit as pretty as a picture and every so often pausing to look over at her father and give him a gummy smile.

Life, Hoss thought with a sigh, could not be better. A knock on the door made Hope jump, drop her biscuit and begin to grizzle. Hoss rose slowly from his chair – after all blood loss makes a man feel weak in the legs – and nearly fell over Hannah who had darted forward to see who it was, he saved himself from falling by grabbing at the nearest thing to him which happened to be his wife.

To prevent herself from falling over Hester clung tightly to Hoss so that the pair of them swayed rather alarmingly together before managing to steady up in time for the door to be opened, by Ben, to admit Candy Canaday. He stepped in with a smile, a nod of the head and a swift glance around the room with his usual sharp way of noticing things. As he removed his hat Ben was asking him how he was feeling and whether or not he was well enough to get back to work.

“Well, I haven’t seen Dr Martin or Dr Chan but in myself I feel that I need to get back to work, Mr. Cartwright. A man can get too comfortable staying at home all the time.” and he gave Hoss a long look under dark brows.

“I got shot,” Hoss said quickly, “Just a flesh wound mind, but I lost a lot of blood.”

Candy nodded and smiled as though he accepted the explanation with the grain of salt with which it was delivered. He sat down at Ben’s invitation and accepted the offer of a cup of coffee which Hester bustled off to prepare. “I heard about the shoot out with the Russian.”

Ben nodded and sighed “Hopefully that business can be put to one side now.”

“What does Adam say about it all?” Candy wanted to know which caused Ben to scratch his head and then shrug

“To be honest he didn’t say much.” he sat down in the red leather chair and groped for his pipe, smiled at Hannah who had come to sit on his knee “But are you feeling well enough to return to work now, Candy? The weathers been real bad lately and the last thing I would want is for you to fall foul of it.”

“I’m stronger than I might look,” Candy grinned and accepted the coffee with a smile from Hester, “I was sorry to hear that the other Russian gentleman had been killed, the one Adam knew b efore all this business came about.”

“Ah yes, Count Doestov.” Ben replied as though rather proud that an actual Count had died upstairs in the guest bedroom, “Yes, he was quite a character from all accounts.”

“Well, there was something else I wanted to mention …” Candy paused and frowned, sipped the coffee before setting the cup back onto its saucer “Ann was in town yesterday and overheard a conversation between our ex-sheriff and another man.”

There was a pause and Hoss looked anxiously over at his father who raised his eyebrows and prompted Candy to continue, Hester sat down to listen as Candy continued speaking “Armitage was saying how he had seen a black horse with the Ponderosa brand being ridden by a Cheyenne Indian. The other man reckoned that Joe should be told, obviously the horse had been stolen, by his reckoning. He knew that Joe had such a black horse, well, guess most men in town knew about that …”

“Go on.” Hoss prompted “So what happened that’s got you all fired up?”

“Armitage intimated that Joe had always been an Indian lover, he’d heard all about the time Joe went and lived with them that time back. He reckoned that Joe had invited a whole horde of Cheyenne to come and stay on the Ponderosa. He’s all out to bring in the army.”

Ben stroked his chin and then slowly picked Hannah from his lap and set her down while he stood up, “I don’t know if Joe knows anything about this, we’ve not seen him nor Adam today. I think I’ll go and see him now and discuss it with him.”

“Well, I just thought you had better know now because that Armitage is out to cause trouble for you all. He’s tried to blame your boys for his nephews death but that’s not worked out as Sheriff Foster has made it clear exactly what did happen. Also Dan deQuille has written up about the thefts, and how people have been reclaiming their jewellery, most of which had been found in young Edwards room.”

Hoss frowned “Wal, don’t that kinda discredit Armitage more? Surely there ain’t nobody gonna take any notice of what he has to say about anything?”

“He may have been an ineffective sheriff,” Candy said quietly, “but he got that position somehow other than his own merit, and he still has people paying attention to him as a result. Anway -” he rose to his feet slowly, “I don’t have to tell you that there are enough people in town who still hold a grudge against the Cartwrights to be prepared to listen to anything.”

Ben nodded as he walked to the door, and took his hat and jacket from the pegs. “I’ll walk you to your horse, Candy.”

“Thanks, sir… goodnight, Hoss, Hester, thanks for the coffee.”

Ben was deep in thought as he walked towards Candy’s horse and stood by as the other man mounted up “Thanks for coming by, Candy. It was good to see you up and about again.”

“Should be me thanking you for your generosity, sir. “ Candy smiled and put out a hand which Ben shook, “I’ll be in early tomorrow morning to get my orders for the day.”

Ben nodded with a smile and waved the other man off, but his thoughts were already on the trouble Candy had indicated could be brewing for his youngest son. He sighed and walked to the stable where he saddled Cinnamon. It was only a mile’s walk to Joe’s house but Ben didn’t feel he could be bothered to walk, the evening was drawing in and it was colder than ever. He shivered, he hated the encroaching days of winter.
……………….

Mary Ann sat at the table and listened patiently as her husband told her the problem about Stalking Horse and the black horse. She felt so sad for Joe whose only intentions were always good and honest all the time, and now to be embroiled in a situation that could involved the army, and fighting, all because of his kindness all those weeks earlier.

As Joe talked he watched his wife’s face and wondered just what she was thinking. Did she think he was a fool to care so much? Was she afraid that he would fall into that emotional trough of despair that had existed a short while back? He was grateful when she put out a hand to rest upon his arm, and the way her grey eyes widened and darkened as he spoke.

“So you see, sweetheart, I have to go and find him, warn him about the dangers he was in. I can’t let anything happen to him because of what I’ve done.”

“You only did a very kind thing, Joe, you have nothing to reproach yourself about, nothing at all. It’s just sad that some small minded people have to make so much out of so little.”

“I can understand in one way why they’re acting like this,” Joe said reaching out now and placing a hand over hers, folding his fingers and entwining them with her own, “After all it may well seem to them that he stole the horse from me, they know how much I cared about it, I bragged about Saturn so much -” his voice drifted away on a sigh and he looked at her and smiled sadly, “I always seem to do the wrong thing.”

“No, you don’t,” she assured him and stood up to kiss his cheek, “I wouldn’t want you any different, Joe.”

“Adam said he’d come with me, if you didn’t mind my going that is…” he looked up at her and was grateful to see her smile, a smile that did touch her eyes, “Only Stalking Horse was such a good friend to us.”

She said nothing but nodded, and lowered her head to kiss him again. Friendship, she knew, was something to be treasured and when it existed between people of a different race, it was doubly precious.
…………………….

Sofia struggled hard to get her knitting needle to hook the stitch over and onto the other needle. She had been taught to knit by her mother some months ago and had wanted to knit something pretty for the coming baby. The scarf was now some feet long but although it was thinner in some parts than in others was looking, in her eyes anyway, rather splendid. With a sigh she put the needles down and yawned, looked at Olivia and asked if she could put her knitting away and play for a while.

Olivia nodded and carefully continued to sew the hem of the little night dress. She looked up as Sofia passed her by and smiled “Do you want some milk, Sofia?”

“No, thank you, mommy.”

Sofia stopped now at the console table and looked at the pictures on it. There was one of her mother with Adam on their wedding day. One of the couple with Reuben and herself; she particularly liked that picture and stared at herself in admiration. There was a picture of an old lady, a very old lady and if Sofia screwed up her eyes and concentrated she could remember this old lady coming with them in the wagon from the big city, and Grampa Ben had been there too and would make the old lady laugh. There was another picture that she knew well and now she reached for it and looked closely at the face she had become so familiar with over the years. With a smile she returned to her mother with the picture in her hand. “Mommy, tell me about Daddy.”
Olivia said nothing for a moment and she smiled as she beckoned for her daughter to sit beside her on the big settee. Once Sofia was comfortable she took the picture from her hands and with one arm around the child’s shoulders she looked at the face of her first husband very intently before she sighed and then said to Sofia “You know who this is, don’t you?”

“Yes, his name is Robert Phillips and he’s my daddy. My real daddy …” she frowned slightly then and looked at the picture very closely, “He lived in the big house in San Frank- cisco -”

“San Francisco.” Olivia corrected her gently.

“He was Reuben’s daddy. He was – “ she drew in a big breath “he was an arky-teck”

“Yes, he was an achitect. He designed some important buildings in San Franciso.”

“One day he didn’t come home and that was before I was born, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right. But he knew that you were coming, he was very excited about having another son or a little daughter.” Olivia sighed and hugged Sofia close, “Reuben was very little when his father died, I doubt if he remembers him now.”

“And I never ever saw him at all, did I?”

“No, my dear, you didn’t.”

“But he is my real daddy, isn’t he?” Sofia looked up at her mother’s face with a seriousness that put some maturity to the childish features, Olivia nodded slowly, looked at Roberts picture and then at her daughter and thought how she had Roberts chin, and the slant of his eyebrows, the way her hair grew back from the hairline, so much of Robert that she hadn’t even noticed before now.

“So is Adam just a pretend daddy?” Sofia asked with her face a perfect question mark of deliberation.

“No, he’s -” Olivia paused, how did one explain legal terms to a child? She smiled “No, he’d not a pretend daddy, he is your daddy but -”

“But he can’t be my real daddy if this is my real daddy.” Sofia pouted and looked down at the picture, “This is my real daddy.” she repeated and hugged the picture frame to her chest, wriggled down from the settee and ran away with it, up the stairs and into her bedroom.

Once in her room Sofia looked very hard at the face in the picture. She liked this face, perhaps because she resembled her father that explained the reason why it looked so familiar to her. She smiled and kissed him, “My real daddy.”

She put the picture under her pillow and then sat down to play with her dolls. She would think more upon the subject later, enough was enough for today.
…………………

Joe was surprised to find his father on the doorstep and even more so when Ben told him the reason why he was there. As Ben followed his son into the house, greeted his daughter in law with a kiss and tweaked his grandsons cheek, Joe pondered over the fact that life in Virginia City was already moving fast forward on the matter of Stalking Horse.

He paced the floor as he listened to all Ben had to tell him, he shook his head and agreed with his father that Armitage and whoever else the wretched man could conjure up would see the matter through to the bitter end. The fact that the end didn’t have to be a bitter one seemed not to matter to them, but it mattered to Joe, and to Ben.

“What were you thinking of doing, son?”

“Going early tomorrow to track Stalking Horse down and warn him that there’s going to be trouble. Adam said he would come with me.”

“We’ll all go, Hoss will be well enough to join with us. I can leave Candy in charge of the work detail I needed done tomorrow. “

“There’s no need for you to come, Pa -” Joe started but saw the look in Bens eyes, nodded and smiled, “Thanks, Pa. I appreciate that…”

“I’m saddled up now, I’ll ride down to Adams and tell him whats been arranged. You just spend the time with Mary Ann and Daniel. I’ll see you in the morning.”
…………….
In Virginia City Dan deQuille rubbed his chin and looked over the newspaper that was going to hit the streets of town the following day. Sandwiched between the news reports about Mr Saville’s disclosure about how Edward Armitage had tried to get him to take some of the stolen jewellery (some of which deQuille noted had yet to be found) was the report of concerns related to Cheyenne Indians being seen in the vicinity of the Ponderosa. He added, with some personal regret, that one of the men were noticed to be riding a magnificent black stallion with the Ponderosa brand mark. The Question was …had it been stolen?

As he read through the article Dan wondered how the public would answer that question, he pondered on whether he should remove it or not, but then would that not be failing as a good reporter were he to do so? This was news of a sort after all, and he, as a report, journalist, author, had a duty to his public. Having thought that through he had an inkling in the back of his mind that certain people would not see it that way and a confrontation with Ben Cartwright, the Commodore or Joe and Hoss were not those he enjoyed or wanted.

Chapter 61

The morning came all too early but the rain had ceased and it was a morning that promised to be bright, slightly cool, just a little breezy. Adam kissed his wife as she slept and quietly closed the door behind him. Cheng Ho Lee had prepared him a solitary breakfast and food was ready for him in a sack. Upstairs the children slept and Olivia moved restlessly in the suddenly cooller bed.

Mary Ann was up and ready to see her husband off. She kissed him goodbye and waved with a smile on her face. Her dear Joe, and the memory of how she had felt about him a short while earlier made her face burn with dismay. However it had been a lesson learned and she knew she would never doubt him, or his love for her, again.

Hoss tiptoed around the room hoping not to wake his wife up, but failed. Hester sat up in bed and rather blearily asked him to tiptoe more quietly before he woke Hope up. Hope did wake up and began to bawl, she was a lustily voiced child and hungry, consequently Hannah woke up as well and came running into the room, jumped on the bed and snuggled down beside her mother before that side of the bed got too cold.

“Hoss, be careful. Don’t go stopping stray bullets again.” Hester chided him as he pulled on his vest

“Shucks, I didn’t do it on purpose, Hester.”

“I know.” Hester offered her face up to be kissed, Hannah did the same and then put her arms around her fathers neck and held on tight so that Hoss nearly fell back onto the bed which would have flattened Hester right away. Hope continued to bawl.

Downstairs Ben shook his head and buckled on his gun belt, he was too old to have to listen to bawling babies. Hoss came down the stairs with a sheepish grin on his face and pulling on his big winter coat, he looked like a bedraggled bear that had been nibbled by moths. If Hester had realised he was going to wear that particular coat again she would have been ashamed of him and carried out her threat to burn the wretched thing.

“I’m ready, Pa.”

“Good and about time, sounds like your brothers have arrived.”

Candy had already been and left with his orders some moments before and had passed Adam and Joe in the drive outside. They were talking among themselves when Ben and Hoss emerged from the ranch house, Joe looked at Hoss in disbelief “Hoss, you ain’t gonna wear that old thing, are ya?”

“Ain;t nothing wrong this this old thing, you hear?” Hoss snapped and continued on his way to saddle Chubb II. Adam and Joe exchanged a grin, Hoss wouldn’t have been Hoss without his old brown coat. Candy raised a hand in a farewell salute and galloped out of the yard to begin work, and feeling good to be able to do so.

As soon as Ben and Hoss emerged from the stable all four turned their horses in the direction of the way out, in the house Hester listened at the sound of the horses and hugged Hannah close to her as she whispered her own prayer that all would be well.
…………………….

In Virginia City Cyril Armitage received a cablegram which brought a smile to his thin lips. He brushed his hand under his moustache and nodded in satisfaction then put the slip of paper into his pocket. After a quick look around he made his way to the Sazarac, had a quiet word with several men there and then continued on to the Bucket of Blood where a small group of men found what he had to say very interesting.

Clem Foster was polishing his rifle and wondering what the day would bring when the door opened and Roy Coffee stepped inside and rather deliberately closed the door.

“Sheriff, do you want to know what your towns up to now?”

“It hasn’t burned down since half an hour ago, has it?” Clem smiled fondly at the older man and slipped the rifle back onto the rack.

“Nope, but Cyril Armitage has just ridden out of town with about a dozen men. Talk is that he’s going to meet some army men under the command of Captain Travis …”

“You gotta be kidding me?” Clem’s face dropped, his mouth fell open and his colour faded, behind him Deputy Dodds felt his knees knocking together.

“Afraid so. I’d suggest you get yourself saddled up right away, they’re heading for Headstone Valley.”

“I heard talk that thar was whar they said they saw those Cheyenne, the ones that stole Joe’s black horse?” Dodds stammered.

Roy sighed heavily and looked at the deputy as though he couldn’t believe he’d survived his birth, he shook his head, “Never mind, Dodds, you’d best stay put here in case anything else should happen. I’ll ride along with you, Clem.”

“What about the Cartwrights. Roy?”

“Let’s hope they don’t know anything about it.” Roy muttered beneath his breath but saying that, and believing it were, of course, two entirely different things.
…………………

The rain held off but there was a cold breeze blowing so that it wasn’t long before collars were raised to shield necks and hats lowered to protect eyes. Adam hated the cold and as he sat in the saddle with Sport trotting alongside his old stable companions,, Adam thought back to times when he would be on deck facing the worse that the sea could thrown at him and somehow survive. It seemed strangely perverse that on days like this the cold seemed to eat into his bones.

Joe was churning over and over in his mind what he would be able to tell Stalking Horse. He had read enough reports in the news tabloids to know that Sitting Bull was still causing some trouble and the military were sworn to hunt down any ‘renegade’ they could find. Those who had escaped to the Ponderosa with the shaman could hardly be called renegades, but Joe was not so naïve as to believe the military would see that the same way he and his family did.

Hoss was wondering if he had done the wise thing coming out on this jaunt. The jogging motion of riding made his wound throb, and although it was easy to be dismissive of a flesh wound the fact of the matter was that it was still an injury, and not yet healed. He wondered what Joe or Adam would say if he pulled out and returned home.

It seemed to Ben that the whole incident was being blown out of proportion and he darted anxious looks over at his sons to see whether or not they were of the same mind. His concerns were that while away from the ranch various matters were being left untended. There was the deal he was brokering for a good timber contract with Hanratty in Carson City, and young Jessop had asked for help with building on his land.

The four of them were deep in thought when they first saw the signs of other riders. Ben scowled darkly at the thought that there were others on Ponderosa land, and turned his horse in the direction of the other horsemen, followed immediately by his three sons.

It took nearly two hours to travel the distance over land to meet up with the men travelling along the track that cut through the Ponderosa . They rode round a sharp corner just as Roy and Clem were approaching the same bend, needless to say there was a momentary fracas as the horses reared back or were turned round by their riders “Roy” Ben exclaimed “What in the name of Sam Hill are you doing here?”

“Wal, I ain’t coming to see you, Ben., didn’t expect to see you here anyhow.” replied Roy with a sinking feeling and he glanced over at Clem, “We’re on official business.”

Clem nodded, and edged his horse slightly ahead of Roys, just to remind them that he was The Official in Charge now, not Roy “Sorry, Ben, we had hoped to keep you out of this matter, but you obviously got wind of it already.”

“If you’re talking about the Cheyenne -” Ben said quickly, one hand on his hip and looking at Clem challengingly.

“Trouble is, Ben, we ain’t the only ones know about the Cheyenne on Ponderosa land. So do quite a few others and they’ve formed a posse – unofficially I might add – to see into the matter.” Clem rubbed the back of his neck before pulling his collar higher, “And to add to the problem Armitage wired the militia…”

“He did what!” Joe exploded into sound and his face reddened, “He did what?” he repeated, “Doesn’t the fool realise what that could mean?”

“Probably he does, Joe.” Clem nodded “He ain’t bothered one way or another, all he wants is a few moments of glory again, and a chance to spite you all.”

“Well,” Ben sighed “He’s going the right way of doing that, those Cheyenne are here under our protection, Clem. They aren’t involved in any fighting or such, they just want a peaceful existence here.”

“Unfortunately, Ben, the U.S. Government don’t see it quite the same way. You could be in trouble for harbouring hostiles.” Roy muttered, determined to get some say in the matter, “We need to get to them before Armitage and his posse do.”

“What about the militia you mentioned? Are they already on the way here?” Adam asked leaning forwards on his saddle and frowning at the two men so that they looked at one another before Clem nodded, “Yep, they’re on their way.”

“Then we’d best lose no more time,” Joe replied and yanked at the reins in order to turn his horse and set it galloping towards where Stalking Horse had his camp.

They rode fast, as fast as their horses could carry them, making brief stops along the way for the animals to catch their wind. Although they were constantly on the watch for other horsemen they caught no sign of any, and allowed themselves to believe that they were ahead of both Armitage’s group of men and the militia.

……………………..

Stalking Horse watched as the black horse grazed upon the lush grass in the valley. Although winter was fast approaching there was still some warmth in the sun which now shone down upon the small group of men and women, with their few children, and created a peaceful, pleasant scene.

For many days now the shaman had meditated on the ways of the white men. Their actions had puzzled him from the time when he firsts realised that they were a threat to his people’s ways of life. He could remember the time when Joseph Cartwright had been brought into their camp and Little Moon had cared for him. It had seemed a strange twist of irony that she had fallen in love with this white stranger and not for him, a young man who had been constant and patient for her to return his affection which he had not concealed from her.

His love for the little maiden had been a generous one and seeing her happy with Joseph had emboldened him to step back and befriend him. Even now, as he watched the horse, he wondered if that was when he had made his first mistake. He should have challenged the youth, forced him out of their lives, then perhaps Little Moon would have become his wife, and she would still be alive today.

He sighed and rose to his feet in order to approach the horse, he was still thinking of the generosity of Joseph in giving him the animal when he heard the cry ring out from the small camp site “Wasicu… wasicu”

He turned to look at the approaching horsemen and then turned towards where his people were already scattering for cover. It gave him a sharp pang to the heart to realise that their fear of the white man was so great that they ran to hide, rather than stand their ground and parley. Knowing that there were good and kind men among the whites he mounted the horse and rode towards them.

Armitage and his men had an advantage over the Cartwrights in that they hadn’t had to traverse across Ponderosa land to reach Headstone Valley as that area was then called. The journey being that much shorter brought them right to where the village – if the few tepees could have been called that – had been situated for nearly a week.
The fact that the militia had yet to arrive was an added bonus as there was no official body to witness what was going to happen. Armitage felt a surge of adrenalin run through his body as he saw the rider on the black horse approaching them.
……………….

It was all over by the time the Cartwrights, Roy and Clem arrived on the scene. Armitage and his men were on their way back to Virginia City some of them boastful of what they had accomplished, and some rather ashamed. At least two of the party had doubled back when they realised what Armitage was about to do – talking about it, bragging about it in the saloons was one thing, actually carrying out the action though was a whole different story.

Captain Travis and his column of militia arrived with a great deal of noise some few hours later. They slowed their horses and Travis dismounted close by the man who wore the star “You Sheriff Armitage?”

“No, I’m Sheriff Clem Foster. Armitage ain’t sheriff no more.” Clem said soberly, and turned to introduce Ben and Roy.

“I was told to meet a sheriff Armitage here, he reported the sighting of a number of Cheyenne renegades in the area?”

Roy puffed out his moustache “Ain’t any renegades here, Captain. Not live ones anyway.”

Travis glanced over to where the three younger men were finishing with what appeared to be a burial. He looked back at the men standing next to him “Mind telling me what’s gone on here?”

It was Roy who told him in his usually succinct manner. Ben listened with his mind on other things, such as the sights he had seen as he had ridden his horse from one dead body to the next, the grief of his youngest son at finding Stalking Horse and the way it had turned to anger when Saturn had been found some time later, limping heavily, sweating profusely and his breathing sounding like wheezing bellows as he lay in the dirt and blood among the rocks into which he had fallen.

It had been gentle Hoss who had fired the rifle to put the animal out of his pain. By which time Joe had been so silent with misery and anger that no one dared approach him for some while. It had been Ben who had placed a fatherly hand upon his shoulder and encouraged him to sit down and say what he felt he needed to say.

Travis listened to Roy with a patience and tolerance that Ben had not expected. He had removed his hat out of respect for the dead and sighed several times during the discourse. When Roy had finally finished he asked for details of how many men, women and children had been killed and then after having been told, he sighed again and shook his head.

“The problem is that Sitting Bull is still stirring up trouble, General Miles had an altercation with him in October in Yellowstone country and Dull Knife of the Northern Cheyenne still runs with Crazy Horse along the Tongue. We’ve been ordered to find, locate and destroy any Cheyenne, Sioux no matter where so that any further insurgences will not take place.” he paused and frowned, then drew closer to the other men, further away from his soldiers “It doesn’t sit well with me, gentlemen, to see women and children killed indiscrimately like this. I was under the impression that this man Armitage was going to wait for us to handle the situation.” he bowed his head “It would have been a far more peaceful one than this I can assure you.”

No one said anything to that comment, by this time the three other men had joined them and Travis looked at them thoughtfully “I was told by Armitage that one of the Cheyenne had stolen a black horse belonging to the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa – that would be you, sir -” he looked directly at Ben who inclined his head

“Yes, and these are my sons, Adam, Hoss and Joseph. The horse belonged to Joe but was given freely as a gift to – to the shaman who was leading this group of people to safety.”

“And this is your land?” Travis asked although he was watching Joe carefully as it was obvious the young man was likely to erupt at any time.

“This is the Ponderosa. It was Stalking Horses intention to take his band to where the Bannocks live further north east of here.”

Joe listened to his father’s voice and it seemed to be beating a staccato thud in his head. He finally lost patience and elbowed his way towards Travis “These people were murdered -” he said loudly for all to hear,, “Murdered by those cowards in Virginia City. They used the horse I gave Stalking Horse as an excuse to come here and kill them all.”

Travis nodded “I can see that, Mr Cartwright. Unfortunately what has happened here is being repeated throughout Indian Territory, even more unfortunately it is with Government approval.” he raised a hand as Joe opened his mouth to protest “I’m sorry, but that’s the fact of the matter. Whatever reason those men used to commit what decent people consider an atrocity, whatever excuse they dredged up, there’s nothing you can do about it. In the eyes of the law they have committed no wrong. “

Adam stepped forward his eyes narrowed as he scanned the officer’s face “Men, women, children – murdered in the fashion these people were – and it doesn’t matter?”

Again Travis heaved a sigh which he released slowly, he once again drew closer to them, drawing away from the soldiers “To men of conscience – yes, of course it matters. But to most of those men -” he nodded towards the soldiers who sat stiff backed and stiff faced on their horses “it doesn’t matter one iota. Most of them were ready for a fight, riding out here was like a pleasure trip to them. They still have the deaths of Custer and his men branded in their brains and can’t see pass that … any Indian they kill, whatever gender, age, tribe … is revenge for what happened to Custer.”

Ben nodded “I see, and had you arrived here sooner , maybe before Armitage had got here, what would have happened? Would you have given orders to shoot these people down as well?”

Travis looked at Ben and shook his head “No, I wouldn’t have done that, but whether they would have held back for long before they had found some excuse to let off a pot shot in the hope of starting something I don’t know.”

Adam grimaced “Sounds like you don’t have much control over your men, sir.”

Travis passed a weary hand over his face and shrugged “After so many Indian campaigns, Mr Cartwright, I’m feeling too tired and defeated to put up a fight against my own men any longer. Custer was a personal friend of mine, his brother Tom was -” he paused and was obviously visibly moved as he gulped back what he was going to say and then shook his head “Well, there’s little point in my staying here. The matter’s closed as far as we’re concerned.”

He saluted them with a weariness that indicated the truth of what he had been saying, and then turned, remounted his horse and gave orders for his men to wheel about turn. Within minutes they were galloping back the way they had come.

Adam shook his head “Well, that’s a sorry excuse of an officer…”

“A man sickened to death with all of this,” Ben said, placing a hand on his sons shoulder, “At least he still has a conscience to be affected by it all.”

No one answered that, there seemed little anyone could say. Without a word the six men mounted their horses and began the long journey home, Roy and Clem to the town, while Ben and his boys headed for their homes on the Ponderosa.

Chapter 62

Everything that had taken place, every detail of what had been done, churned away inside Joe until he felt sick. Anger, misery and even guilt ate into his consciousness until in the end he had to halt his horse and dismount in order to walk about and take deep gulps of air into his lungs in an attempt to calm himself down.

Immediately his father and brothers pulled up their horses and returned to where he was standing, bent over with his hands on his knees and breathing heavily. Ben was the only one to dismount while Adam and Hoss kept a respectful distance.

“Joe? “

“I’m alright -”

“You’re far from alright,” Ben reached his side and placed a hand on the young mans back, “I’m sorry about what’s happened, son, but -”

“No ‘buts’ , Pa. They were murdered, butchered down… men from our town, men we’ve known -”

“How do you know that? The only man named was Armitage, we don’t know who else rode with him.”

“I aim to find out.” Joe growled through gritted teeth ignorant of the look Ben cast in the direction of his other two sons who remained close by.

“Look, I think it best that you just leave things to Clem now. You heard what the Captain said? You know from experience – from the things we have experienced here with the Paiute – that no white man has been brought to justice for the killing of any native Indian.”

“Sure, I know that -” Joe straightened up and wiped his brow with the back of his hand, despite the colder weather he was surprised to find he was perspiring, “I don’t aim to wait for Clem -”

“You just hold on there, son.” Ben grabbed at Joe’s arm as though to prevent him springing off right away although in fact Joe remained stock still “You don’t do anything, do you hear me? You don’t do anything at all to Armitage. Leave it to Clem.”

“Is that all you have to say? Leave it to Clem? You’ve just told me that no white man has ever been brought to justice for murdering those men, women and children because they’re Indian? What do you expect Clem to do, huh? You tell me, Pa, because I sure would like to know what kind of justice Stalking Horse, and – and those children are going to get from our good citizens in Virginia City?”

“Calm down, Joe.” Adam said immediately and Hoss echoed the advice, adding for good measure “You don’t want to be under-estimating Clem or the folk in town.”

Joe whipped round “You don’t understand, do you? It was my fault that they were killed. Mine! I gave the horse to Stalking Horse… and one of those children was Little Moon’s daughter … how am I supposed to be feeling about that? I couldn’t protect Little Moon, and now I couldn’t even protect her child!”

“Joe -” Hoss’ voice was slightly deeper than usual, “Joe, I understand how you feel, but you got to calm down, keep a clear head.”

“For why? Tell me, huh?” Joe glared wild eyed at the three of them, his father who was looking sad and long faced, at Adam who had that quizzical look on his features that meant he was thinking things over and at Hoss who looked as though he were about to break down and weep.

No one spoke. The clouds above them grew darker and the wind keened through the boulders but still no one spoke. Finally Joe nodded, heaved a sigh and brushed his sleeved arm across his eyes “Alright, have it your way …”

Ben bit down on his lip and frowned darker than ever before he once again put a restraining hand on Joe’s arm “Joe, you stay close to the Ponderosa for the next few days, do you hear? I don’t want you near town until this business with Armitage has been sorted out.”

“By Clem?” Joe snorted and pulled his arm free.

“By whoever gets to deal with it, Joe.” Ben replied, “Sometimes when the law of the land doesn’t cover any given situation, you have to wait for a higher law to take control.”

“And how long will that be?” Joe muttered as he swung himself into the saddle, “How long, Pa?”

“As long as it takes, boy.” Ben replied gruffly and shook his head as he watched Joe gallop away from them, he looked at Adam and Hoss and gave a slight shrug of the shoulders.

Adam glanced over at Hoss who only raised his eyebrows, shook his head and in silence turned Chubb II in the direction Joe had just taken.
………………

Tucker Pyle had been a miner for many years in the vicinity of Virginia City. He had never made much from his diggings and what he did make he spent quite quickly on his necessities and the drinks in the saloon. He was good friends with Howard Stevens who had a neighbouring lot and like himself had never made more than what kept him in food and clothing.

When Armitage strode into the saloon both men looked over at him, scowled and shook their heads. “The big hero -.” Tucker scoffed just loud enough for people to hear and take notice.

Armitage heard and looked in their direction. He recalled that they had laughed and cheered along with the other men who had ridden out with him but mid way had turned tail and come back to town. He strode over to their table “You say something?”

“Only that you were the big hero, Armitage.” Tucker replied undaunted and no doubt harbouring a death wish for Stevens reached out and plucked at his sleeve as though to calm him down.

Armitage grinned and hooked his thumbs through the pockets of his jeans “Yeah, and what does that make you two? Ain’t never seen so much yellow as I did when I saw you two riding back into town.”

Stevens frowned “Ain’t no call to say things like that, we just saw things different to you once we got outside, that’s all.”

“Aint nothing changed when we got out of town, we all knew where we were heading, and why? Ain’t that right, boys?” Armitage turned to look over at the several men who had ridden out with him, some of whom agreed with loud voices, but several of whom looked rather green and preferred to look away.

Armitage laughed and returned to the counter where he ordered some whiskey for his ‘boys’, “Here’s a toast to the heroes of this world, who ain’t afraid to clean up the mess other people create.”

He swung the bottle high and then laughed again as he poured out the liquid into several glasses,, again he glanced over at Tucker and Stevens “You missed out on a real humdinger of a party, had it all to ourselves as well, them army types never came near, so we got down to the business ourselves, ain’t that right?”

There was a mumble of assent, whiskey was gulped down and more poured into the glasses. Ruby looked at them and then at Tucker “What are they talking about, Tucker?”

The old whiskery miner shook his head “Best you don’t get to know, dearie.”

Ruby frowned and looked at a young man whom she had seen several times in the saloon and liked the look of, he wasn’t looking at anyone in particular, just hugged his glass tight and stared down into it. She then looked at the laughing face of the ex-sheriff and several others who were grinning and laughing along with him. It was obvious from their clothing that whatever they had done, wherever they had been, had involved some blood letting as it still stained their clothing and they had done little to clean themselves of it.

She and Lizzie had been absent at the time Armitage had made his boasts, and formed his band of ‘merrie men’. She now looked them over one by one as she strolled down the line of them, her black and scarlet satin skirt swishing softly with each step, then she paused at the youngest men and looked at him “You look sick.”

“That’s because I feel sick.” he muttered and glanced over at Armitage with loathing, “I ain’t never been ashamed of anything I ever did before in my life, but now I don’t know what to do, Miss Ruby, I don’t think I’ll ever feel clean again in my entire life.”

Armitage laughed aloud and strode down towards where Ruby stood beside the boy, he swung the bottle high “we just got rid of some garbage, that’s all, little Ruby, so now we can all breathe in some clean fresh air again, ain’t that right, boys.”

Tucker stood up and pushed aside his glass, as did Stevens. As he walked past Armitage they stopped, Tucker looked the man up and down “Well, you may think so, but it seems to me a whole load of garbage just got itself swept up here and I ain’t intending to stay anywhere near until it’s cleared away.”

“Why -” Armitage’s swagger and grin emptied away, he narrowed his eyes “You fat old fool, you don’t know what you’re talking about -”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Tucker replied, “It’s because I know exactly what I’m talking about that I’m gitting outa here.” and for good measure he spat directly into Armitages’ face.
………………………..

Bridget O’Flannery poured out coffee and placed the cups on the table for Joe and Mary Ann while she listened to what he was saying . It seemed to her that for her whole life long she had seen constant fulfilment of the scripture that spoke of man dominating man to their ruin, and even here, where she was so happy and content, she was having to listen to yet another account.

Poor Joe. Her heart overflowed with maternal fondness for him, he wore his heart so openly on his sleeve that it was a wonder, she thought, that he had survived so long with it still intact. Mary Ann was listening with the love and patience that several weeks ago had seemed to have deserted her. She held her husbands hand and squeezed it gently every so often as she listened to his narrative and wished that she could have wiped away his misery.

She could feel his pain, she could imagine in her minds eye how he would have felt as he had gently settled Little Moon’s child in the grave. How would she have felt had it been Daniel? It would have broken her heart, shattered it entirely. Her throat tightened and she gave an involuntary sob.
…………………………..

Adam didn’t enjoy the meal that he sat down to share with his wife and the children. His mind was far away on the matter with which he had been involved that day, and because of the children’s presence he hadn’t spoken about it to Olivia, just taken hold of her hand and kissed it, very very tenderly so that she knew that something had happened to touch his heart and hurt it.

She didn’t mention that Sofia had suddenly got an invisible best friend called Robert. She didn’t say a word about her first husbands photograph having disappeared and been found under Sofia’s pillow. She knew that ‘a time and a place’ had to be chosen before she said anything about that, and whether she was wrong, or right, only time would tell.

Reuben had realised something was amiss as soon as he had seen the old yellow jacket with the blood stains on it. For a moment he had wondered if his Pa had been butchering a deer or may be a calf as did happen at times but nothing had been said about going hunting … he had looked at his father across the table and, young as he was, discerned a depth of sadness in the dark eyes that had not been there for some time.

Adam had smiled when he felt the time was needed to smile, but his eyes were still looking inside his head at the scenes he had seen earlier. He had kissed the top of Sofia’s head when she said she was going to play with her new friend and yet his thoughts were of the children he had helped bury. When Reuben has asked him for his help with some math he had simply said “Later, son…” something he had never said before which had caused the boy to look anxiously at his mother as though she would know the reason.

Later Adam stood up, excused himself and reached for his coat. He paused at the sight of the blood stains and scowled, his mouth had tightened and his eyes had narrowed, then he had turned to his wife and said “I’ve got to go out for a while. Don’t wait up, sweetheart.”

She rose from the table immediately and hurried to walk out with him, but at the door of the porch he turned and looked at her, “It’s wet outside, stay indoors with the children.”

“Adam, what’s happened? Hoss and Joe are alright, arnt they?”

“Yes, of course they are.” he looked surprised and drew in a deep breath, as right as they could be, he looked at her, “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

“Pa’s – not ill, or been hurt?”

“He’s fine.” he ran his finger along the contours of her face “I love you, Mrs Cartwright.”

“I love you too, and – Adam – do you really need to go out tonight?”

He paused again, then nodded “Yes, as the saying goes ‘time waits for no man.’” he grinned then, slightly lop sided as though the words amused him somewhat. “Don’t stay up if I’m delayed, you need your sleep.”

She did open her mouth to speak but he laid a finger upon her lips, looked at her in that dark way he had and then turned and walked away. She watched as he turned up the collar of his jacket and trudged through the mud and puddles towards the stable. When he rode out on Sport he didn’t even look in the direction of the house, his mind was already on other things.
…………………….

Joseph Cartwright kept his hat lowered against the wind that was blowing against him. He kept an ongoing dialogue chasing through his head giving himself reasons why he should have stayed home, yet why he had chosen to leave it for town.

He knew that Ben would no doubt be pacing the floor of the Ponderosa ranch house and worrying as to what his son would or could be planning to do. He realised only too well that Hoss, the voice of reason, would be offering platitude upon platitude to calm the older man down while inwardly worrying about it himself. He didn’t even know why he was going , but then, immediately he told himself why … because he couldn’t sit at home doing nothing , not tonight.

He imagined Adam at home sitting with Olivia and patiently explaining to her all about what had happened, how it had happened and why. Having thought that Joe immediately gave himself all the answers all over again … it was because he had given his friend a horse, that was all, a gift to a friend, from a friend. Who would have thought it would have led to what had happened earlier that day.

Chapter 63

The light was shining a dull orange glow behind the windows, the shades were down but Adam could see a shadow pass by as he dismounted outside the sheriff’s office.
After glancing up and down the street and pulling his coat more snugly close around him he crossed the sidewalk to the door and pushed it open.

Dodds looked up and nearly dropped the coffee pot when he saw Adam standing there, as it was his mouth gaped open “How’d you know …?”

“Where’s Clem?”

They spoke at the same time so that for a second Adam had to pause and think over what Dodds had said “What do you mean?”

“The shooting, at the Sazarac.” Dodds replied, “I thought you knew, that was why you were here?”

Adam glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the saloon, “The shooting?”

Dodds just nodded but before he could say another word Adam had turned and was half running, half walking to the saloon and elbowing his way through the group of cowboys and miners who were huddled around the entrance. It was foreboding the way they parted to let him through as soon as they realised who it was and then closed around him and the body lying on the floor.

Clem Foster stood up from where he had been kneeling and turned to Adam, he raised his eyebrows “We’ve sent for the doctor … He’s still alive, Adam.”

Adam heard the words but they seemed to come from a long way off and he was aware of his heart thumping very hard against his ribs almost making it impossible to breathe “Who was it?”

“Armitage.” Clem nodded, “Seems he’d been drinking heavily after his – er – deeds this afternoon. Tucker Pyle riled him up some earlier and -”

“And?” Adam asked even as he knelt down beside his brother, looked down at the still features and at the blood puddling on the floor boards among the sawdust and debris of a grubby saloon.

Someone came and stood close by, touched him on the shoulder “Mr Cartwright?”

He looked up and recognised Stevens, Tucker’s associate, but he didn’t want to leave his brother so just nodded and returned to look down at Joe. “Mr Cartwright, it was Armitage. Came in and was waiting for us -”

“Why? Why was he waiting for you?” Adam replied knowing his voice didn’t sound normal, his tongue felt too big for his mouth, his throat too tight.

“Because we turned back, we didn’t go on that little jaunt of his – he said we were yella.”

“Go on -” he held Joe’s hand, he could feel the pulse beat it was fast, fast and shallow.

“Just as we were at the counter your brother came in, walked up towards us just as Armitage opened fire. Don’t know if he intended to shoot the young ‘un but he winged Tucker.” he glanced over to the far end of the bar where the old miner was being fussed over by the managers wife, blood streaming through a wound in his shoulder.

“Where’s Armitage now?” Adam asked quietly.

“He went – went fast he did -”

Questions tumbled round and round in Adam’s head but he was too weary to put them into words, he only nodded and knelt there until Paul came and put his hand on the younger mans arm “Alright Adam, best move aside now and let me get on with what I’m here for.”

Clem stepped up to Adam and looked him in the eye, and nodded “He’s out there somewhere, Adam. Gone before I got here but he couldn’t have got far.”

Adam sighed and shook his head. He’d heard gun shots when he had come into town, cowboys having a good time some other saloon and whooping it up, one other gun shot wouldn ‘t have stood out as having a different interpretation. He stepped back closer to Paul “Well? How bad is it?”

“I’ll know better when I get him in the surgery.” Paul said as he stood up and wiped his hands, he looked at Adam and nodded “It’s bad.”

Joe’s eyes flickered for an instant. He had a vague memory of someone screaming, a piercing scream that was loud in his ears and then a crashing noise. He didn’t realise it came from his body falling and landing with a thud on the sawdust strewn floor.

Now he heard a familiar voice saying close in his ear “Come on now, come on …don’t you go dying on us.”

Then noise and chaos everywhere. He could hear men shouting and feet were thudding across the floor. Hands slid under his arm pits and held him upright, it hurt and he gasped, his eyes opened and for an instant he saw Adam standing there, and he wanted to smile and say it was alright, not to worry except that he wasn’t really sure that it was alright.

His eyes closed and he slowly retreated back into darkness, it whirled and whirled about him until he was sucked into its centre and then nothing else mattered.

Adam passed a hand over the lower part of his face while his eyes watched as the group of men very carefully carried Joe’s body from the saloon. He followed the group with Clem on one side of him and Paul on the other, and just as they reached the surgery he recognised Ezra who was hovering close by “Tell Pa.” he said and the cowhand nodded and hurried away.
……………………

Joe’s eyes fluttered open and he looked around a room that was all too familiar to him. Paul Martin’s face leaned down towards him and he smiled “Ah, you’re coming round, that’s a good sign.”

“What happened?” Joe whispered, his eyelids continued to flutter and with an extreme effort of will he forced them to remain open and stared up at the doctor “Paul? What happened?”

“You were shot. “

“Shot? I don’t recall being shot!”

“You’ve a bullet lodged in your shoulder, it missed the clavicle thankfully but you have lost a lot of blood. I have to get the bullet out, Joe.”

“Get the bullet out?” Joe’s head was swimming. If he closed his eyes he felt as though his head would float right off his shoulders, and now he was aware of intense pain and he groaned, ground his teeth together “Yes” he hissed “Get the bullet out.”

It seemed to him such an effort to get each word sorted in his head and spoken through lips that seemed to be slowly fastening together with glue. He sighed deeply and his head lolled heavily to one side.

“He’s out cold again,” Paul murmured to Adam who had remained close by, “I’ll try and get the bullet out now. Let’s just hope it isn’t lodged near a main artery or under the bone.”

Both men turned as the door opened and James Chang stepped into the room, he looked at Adam and then at Paul before his eyes finally settled upon Joe. Then he looked at Adam again “He’s in good hands now, Adam. If you would like to stay outside.”

Adam nodded, picked up his hat and without a word stepped out into the other room. He glanced at the clock on the wall and mentally did a few sums, calculating the amount of time it would take for Ezra to reach the Ponderosa, for Ben to contact Mary Ann, for hysteria and then calm before they could leave. He had some hours yet and he looked over at Clem who was standing at the doorway with his rifle in his hand. With a nod of the head he loosened the loop from the holster and eased the gun, then stepped outside with the sheriff in to a dark cold night.

………………………….

Armitage had taken the opportunity of what time he had been providentially given by the attention being given Joe to get to his lodgings and gather some of his things which he shoved into a saddle bag. It was all stupid, a waste of time, he muttered beneath his breath about time and unforeseen occurrence and felt angrier than ever at himself, at the Cartwrights and at his nephew. As he quickly made his way out of the back door into the dark alley that ran alongside the boarding house he could think of only one place where no one would think to look and keeping to the shadows made his way towards the home of Saville, the jeweller.

By the time he had pushed open the door of the house Adam and Clem were stepping into the room he had just vacated.

Chapter 64

The pain throughout his body penetrated Joe’s consciousness so that he groaned aloud and writhed in the bed. Paul leaned towards him, and looked at Jim who carefully measured out more laudanum which they managed to get into Joe. “That should take the edge of for him,” Paul muttered.

Joe felt the pain subside, deep down in that dark place he was aware now of being warm and comfortable. Paul saw a small smile play about his lips. The movement beneath the closed eyelids indicated that Joe had slipped into a dream and as Paul walked over to check his medical equipment he hoped that the dream was a pleasant one.

Joe jerked awake, he was shivering now and had to look around him to make sure that the dream was actually over. James Chan came and stood by the bedside “Joe? You were dreaming …” he smiled down at him and felt the pulse at Joe’s throat.

“Where’s Mary Ann? Is my Pa here?” his voice sounded weak even to his ears. He didn’t want to go back to sleep, he didn’t want to return to any crazy dream. James was looking at him with a thoughtful expression on his face and Joe was aware that he was slipping away – again.

………………………………

Saville had never been a brave man and when confronted by Armitage he had almost passed out with fright. The lamp he held in his hand wobbled dangerously and Armitage had to hiss at him to put it down before he dropped it and set the house on fire. “Who else lives here?”

“No one, just me – I live alone.” Saville whimpered and then wished he had been able to conjure up a whole army of family upstairs, perhaps the thought of a large number of people would have scared the man away, “You’re Edwards Uncle…” he bleated in sudden recognition.

“Huh, that’s right.” Cyril replied and stepped closer “You used to see a lot of my nephew, I used to see him coming into your store and always looking smug and pleased with himself when he came out. Knowing what I know now -”

“No, you got it all wrong,” Saville raised his hands in protest, “You’re wrong. I only saw him sometimes, he tried to get me to take the jewellery he stole, but I didn’t – I didn’t take any. I told him I’d tell you but he said you’d never believe me, and if you did I’d be locked up because he’d lie anyway.”

“Just be quiet. Be quiet and put that lamp down.”

He looked around the room and then at Saville who was staring at a certain place in the far off corner, following his gaze Armitage noticed the safe, obviously the object of Saville’s concerns. “Open it.”

“What?”

“Open it.”

……………………………….

Adam and Clem Foster had lost the trail. Once they had left the boarding house and knowing that Armitage had every intention of leaving in order to get away they had stood on the sidewalk and looked around them at the darkening town. Alleyways and roadways yawned at them and invited them down dark pits of who knew what? Clem sighed “What do you think?”

“He’ll need his horse.”

“The stables then?”

Sure, the stables, but which one? Ridleys? Hunnicutts? And all the others… Clem glanced over to where a light shone in the surgery “Wonder how long your family will take to get here.”

“They’ll be here as fast as they can manage it.” Adam replied with a coolness that had replaced the emotional distress he had felt earlier. This was how it always was, once on the chase, once having to deal with a situation like this… stay cool, stay logical and think, get into the mind of the person you’re hunting down. Where would Armitage go now?

……………………………..

Paul Martin came back into the room and looked thoughtfully at his patient. He had been occupied for some time tending to the other victim of Armitage’s shooting, and old Tucker Pyle hadn’t been quite as compliant and silent a patient as Joe. He sighed and nodded over at James, “He’s already looking a better colour.”

“I think he’s safely out of the worst.” James agreed peering down into Joe’s face and observing the waxy sheen of the skin and the dark purpling under the eyes, “Any chance of a relapse?”

“It’s possible but unlikely.” Paul replied with a wry smile, “ I think he could be allowed home in a day or two. I know these Cartwrights, James, and this young man in particular has kept me awake more nights than I can count.”

“You’ve known them a long time, haven’t you?” James replied and walked over to t he basin where he could wash his hands. As he listened to Paul chattering about the time he went to deliver this baby, born too early of course, he allowed his mind to wander down memory lane himself, and the fight he had on his hands when he wanted to try an experimental cure on Adam Cartwright’s leg. He sighed and dried his hands before turning to ask Paul where exactly Adam Cartwright had gone.

Paul’s brow crinkled into a familiar frown “Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about that, James, he’ll be back before his family get here, I’m quite sure of that.”
……………………

Cyril Armitage walked naturally across the road, walking slightly behind another rman so that it could appear that they were together, perhaps talking business as they walked. As the other man continued on towards the Hardware Store, Armitage continued in the other direction towards the stable where he kept his horse.

He moved very silently, very stealthily. As he pushed open the door there was no creak of hinges, nor squeak as the handle was lifted. Within seconds he was inside the building, his gun in his hand. A lamp shone providing the only illumination in the stables, horses shifted in their stalls, as he carefully made his way to where his own horse had been placed.

It was strange, he mused to himself as he placed a blanket over the horses back, and then reached to bring down the saddle, there he was one day a sheriff, upholding the law, and now he had perhaps killed two men and was running away from the law. He smiled slightly, he knew for sure he had killed one man today – he didn’t take into account the Cheyenne of course – but Saville, yes, he had gone down with only the very slightest grunt. Saville – fat and greedy, with a safe full of jewels and money, and all now nestling in the ex sheriff’s saddle bags.

Armitage knew the man was dead, he hadn’t needed to stop to check, he’d killed enough men, women to know the sound of a dead person. He reached for the bridle and brought the horse round to lead it from the stall, and then stopped at the sight of the dark shape outlined in the doorway.

“Cartwright?”

Adam stepped further into the building, behind him the sky was a purple back drop, the moon just hovering between clouds. Armitage noted it all, the contrast of colours, and the darkness of the mans shape as he approached him, the footsteps sounded a staccato echo on the floorboards. “Drop the saddlebag and your gun belt.”

“I didn’t intend to shoot your brother, Cartwright.” he could felt sweat prickling on his upper lip, under his armpits, “He stepped in the way of a private disagreement.”

“Unbuckle the gun belt.”

“Look, I’ll make a deal with you – just let me get away.”

“No deals.”

Adam stopped at a good distance from Armitage, his hands on the buckle of his gun belt and his eyes piercing the gloom in the other mans direction. Armitage wavered, then let the saddle bag drop onto the floor. The thud as it landed made the horse behind him twitch nervously and raise its head, prick forward its ears.

“Now the gun belt.”

He licked his lips and his hands hovered over the buckle, he lowered his head to loosen the holster thread, his hand paused by the gun butt

“Don’t force me to shoot, Armitage.”

Cyril Armitage shrugged, put his hand on the handle of his gun and pulled it free, just as he was about to squeeze the trigger Clem’s voice came from behind him “Drop it.”

Adam could see from the way the muscles around the man’s jaw clenched that Armitage had no intention to drop it. His finger squeezed, the gun went off and the horse behind him reared up, squealing as the bullet creased its neck. Its forelegs lashed out and kicked the man forcibly in the back sending him sprawling. There was no room for movement for the horse was still partially enclosed by the stall from which Armitage had been taking him. The man staggered up, tried to keep his balance, reached out for the bars of the stall before he fell back into the path of the animal who reared, plunged down, reared again… until Clem grabbed at its mane and struggled to calm it down.

Adam got hold of Armitages legs and dragged him through the straw and away from the stall. He didn’t have to look twice to see if the man were alive or dead … he grimaced and turned his head away, slowly replaced his gun.

“I’m going to see how Joe is, sheriff.”

Clem, having pacified the horse, turned and looked at Adam Cartwright, then nodded “Sure, you do that, Mr. Cartwright.”

A mere twitch of the lips was the closest to a smile Clem received as Adam turned away from the stable and began a swift walk back to the surgery. People were leaving the saloons now, making their way to their homes. Ruby saw him and ran over to ask how Joe was to which he said he was about to find out. He didn’t look back as she hesitated in the road, reminding herself that Joe was a married man now and it wouldn’t do to be showing too much interest.

Chapter 65

Paul Martin opened the door to the sound of voices and wasn’t surprised to find Mary Ann and Ben, accompanied by Hoss, standing waiting to be admitted. “How is he?” Ben blurted out and then seeing Adam promptly demanded to know what had happened.

“Didn’t Ezra tell you?” Adam asked and then looked at Mary Ann who was being ushered to the surgery by Paul, she paused to cast him a frightened plaintive look of appeal before disappearing inside.

Ben stepped forward as though he also should be at his son’s side, as had been the case so many times before but then he paused, and together with Hoss waited for Adam to tell them the details while Joe’s wife attended to her husband.

For Mary Ann it was one of the worst moments of her life, seeing her Joe on that surgical table with James Chan checking his pulse and looking anxiously down at the still features. James looked up at her and gave her a smile “I think he’ll be coming round soon, Mrs Cartwright.”

“He will? Oh, thank you.” she whispered and looked at Paul with large grey eyes darkened by tears, “Will he be able to come home with us?”

“Not tonight, my dear.” Paul said quietly, “He’s lost a lot of blood and is still rather feverish, I think it would be wiser if he stayed here a while longer yet.”

She nodded numbly, and approached the bedside whereupon she placed a gentle hand on Joe’s shoulder, then leaned forward to kiss his brow. She looked at Paul “His skin feels hot, clammy.”

“He will, it’s not unexpected.” Paul replied and looked at James who nodded and left the room, closing the door very quietly behind him.

Ben immediately wanted to know how Joe was and listened intently to what James had to tell him. It was hard for him to have to accept that Mary Ann had prior rights to him for admittance to see Joe, but he chewed on his lip for a moment or two, grunted a little and paced the floor while Hoss and Adam whispered together about what had happened and the ensuing results.

Joe opened his eyes and then closed them again, his lips moved and Mary Ann could see that he was asking for her so she leaned forward and whispered his name, kissed his cheek and could have wept with relief when he finally did open his eyes and look directly at her “Hi sweetheart.” he sighed and struggled to smile, “Seems I got in the way of a bullet.”

“Oh Joe, from the way Ezra talked -” she turned her head away and blew her nose very delicately on a handkerchief, “Paul said you have to stay here for awhile. Oh Joe, I thought – I was afraid that -” some tears trickled down her cheeks although she tried to prevent them from doing so, “Oh I’m so sorry, I don’t mean to be such a -”

“Hush, now,” Joe smiled a little wider, and gripped her hand as tightly as he could, “It does a man good to know the woman he loves will cry for him.”

The impatient knock on the door indicated that an irate parent was no longer going to be prevented from seeing his son, so when Ben finally stepped into the room, followed by Hoss and Adam, Mary Ann had wipe d her cheeks dry and was sitting by Joe holding his hand and looking as composed as she possible.

‘Armitage -” Joe whispered “He shot me in the back -”

Ben nodded “So we heard, but he won’t be doing that again, son.” he looked at Mary Ann and gave her a kindly smile, ’Alright, Mary Ann?”

Joe looked directly at Adam who merely inclined his head, after which he was content to listen to his wife and father making arrangements concerning the need for him to remain in town. It wasn’t long before the voices became a mere buzzing in his ears, and slowly he drifted back into a deep sleep.
…………………….

Although Adam had made as little noise as possible upon returning home Olivia had heard him for she had forced herself to stay awake. Now she slipped on a shawl and hurried downstairs, her feet padding upon the wooden steps so that he turned, saw her and smiled “I thought you’d be asleep.”

“No, no, I couldn’t sleep.” she whispered and hurried over to him, only too grateful to feel his arms around her holding her close “Oh Adam, this has been such a horrible, horrible few days. All those times wondering – worrying – if you might be hurt or killed and then – this happening to Joe…”

“He’s going to be alright,” he assured her hugging her closer and kissing the top of her head, “They got the bullet out, there was a lot of blood loss and some fever, but he is going to be alright.’

“Ezra said it was the sheriff, I mean, Armitage who shot him?”

“Yes, well, Armitage was trying to shoot someone else but Joe got in the way. At least that’s what some witnesses thought had happened.”

She said nothing to that but allowed him to lead her into the kitchen where he carefully set her down on a chair. He smiled at her much as a parent would smile at a child who had wangled an opportunity to stay up late at night, “How about some hot chocolate, huh? “

She nodded and looked at him, watched as he began to get out some cups and then with a smile rose to her feet and nudged him out of the way, “I’ll make it, you look so tired I wouldn’t be surprised if you fell asleep on your feet.’

“Well, perhaps we could leave the drink and just get straight to bed…” he yawned and rubbed his face as though to force the muscles to remain awake, “It’s been a long day.”

“Did Mary Ann get to town ?”

“Mmm, yes, she’s left Daniel with Bridie.” he took hold of her hand, kissed her fingers, “I’m sorry I left so abruptly earlier on -”

“As it turned out, it was a good thing that you did.”

“Yes,” he nodded and looked into her shifting green eyes “Yes, it was. I don’t know what Joe was intending to do, I didn‘t even think that he would be heading for town as well.”

Olivia leaned forward and touched his face gently with her hand, then pulled her shawl closer as the cold in the room began to creep into her bones, “Come along, let’s get to bed.”

It was good to crawl under the blankets and just close his eyes upon the day. If he could just shut things off in his brain and go to sleep he would have been more than happy. The touch of Olivia’s hand upon his shoulder was sufficient to know how close she was to him, and after groping for her hand and kissing her goodnight, he hoped that sleep would come soon.

The moon peeked from a dark cloudy sky, seeking to see through the gap within the curtains as though to tease the sleepers into thinking there was still plenty of time in which to catch up on sleep. In her room Sofia held the picture of her father close under the pillow as though afraid to let it go beyond her reach. Reuben slept and snored, dreaming of riding a magnificent horse across the prairie and then the crowds of people lining the streets of the town as he emerged the victor of the race.
……………………….

Adam listened patiently as Reuben chattered on about the dream he had had, and how he had raced the big horse and come first. “I was clear in front, Pa, no one could touch me.”

“That’s the kind of dream we all hope to come true, one day, huh?” Adam grinned and ran his hand over the horse’s sleek neck and then down to check the withers and hoofs. He looked at the boy who was slowly grooming Buster, “Reckon you’ll soon be too big for Buster, Reuben. You’ll be needing a new mount.”

“D’you reckon so, Pa?”

“I do,” Adam left Sport to walk over to look at Buster who gave him a long cold glare as though he had understood every word that had been said and saw impending ‘being put to pasture’ awaiting him.

“Then Sofia can have Buster.”

“She could, she’s a good little rider.” Adam smiled and stroked Buster’s broad nose. “Reuben ?” he hesitated a moment, saw the look of expectancy in the boys eyes and knew he had to carry on “Reuben, sit down a moment, will you?”

“What’s wrong, Pa? Have I done something wrong?”

Adam smiled gently in the way that was customary when he was with children, he whole body language became more relaxed and once Reuben was settled on a bale of straw he pulled up an upturned bucket and sat down “Reuben, I’ve some bad news to tell you.”

Reuben went pale, his eyes darted from Adam to the stable door and back again, “What is it, Pa?”

“Something quite awful happened yesterday. Remember how Uncle Joe gave Saturn to a friend of his?”

“Ye – es” Reuben drawled the word out and looked into Adam’s eyes as though he could see a clue as to where this conversation was heading.

“Some people attacked this friend, and as a result he was killed … and …. Saturn was injured. Uncle Hoss had to shoot him to -” he paused at the stricken look on the boys face and immediately placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, “I’m sorry, son. Uncle Hoss had to help him somehow, there was nothing we could do for him.”

“Oh Pa ..” tears gushed up and trickled down his cheeks “Oh Pa …” and he fell against Adams chest and clung tight, “Why couldn’t you have brung him home? I would have looked after him, I’d have made him well.”

“Son, if Uncle Hoss couldn’t have helped him, then no one could have done. I’m sorry.”

For a few moments the boy just clung to his father, then with a deep shuddering sigh he pulled away and brushed the tears away “I hope who hurt him and Uncle Joe’s friend gets shot. I hope he’s dead. I hope he’s -”

“That’s enough now,” Adam interrupted the outpouring of words sternly, but gently, so that Reuben hic-coughed, sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Adam watched him for a moment until he felt the boy was under control, “The person responsible also shot Uncle Joe – but Uncle Joe will be alright, the doctor s caring for him.” he smiled thinly, some attempt to reassure the boy. “The sheriff, that is, Clem Foster, and I, looked for the person concerned and found him and …”

“… and did you shoot him, Pa, did you?”

Adam shook his head “No, I didn’t. He’s dead though and in a way -” he paused “Well, I guess in a way we could say it was divine justice.”

“How’d you mean, Pa?” Reuben leaned forward against Adams legs and frowned, “If he shot Uncle Joe, he’d go to prison, wouldn’t he?”

“Yes, possibly. But he did some very bad things before then for which he would not have been put on trial. Sometimes when that happens … well, I guess all we can say is that a higher court holds judgement.” he sighed and stood up, smoothed down Reuben’s hair, “Are you going to be alright now? Not going to be too upset any more?”

Reuben shook his head “I don’t want to think about it too much because then I will be.”

“Well, at least you’re honest about it.” Adam replied and walked with the boy to the stable door., his hand placed gently at the boy’s back as they made their way to the house for breakfast.

Chapter 66

Clem Foster dismounted outside the Ponderosa ranch house and looked around him. Adam Cartwright’s horse was already there, nodding over the rail, but no other animal was saddled ready for work. He concluded that Ben and Hoss were in the house with Adam and having considered the matter strode over to the porch and knocked loudly. He was surprised when the door opened immediately and Hester greeted him with a smile “Good morning, Clem …or rather I should say… Sheriff.”

Clem swept off his hat “Good morning, Ma’am, Mrs Cartwright.”

He stepped into the big room and nodded a greeting to the three men, Hoss standing by the table with Hope on one arm while he was listening to his father speaking, Adam leaning against the back of the settee with his arms folded across his chest, and Ben standing by the hearth and obviously expounding about something although he was now silent as he nodded over to the visitor.

“Anything wrong, Clem?”

Clem cleared his throat “Not so far as Joe’s concerned, Ben. Dr Martin told me to tell you that he was recovering and doing quite well.”

There were visible signs of relief, each man there relaxed, nodded and gave brief smiles. Ben asked if Clem would like some coffee after the long ride from town and before Clem could say yes or no, Hester was pouring him some out. He accepted with a muttered thank you and sipped it. With a contented sigh he nodded “Great coffee, ma’am, thank you.”

Adam raised a dark eyebrow “So? Why the visit, Clem?”

“I had a telegram about Cyril Armitage come through which I thought you should hear. As you know, he acted as deputy sheriff back in Boulders Creek for some years, and had a good reputation there which is how he came to get good references for being appointed here in Virginia City. Previous to that he’d been a deputy in Temperance, for a year or so. “

There was a pause as they waited for him to pull some papers out of his pocket. He scanned down the page and turned it over. “Fact is, he was – er – he rode with Chivington.”

“Chivington?” Ben growled, and he straightened his back and squared his shoulders while his dark eyes went blacker than ever.

“Chivington?” Adam repeated quietly with his e yes narrowed, “You mean he was part of the militia Chivington led against the Cheyenne at Sand Creek in ’64?”

“That massacre of Cheyenne at Sand Creek.” Ben growled as though he felt the need to correct Adam’s previous statement.

“Yes, “ Clem nodded, “Seems he – er – must have learned some things there …”

Ben raised his eyebrows and indicated with his eyes that there was a lady present which made Clem lower his head and go slightly red around the jaw, he chose to gulp down his coffee rather than continue but once the cup was empty and replaced in the saucer he nodded “I thought it best to tell you, Ben. So’s you’d know. Roy thought it best that you knew.”

The faintest of smiles touched Ben’s lips as the thought occurred to him that Roy must be finding it extremely difficult to let go the reins of office now that Clem was sheriff. As it was he nodded and thanked Clem for riding in to tell them at which the younger man heaved in a big breath “There’s something else I thought you should know before the town gets to hear of it.”

Ben rounded his shoulders “Say what you have to say ….” he murmured and prepared himself to hear adverse news concerning his son.

“When Armitages’ body was taken to the undertakers we found a considerable amount of jewellery and cash in his saddlebags. There was a notebook as well, property of Mr Saville.”

Hoss passed Hope to his wife and glanced over at Adam who had stood straighter upon hearing this news. Clem nodded “There were a number of transactions listed in the notebook, seems Mr Saville had been receiving the stolen articles from young Edward Armitage, from what we can make out he was re-designing the jewellery and re-selling them on.”

“Are you going to arrest him?” Hoss asked with a scowl as a vague memory of his sister in law Ingrid crept into his mind.

“No, he’s dead.” Clem replied as he picked up his hat “We found his body this morning when we went to make enquiries about what we’d found. His safe was wide open, seems like our ex-sheriff forced him to open it up before murdering him.”

Looks were exchanged between the family and Hester shook her head and asked to be excused, there was only so much bad news a woman could take so early in the morning after all. Hoss cleared his throat “Seems to me that the only person coming out of this whole thing with a profit is Mr Jenkins, the undertaker.”

Ben gave Hoss a glare as he considered such levity, even if true, unnecessary “Just be glad your brother wasn’t another one of his clients, Hoss.”

“Er – yes, sir.” his contrite son mumbled

“Well, I’d best be getting back to town,” Clem said after a glance at his cup to make sure it was empty and wishing it wasn’t. “I’m sorry to have brought bad news.”

Ben gave a grim smile but slapped the sheriff on the back in a friendly fashion “Clem, all I can say is that it could have been worse.”

Adam straightened himself up as Clem turned to leave “One moment, Clem, I’ll ride into town with you.” he swept up his hat and nodded over to his father and brother “I’ll see you both later. Thanks for the coffee, Hester.”

Hester followed him and the sheriff to the door, kissed him on the cheek as he stepped by “Give Joe and Mary Ann our best wishes won’t you?”

Adam nodded, slipped his hat over his head and stepped in line with Clem who had hunched himself into his coat for the wind was blowing cruel and cold against them. He mounted his horse and looked at Adam “You didn’t seem too surprised when I told you about Armitage.”

“No, as you said, Clem, he learned his butchery somewhere, and that seemed to fit the bill.” he set his horse to trot at the same pace as the sheriff’s, “How are things in town? Any reaction to Armitage’s death?”

“Not as yet. Still too soon to judge, the news may not have trickled around town yet.”

Adam nodded and lowered his hat. From experience he knew it wouldn’t be long before it did.
…………………..

Dan DeQuille looked at his visitor in amazement and half rose from his seat behind the big mahogany desk as Adam stepped into his office “This is a surprise, Adam. Take a seat. Want a cigar?”

Adam accepted the seat but declined the cigar, he looked thoughtfully at Dan and raised his eyebrows as he placed his hat on the desk. Dan blew out a match and drew on the cigar he had just lighted, “Well, Adam, it’s usually me coming to you and hoping for a story, don’t tell me this is a reversal of your usual opinion regarding newspapers and journalists.”

Adam smiled slowly “Ever since I had a run in with a fella called Sam Clemens who had the Ponderosa turned upside down due to his journalism… I’ve had reason to be suspicious and wary.” he cleared his throat “So, Daniel, what do you know about what has gone on in town recently?”

Dan pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows, “Well, I hear tell that our ex-sheriff went on a campaign of his own recently and ended up shooting your brother and another of Virginia City’s citizens. Also that he was shot and brought in dead by our new sheriff.”

Adam frowned “Anything else?”

“Should I know of anything else?” Dan leaned forward with his eyes narrowed and his fingers inched towards his notebook and pencil.

“Several things you should know … I noticed that you printed a story recently about my brother Joe’s horse being stolen by some Cheyenne? That’s wrong and inaccurate. Also Cyril Armitage was not shot by the sheriff, he was about to be charged with causing grievous bodily harm when he was trampled on by a spooked horse in the livery. Thirdly …” he paused as he put his hand into his jacket pocket and withdrew some papers “Saville the Jeweller was receiving the stolen items from Edward Armitage and was murdered by our ex-sheriff last night. Here’s my notes. You’ll see all you need to know there. I want it printed as I’ve written it.”

“Well, I don’t know, Adam. There are certain laws we have to -”

“Don’t give me that, Daniel, you make up your laws as you go along. If you were so careful about abiding by the rules of journalism you would have made sure that your article about that horse of my brothers was accurate instead of writing a load of rubbish that suited Cyril Armitage down to the ground. Now, you print what I’ve written and retract what was previously printed or …”

“Or?” Dan stood up, his face reddened with anger and resentment at Adam’s tone of voice.

“Or you won’t be furthering your career as Editor of this newspaper for much longer.”

“Are you threatening me, Cartwright?”

“I don’t mean to be doing so, Daniel. But the fact is that people believe what newspapers print, and they believed that Stalking Horse had stolen that horse. You should have checked your facts. That was bad journalism.”

Dan frowned and nodded, “Yes, it was. I accept that with apologies but the fact is, Adam, that Cheyenne warriors here so close to Virginia City … they were dangerous…. And the Government policy …”

“No, I don’t want to hear anymore about Government policy from you or anyone else, Dan. I’ve heard it from the man at the top and various Generals, politicians and drunks for too long. Those people were a small group of men, women and children who came to escape the mess and the carnage going on in their home territory. They came here because Joe and I owed them our lives, and our friendship … they thought they would be safe.” he frowned, the black brows knitted over dark eyes, “We promised them safety and what did they get? Cyril Armitage re-living his time with Chivington and murdering them instead.”

Dan drew on his cigar and frowned “I heard rumours in town about Armitage having been at Sand Creek. I asked him if it were true but he didn’t want to talk about it. I thought it was just rumour so left it alone.” he let the smoke drift from his nostrils as he looked at Adam “You know, Adam, Chivington is still regarded as a hero by some. It was those soldiers who helped the Cheyenne that night who were court martialed and hanged.”

Adam just shook his head as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing from the man and then tapped his long fingers upon the papers on the desk. Then after picking up his hat he left the newspaper Editor’s office as though he couldn’t bear the place any longer.

Chapter 67

Dr Timothy Schofield glanced over at the door as it opened and then frowned slightly as Adam stepped inside “Come to see your brother?”

“If it’s alright?” Adam replied as he removed his hat and stood patiently waiting for admission to the room Joe had been located.

“His wife’s with him, he’s in there -”. Schofield nodded over to the door and Adam strode towards it “Don’t be too long in there.”

Adam said nothing but pushed the door open and stepped inside, then closed the door immediately behind him. Mary Ann had been seated by the bed and looked to see who had entered, she sighed with relief upon seeing her brother in law “Thank goodness it’s you, Adam, I thought for a moment it was that Dr Schofield.”

Adam smiled reassuringly and approached the bed, then looked at Mary Ann “Have you had any sleep?”

“Not yet. He’s been very feverish. Dr Martin gave him some medication but it doesn’t seem to have worked. Do you think he looks any better than when you last saw him, Adam?”

Adam didn’t like to comment but his brothers appearance certainly didn’t give him a positive feeling at all. He put a hand to Mary Ann’s arm, “Look, why not go over and get something to eat and drink, then rest for a while. I’ll stay here with Joe.”

“I can’t leave him, Adam.”

“Well, I think you can. If he needs you at all I’ll come and get you.” he sighed and looked at her compassionately, “Look, you need to take care of yourself as well. Joe will need looking after and it won’t be any good if you’re ill yourself.”

She nodded as though she could understand what he was saying but at the same time it was very hard to leave him, even for a few moments. Very slowly she rose to her feet and after kissing her husband’s brow, she left the room.

Joe sighed and his lips twitched slightly, in his dreams he was riding Cochise across the hills, smelling the familiar smell of Ponderosa pines and looking up at the blue skies as the larks sung. He could see a woman walking up the track towards him, she was wearing a blue dress and carrying a sheaf of flowers. There was a smile on her face and joy in her eyes. She looked so lovely that he couldn’t help but cry out “Mary Ann?”

Adam leaned forwards “Joe? Joe?”

The younger man could hear his name being called but it came as though from a long distance away. He wanted to open his eyes but they seemed glued shut, even his mouth was clamped so tight that his teeth were aching. He didn’t want to wake up, he felt safe right where he was, fast asleep in bed.

Paul Martin opened his medical bag and took out a small phial, when Adam asked what it was he replied “Smelling salts, he needs to come round so this may work.” He leaned forwards and placed the phial beneath Joe’s nose “Let me sleep…” Joe whispered, his eyelids fluttering open.

“No, Joseph, I need you to stay awake now, do you hear me? You stay awake.”

“All right. I’m awake. Do I have chores to do? Where’s Adam?” Joe blinked blearily and raised a hand to rub his head, making his unruly hair more tousled than ever. “Where am I?”

“In town, in my surgery.” Paul replied while he kept his eyes fixed sternly on the young mans face.

“Was I asleep?”

“Well and truly.” Adam said from his seat beside the bed, “Mary Ann’s been here since she arrived yesterday…”

“Yesterday? What happened yesterday?” Joe muttered.

Paul stepped closer and put a hand to Joe’s jaw so that he could lift his face towards him, he stared into t he hazel green eyes “Mmm, how are you feeling – apart from sleepy?”

“Kinda fuzzy. Like I could sleep for weeks and I feel as though I’m falling backwards all t he time.”

Adam frowned, considering Joe was lying prone on the bed with his head resting upon pillows he wasn’t sure how his brother could feel as though he were falling like that, he looked at Paul who nodded as though it all made sense to him. Joe closed his eyes “Where’s Mary Ann?” he heard his voice ask the question but by the time anyone came up with an answer he had drifted back into unconsciousness.

“What’s happening?” Adam asked, “I thought you said he had to stay awake?”

Paul checked Joe’s pulses, peered into the eyes and then with a frown stepped back. He shook his head “I don’t know …” he said very quietly as though addressing no one in particular or forgetful that Adam was in the room.

“For heavens sake, what do you mean ‘you don’t know’?” Adam growled, “You’re a doctor, you’re supposed to know…”

Paul looked at Adam and sighed, he nodded “Yes, you’re right, Adam, but I’m not God.” before Adam could say a word and well aware of the fear that had been obvious in his eyes he raised a hand “He’s suffering a trauma, Adam. Blood loss, the wound itself and the stress he was under when he was shot … all combined creates it’s own combination of problems. He’s strong and healthy. He needs to fight this off.”

“But what are you going to do about it? Can he stay asleep or should he wake up?”

Paul looked down at Joe and after a moment he nodded “Let him sleep, he needs to sleep more than anything else.”

Adam glowered and was tempted to call Schofield in for a second opinion but the respect he had for Paul was such that he set that thought to one side. He resumed his seat and looked at his brother’s face and then at Paul, “You’re sure?”

Paul nodded, placed his hand reassuringly upon Adam’s shoulder “I have to go and see to another patient. I’ll be back in an hour, Schofield’s next door should you need him.”

Adam nodded but said nothing, he sat back with one leg crossed over the other and bowed his head.

He remembered the day when he was a boy standing at the doorway of the big bedroom and looking at his father who was laughing as he held in his arms a swaddled
Package that squirmed and bawled. A little clenched fist appeared from the folds of the shawl. “Gentlemen, may I present Joseph Francis Cartwright.”

Adam smiled now at the memory, he could remember how he and Hoss had stampeded into the room, and how Ben had lowered his arms for them to peer into the shawl and look at this little miracle. “It’s your brother …” Ben had said and they had stared at the bawling red faced baby and then looked at one another.

“Compared to the last one I got this one is kinda puny, ain’t he?” Adam had laughed, glad to hear his father laughing along with him.

“He is kinda small.” Hoss had worried, giving the baby a prod with his finger.

“Its because he was born before he was ready,” Marie had explained, “We weren’t expecting him for another few weeks.”

“Why’d he come so early for then? Didn’t you know he was coming? Was it a surprise?”

They had laughed at that but for Adam it had been a turning point in his life, he had accepted that he was to protect and love this little infant for the rest of his life, forever.

Joe moved restlessly in the bed, distracting Adam from memories and thoughts of his own , he wrung out the cloth that was in the bowl of cool water by the bedside, and gently wiped Joe’s face free from perspiration. Joe gave a shuddering sigh, his body heaved and his fingers tightened upon the sheets that covered him. Then he was still, very still.
……………..

Paul looked down at the young man and tapped his chin with his spectacles as though that would reveal to him whatever was currently eluding him with regard to his patient. The mention of his name brought him out of his reverie and he turned, looked at Mary Ann and Adam, and nodded as though in acknowledgement of their unspoken questions “Well, this is the time we hold our breath, pray and hope that faith in our prayers will work miracles.”

He said it gently, as kindly as he could but even so Mary Ann’s inner resolve weakened for she sagged a little and it was with Adam’s arm steadying her that helped her to remain on her feet. Carefully he led her to a chair and helped her sit down, “Is it really that bad?” she asked in a whisper as she looked over at the body of her husband and reached out to touch the limp hand that rested on top of the coverlet.

“I can’t pretend to you.” Paul replied, “There’s no point in doing so, but the reality of the situation is very grave. Dr Schofield gave Joe a thorough examination at my request earlier. We’ve done all that we can do.” he shook his head and once again glanced over at Adam, “He has a concussion, I can’t judge how severe that is because the loss of blood has seriously weakened his system. The bullet missed his vital organs but I don’t know what other internal damage has been done, even my attempt at removing it may have caused more damage. “ he frowned and wondered if that had been wise, making such an admission, “Perhaps one day medical progress will develop some system by which we will be able to see beneath the flesh and bone of our patient, but at the moment it sounds like necromancy to even hope for it.” he released a long drawn out sigh and rubbed his face with one of his hands, “Mary Ann, I can’t make promises, you understand that?”

“You’ve done everything you can, Dr Martin. I can’t and wouldn’t expect anything else from you. Thank you for that,” she replied and gripped his free hand with fingers that were extremely cold and trembling, she looked up at Adam, who nodded and yet said nothing.

Paul cleared his throat, “It’s my opinion that Armitage knew exactly what he was doing, he intended to kill Joe. He may have tried to make it appear as though Joe just got in the way of the bullet he was firing at Tucker, but the way the bullet hit Joe after he had shot Tucker proves that Armitage took advantage of the fact that Joe was there, a perfect target.”

Mary Ann sighed and shook her head, again she looked up at Adam who placed his hand reassuringly upon her shoulder and when Paul left the room she rose to her feet and drew the chair closer to the bed. “Adam, I feel ashamed, I feel so ashamed.”

“Why? There’s no reason….”

“It was when Candy had been shot and Ann was so frightened, she was crying and I remember looking at her, looking at Candy and just feeling so relieved that it wasn’t my Joe because I didn’t know if I could handle such – such despair and fear. I remember watching her and wondering how she would manage if Candy died, and being – being so glad that – oh Adam – how selfish of me to even think like that?” she bowed her head now and began to weep, her sobs loud and heartbreaking in their intensity.

Adam looked from her to his brother, and then with a sigh he stroked her back and mumbled some words he hoped would be convincing, reassuring. Perhaps all of them had been selfish, perhaps all of them when faced with someone else’s misfortune feels relief after the initial shock has waned. He looked around the room, a good sized room with a large window across which the drapes had been pulled across. It was clean as would have been expected from a surgical point of view. Joe’s belongings had been removed, the blood soaked clothing, the wet blood stained jacket … he shuddered and turned away.

Mary Ann stroked Joe’s brow but still he didn’t move. She held his hand and longed for the warmth of her flesh to impart life and strength into him. She prayed that there would be some indication that would give them hope to get through the day, and perhaps, longer days ahead.

She turned as the door opened and Ben, followed by Hoss and Hester, and Olivia came into the room. The women immediately went to cluster around Mary Ann while Ben approached the bed and looked down at his son, while Hoss stood by Adam and asked “How is he?”

Adam could only repeat what Paul had said, he looked at them and then back down at Joe. He knew Hoss was trying to convince himself that his little brother would survive, he’d survived so much before, he had to again, he had to …

Chapter 68

The clatter of plates, cups clinking against saucers and cutlery rattling seemed to be stilled as Hoss and Adam Cartwright, accompanied by their wives, entered the restaurant . Heads turned and voices murmured before the usual clatter recommenced. Ignoring of the slight hiatus their presence had created the four Cartwrights took their seats “I feel like I’m part of a circus act all them eyes staring at us.” Hoss grumbled.

Hester said nothing but glanced at Adam to see if he felt the same but her brother in law was looking at Olivia who was holding his hand in hers as though no one else existed. Hester cleared her throat, adjusted her bonnet and was about to speak when a waiter came to take their order. No one felt like eating, even Hoss felt as though he’d be hard pressed to get something down his throat but coffee was ordered and some sandwiches. Adam leaned forward towards the other three who instinctively did likewise “He’ll get through this alright, Paul was pretty confident earlier.”

“Yeah, but he don’t seem so confident now, does he?” Hoss growled.

“Schofield examined Joe and said that he had no reason not to recover, “ Adam continued as though Hoss’ comment was irrelevant, “It’s just a matter of time.”

“Do you think if he were brought back home he’d recover more quickly?” Hester whispered, conscious that other ears were perked up and eagerly listening.

“Possibly, but not for a day or two.” Adam replied and leaned back against his chair as the coffee and sandwiches arrived.

Several people approached the table during the course of the next half hour, all of them anxious to hear about Joe and wishing for him to recover quickly. Some men ventured to comment on the atrocity that they had just read about as obnoxious, and ‘should never have been allowed.’ Sentiments that the Cartwrights wholeheartedly endorsed.

By the time they had eaten the sandwiches – and Hoss found that he’d had less trouble eating them than he’d envisaged – and drinking the coffee, they rose to their feet and after paying the bill made their way back to the surgery. Olivia with her arm through that of her husband who remarked that she had been very quiet.

“I keep thinking about how it happened, Adam. How quickly it all happened.”

“Yes, Joe didn’t see it coming you know, he didn’t seem to have realised that Armitage was even sitting there. He just blundered in as usual.” he sighed deeply, and gently caressed her hand with his own, “Olivia, this hasn’t been a very pleasant few months leave, has it? I am sorry. “

“Oh Adam, don’t be, it’s not as if I am some shrinking violet from back east who has never experienced this kind of thing before; it’s part of life, and at present we have to accept it as such. It’s just that – it’s the swiftness of how things can change. Life – death – just one false move, the wrong decision -”

“Like Joe going to that particular saloon?”

“Exactly. “ she sighed and leaned against him a little more, “Adam, why on earth did he have to come into town anyway?”

“Only Joe can tell you that, I’m afraid. He’s full of impulse, always has been; probably felt restless and on edge, needed to know more about what happened in order to get some things straight in his mind.”

“What if he dies, Adam?”

Her words were like hammer blows to his heart, and he said nothing for a moment then very quietly he just said “He won’t.” and then, for some odd reason of his own he added “He can’t, he’s a Cartwright.”
……………

Bridie smoothed down the quilt and then stepped back from the bed to observe the patient then with a sigh she looked at Mary Ann and thought how sad she looked as she gazed down at her husband. After the anxious days in town Joe was now finally home and sleeping in the guest room so that his sleep would not be disturbed in any way. Dr Schofield, who took a holistic view of a body healing itself, had declared that the reason Joe was so unwell was because his mind was under duress, and his emotions were all over the place. Jimmy Chang who like many of his people believed in the body needing balance had agreed whole heartedly with this diagnosis and Paul did what he could to heal the body and hoped the mind and emotions would get sorted out once he was home with his family.

Light poured in from the windows for it was one of those bright sunny days in November. The fire burned in the hearth so that the chill of the room was kept at bay and in his bed Joe sighed, opened his eyes and looked up into the anxious face of his wife who smiled as she leaned closer to him “Joe? “

“Mary Ann? Am I home?”

“Yes, yes, darling, you’re home. Look, here’s a little man come to say hello to his daddy…” she said gently and lifted Daniel up to see his papa.

Joe smiled and looked at the little boy who was smiling down at him the big eyes bright with the pleasure of seeing his father and his fingers wriggling with the anticipation that he would be given a hug. Joe sighed again and closed his eyes, then turned his head into the pillow and fell back to sleep.

Bridie said nothing but approached Mary Ann and put her hand on the younger woman’s arm, seeing from her expression that she was disappointed at this reaction. She hugged Mary Ann affectionately “It’s early days, my dear. The journey would have taken it out of him as well remember.”

Mary Ann’s face lightened and she nodded as she looked down at Bridie “Oh , of course, I hadn’t thought of that, of course it would have done.”

“Don’t expect too much too soon, he’s very weak, it’s going to take a while before his strength is back to normal.”

“Oh Bridie, thank goodness you’re here.” she squeezed Bridie’s hand and then hugged the child closer “Come along, darling, let’s leave daddy to have his sleep.”

Bridie smiled and nodded as though in approval as MaryAnn took Daniel out of the room and downstairs, then she looked at Joe and approached the bed, felt his pulse, his forehead. Again she straightened the covers and had just straightened up when Ben’s voice came from behind her “How is he, Mrs O’Flannery?”

She jumped slightly for his approach had been so quiet, but she was smiling when she turned to face him “He’s doing as well as can be expected, Mr Cartwright.”

Ben nodded, he held his hat in one hand, and in the light coming from the window seemed much younger as he stood there, tall and straight backed. He now walked up to the bed and looked down at the young man, “I can’t count how many times I have sat by the bedside of my sons, Mrs. O’Flannery. So many times I’ve prayed and hoped that they would survive whatever had happened to make them so ill, time and again I have sat dwelling on memories of the past, of their mothers . Each time it gets harder -.”

“Yes, I can imagine it does.” Bridie replied and stood by his side to look down at Joe whose dark hair curled upon the white pillowcase in so charming a manner.

“It was strange having my place taken by another,” he smiled, his generous mouth parting slightly, softening the appearance, “It’s always been my place, you see, to sit by my son’s bedside. “

“Life is full of changes.” Bridie murmured, it was a cliché, she knew and so did he, but it fitted the occasion well enough to be acceptable.

“Yes, it is.” Ben replied and sighed while he remained looking down at Joe with a yearning intensity in his face that touched Bridie’s tender heart.

“You can sit down, you know, Mr Cartwright. I was about to make some tea, would you like some? Or would you prefer some coffee?”

Ben smiled again, nodded and thanked her saying that coffee would be preferred. He then pulled up a chair and sat down, placing his hat on the floor , and his hand upon his son’s shoulder.

He hadn’t liked to admit to anyone that having to allow Mary Ann in to see Joe, while he waited with everyone else outside had unsettled him. He had felt suddenly isolated, as though his role as father and protector of his sons was no longer valid. He couldn’t explain how empty he had felt, how useless and aimless. Now as he sat beside Joe he wondered what the purpose of life really was, and how was it that from being so much the centre of their lives he had now become so little a part of it all.

He was deep in such thoughts when he felt Joe stir and looking down realised that his son was now awake and watching him with a slight smile on his face, “Hi Pa,” Joe whispered, “It wouldn’t have been the same without you sitting there by the bed. I’m so glad to see you, Pa.”

Ben nodded and forced a smile although his eyes were wary, anxious, looking for signs of fever or illness, “How are you feeling, Joe?”

“Weak. Tired.”

“You had a narrow escape, son. That bullet caused a lot of internal bleeding and Paul had quite a difficult task getting it out of you.”

“Did – did I hear right? It was Armitage?”

“Yes, it was Armitage. “ Ben released his breath in a deep sigh, “He killed Saville, the jeweller afterwards, then tried to make a getaway with a stack of money and jewels in his saddle bags.”

“Did he get arrested? Did Roy – I mean – Clem -arrest him?” Joe’s eyes were blurring, his eyelids getting heavy, but he wanted to know, he needed to get facts in his head in order for things to calm down within himself.

“He was going to be arrested, Adam and Clem tracked him down, and his own horse trampled him down. I guess you could call it divine justice.”

Joe smiled weakly “Retribution… Vengeance is mine …”

“Yes, you could say that, son.” Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder gently, “You’ve had us all worried you know? Mary Ann has been by your side all the time…”

“I woke up several times and saw her there.” Joe said and then smiled, flicked a glance up at his father “Took some getting used to, usually it’s you.”

“Well, I guess after all these years it’s about time for a change.” Ben replied and almost laughed at himself for saying it.

“I’m glad you’re here now, Pa. Don’t go, will you?”

“No, I’ll stay here for as long as you need me.”

Joe sighed and smiled, closed his eyes and thought over what he had been told, then he reopened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling “There was no need for them to have harmed those people, Pa.”

“I know. But weak people follow a lead, and then get to be too afraid to stop. Some realised it was wrong and went back home, others will have to live with their consciences for the rest of their lives.”

“Do they have consciences, Pa? To have done that …” he frowned, “Adam and I saw it happen before, I should have realised that it could happen again. I should have told Stalking Horse to stay with Johnny Big Heart.”

“He made the decision to stay where he was, Joe. You can’t take the blame for what he chose to do for himself and his friends.”

Joe thought over those words, he knew Ben was right, the deep voice was reassuring, comforting. He closed his eyes and sighed “Poor Saturn. I guess Reuben will be upset about that as well.”

Ben only smiled thinly and sat back into the chair as his son slowly drifted back to sleep. He was deep in thought when he was aware of the smell of coffee and Bridie came into the room with a smile and the coffee on a tray, this she set down on a small table. “Is there anything else I can get you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, thank you, Mrs O’Flannery.”

She nodded and glanced over at Joe, she nodded again while a slight smile played about her mouth, “He’s looks a better colour now. Perhaps this sleep he has will be the healing one.”

Ben nodded, but said nothing.

Chapter 69

An air of subdued expectation hovered over the three homes that existed in such close proximity on the Ponderosa. Within the confines of each the inhabitants tried to live as normal a life as possible while dreading the knock on the door and the words that could mean one of their loved ones would never greet them again, never smile or laugh, or share some crazy notion .

Hester and Olivia fretted for Mary Ann while at the same time they cared for their own children and continued their work at home. Only the children, innocent as they were, lived out the hours of the day at play as normally as ever. Little Daniel gurgled with delight at seeing his Momma without understanding why she didn’t laugh or sing as she did usually. Sofia retreated to her room to play with her new friend and her dolls when Olivia appeared too preoccupied and Reuben had his school and friends there to help wile away the hours and take his mind from the gloom of home life.

Hannah was Hester’s bright shining star, filling the hours with smiles and laughter, hugs and kisses. Nursing Hope provided her with moments of calm and meditation. It went without saying that many a prayer was said for the young man struggling against the odds and being so carefully, lovingly, cared for by his wife and Bridie.

The knock on the door was becoming familiar now and Bridie O’Flannery hurried to open it to Dr Martin, patting her hair into place as she crossed the floor to greet him. Paul removed his hat and smiled, “Good morning, Mrs O’Flannery.”

“Dr Martin.” she nodded and stepped aside to let him enter the vestibule and then proceed from there to the large room. “I think you’ll find him much better this morning. He was very feverish last night and then slept deeply.”

Paul listened attentively, he had come to rely upon her opinion and knew that he would have no reason to fault her as he followed her up the stairs to the room in which Joe had been placed. “What about his vital signs?”

“Much stronger.”

“Has he regained consciousness?”

“Several times. Each time he appeared more coherent than previously. His eyes look much clearer and his colour improved.”

He nodded all along the landing and paused for her to open the door, but before entering he stopped, smiled, “Thank you, Bridie.”

She blushed then, just a little, and lowered her eyes as though she were some shy coy girl from Galway instead of Mrs Bridget O’Flannery at the Ponderosa. She watched the doctor enter the room and then quietly slipped in behind him, but stood close to the door rather than intrude upon those gathered there.

Ben Cartwright stood up from the chair beside the bed and smiled a greeting to the doctor as he drew near. Both men stood side by side to observe Joe who was still asleep “I hear he woke up several times?”

“Yes, “ Ben nodded, “He talked at times, made sense as well.” he smiled and then sighed, “He looks better, doesn’t he?”

Paul nodded “I’ll just examine him now…” which was Ben’s cue to step away and let Paul get on with what he had to do.

Mary Ann, who had been feeding Daniel, now stepped into the room and looked from Ben to Paul, took a deep breath and clasped her hands together against her waist. She dreaded each visit from the doctor in case he had the worst possible news to give her. She drew closer to Ben and slipped a hand into his, looked anxiously at him and then returned her gaze at Paul.

Joe woke up during Paul’s examination, he gave the doctor a smile and sighed before asking him what he was doing there. “Well, young man, I’m here to see how you’re getting on now. Just stay still for a while and let me look at your eyes.” he pulled down the lower lid of each eye and then nodded slowly, felt the pulse at Joe’s throat and then pulled up a chair upon which he sat down, “Joe, can you remember what happened?”

“Sure, I went in to the saloon, saw Tucker Pyle -” he paused, screwed up his face in concentration “There was a gun shot, I saw Tucker’s face and thought he’d been shot, but he hadn’t been, it was me … I could feel myself falling and then hit the floor .”

Ben nodded “As we suspected Armitage intended to kill Joe and then shot Tucker.”

“Joe, can you remember what happened earlier – can you recall where you and your family went that morning?”

Joe was silent, his eyes turned to the window where he could see the distant pine clad hills, he nodded “Yes, I can remember. I remember everything, everything.”

Paul looked at him thoughtfully for a while before asking him how he felt now about what had taken place to which Joe seemed reluctant to answer until finally he spoke “I guess I feel much as I did before, angry, disgusted. I can’t understand it -” his brow creased, his Adam’s apple jerked as he fought emotion, he blinked to clear his eyes of moisture, “The cruelty, it was so – it was so – unnecessary.”

He frowned now and turned his head, saw his father and Mary Ann standing together and smiled, greeted them and then noticed Bridie, “Any chance of something to eat, Bridie, I sure am hungry.”

Paul smiled and placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder before getting to his feet, he nodded over to Ben and gave place to Mary Ann who took his seat on the chair and kissed her husband while Paul came to talk to Ben. Bridie had already left the room, hurrying to make her ‘boy’ a good breakfast.

“Well?” Ben asked as they strode along the landing together “How is he?”

“Doing well.” Paul smiled “He needs to build up his strength, rest awhile, and he’ll soon be as right as ever. I think I’m more concerned about the affect that event will have on his emotions than anything else. I’ve treated many men in the past who suffered similar experiences during the war to know that sometimes it’s much harder to shake off such memories, such events, from some than it is for others. You may find that Joe will be depressed at times, sad even.”

“I guess that will be only natural …” Ben murmured recalling to mind how he himself had felt when Inger had been killed. But there were differences even then, after all, Inger had been his dearly beloved wife, and there had been no mutilations, no atrocities carried out by the Indians during that small battle. He sighed and shook his head, “But he’ll be alright?”

“I’ve never under estimated the Cartwright constitution, Ben.” Paul replied with a wry smile.
……………………

Sofia put Clarabelle next to Jessie and then sat down on the bed beside them, she opened the book and looked at the dolls and nodded “I’ll read you the story now, Daddy will draw some pictures for you, won’t you, Daddy. Thank you so much that will be lovely …” she sighed and smiled, her voice rose and fell in gentle cadences as she read the story about the little mermaid every so often pausing to ask Daddy “And how do you say this word, daddy? or “Isn’t that right, my dear?”

For a moment Adam stood on the landing and listened before he looked into the room to see just who this Daddy was; it was a mystery to him so after a moment or two he flattered himself into assuming that his daughter was, in fact, alluding to himself. He folded his arms and watched as the little girl continued to read, or rather say the story as she remembered it for her reading was very limited at her age. Clarabelle and Jessie, two of the ugliest dolls that ever existed in Adam’s opinion (and Reubens) sat quite still and never passed any opinion, and so far as Adam could see, niether did ‘Daddy’. He looked around the room but there was no sign of any little boy present at all. Sofia continued to read and then sighed “Well, that’s all for now, my dears. I think we shall have a cup of lemonade and a cookie.”

She scrambled off the bed and made her way to where her toy tea set was all laid out, and where she now ‘poured’ out the tea and took a cup to each doll, setting it down on their laps.

Adam smiled slowly as he watched her. There was no doubt about it she was a pretty little thing, her blonde curls were tied back neatly by a blue ribbon and she wore her blue checkered dress. She was so engrossed in her play that she never noticed him standing by the door until he coughed and she turned, saw him and looked rather startled for the last person she expected to see was him. He stepped into the room and after smiling at her reminded her that it was time for supper, real supper.

“I know.” she replied seriously as she removed the cups and placed them on the little tray, “This was just pretend.”

“I see, and – er – did ‘daddy’ enjoy it too?” Adam asked with a slight smile.

“He never said.” Sofia replied and ran out of the room, ignoring Adams hand which he had held out and had expected her to grasp so that they could have gone downstairs together.

He frowned slightly sensing that something, somewhere, just wasn’t adding up right and in this frame of mood he went downstairs and took his seat at the table. It had been a long day, the weather had been unpleasantly cold with the threat of snow, Hoss had complained by his bunions, his corns, his ‘wound’, and then his age and underlying everything was the constant concern they both felt for their brother. Work had seemed never ending and both had been more than pleased when they were able to leave for home and parted company at the track to the Ponderosa.

It seemed that they had no sooner started eating when there was a knock on the door and Ben stepped into the house calling out a ‘Hallooo’ as he did so. He entered the big kitchen pulling off his gloves and smiling, ruffling Reuben’s hair as he passed the boy and tweaking Sofia’s curls. She put up her arms to give him a hug and when he lowered himself down she kissed him on the cheek “Hi, Granpa.”

“How’s my girl?” Ben replied with his eyes twinkling

“Hungry.” came the reply and Ben laughed

It occurred to Adam at that point that Sofia hadn’t greeted him with her usual loving warmth for a few days, there had been no outstretched arms, no kisses for some while. He glanced at Olivia who was smiling up at Ben waiting to hear what news he had brought with him about Joe. Adam stood up “How’s Joe?”

The urgency in his voice reminded all there that perhaps Ben had arrived with serious and troubling news although his relaxed demeanour and smile somehow denied the possibility. Ben’s smile widened “He’s doing good. Pauls’ very pleased with his progress, thank God, and he’s demanding food which is always a good sign.”

Adam and Olivia exchanged a look significant of their concerns and relief, Adam sat down again while Olivia continued with preparing coffee for Ben.

“Sit down then, Pa, we haven’t started eating yet, would you like to join us?” Olivia asked with a smile that made her eyes twinkle with affection for the older man.

“No, that’s fine, I’ll eat when I get home, Hester and Hop Sing will have prepared something already. I just came by to tell you that Joe’s out of the worst. He should be up and about in a few days.” he sat down anyway, feeling that he could relax at last as he told them about Joe’s improvement, how he had spent some time talking with Paul over it all, how Joe was so much better now and more like his old self. Sofia frowned “Uncle Joe isn’t old, Granpa.”

“True enough.” he smiled and glanced over at Adam as though to share the thought that his son had a bright little daughter.

“He isn’t as old as -” Sofia looked thoughtfully at Adam and then sighed “as Pa.”

“Well, your Pa is a few years older, that’s for sure.” Ben grinned and then smiled his thanks at Olivia as she handed him the cup of coffee.

Perhaps, Adam mused, no one had noticed, and no doubt it wasn’t really very important, but this was the first time his little girl had called him Pa, and somehow he didn’t like it, somehow he realised how much being called ‘Daddy’ had meant to him.

Chapter 70

The voices from downstairs were like a comforting background noise for Joe as he lay in the big bed. He could hear his Mary Ann’s voice and sometimes the little catch of breath that would pause her words, there was Dan’s gurgling giggle or squeal of disapproval which brought a smile to his Papa’s face as he tried to imagine what had caused his little man to be so indignant. Hester’s voice was deeper, moderated and sometimes punctuated with a chuckle while Olivia’s was quiet and softer than the others so that sometimes it was hard for him to hear what she would have said.

It was good, Joe thought, despite the misery of the past months, life was good. He had a roof over his head and a view from his bedroom window that was God given and free and beautiful. He had a wife who loved him, a son who was the centre of his world, and a family who were always there to cushion him when he fell. ..which, he accepted, he did, often.

Who would have thought he could have enjoyed the ladies sewing and quilting group so much. He closed his eyes and let the gentle cadences of their voices float through the floor boards like music.

Downstairs Hannah and Dan were having a tug of war over some of the toys which was beginning to get a trifle heated with Dan about to sink his little teeth into his cousins head and Hannah about to pull a chunk of Dan’s dark curls out of his… on her cushioned seat Sofia watched and frowned a little, glad when the fracas came to an end by Hester removing Hannah and Mary Ann picking Daniel up and putting him in a chair.

Sofia was old enough now to learn how to quilt and she had been given her needle and eight patch piece to work on. She tried hard, as she did with most things, but it was boring work, and things slipped off her lap, and sometimes she found that she’d sewn things onto her skirt, it was all a source of intense irritation. She cast pleading looks at her mother to be rescued but Olivia, whether she noticed or not, chose to ignore her daughter in the belief that if she kept giving in to the child then she would never learn the discipline.

Within a few moments of hearing Daniel’s grizzles Bridie appeared from the kitchen with a tray bearing cookies and cakes which she put down in order to return for the other tray with the drinks. How Daniel’s little face beamed upon sight of his Bridie and the goodies, his fingers and toes wriggled and he squealed with delight as she passed him one for each hand. Hannah was given the same and so was Sofia who was only too happy to set aside her sewing in order to munch her way through the cookies.

Hester picked up Hope and nursed her while she drank her cup of coffee, and rocked back and forth in the rocking chair that Mary Ann had purchased from the Sears catalogue, it had come all the way from New England and was, Hester declared, just about the best thing for nursing a baby.

When it seemed the quilting was about to recommence Sofia said in her sweetest voice “What about Uncle Joe? He’d like a cake or a cookie too, wouldn’t he?”

Mary Ann gave her a beaming smile “Oh yes, these are his favourites too… will you be able to hold the plate steady, Sofia, and take them to him?”

Sofia nodded gravely “I’m grown up now.” she declared.

Olivia looked at her a trifle anxiously as the little girl crossed the room with a plate and a glass of milk, but Sofia walked with her head high and a firm step and once she had passed the half landing without spilling anything she relaxed and settled back into her quilting.

Joe was half asleep when the child appeared at his bedside and carefully placed the glass and plate upon the table, “Sofia…?” he muttered in the midst of a gaping yawn.

“I brunged you up some milk and cookies, Uncle Joe.” she smiled at him, she liked her Uncle Joe a lot.

“Thank you, Sofia.” Joe rubbed his eyes and struggled into a sitting position while Sofia stood by and watched, hesitantly she reached out a hand and twitched at a pillow and then patted the coverlet smooth.

“Aunty Mary Ann said they were your favourites.”

Joe nodded, “She’s right, they are…. I’m surprised there were any left.”

Sofia smiled “My daddy says milk is for babies, but -” she watched as he picked up the glass “mommy says milk makes your bones strong. You need strong bones, Uncle Joe.”

“I guess I do.”

“Pa says that when Reuben gets another horse I can have Buster, but I don’t like Buster, daddy says I can have any horse I want, I don’t have to have Buster to ride if I don’t want to.”

Joe frowned, slightly confused, but nodded “Buster’s a good pony, he understands children.”

“Daddy says I’m growed up now, I don’t need to ride a pony. Reuben said I will like Buster, but I don’t.”

“Poor Buster, I’m sure he likes you.” Joe said looking at the little girl with rather more interest than usual, “So, what does Adam think to all this? Does he think you’re all growed up?”

“Oh Pa thinks I’m still a little girl, he thinks Buster would be good but he doesn’t know that Buster sometimes nips at me.”

“He does?”

“Uh-huh,” Sofia nodded, “Daddy says that’s because Pa hasn’t trained him right, but Reuben says it is because Buster is playful. I think he is just plain mean.”

Joe swallowed his glass of milk and put it down on the table, he nodded, smiled feebly and thanked Sofia very much but thought he’d like some sleep now. As he listened to the little girl make her way downstairs Joe tossed around in his mind just who daddy was and who Pa was and why Buster had suddenly become the meanest critter on the Ponderosa.
………………….

Tucker Pyle thumped his finger down on the headline “Didn’t I tell ya, didn’t I?” he yelled, “I told you there was something rotten about that Armitage. Him and his nephew were a bad lot altogether.”

A lean figure of a man detached himself from the counter and pulled the newspaper from under Tucker’s arm, he scanned the report and then tossed it back “Rubbish. The whole things rubbish. Chivington was a hero, did what the Government was too afraid to do, and Armitage acted on the information he was given, if that accounts right then the person to blame for anything is Joe Cartwright. No decent white man would give an Indian a good quality horse.”

Murmurs of assent followed that with some rumbling mutters in the background. He looked around the customers in the Bucket of Blood who were engrossed in reading the newspaper or just trying to get on with their own business “You’r e a lot of green fools if you think anything different. This article just shows that the Cartwrights are a bunch of Indian lovers, always have been.”

“Yeah, true enough… they’ve always been friendly with the Pauites.” another voice said loudly enough to be heard.

“And what about that time when the Wilsons store was burned down and the brothers killed by the Bannocks, huh? Tried to cover up on that too…” someone else volunteered.

A ripple of silence crept from the doorway and the mutterers and murmurers paused to look over as Clem Foster entered the saloon, his rifle cradled in his arm, behind him Dodds came. Clem scowled at them all “You’re a fine bunch speaking this way about the Cartwrights. You’re so desperate to tarnish their names that you have to even bring up about the Wilsons, even when you know exactly how that happened and when… you should all just be very careful what you say in future.”

“We’re a free country, sheriff, and we’ve the right to express our opinions.” the man who had instigated the trouble said, pulling the newspaper from the counter and flourishing it at the officer “This is trash. It’s a cover up.”

“Perhaps you haven’t read through it all… about Armitage and how he murdered one of our leading citizens before his own death …” Dodds growled and glared at them from under his dark brows

Tucker stood up and clapped his hat upon his head “That’s right, you tell ‘em. Those Armitages … shot me too, he did, as well as Joe Cartwright.”

Several voices rose now in defence of Tucker and declared they had figured Armitage for a wrong ‘un from the moment he was appointed “Should never have let Roy Coffee go.” someone said from the back.

“Huh, Coffee’s hand in glove with the Cartwrights, everyone knows that …” the ringleader laughed but his laughter stopped when Clem stepped forward and told him that one more word from his filthy mouth and he’d be taking as walk to the cells.

From his corner in the saloon Dan deQuille drew on his cigar and took notes. It seemed his retraction and the clarification of the incidents involving Armitage had received a very mixed and rather volatile reaction.
…………………..

By the time the days work was done both Hoss and Adam were more than glad to be parting company and going to their respective homes. The weather was closing in as winter settled into taking its place from autumn. The air was both cold and damp causing their warm breath to waft plume like from their mouths when they spoke. They parted company at the turn in the trail where Hoss would lope gently into the yard of the Ponderosa and Adam would continue until his own turn off into the track leading home.

The lights from the windows glowed a welcome orange and he was more than grateful to see them as he settled Sport into his stall and saw to his unsaddling and grooming for the evening. Fresh water and feed was provided for him plus the hay bag hanging within his reach.

As he made his way to the house Adam flexed his shoulders and thought over the various things that had taken place during the weeks he had been home. As he pushed the door open he felt weighed down totally by the realisation that he could have lost a dear brother and a good friend had Joe or Candy died all because of some unknown statesman sitting in comfort in a palace somewhere in a country many miles away. It struck him as cruel and unfair but even so, that thought did not lift his mood.

Olivia was there to greet him, helping him shrug out of his coat and smiling into his eyes “It’s been a long day?” she said quietly.

“Yes.” he nodded and tossed his hat onto the peg, pulled off his gloves and followed her into the main room where the fire burned and lamps provided their own ambience to the atmosphere. “How are you, Livvy?”

“I’m alright.” she replied as though surprised that he had asked, then realised that he was looking particularly sombre “Is anything wrong? Has something happened?”

“No.”

He was looking over at the children when he answered her, distracted it seemed with thoughts of his own. She slid her hand into his, threaded her fingers through his own and felt his cold flesh “I’ll have supper on the table in a few moments.” she stood on tiptoe to kiss him, and was happy to receive a gentle one in return. The look of intense affection he gave her was both reassuring and comforting and for a moment he seemed loath to release her hand from his grasp.

Reuben stood up as soon as he saw his father, “Pa, you’ve been to Alaska, haven’t you?”

“I have …” he approached the boy and sat down in the comfortable arm chair close to the fire, stretched out his legs and looked over at Sofia who was drawing a rather colourful picture with some wax crayons.

“It’s cold there, isn’t it?”

“It was when I was there.” he sighed and memories of the Ainola shimmering amid the snow showers with O’Brien standing by his side with the snow mounting upon his shoulders sprung to mind and he felt a shiver down his back, “why do you ask?”

“Miss Brandon wants us to write about it.” Reuben sighed, “But there isn’t really much to write about, is there?”

“I guess not, there’s still a lot for us to discover and find out.” he replied and watched Sofia who only now looked up, regarded him steadily before smiling at him. “What are you drawing, sweetheart?”

“A picture.” she replied pressing hard upon the paper as she spoke. “it’s my friend.”

“Really? What’s his name?”

“Oh, it’s just my friend.” she said ingenuously and put the crayon down. “I call him Daddy.”

Chapter 71

Olivia looked at the drawing thoughtfully and then with a deep sigh put it back down on the table “Do you want me to talk to her about it?”

“About what ?,” Adam muttered as he looked from the drawing to his wife and then at the drawing again, “What exactly is it that’s going on? Do you know?”

She frowned slightly up at him as though to indicate that his tone of voice was one she didn’t like but Adam had that obstinate look on his face that meant he expected an answer and wasn’t going to be sidetracked by her, so she nodded “I think I do.”

“Then what is it?”

She sighed and stretched out a hand towards him for she was seated in one of the big chairs while he had remained standing, leaning slightly against the arm of the big settee. “I’m not exactly sure, but I think it has to do with Robert.”

“Robert?” Adam frowned, looked at her as though not really understanding what the name implied and then nodded as realisation dawned “Your husband Robert?”

“Sofia’s father.” she said simply, then noticing the colour rising above collar level she cleared her throat and decided to look at a bowl of apples “She’s growing up, and she’s been asking questions. I suppose she just wants to put things in order but doesn’t have the maturity yet to do it without -” she looked quickly at him and then away “without hurting anyone’s feelings.”

“Isn’t she happy here? Does she want to go back to live in ‘Frisco?”

“No. She loves it here. I think her memories of the house in the city are fading, and she’s trying to understand why she left, where you fit in – oh Adam – don’t raise your eyebrows like that, you have to accept the fact that you weren’t part of her life until she was nearly four.”

He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck before coming to sit beside her “Does she ever ask about the baby?”

“No. But I’m not surprised about that, it’s quite natural after all.”

“How so?”

“Well, time means different things to children. They get impatient if something doesn’t happen within the time limits they’ve got in their mind. It’s been some months since we told them this little one was coming along, and I guess she‘s just got bored with waiting.” she stroked down the skirts of her dress that covered the ‘bump’ and sighed, “It’s all getting confusing for her, and she wants to understand, that’s all.”

“And drawing pictures of her ‘real’ father is one way of doing that, huh?” he leaned over towards her and caught at a loose curl of hair which he toyed with for a while as he thought over what she had said “So she creates him as her friend, the invisible friend who tells her what she can do, can’t do, and generally dictates her life for her.”

“It’s a way of coping -” It was a lame thing to say, and she shrugged slightly and looked at him with her eyes greener than usual, “I’m sorry, darling, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love you, only that she – she needs to get her feelings in the right order.”

“Huh-mm” Adam didn’t like the sound of that and gave a slight shrug of the shoulders, “Reuben tells me that Sofia’s new friend has told her that she doesn’t have to ‘make do’ with Buster. The poor chap isn’t good enough for her and she doesn’t want him. What else will her ‘real daddy’ tell her that will continue to bring that piquant of chaos into our lives I wonder?”

Olivia sighed and took hold of his hand and squeezed it gently, offered up a smile. The sarcasm in his last comment hadn’t been lost on her “Are you jealous?”

“Jealous? Why should I be jealous?” he quirked an eyebrow and sat back from her as though surprised that she would think such a thing let alone ask it.

“I just wondered, after all, just at the moment her invisible friend seems to carry more weight with her than you do.”

He stood up and let her hand slip away, then he shrugged “I just wasn’t expecting it.”

“Being displaced?”

He turned to look at her, disliking the teasing note in her voice because deep down that was just how he was feeling and the fact that she had noticed and dismissed it so lightly actually did dent his ego. He scowled and walked over to the bureau where he poured himself a small glass of whiskey, he didn’t offer her a drink as she had stopped drinking alcohol some weeks previously. For a moment or two he stood quite still holding the glass in one hand while he fussed around the tantalis, then he looked back at her “I’ll just finish off that work I started earlier in my study.”

She looked surprised as he started to walk away from her to the office, it was only when she called his name that he paused to look back at her again “Yes?”

“Adam, she’s a child, it’s just something she will grow out of .”

“I know that -” he replied and without another word walked away from her. She watched him go with a sinking feeling inside of her. This was not an argument which could have cleared the air, nor a disagreement over which they could laugh later, this was Adam in one of his dark moods, cutting her out of the picture, unwilling to share his feelings or let her explain. She had heard his brothers talk about their granite headed brother and not really understood what they could have meant but now she knew, and she didn’t really know how to handle it.

For a moment she stood facing the door of the office before she turned and very slowly returned to her seat in the big armchair.
……………….

Phil Hunt nursed his glass of whiskey against his chest and glowered at the men seated at the table. He watched as they turned over their cards and set them down, muttering among themselves and waiting for the moment when one of them would claim the pot. He thought of the fiasco in the Bucket of Blood earlier and shook his head, he had reached that stage of time where he needed to leave the place, to move on. He looked around the room and saw Tucker Pyle, Spencer and several others at the opposite table, he shook his head and muttered several expletives before someone jabbed him in the arm “C’mon, we’re waiting for you to put your card down.”

He pushed his arm away and looked at his hand, there was nothing there worth keeping, but he flung down a ten of clubs before lurching to his feet and making his way to where Tucker and his companions were seated.

It just takes a small action on the part of one person to change the whole atmosphere of a room, and from being a lively merry gathering there was now tension and a frisson of wariness as Hunt slapped his hand down upon Tuckers shoulder. “You lily livered yella coward … didn’t take you five minutes to cut and run, did it?”

Tucker had yelped slightly when Hunt’s hand came down so heavily upon his shoulder, the wound he had sustained from Armitage was not overly serious but it was painful. He turned away, cringed back as far out of Hunt’s reach as he could and his round eyes glared upwards at the lean figure who seemed to be towering over him “A man has to do what his conscience tells him.” he said, “Ain’t that right, fella’s?”

Surprisingly few replied, one or two men suddenly found reasons to get up and leave the table. In the corner of the room Dan deQuille took out his pencil and notepad. Hunt shook his head “You’re a weasel, Tucker, a reg’lar weasel. You trying to look so good now, but deep down it weren’t for no reason except that you were skeered yella.”

Spencer got up, and squared his shoulders, “Leave him be, he’s an old man and he’s injured so just leave him be.”

“Ah, and who are you? His guardian angel? “ Hunt laughed “Look, I know you, Spencer, don’t think I’m fooled because you like to hide behind this fat slob so’s you don’t get noticed as a bigger coward than he is .”

Spencer shook his head and looked over at the barkeep who just gave a slight nod of the head to confirm that the sheriff had been sent for, upon that assurance he put a hand on Tuckers arm “C’mon, Tucker, time to go…”

At another table, sitting alone, was a young man who had sat in the corner all evening, one glass of beer in front of him, and his hands clamped to each side of his head as though in an effort to keep it steady on his shoulders. A newspaper was spread out in front of him and it was this that now captured Hunt’s attention for he grabbed at it and pulled it from the table and waved it aloft “See this barrel load of lies? What’s it say – anyone going to read it for me – oh yes, the great Adam Cartwright telling us what we don’t know already, except that it ain’t true.”

The young man raised his eyes and stared at Hunt for some time, he could see the man’s mouth flapping open and shut, but for some reason he couldn’t hear a single word of what was being said. He shook his head but doing that brought visions to his eyes that he couldn’t bear to see, visions that haunted him by day and were constantly before him at night. He stared down at his hands and the thought came to him … ‘are these my hands?’

He could never forgive himself, he could never forget, never in all his life could he forget. Perhaps he told himself he had no right to forget, after all, what he had done, what he had done …. He gave a sob and buried his face in his hands again.

Hunt turned to him and his lips twisted into a sneer “You came with us that day…you saw it…you know what we did? We spared this town from being slaughtered that’s what we did. Why don’t you get up on your feet, boy, and tell ’em, tell ’em what we did?”

The younger man shook his head, it seemed all the demons were there now, jumping up and down just like they were described in that book he read once about Dante’s Inferno. He mouthed words but nothing came out and Hunt slapped him hard in the chest with the back of his hand, “What’s the matter – you got something to say, then say it. Come on, we want to hear – you tell ’em how good it was that day with Armitage.”

Good? The man’s eyes widened as though they were on stalks. How could anyone say it was good? He shook his head and shrieked “Stop it. Stop it.”

The words rang across the room and brought instant silence. The piano player tossed his cigarette into a spittoon and turned his attention on this rival for an audience, several of the saloon girls sashayed away from the area where Hunt was standing. Mark Whitten was the name of the young man and he stood in front of them looking like a man who had risen from his grave but was still dead. He shook his head “Good? You call it good?” he yelled at Hunt and then turned to stare at all those standing there who were now watching him. Then he returned his gaze to Hunt, and his wide staring eyes seemed to roll in their sockets “You mean to tell me that you can sleep at night without thinking of what we did that day? You mean you don’t see ’em running for cover, those children screaming… children … I got me two children at home and another on the way and all I can see when I look at them are those -”

“Savages -” Hunt spat the word “That’s what they were, and Armitage was right, you have to get ’em when they’re young, before they get to an age where they can breed more. You were there, you saw -”

“I saw them being murdered, murdered.” Mark passed a hand across his eyes as though he wanted to draw back some kind of curtain, he made the gesture several times, obviously the curtain remained. “I can’t go to my wife, I can’t hold her with my hands like this -” he held out his hands for all to see, several craned forward to get a closer view to see exactly what was wrong with them, “Blood – everywhere – blood – and I can’t wash it off, they don’t get clean.”

“You’re mad.” Hunt said with disgust and crumpled the newspaper up in order to throw it into Mark’s face but the other man reached out and snatched it from him

“No, I’m not mad. I wish I could use that as some excuse for what I did. You’re the man that’s mad. If you can believe what we did was right and good, if you can read this article and call it lies ..then you’re the one who’s mad, and it’s because you don’t want to accept the facts, you can’t be honest with yourself and admit that you did something monstrous.”

Hunt narrowed his eyes, brought his fist up but lowered it again “You’re drunk.”

“I can’t drink, they’re more alive when I’ve had a drink, they keep yelling at me, screaming, screaming …” he put his hands to his ears “I can’t get them to keep quiet. I can’t stop them.”

He lunged forward, throwing himself towards Hunt who withdrew his knife in order to defend himself. As Mark impacted upon him Hunt stepped back, took the man’s weight and staggered backwards into the counter as a result. It was then that the body, almost in slow motion, slid down upon the saw dust strewn floor with the handle of the knife protruding from its abdomen. Hunt stared down at the blood on his hands and then at the amount that was spilling out upon the floor.

It was at that point that Clem Foster and Dodds entered the saloon.

The small group of men who had clustered around Hunt and others drew back to let the sheriff through, so that Clem had a clear view of the man on the floor, he looked up and nodded “Alright, what happened here?”

“I – I didn’t kill him,” Hunt yelled, and looked around him at the men standing around him “Tell him, tell him I didn’t kill him.”

Clem looked at the man’s blood stained hand and then at the knife in Mark’s body, “Your knife I presume?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t kill him.” Hunt protested with wild gestures and grabbing hold of one mans shirt “Tell him, tell him I didn’t kill him.”

It was at that point that Mark’s hand rose and his fingers fastened onto Clem’s sleeve “Oh God, Oh God -” he sobbed, “Don’t let me die with them on my conscience.”

“What’s he talking about?” Dodds asked deQuille who was tucking his notepad into a pocket.

Dan muttered something but Dodds wasn’t listening as he yelled to someone to get the doctor before someone died and Clem was trying to calm Mark who was ranting on about the children he had killed, the evil he had committed “They don’t go away, they don’t … I close my eyes and they’re still there … Armitage should have left them alone, I should never have gone with them, never …”

“Alright now, calm down, we’ve sent for a doctor.” Clem was saying “Just hold on there, Mark, hold on.”

“What do I tell Gladys? What do I say?” Mark whispered “What do I tell her?”

DeQuille had managed to get Dodds to himself now and told him what he had seen and heard, whether or not it exonerated Hunt the man had no way of telling, even though he watched the two men with agonised eyes and fearing the feel of the noose around his neck with every moment.

Clem finally got to his feet and looked at Hunt, “I told you before to quit making trouble, Hunt. Now it seems you’ve got yourself deep in it, if this man dies you’ll be up on a murder charge.”

“I – I – but -” Hunt spluttered and shook his head then stepped aside to let Paul Martin pass by in order to reach his patient. Clem jerked his head towards the door while his hand clamped down on Hunts arm, “I didn’t do it -”

His protests fell on deaf ears, everyone’s attention was now directed to the man writhing in pain on the floor over whom Paul was now attending.

Chapter 72

Adam turned the flame of the oil lamp a little higher so that the brighter light would illuminate the room as he read through the letter that had received only half his attention earlier that day. After a few moments he put it down and was about to reach for his pen when movement by the door caught his attention. He smiled as Olivia came into the room “I won’t be much longer -” he said as he turned his eyes back to the letter

“Adam, this matter with Sofia …” she paused, then raised a hand to her brow and rubbed it slowly as though the matter had already created a headache, “I think we should try and think of some way to deal with it before it gets too involved.”

He leaned back against the chair and frowned, then reached out a hand which she took in hers, “Come and sit down, sweetheart, you look tired. Would you prefer to talk about it in the morning?”

“No, I’d rather we discussed it now.” she replied as she sat in the chair opposite him. “You seemed to think it was important enough just now when you raised the subject.”

Adam nodded and looked at her before glancing away, “I think it is important -” he agreed, “I didn’t like you mentioning the fact that it was because I felt I’d been displaced.”

“Then how do you feel about it?”

He released her hand and picked up the pen which he rolled round and round between his fingers. For a moment there existed only silence between them until he nodded again “I’m worried about it, concerned for want of another word.”

“But like I said, Adam, she’s only a child and -”

“I understand what you said earlier, Livvy.” he frowned now and put the pen down onto the desk, “I can understand why she feels the need for an invisible friend but at the same time it worries me that it has to be Robert.”

“Well, if she has to have an invisible friend isn’t it a good thing that it happens to be someone she feels a bond with? Her own father?”

Adam sighed and once again picked up the pen, he now shook his head “I don’t think so.”

“Because it’s Robert?” her voice was slightly colder than usual, and she had raised her chin as though defending her daughter’s choice of ’friend’.

Adam bit down on some sarcastic comment that immediately came to mind, instead he flung the pen down and stood up, paced the floor once or twice before dropping back into his chair. He leaned forward towards her and took hold of her hands, then looked into her eyes “My dear, when I was a child and first noticed that other children had mothers I tried to introduce into my world a mother of my own. Perhaps I lacked the imagination, or just couldn’t handle it right but it didn’t work out, after one particular tanning from my Pa I gave up on the idea of having an imaginary mother and settled for what I had …” he sighed and looked down at the floor before raising her eyes to look at her once again “When Marie died Little Joe was about five years old, Sofia’s age. Now he had known what it was like to have both a mother and a father but suddenly he found himself without his mother and as a result introduced us to his invisible friend ’Harry.’”

“Harry?” she echoed, and smiled, “I can just imagine Joe having a friend called Harry.”

“You have to remember this was a little boy who was in shock from the loss of a mother he loved. He was also a wilful child who liked to have his own way. He also had a vivid imagination.” Adam frowned as though memories of Harry and Joe combined were not particularly pleasant ones

“You’re saying that Sofia is wilful and has a vivid imagination?” she now said with icicles dripping from each word.

He sighed and released her hands, ran one through his hair while the other one rubbed the back of his neck “Well, Harry got Joe into all kinds of trouble, he also put forward lots of good reasons why Joe couldn’t do his chores, couldn’t go to school, couldn’t eat particular foods or drinks, and didn’t have to go to bed at the time stipulated. In fact when Joe wanted out of anything it was because Harry said so, and if Joe particularly wanted something it was because Harry insisted Joe had a right to it.”

Olivia bowed her head and stared at the floor some feet away, she sighed, “So how did you deal with Harry?”

“Pa dealt with him with a heavy hand …” Adam said quietly and resumed his seat, “But that won’t work with Sofia.”

Olivia’s head had jerked up at the mention of Ben’s method of disposing of Harry, her lips compressed into a tight little button of protest “No, it certainly won’t.” she snapped and straightened her shoulders.

“We have to make sure we’re in agreement with this, Olivia. If Sofia thinks she can play us off of one another -.” he frowned and pinched the bridge of his nose, he shook his head “I’m not getting rid of Buster to please her for a start.”

“Of course not, I wouldn’t expect you to.” she stood up and came to his side, then folded her arms around him “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings earlier, Adam. I should have realised you were upset by what she is doing.”

Adam frowned slightly as he put his arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head “I feel worried that she has adopted Robert as her invisible friend. It’s as though she’s forgotten she has a mother and a father here to love and care for her.”

She hugged him closer, thinking of the little boy who had never had a mother of his very own, and the little boy who had lost the mother he’d adored. She thought of her own mother and all that she had suffered in her life time, “Oh Adam, sometimes life can be so cruel.”

It was a whisper but he heard it, there was nothing he could say in reply, after all, he’d accepted that fact many years ago and all the joy and happiness he’d ever experienced in life didn’t dispel the fact or make it any less true.
…………………..

Reuben picked up the apple and looked at it carefully to make sure there were no worms in it before he handed it to Buster, he looked at his sister who was sitting on a hay bale watching him “Why don’t you give him one as well.”

“Don’t want to.”

“But if you’re going to have him to ride one day, you should get to know him better. He’s a good horse.” he stroked the animals sleek neck before picking up the brush in order to groom him “Why not get t he other brush and do the other side with me?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not? “ the boys hazel eyes darkened and he scowled over at her “You should, it’ll help you get to be his friend.”

“Don’t want to be his friend. Don’t’ want to ride Buster.” she kicked her heels against the bale and sniffed in the air, “Daddy says I can have a new pony.”

Reuben laughed at that “No, he didn’t. He said Buster would be good for you, he knows you and he’s a gentle horse.”

“I said Daddy said I don’t have to have Buster if I don’t want to.” Sofia pouted and her blue eyes sparked while colour mounted in her cheeks and she jumped off the bale and picked up her basket where the eggs she had collected that morning jostled .

“Daddy said – daddy said -” Reuben chanted “Well, I betcha he didn’t say no such thing. Pa wouldn’t get you a new horse anyway.”

Sofia sniffed “I said it was daddy not Pa…”

Reuben frowned and stopped brushing the pony, he turned to face Sofia and shook his head “What are you talking about?”

“I told you already.” she said with a heavy and rather theatrical sigh “Daddy is daddy, and Pa is Pa.”

Reuben shook his head again “You’re stupid, Pa’s who he is, he’s Pa, you used to call him daddy not so long ago.”

“Well, he ain’t daddy now. My daddy is my friend, and Pa is – Pa is Pa.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. “ Reuben started to brush down the comb across Busters neck and then looked again at his sister “Are you talking rubbish again, Sof-ee?”

“No.” she shook her head and shrugged, “You just don’t understand. You forgot daddy anyway.”

A slight inkling of who she meant began to creep into Reuben’s mind and he put the brush down and walked to his sister whom he now regarded very seriously “I remember my daddy. You never even saw him, not ever.”

“I know.” she shrugged “But I know him now.”

“No you don’t.”

“I do too.” she stuck her tongue out for good measure and began to run off, but not before Reuben grabbed at her arm and stopped her “Leggo.”

“No. You tell me what you mean?”

She looked at him thoughtfully but then shook her head, “No.”

“well, you can’t have a daddy and a Pa, not at the same time.”

“I do, so there.” and this time she made her escape and ran from the stable only to run straight into Adam who stooped down to stop her from falling and steadied her up. Two eggs had escaped from the basket and smashed on the ground “More haste, less speed, young lady.” Adam quipped and smiled down at her, “Whats the hurry?”

“Reuben was teasing me, he’s horrible.”

Adam grimaced, a down turn of the mouth and he looked at Reuben who was skulking at the door “Best say sorry to your sister…”

Reuben scowled but muttered sorry without any grace and turned back into the stable to attend to Buster. Adam let the little girl run into the house and strolled into the stable where he began to tend to Sport’s stall, he glanced over at Reuben “What was that all about? You two don’t usually quarrel.”

“She’s annoying that’s all.” Reuben muttered and worked at Busters coat more vigorously than ever.

“I can imagine.” Adam smiled and plied the rake with some dexterity as he cleared out the stall.

Reuben glanced over at him for a moment and then shook his head. How could he mention to this man that Sofia was playing him off against their own father? He tried to remember Robert’s face and he realised that he had seldom thought of him for some time now, he couldn’t remember the sound of his voice, when he tried he could only ever hear Adam’s deep drawl. He sighed and shook his head “Girls are funny, aren’t they?”

Adam smiled and raised an eyebrow “Well, I guess so.”

“I bet you’re glad you didn’t have any sisters, Pa?”

“I don’t know.” Adam paused in his raking out and puckered his lips, then shrugged “You don’t miss what you never had.”

“Do you – do you think of your Ma very often?” Reuben asked tentatively.

Adam drew in his breath and slowly exhaled, an inkling of what had gone on was now trickling into his mind. He looked at the boy and recognised the anxious face as one he hadn’t seen in a long while, “why not tell me exactly what this is about, son?”

He perched himself on the hay bale that Sofia had recently been sitting on and looked a the boy who put the brush down and approached him. Reuben looked into the dark eyes and the lips that smiled at him, he cleared his throat “I can’t remember much about my own daddy.”

“That’s not a crime. It’s nothing to worry about either, you were very young when he died. I can’t remember that clearly what Inger looks like now, except when I look at the picture Pa has of her.”

“But Inger wasn’t your real Ma was she?”

“No, she was Hoss’ real Ma, but he didn’t know her either. Fact is, I knew her more than he did.”

“Did he ever pretend that he – I mean – she was real?”

Adam pouted and shook his head slowly, “No, he didn’t. But then he didn’t have to, my Pa married Marie, so Hoss was happy enough to accept her as his mom.”

“Pa, is it wrong to pretend that our real daddy is alive?” his voice had a pleading to it, a thinness that indicated his anxiety and Adam placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and looked at the earnest face before he sighed and his brow crinkled slightly “Is this about Sofia and her new friend?”

“I guess.” Reuben admitted quietly.

“Well, sometimes I suppose it happens that a need comes up where thinking about someone we loved – or would have loved – can bring some comfort. But -”

“But?”

“It can become a problem if that person becomes so real that it interferes with real life. If our own decisions are dictated to – or – er – if what we want is what we tell ourselves is backed up by this other person in our lives, then we stop living our real life.” he frowned wondering if he had confused the boy “Does that make sense to you?”

Reuben nodded “Sure, I think so. It’s not good, is it?”

“It’s not a bad thing to think of the person we’ve loved, and lost, Reuben. I’d like to think that you care about your own father and can talk openly about him to your Ma and myself?”

Reuben nodded “But Sofia – she’s kind of making him real to her, as though he’s telling her what to do all the time.”

Adam gave a slight quirk of a smile “You’ll find that this friend of Sofia’s will only want what Sofia wants, and will dislike the things that Sofia dislikes. She’s kind of using him as a back up of sorts.”

“A back up?” he frowned and thought about it, and then nodded, smiled “I know what you mean, Pa. Like she wants a new pony, so of course her daddy wants one for her too.”

Adam shrugged “Well, she isn’t going to get one. Buster’s got a lot of life in him yet, and he’s a good reliable mount. Your’e happy enough with him for a while longer, aren’t you?”

“Sure am.” Reuben smiled and returned to the pony’s side “and he isn’t as fat now as he was, is he?”

Adam ran his hand over the pony’s nose and nodded “He’s trimmed down real good. You’ve done a good job caring for him, son.”

Reuben basked in the glow of Adams praise, he smiled, that’s something Sofias new friend won’t ever give her, he thought, not in a million years.

Chapter 73

Mark Whitten lay on the bed with his eyes staring up at the ceiling and his lips moving constantly. By his side his wife sat sobbing into a handkerchief while every so often she would reach out to take hold of his hand which he would pull away immediately with a shuddering cry of such anguish that it sent her into fresh paroxysms of tears.

Timothy Schofield shook his head and after staring at the couple for some time approached her, put his hand on her shoulder and suggested that she went into the waiting room. “There’s nothing you can do for him sitting there, Madam.”

“But he knows I’m here, doesn’t he? He knows; what comfort is there for him if I leave now?”

“I assure you, Mrs Whitten, your husband is no longer aware of your presence. It would be better, in your condition, if you went to comfort your other children in the waiting room.”

“You’re telling me he’s going to die, aren’t you?” her whisper was choked by sobs and she cast a look at her husbands face before shaking her head “What’s he staring at, why doesn’t he stop that noise, what’s he saying?”

“Why not just go into the waiting room, Madam.”

Schofields patience was running out, his voice was sharp and acerbic. With a last look at her husband Gladys Whitten moved her body away and went to the waiting room where her two children sat with terror in their eyes, upon sight of their mother they promptly gave way to tears of relief and howls of anguish. Schofield rolled his eyes and equally as promptly disappeared back to the room with the dying man.

Roy Coffee pushed the surgery door open and surveyed the woman with her squalling children with sympathy. He had spent the good part of an hour with Clem going over various statements of what had happened in the saloon while Hunt was yelling from his cell that he ‘hadn’t done nothing’’

Walking up to her and removing his hat Roy looked like any venerable uncle would, and the children calmed enough to step away from their mother a little in order for him to take a seat by Gladys. He placed a sympathetic hand upon her arm “Now then, Gladys, this is a sad how do you do.”

She nodded, blew her nose and blinked back tears, “I never thought I had so many tears left. These past few days have been so miserable, Mr Coffee. “

“Would you like to talk about it?”

She looked at the children who now leaned against her skirts and looked up into her once pretty face now ravaged by worry and tears “It all started when he came in saying about going on a little jaunt with that sheriff Armitage.” her voice hardened as she mentioned the mans name “Some kind of sheriff he turned out to be…”

“Now then, just keep to what happened.” Roy soothed.

“He went out laughing, saying it was going to be a bit of fun, but I told him to be careful, I didn’t feel comfortable about what I had been hearing in town and he just kissed me goodbye and said not to fret.” she cleared her throat and stared at the door behind which her husband was struggling for life. “He came home shaking and white faced, his hands never stopped trembling, he kept looking at the children and then crying out for me to take them out of his sight, he was as though he couldn’t bear the sight of them anymore. I couldn’t comfort him, he wouldn’t let me near, just said he had done unimaginable terrible things, seen others do even worse … to children … that Armitage and Hunt, they were the worse, they were laughing as though they had gone mad, so my Mark said.”

Her voice ended in a harrowing shudder of a sigh and she looked at Roy plaintively “What’s going to happen to him?”

“To Mark?” Roy frowned and looked at the other door and shook his head but she said no, not to Mark “I meant …what’s going to happen to Hunt? He killed those children, and those women, and then he tries to kill Mark.”

Roy nodded and sighed, he chewed around his moustache for a moment before telling her that the statements indicated that Hunt thought he was about to be attacked and had taken a knife out to defend himself. He didn’t actually use the knife in a manner to kill Mark, but that the younger man had thrown himself bodily upon him, and upon the weapon. “Has he said anything to you about what happened, Gladys?”

She shook her head “All he says is that he can’t forgive himself for what he’d done, over and over again he says the same thing ….” and she gave vent to further tears which caused her infants to start wailing once more.

Silence came suddenly when Schofield made an entrance to the room, followed by Paul. They looked at Roy and he could tell from the slight movement of Pauls’ head that Mark Whittons terrors were now at an end. He stood up, gently patted Gladys on the shoulder and stepped to one side for the doctors to take the new widow to her husband. He watched as the sorry group entered the other room with the two children clutching at their mothers skirts and as the door closed he shook his head before slowly picking up his hat and leaving the building.

Clem listened to what he was told and then poured both himself and Roy some coffee, “What do I do, Roy? A mans dead and Hunts in there shouting the odds …”

“There’ll have to be an inquest, Clem. You need to get that organised. I’d like to see Hunt hang for the deaths of those women and children, but fact is that ain’t likely to happen seeing how they be Indians.”

“Ain’t right though,” Dodds said as he came to claim a mug of coffee for himself, “They were women and children after all, don’t matter what colour skin – shouldn’t matter anyhow”

“No, it shouldn’t and maybe some Government will have the gumption to realise that and make some laws about it.” Roy scowled and gulped down scalding coffee, “Dang my hide, that man Armitage should never have stepped foot in this office.”

“You shouldn’t have resigned.” Clem said slowly but that only brought an irritated shake of the head from the old man so Clem returned to the main matter of discussion, “Fact is, Hunt had the knife in his hand, it may not have been premeditated murder, but he had that knife and he intended to use it, even if he could claim it was in self defence.”

“He can claim that as much as he likes, but there’s a man dead over there, and a woman and her children without a man to provide for ‘em. If he hadn’t had that knife …” Roy sighed and shook his head, “Well, you had best write up your statement and get the coroner to deal with it. Keep Hunt in the cells until after the inquest, let him cool his heels in there for a while.”

Clem nodded and looked at Dodds who accepted the fact that life was not going to be easy or quiet for the coming few days. Roy finished his drink and slowly made his way from the office he had thought of as home for so long. Some things change in life, he mused, but some things, like injustice and death, remain the same.
………………….

“No.”

Sofia scowled at the bowl of oatmeal that had been placed in front of her and then looked defiantly at her mother, “I don’t like oatmeal.”

“You’ve liked it enough all these mornings, Sofia. Eat it up.”

“I don’t want it. Daddy says I can have an egg today, eggs are good for you, they make you strong.”

“So does oatmeal which is why I make it for you. Don’t mention daddy at the table, Sofia, just eat your oatmeal.”

“No, I don’t like it.” Sofia folded her arms across her chest and looked at her mother, “I don’t want it.”

Olivia shook her head and pushed the bowl closer to her daughter “Eat it up, Sofia, I’m not going to argue with you, just eat it up.”

“I want an egg.”

“You have your oatmeal.”

Sofia shook her head, her blonde curls jangled over her shoulders, and she clamped her mouth tightly shut. She knew she was upsetting her mother, she could tell that from the way Olivia’s eyes had darkened and the pretty mouth had firmed into a bloodless line, but even so, the little girl was determined not to give in. Olivia sighed and gave her daughter’s arm an impatient shake “I don’t want to argue with you, Sofia, if you don’t want your oatmeal now you can sit there until you do.”

“No, I don’t want it.” and Sofia let two tears fall from her blue eyes and a sniff followed.

Cheng ho Lee stepped forward with a pleasant smile and bowed “Cheng Ho Lee will make egg for Missy, no trouble.”

“Thank you, Cheng Ho Lee, but Sofia has her oatmeal and she’ll sit here until she’s eaten it.”

Olivia heard herself saying the words, and felt ridiculous. Why on earth argue about a bowl of porridge, why not just let her have her egg if it makes her happy. She shook her head and stood up, went to the sink and filled a glass with water. She looked over at Sofia who was sitting at the table with her face a mask of defiance and her arms folded and rested upon the table top. “Very well, make her an egg.”

Immediately a smile beamed upon the childs face “Oh thank you, mommy.” she said so sweetly.

For a moment Olivia thought she was going to faint, she sipped the water quickly to restore herself. It had been like stepping back in time, to those battles with her own mother when Katya would defy her until she had got her own way and then said so sweetly “Oh thank you, mommy/Olivia/Luke” … gripping the side of the sink Olivia emptied the glass, of all things she didn’t want her daughter turning out like Katya, the thought was unbearable and the fact that she had given in to Sofia so quickly this morning irritated her beyond question.

Chapter 74

The bedroom was a subtle combination of shade and light which illuminated the couple as they made ready for bed. Occasionally the husband cast an anxious glance over at his wife who was slowly unrobing in unusual silence. Eventually he paused in removing his outer clothes to approach her and put a gentle hand on her shoulder, turned her to face him and hold her close. She sighed and turned her eyes up to look into his face before she placed her head upon his shoulder and allowed his hand to gently stroke her back while the other continued to embrace her.

“I had a bad day,” she murmured and closed her eyes as she relaxed and wrapped her arms around him, “Sofia isn’t my little girl anymore, she’s changing.”

“Perhaps it’s time she went to school.” Adam frowned, “She may be needing the company of other children.”

“She’s so young, younger than Reuben was when he started school.”

“I know,” he sighed, his breath drifted over the top of her head and made her hair rise and fall gently with the movement of air, “But this whole silly nonsense may stop if she had something to occupy her mind more.”

“I tried to keep her busy today. We had cheese to make but she wouldn’t come into the dairy, just stubbornly defied me. What’s worse is that I lost my temper with her and slapped her on her backside.”

“Mmm,” Adam frowned, he had never seen Olivia angry, and the though of her slapping one of her children almost amused him, “What did she do then?”

“She had a tantrum, stamped on the floor, screamed until she was red in the face and stormed out of the dairy back to her room.”

He remained silent aware that there was more to come but that Olivia needed time to compose herself, even the telling of the event was causing some distress. Eventually she raised her head and looked at him “Adam, it was like seeing Katya all over again. That was just how she would act when she couldn’t get her own way.”

Adam swallowed a gulp in his throat and raised his eyebrows, “Mmm, a little Katya isn’t something we would want in our family, is it?”

She looked at him a trifle more narrow eyed as t hough she suspected him of teasing her, she shook her head and slowly moved away to sit at the dressing table. He came and sat on the end of the bed to observe her as she began to b rush her hair. After a moment she continued to speak.

“When I eventually went upstairs to remonstrate with her -” she drew in her breath and stopped, holding the brush a short distance away from her hair and staring at his reflection in the mirror “Well, she just looked at me and continued with playing with her dolls. I asked her if she had learned anything from her punishment and she just frowned and shrugged.”

“Hardly a punishment, my darling, if you sent her up to her room to play with her dolls.” he said dryly at which statement she nodded, and began to brush her hair again.

“Almost the same as what she said to me, only a sweet thank you for letting her play with her dolls instead of making smelly cheese. So I sat down beside her and asked her why she was being naughty so she said she wasn’t, she was just doing what daddy told her.”

“Daddy again huh?” he shook his head, “So what did you do.”

“I told her that her father was a good kind man who wouldn’t like her being so naughty. She said she knew he was a good kind man but maintained again that he had told her not to make the cheese, or have Buster so I told her she was being wilfully naughty and as punishment I’d take her dolls away.”

“And did you?” he raised one eyebrow and she rolled her eyes heavenwards and shook her head “No, she screamed and yelled and then there was a knock on the door so I had to go and see who that was … “ she frowned slightly, “It was Roy Coffee, he had come by to see you about what had happened in town.”

“Huh, yes, I heard about that … a fight between Hunt and young Mark Whitten.”

“Mark died, did you know?”

“Yes, Paul told me when I was in town with Hoss.”

“Roy said it had to do with what happened to those Indians Joe was friendly with …”

“That’s right, so it was.”

“Adam -” she frowned and shook her head before turning back to the mirror and resuming brushing her hair, “He didn’t stay long but went to see your father. In the meantime Sofia had come downstairs and joined Cheng Ho lee in the kitchen. She was sitting at the table with milk and a cookie looking as innocent as could be…”

Adam sighed and caressed her hair which he loved to see as it tumbled down her back and, when she was seated on the stool, almost touched the ground. “Did you say anything to her?”

“No, not then. To be honest I had a cup of coffee and some cookies as well.”

Adam grimaced “You condoned the crime.”

“I know.” she gave a small smile and finished brushing her hair and turned to him, “Adam, I was tired, I thought if I gave her a little leeway then I could talk her round a little more later in the day.”

“And did you?” he stood up and picked up her nightdress which he handed to her and watched as she slipped it on.

She was beautiful in her condition now, slim from t he back, but with the most rounded shape sideways on, he knew better than to make any comment about it as he had learned she was sensitive about anything said now about what she looked like, taking a compliment wrongly, turning it to mean something else. He sighed and dropped a kiss on the back of her neck “You’re beautiful, Livvy.”

“No, I’m not.” she replied immediately and ran a hand over the bulge of her belly wherein the baby was safely nestled, “I’m as big as one of those tugs that pulls your ship out of harbour.”

He laughed then and kissed her neck again “That’s a terrible metaphor, my love.”

“Ann came to visit with David,” she said as she buttoned her nightdress and pulled her long fold of hair over her shoulder, “They calmed the situation somewhat and Sofia was more amiable when they left. I did her lessons with her and she was good, I think she likes learning.”

“Then she does need to go to school.” Adam removed his shirt and then his long johns, stretched and shivered, the room was getting colder and outside there was the sound of rain.

Olivia heard it too and walked to the window, drew aside part of the curtain and looked out into the night. By the sombre light of the oil lamp on the dressing table she could see the rain as it splattered against the window. Eventually she let the curtain fall just as Adam slipped into the bed. She pulled back the bed covers and joined him, immediately drawing closer to his body and putting her head on his shoulder. “We had another battle when I asked her to help prepare the dinner. It’s Cheng Ho Lee’s afternoon with Hop Sing.” she frowned and raised her eyes to look at his face “You know they spend an afternoon a week together to play chess or whatever they call it?”

“Luzhangi seems to be their favourite at present…” Adam said softly and kissed her ear then her brow.

“Well, she refused and said she wanted to read her book by the fire so we argued a while and then I took her by the arm and marched her into the guest room and told her to stay there until she had learned to behave and apologised.”

“And did she?” he whispered as he kissed her nose and then her lips and then her throat.

“No, of course not.” she whispered back, “I had to go in an hour later and found her asleep on the bed.” she sighed and wriggled into a more comfortable position.

“I’ll talk to her in the morning.” he promised in a husky voice, and tilted her head up a little to look down at her for a moment before kissing her a little more.

“Don’t let’s think of Sofia for a while, my darling … let’s just …”

“Shush …”

…………………..

“No.”

“Eat your oatmeal, Sofia.” Adam said quietly and pushed the bowl closer.

“I don’t like oatmeal.” she replied with a cross little furrow on her brow. “Mommy let me have an egg yesterday.”

“Well, you’re not having an egg today. Eat your oatmeal.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You’ve liked it before.” Adam said gently and put the spoon in the bowl “Do you want me to feed it to you like when you were a baby?”

“I wasn’t here when I was a baby.” she pouted, her bottom lip stuck out in a scowl.

Reuben laughed “Sure wish you were, then you wouldn’t be so stupid now.”

Adam turned to his son and shook his head “That’s not helping, Reuben.”

“Sorry, Pa.” he grinned and continued to eat his breakfast with a grin on his face and flashing teasing looks at his sister.

“I don’t want it.” Sofia said with tears in her eyes now, she never could bear being teased by her brother, “I want an egg.” and she pushed the bowl so hard that it spun to the edge of the table and topped with a crash onto the floor.

Cheng Ho Lee stepped forward immediately with a cloth in hand to wipe it up, but Adam took the cloth calmly from him and pushed it into Sofia’s hands “You made the mess, young lady, you clear it up.”

The tears fell, the bottom lip quivered, a wail burst forth. Olivia stood up but a sign from her husband indicated that she sat back down again. Reuben finished his breakfast and excused himself from the table “I’ve gotta go now. See you later.”

Olivia rose from the table and escorted her son to the door and into the yard, anything rather than witness the scene in the kitchen between her husband and daughter. Sofia held the cloth to her chest and wept into it while Adam drank his coffee and continued to eat his breakfast. “I – I – I -” she blubbered.

“Sofia, do as you’re told and clear up that mess.” he held the cup between his hands and blew upon its hot surface “Hurry up now.”

“But – “ she picked up the broken pieces of the bowl and placed them carefully on the table, “But I – I can’t.”

“Don’t under estimate yourself, you’ll be amazed what even a little girl like you can achieve if you have faith in yourself. “ Adam replied in the tone of voice any Sunday Pastor would have been proud of possessing.

Carefully she cleaned up the mess, not perfectly for Cheng Ho Lee did that later, but it was done sufficiently well for Adam to say ‘Well done’ and to tell her to sit down. He then got up and picked up another bowl, he ladled in more oatmeal and placed it on the table in front of her “Now, you’ll be hungry after all that work, so eat up.”

She picked up the spoon reluctantly and stared down at the oatmeal, her throat seemed to clem together, she looked at him and blinked tear filled eyes. He stood up and brought to the table a bowl of sugar some of which he ladled generously onto the oatmeal before he put it back in the cupboard.

By the time Olivia decided to return to the table the battle had been fought and won, the oatmeal eaten and a sticky little girl drinking her milk quietly while Adam emptied his last cup for the morning. He got up and kissed his wife goodbye and then dropped a kiss on the top of Sofia’s head … as he strapped on his gun belt he wondered how many battles would be fought before he had succeeded in trouncing the intruder and bringing peace back to the family fold.

Chapter 75

The wind had buffeted the buggy most of the way into town from the Ponderosa and Bridie O’Flannery was convinced her arms had grown several inches as a result of the long drive even though the horses were a well matched and obedient pair. She clambered down from the vehicle and fought to keep her bonnet on and her coat from blowing up over her head and entangling her as she attempted to get the reins round the hitching post by the Emporium.

She had only taken a few short steps towards the store when rain drops began to fall with a deliberate heavy spitting that stung her face which was already feeling tender from the cold winds that had blow upon it during her journey. Growling slightly beneath her breath she pushed the door open with her shoulder and entered the warmth of the store. The door closed with a bang loud enough to wake everybody up who may have dosed off in front of the stove while they waited for wives or mothers to do their purchases.

After ten minutes she was more than aware that from being so cold she was now overly warm, that her face was no doubt the colour of the rosiest apples and her hat had gone limp. She was feeling decidedly annoyed at having even bothered to come into town when she heard her name being called, if one could use that expression as the voice was not loud at all and she had to turn round to see who it was actually summoning her. She smiled as Paul Martin appeared, but her smile faltered a little when she remembered how she must be looking now but with a defiant gesture she pushed back her hat and greeted him with a nod of the head, which was unfortunate because her hat slipped over her eye and made her look decidedly drunk.

“Ah, I am glad to see you this morning, Bridie.” Paul said without the least self consciousness about calling her by her first name, “I really need to talk to you about something.”

Bridie pushed back her hat and cleared her throat “I should be finished here in about half an hour, if you could wait that long, Dr Martin.”

“Half an hour?” he looked at her with a slightly worried and distracted look, then nodded “Yes, that would be excellent. Could you join me for coffee at the Internationale House?”

She watched him depart and then continued with selecting her items, slightly surprised and a little embarrassed when she bumped into Widow Hawkins and Mrs Gaskell whispering together with their heads turned in her direction. It was more than obvious that she was the subject of their earnest conversation. “Good day to you, Mrs Hawkins, Mrs Gaskell”

They smiled, nodded and bade her good day just as one would expect from two old hypocrites like them, and Bridie sailed determinedly on towards the counter with her items. ‘it was’ she decided ‘just too bad that Paul Martin would decide to speak to her when those two were in ear shot.’ She shook her head and concentrated on the matter on hand which was paying for her groceries and goods while packing them away in her commodious basket.
………………..

Ben pulled the collar of his coat up to cover his ears and stuffed his hands in the deep pockets of his coat as he walked across to where Hoss was standing talking to Adam . They were in the timber camp towards the north and the wind was sharp and keen making the tops of the trees bend and sway with alarming power, it whistled down into the camp sending the chill air from the mountains blowing against their bodies and making their feet tingle with cold even through their sturdy boots. The ground was wet from the rains that had fallen, and the men were going about their business with a rather more morose air than usual.

Early winter was always had to deal with, the switch from one season to another was never easy to accept with its discomforting cold and damp that made the bones ache.
As soon as Ben had reached them Adam turned and led them to the chuck house where the cook had made some hot stew and coffee. Men were already streaming in to be fed, grateful for the opportunity to thaw out.

“It ain’t even winter yet.” Hoss muttered, “The men look miserable already.”

“They always do this time of the year,” Adam replied glancing over at the familiar faces of men who had worked for them a number of years now despite the weather conditions . “They’ll be alright.”

Ben nodded and put down his plate of stew on the trestle table before sitting himself down, his sons joined him with plates of their own. “That order of Mueller’s.. McManus tells me there’s been a delay.”

“Nothing serious, Pa, I’ve already seen Mac about it, the men are prepared to put extra hours in to get it out in time.” Hoss muttered with his mouth full.

“You’ll get indigestion eating and talking like that,” Ben muttered with a frown of disapproval at his son who only grinned and told his father that he had been telling him that for years.

Several men, including McManus joined them at the table now bringing their own plates with them, and cook came along with enough mugs which he filled with strong dark coffee “Mr Cartwright, that order of Mueller’s should be going through just fine, we had a delay due to an accident we had here but it’s all sorted out now.”

“What kind of accident?” Adam asked immediately and shot a dark glance in McManus’ direction. “Anyone hurt?”

“Old Amos Tyler. The strap of the saw snapped loose, caught him sharp and sent him reeling. He fell against Zed Moffatt who knocked over some logs which we had primed ready for transporting down river. Then several men reported in sick, nothing serious, just the change of weather and what we usually expect to get this time of year.”

“You’re sure you’ll be able to meet the order though, Mac?” Ben asked anxiously, “Mueller is a mean old buzzard who’ll make sure we deduct from our costs for every day we delay in getting that order delivered.”

An old timer leaned forward “We’ll get it done, no worries.” he chewed his stew around his few teeth and then gulped down several mouthfuls of coffee.

Hoss grinned and looked over at his father who had always been rather fastidious about eating habits but Ben had averted his gaze and was watching the weather changing through the window. “Looks like some sleet …”

Just as he spoke there was a crack of thunder followed by a streak of lightning, Adam sighed “Just what we could do without -” he muttered and poured out more coffee.

The timber men lowered their voices as they grumbled and ate their food. If the weather worsened, as it appeared it was going to do, then there was little point in making promises about anybody getting their orders on time.
……………….

Paul stood up politely as Bridie O’Flannery joined him at the table in the hotels restaurant. A few other customers looked their way and then smiled before putting their heads together and whispering. Bridie pretended she hadn’t noticed but put a hand to her hat to make sure it was straight before she sat down. The waiter arrived immediately to take their order and Bridie removed her wet gloves and set them down on the table before looking thoughtfully at the doctor “Has something happened that I should know about?”

Paul puckered his lips into a slight pout before nodding slightly “It may or it may not, it has something to do with what we were talking about before …”

“Before?” Bridie frowned, and sighed as she struggled to recall what they had discussed previously.

“You were concerned about the conditions of some women in town, women who had so little in the way of material possessions, who -”

“I remember, yes, of course.” she nodded her head thoughtfully, “Is there any one person you were thinking of in particular?”

“Yes. A Mrs Gladys Whitten. Her husband was killed yesterday in a brawl. She’s due to have a baby in a few weeks time and already has two children. Their home is a shack … well, better than a shack since they rebuilt the newer part of town after the cholera epidemic last year but it is poor, she’s in a bad state as you can imagine and I just wondered if it would be possible for you to call on her, to see if there was anything that she needed. Well, the kind of thing a good neighbour would do only with your experience in nursing, of course, you would be better qualified to see if -” he paused and looked at her, noticed how intently she was observing him, “I’m not really putting this very well, am I?”

She smiled and said nothing, the waiter returned and set down a tray with their order upon it, they sat together in silence as everything was set down and as soon as the waiter had left she leaned forward “Mrs Whitten must be very distressed. Is there any way she can be helped from the Poor Fund?”

“Yes, there is a small amount being set aside for her, but it isn’t nearly enough for her needs. I’m concerned that the baby may arrive early, due to the shock of Mark’s death, she isn’t strong, I don’t want their to be more orphans – you understand?”

“You think she won’t survive her delivery?”

“I don’t think she has the strength, emotionally or physically. She was very young when she married Mark, and each confinement has taken their toll on what strength she has, now with Mark dead in such distressing circumstances.”

“I still can’t see how I can be of help in the short or long term?”

Paul stirred sugar into his tea and watched as she added milk to her own, he wasn’t sure now why he had stopped her in that store, some faint idea had entered his head but now it was nebulous and slipping away. He sighed “How is everyone at the Ponderosa?”

“Little Danny has the sniffles, and baby Hope has a chesty cough.”

“And Olivia?”

“She’s well, no problems at all.”

Paul sighed and nodded, “Yes, that’s the difference you see? Compare Olivia with Mrs Whitten … one has a decent diet and a warm and pleasant home, the other has barely enough to exist on and recently a widow. I don’t know how to help them all at times …”

Involuntarily Bridie placed a hand on his arm and gave it a squeeze, “You do wonderfully well, Paul – Dr Martin I mean – and I’ll go and see this Mrs Whitten as soon as I’ve finished this tea.”

Perhaps she wasn’t surprised when he placed a gentle hand upon hers, keeping it where she had placed it upon his sleeve. When he looked at her and smiled she found herself, for some reason, blushing as she smiled back at him.
……………..
Gladys Whitten didn’t move from her bed when the knock came to the door. It was opened by a neighbour who looked surprised at the sight of Bridie O’Flannery on the doorstep. “I’ve come to see Mrs Whitten.” Bridie announced as she pushed her way into the room and stood in its centre to look around her.

The neighbour scowled and then jerked her head to a door way through which Bridie could see a womans body recumbent upon a bed. She thanked the neighbour and stepped forward to attend to Gladys only to have her way barred by the other woman “Who are you?”

“Bridget O’Flannery. Dr Martin asked me to call in and see how Gladys Whitten was getting on.”

The woman gave a sharp bark of a laugh “That’s a good ‘un. How’s he expect her to be getting on? Her husband just murdered, her baby due and them little ‘uns going hungry, and cold.”

“Couldn’t you have got the stove alight for her?”

“What with? I have enough work to get my own bits and pieces together, can’t afford to buy coal can we? If she were a miners wife she would have had free coal at least… but she ain’t, she’s just -” she was lost for words, so shrugged and picked up her shawl, “I’ll leave you to it then.”

The door slammed shut, in the other room the little girl began to wail. Bridie stood there for some moments before becoming aware of a little boy standing in the doorway staring at her, eyes too big in his face and hair greasy to his skull while his little body looked shrunken and his head too big for his shoulders. She smiled at him but got no response, instead he turned back into the room and crawled closer to his mother on the bed.

It didn’t take an efficient woman like Bridie long to get the fire going. There was enough wood stored away to make the stove throw out a good amount of heat, and soon there was tea made, and vegetables being prepared for soup. She had bought enough of everything she could think of that would sustain the little family for a few days, until she could get back into town.

A rap on the door which she opened immediately and Ezra tipped his hat and asked her where she wanted the wood and coal off loaded, and when he had gone there was another knock on the door and Mrs Johnson was there with a bundle of clothes for the children.

With warmth and the smell of food cooking gradually permeating the little house it wasn’t long before the children crept away from the other room to crowd around the stove and drink the cups of sweet buttermilk that Bridie gave them. When she went into see Gladys the woman was sitting up, staring at the sight of the two children

“What’s going on?” she whispered suspiciously as Bridie approached here and pushed a cup of tea into her hands. “Who are you?”

“A friend. Come along, drink that up and then I’ll have a look at you and see how else we can help you.”

“Look at me? What do you mean?”

“Dr Martin thought it would be a good idea for me, a woman with nursing experience, to come and help you, that’s all.”

“That’s all? Seems to me you’ve just about taken over … I don’t want your charity, Mark wouldn’t …” her face crumpled, her hands shook so that the tea slopped over the rim of the cup, “Mark … oh Mark…”

Bridie felt her heart melt as the poor woman, barely a woman, fell into her arms and sobbed upon her shoulder. Entranced by the heat of the fire, the sweet drink and smell of the food Gladys’ children didn’t move an inch as the sounds of their mothers wailing filled the little house.

Chapter 76

It irritated Joe to discover how weak he felt when he attempted to go downstairs the very first time. Several times he wondered whether it would have been better to have stayed where he was but memories of the time Adam had forced himself to walk during the time of injuring his leg prodded him like an ox goad so that he forced himself on.

Mary Ann smiled happily at him confident now that nothing would stop her husband getting up to chop the wood within a few more days and go riding out to work with his father and brothers within a few weeks. She fussed about him with her eyes alight with pleasure as she helped him ease himself into the comfortable arm chair by the fire.

“I didn’t realise I’d be so weak and that it would still hurt so much.” he groaned to his wife as he leaned back, closed his eyes and tried to calm himself in order to get his heart beat to steady down.

“Oh Joe, I don’t think you have any idea just how ill you’ve been, Dr Martin said the bullet chipped a bone, it could have been in your lung .. .” she stopped at the memory of those days and nights when Joe’s life seemed to be hanging in the balance, she knelt down by his side and took hold of both his hands in hers “Thank goodness you’re alright now, you’ll soon be so much better.”

“I hope so. I never was a good patient. Where’s Daniel?”

“He’s asleep.” she rose to her feet and smoothed down her skirt, “Now then, Mr Cartwright, orders for the day, what would you like to eat and drink right now?”

He smiled and grabbed playfully at her hands and then pulled her towards him “A kiss, from my wife.”

“Of course, sir.” and she kissed him long and lingeringly, then sighed and pushed him away, “What else, sir?”

“Coffee and some of Flannel’s cake.” he frowned then and glanced at the clock “Come to think of it, where is Bridie?

“I don’t know.” she paused and like her husband observed the clock and then looked out of the window “The winds getting stronger, I do hope she’s alright.”

“Why shouldn’t she be?”

“She went into town for some things we needed, but that was hours ago, she’s never away this long.”

Joe leaned forward as though to get up but then fell back again, he closed his eyes, remonstrated with himself and bowed his head. Life as an invalid was every bit as frustrating as he had imagined.

“It’ll be dark soon,” Mary Ann said, “I’d better start on making dinner. I’ll get your coffee and cake first though.” she smiled, “She’ll be fine, those horses wouldn’t dare to do anything silly with Bridie in charge.”
…………

Halfway towards home and Bridie lost her hat altogether. The capricious wind made a grab at it and whisked it away much to her alarm as she felt her hair now losing its pins and flying loose. The horses got it into their heads to put on a burst of speed so that she had to turn her attention from her coiffure to them, pulling them into a more moderate pace so that by the time she reached home she was exhausted and looked as though she had been pulled through a hedge backwards as her mother would have indignantly informed her.

“Bridie O’Malley, you look as though you’ve been pulled through a hedge backwards.” her mother’s indignant voice resounded in her head followed by the sound of her father saying in his thick brogue “Ay, an’ like something the cat dragged in …”

Thankfully the hands were there to deal with the horses, the wagon and then one of the men helped unload the groceries one by one so that it wasn’t long before she was gratefully pushing open the kitchen door, only to be propelled into the room by its opening rather sooner than anticipated as Mary Ann pulled it open. “Oh Bridie!”
She exclaimed as various articles fell from the bags onto the floor.

“I’m so sorry.” she said repentantly, she pushed some hair away from her eyes, “Goodness me, that wind .. And I’ve lost my hat, look at the state of me !!”

“You look rather wind swept,” Mary Ann laughed and helped the other woman out of her coat “But why were you so long, we were beginning to worry about you.”

“It’s been a strange day.” Bridie said firmly, and shook her head as though she still couldn’t believe it herself, “Anyway, let’s get these things put away and then I’ll start dinner.”

“It’s already cooking.” Mary Ann assured her with a smile and Bridie laughed “So it is too, I can smell it for sure. Goodness me, I didn’t realise I had been that late.”

Having grabbed some pins she soon swept up her hair from away from her face and was quickly bustling about putting things into their relative places while Mary Ann continued with the cooking and told her all about Joe being downstairs now and enjoying the cake Bridie had cooked.

“Well, mercy me,” Bridie exclaimed, “But Dr Martin was asking after Joe, he’s going to call in tomorrow to check him over.” she turned her head away as she spoke so that Mary Ann wouldn’t notice the colour mounting her face as she spoke about Paul, and hoped that her voice hadn’t betrayed anything of her feelings.

“Pauls’ a good doctor.” Mary Ann said as she turned over the meat in its tin, “And a good friend. He delivered Joe, you know? “ she stood up then and hugged the cloth to her chest as she stared at the pans on the stove without actually seeing them “Just imagine that, he must have been quite young then. It’s hard to think of Paul as being a young man.”

“Why?” Bridie snapped and jutted her chin out defensively, “And he isn‘t that old either, even now.”

Mary Ann looked at her friend and companion thoughtfully and then smiled, “No, of course not. “

“After all, no one thinks of Mr Ben as being old, do they?”

Mary Ann admitted that no one did, not in her hearing anyway, and watched as Bridie slammed some meat onto the table with a thud. Nothing more was said, but a lot mulled over as the two women continued with their work, both of them thinking of the same person but niether of them considering him in the same context.
……………..

Mary Ann couldn’t fail to notice that Bridie was unusually fidgety and on edge during the morning of the following day. Although Bridie made sure that she was no different than any other day and hoped that no one would even think that there was a difference, unbeknown to her there were all the tell tale signs for someone as observant as Mary Ann to notice. When Pauls’ buggy finally pulled up in the yard and she watched Bridie check her hair in the mirror and pat a curl into place she smiled secretly to herself and hurried to Joe’s room to inform him of their visitor.

Paul stepped into t he house and smiled at Bridie, then from behind his back he produced a rather limp looking blue object which Bridie was ashamed to admit was indeed her bonnet. “I saw it hanging from the bough of a tree, I thought it was yours…”

“Oh dear,” she sighed, and took it from him, “It hardly looks worth saving now.”

“Never mind,” Paul clucked in that reassuring doctor’s manner of his, “Anyway, best let me see the patient and then we have to talk about yesterday.”

Bridie nodded and watched as Paul mounted the stairs, his back straight and shoulders just a little stooped, his dark hair showing a distinguished amount of grey. She sighed and with a shake of the head returned to the kitchen.

Paul checked Joe over with the thoroughness of his profession and then looked at the young man in the bed thoughtfully before sitting down beside him “Well, young man, you’ve had a very narrow escape.”

“For once I agree with you, Dr Martin.” Joe sighed and leaned back against the pillows, “I just feel so weak and there’s still some pain, I thought it would all have cleared up by now.”

“Mmm, did you? Well, the fact is that you are a little older now, the body doesn’t heal itself as quickly as it would have done when you were 19. Joseph, that bullet could have killed you, and its left a certain amount of damage in its wake as a result. You have to be patient with yourself, make sure you don’t run before you can walk, which is your usual mode of travel.”

Joe grinned and nodded “I can get up though?”

“I believe you have done so already?”

“Only yesterday.”

“For a little time each day. I’ll discuss it with Mary Ann so that she can make sure you do as you’re told. “

Joe gave a slight shrug of the shoulders and grimaced, it was obvious that the whole idea of being a convalescent did not appeal one bit. Paul stood up and smiled “You need some company, I’m sure your brothers and father will visit.”

“They do, but it only makes me feel useless and that I’m not doing enough to help.” Joe sighed and rubbed his forehead plaintively, “Thanks Dr Martin.”

Paul nodded and put a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder as though reassuring him that all will come right in the end, “patience, son.” he murmured and then left the room.

Bridie was waiting for him in the kitchen with coffee and some apple pie which Paul found more than acceptable as he sat down with a pleasant smile and a word of thanks. Upstairs Mary Ann was whispering about Bridie’s ’tryst’ with the doctor as she poured her husband his coffee.

“How did you find Mrs Whitten?” Paul asked as he ate his apple pie as slowly as he possible could without being too rude.

“Very distressed, almost hysterical. There was hardly any food in the cupboards.” Bridie frowned, “The neighbour was there but not overly sympathetic, I got the impression that she is in difficult circumstances herself.”

“That would be Mrs Dewhurst. She was widowed two years ago and her son died along with his father, yes, a bitter soul.” Paul frowned and sighed, “The Poor Fund provides the bare minimum but it can only share out what there is available.”

“But Virginia City is a rich town, Paul. There are more millionaires strutting around the streets or riding around in their carriages than anywhere else in Nevada.”

“True enough but being wealthy doesn’t make a man philanthropic. Many of those millionaires were dirt poor some years back and are afraid of giving away a dollar in case they find themselves poor again.”

“Stuff and nonsense.” Bridie snorted.

Paul smiled slowly, “It’s a fact of life, Bridie. That’s why I was saying the other week how we need help, the doctors I mean … Mrs Whitten will be having that baby soon, but how will she cope without food available to feed herself or her little ones? Or the house being so cold -.”

“You must appeal to the Council and get them to do more for these women, and not just for the women, there are old men who have slaved away for years and without a thing to show for it.”

Paul raised his eyebrows, “Well, I suppose I shall just have to rely on the few women in town who will be willing to help. There are some, but -.”

Bridie looked at him thoughtfully “I’ll go into town again tomorrow and check on Mrs Whitten …Gladys. I promised to take in some cakes for the little ones, and coal for her.”

Paul nodded and said nothing to that except to thank her, he stood up, picked up his hat and after looking at her steadily for a disconcerting moment (during which Bridie wondered what to say, what to do, and blushed a lot) he nodded again and bade her goodbye.

When Mary Ann came downstairs looking very composed and somewhat disinterested in anything that had happened she saw only Bridie clearing away the cup, saucer and plate with a very pensive air and distracted look on her face.

“Is anything wrong, Bridie?”

“There is something I have on my mind, my dear.” Bridie said quietly and to Mary Ann’s disappointment she launched into how she felt about a rich town that left poor women to fend for themselves when in dire need. Mary Ann, after swallowing her disappointment at not hearing of some kind of romance between their two good friends, nodded, listened and agreed that something had to be done about it, yes, definitely.
………………….

Ann Canaday was all smiles as the ladies arrived for their quilting session at her home. Mary Ann brought along with her a chocolate cake made by Bridie, and Olivia brought along some cookies made by Cheng Ho Lee and a reluctant Sofia who clung to Clarabelle with a fierce determination that indicated problems. Hester came with her two little girls and Hop Sings best apple pie.

It was during the quilting, when heads were bent over their work as Hannah, David and Daniel played together on the floor and Sofia, sighing heavily, plied her needle laboriously, that Mary Ann brought up the subject of Bridie’s worries concerning the women in town.

“Isn’t there a Poor Fund?” Hester asked without looking up from her work.

“Yes, but it isn’t adequate to the needs of the poor.” Mary Ann said as she re-threaded here needle. “Bridie said that Mrs Whitten was in a very sad situation and expecting a baby soon.”

“There should be an appeal to those rich nincompoops in town,” Ann muttered scowling as she dropped her needle “They seem totally unaware of what is going on around them, some of those women are wearing diamonds and pearls and I know that they were scrabbling in the dirt not so long ago to try and find a flake of gold dust.”

“That’s the trouble, now they’ve got life so easy they’re afraid of being poor again so hold onto their money.” Mary Ann sighed and looked at Olivia, “What do you suggest we do, Olivia?”

Olivia looked surprised at being asked and after a moments pause suggested that they ask Dan Dequille for help, “We could ask him to write up an article appealing to the townspeople to help those less well off than ourselves.” she paused, “Perhaps we should form a society or something, where women in town can help other women …” she glanced at them and sighed “Well, it has to start somewhere.”

“True enough,” Ann nodded, “We’ll see how Bridie gets on with her next visit to Mrs Whitten.”

They were brought out of their conversation by the sound of a slap, a howl and tears … “He pulled Clarabelle’s hair out.” Sofia sobbed as she held up the revolting doll to her mother.

Daniel was screaming in dismay at having been slapped by his cousin, there was little doubt of his guilt with regard to the offending doll as tufts of her ‘hair’ were still clutched tightly in his hands. Hannah had run for cover under the table and Hope woke up with a start and began to cry. Only David appeared stoically unmoved by it all having discovered that with everyone so busily occupied he was able to grab some of the cookies and slip away into is room while cramming them into his mouth.

Chapter 77

Dan Dequille listened attentively to what Mary Ann and Hester had to say about the circumstances of some of their townswomen. Although he agreed to some extent he was more than aware of the ramifications if he were to go against the majority in town who preferred to keep their money in their bank accounts and under the mattress.

He found himself up against a formidable duo however whenever he attempted to put forward the fact that some in town just couldn’t meet such demands, or felt that the Poor Fund and other charitable channels were already meeting these needs.

“Nonsense,” Hester exclaimed immediately, “Those women in the poorer sections of town need help now, not as and when it suits those who preside over these facilities.” she looked anxiously at Mary Ann as though for inspiration but that young lady just stood up and shrugged slightly with such a haughty demeanour that DeQuille felt totally unmanned

“Please sit down again, Mrs Cartwright, I’m sure that we could come to some agreement in a manner that is acceptable to all parties.”

“I’m not a politician, Mr DeQuille,” Mary Ann replied coolly, “so please do not address me in the same terms as you would someone canvassing for a seat on the council.”

“Oh – er – my apologies.” Dan flicked a glance over at Hester who sat stony faced staring out of the window just behind him.

The gold letters of the newspaper was emblazoned across the window and in the wintry sunshine it cast a strange shadow over them, he anxiously picked up a pencil. “Now, what do you suggest?”

“Mr DeQuille, you recently covered the information for your newspaper about the murder of those Cheyenne on our land …” Mary Ann glared at him with steely grey eyes so that he could only nod in acquiesance, “it was by far an inaccurate article, and some points you did not rectify later either. However, you further wrote about the incident in the Bucket of Blood recently where a young man was killed …”

“Mark Whitten?”

“Yes, young Mr Whitten.”

“The man who stabbed him is still in jail awaiting trial, I have to be careful how to word any article in connection with that matter as it could influence any jury that may be formed should he come to trial.” Dan explained slowly as though he were talking to two children.

Hester fidgeted and Mary Ann tightened her lips, it was Hester who resumed the subject “Mr Whitten left behind a young widow, a woman barely in her twenties who already has two small children and is expecting her third. There is now no income, she could lose her home, everything. How is a young woman in such circumstances expected to find work? Who would employ her? How is she to live?”

“Er – I guess – I don’t know -.” DeQuille sighed and looked at the two women thoughtfully.

“Well perhaps you could write an article in your paper and ask those same questions, perhaps someone would be able to give an answer.” Hester snapped primly and looked at Mary Ann who nodded and picked up the conversation from there, “The fact is, Mr. DeQuille, there are people in town who could help in some way. Why should a young woman become homeless because her husband gets killed, whatever the circumstances of his death? At this moment my friend, Mrs O’Flannery is visiting Mrs Whitten to help in whatever way she can. And do you know what is so sad? This poor Mrs Whitten has had it drummed into her head so much about not accepting charity that it’s going to be a struggle to get her to accept any help anyway.”

DeQuille nodded “I see your difficulty, damned if you do and damned if you don’t…”

“I beg your pardon?” Hester looked and sounded affronted “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, just that you’re going to feel bad if you don’t help, and at the same time if you do you’re not going to get much in the way of thanks for it.” Dan attempted to grin but found himself staring into two pairs of narrowed eyes that didn’t find anything amusing in what he had said.

“Write your article, Mr DeQuille, appeal to the consciences as well as the purses in this town, please.” Mary Ann said in a softer tone of voice than any she had used since entering the office.

They left together, their straight backs indicative of the importance of their message. Dan DeQuille frowned and after a moment tugging at his moustache stood up, picked up his hat and left the building.

He made his way to the poorer section of town and stood for some moments surveying it thoughtfully. Not so long ago it had been ravaged by fire, and since rebuilt. The houses were small and cramped , close together and dark. Within a year it already held the promise of becoming the slums of tomorrow and he wondered why it was that given the opportunity to improve their lot in life some people just continued to prefer the detritus of an existence.

A wagon, which he recognised ad the one from the Ponderosa, was outside one row of buildings and around one doorway a group of women were gathered their voices raised very vocally, so much so that he could hear some words even from where he stood.

“What about Ellie down the road, she’s a widow, got four kids she has… been without a fire for six months.”

“She aint needed no fire during the summer it was that hot. The place is running with damp already and they said it was new buildings and better housing … “

“S’right, load of lies and rubbish.”

“Who’s going to feed me and my little uns next week, my husband got killed and our money runs out tomorrow.”

A voice from inside sounded calm and placating but didn’t seem to be succeeding in mollifying anyone. Dan DeQuille edged closer and finally found himself elbowing his way into the house where Gladys Whitten was seated by a warm fire and a tall well built woman was spooning stew into some bowls for her and the children.

“Can I help you?” Bridie asked as she put the large pan back on the stove.

Dan glanced around the building. It was quite bare but it was warm and cosy, it was also clean and tidy. He wondered how much that had to do with Gladys or whether it was this ‘angel in disguise’ that had wrought such wonders. He smiled “Dan DeQuille, from the Territorial Enterprise.”

Bridie nodded and pointed to a seat “What can I do for you, Mr DeQuille?”

“I wanted to see for myself the conditions of our ‘new’ housing .. You remember how this part of town was destroyed in the fires last year? “

Bridie nodded while she wondered what that had to do with her, she spooned the food into the little boys mouth and glanced over at the doorway, where Mrs Davenport was staring hungrily at the food and her sharp eyes were darting from the fire to the filled coal bucket. The pinch of hunger and cold was as evident on her face as was her misery at seeing herself left out.

“Look, without being rude, Mr DeQuille, you can see how it is here? Poor people need help, but they’ve got their pride they don’t want to take charity. Comes a time though when it has to be accepted.”

Dan looked at Gladys who didn’t look particularly happy or grateful at the kindness shown to her, just very uncomfortable and embarrassed. Bridet sighed and gestured to Mrs Davenport to come inside and close the door behind her, the more vocal in the group outside protested but Mrs Davenport was happy to oblige and sat down at the table, she took hold of Gladys’ free hand “It’s not easy you know, to accept other folks handouts, is it my dear.”

Dan pursed his lips as he watched the way she grabbed at the bowl of food and began to eat it, he looked at Bridie “Where did the food come from?”

“The Ponderosa. The coal came from Mr Jackson who kindly donated it.” she sighed, “It’s all very good giving folk a decent home when their place burned down, but it brings a responsibility with it, one that some of these people can’t fulfil.”

“How do you mean?”

“Rent for one. Keeping warm, getting food .. .. And if they can’t manage to pay up then they lose what they’ve been given anyway.”

“Surely there’s more than enough work for them to pick up enough money to pay for everything? They need not live such a life as this.”

“Some of these women were too young to get work when they married, now they have young children and who’s to look after them if they get a job? There’s women here whose husbands were miners, they don’t know how to mine, they can’t take their husbands places .. Who is there to support them now?”

Dan DeQuille sighed and took out his pencil and notepad, he turned over the pages until he came to an empty one and looked at the three women, the two children, at the faces pressed up against the window … he wrote down a heading “Charity starts at home …” then licked his pencil nib and began to write.
…………….

Olivia hadn’t gone into town with her sisters in law as there was work to do at home, and she needed time with Sofia. Adam had been patient in listening to the latest of Sofia’s misdeeds and had looked at the girl with a dark eye and thin mouth, but had held back from saying anything upon Olivia’s insistence that she would deal with it.

Work at the lumber camp had been hard going, with winter setting in there would soon only be a skeleton crew there and that mainly to keep the place maintained and looked after. The contracts had needed to be fulfilled and he, Hoss and Ben had worked hard alongside the men to ensure that they were, wagonloads of lumber had been driven out to the assigned locations, and stacks of prime timber had been carefully stored ’under wraps’ so that they could get an early start on work in the spring. He was bone weary and had listened to his wife with a patience that was partly feigned and partly frustrated. His acceptance of his wife’s request was made because he feared he could have been overly severe in dealing with Sofia and instinct had warned him that a good tanning was not going to make the problem go away as easily as any of them would have wished.

Olivia looked at her daughter as the child drew pictures, she leaned over her shoulder and commended her for Sofia had a good eye and deft way of handling a pencil. Sofia glowed in the praise and gave her mother a special smile, while Olivia picked up Clarabelle and some wool and began to carefully sew on some ’new hair.’ Sofia watched before saying “Clarabelle doesn’t want yellow hair now.”

Olivia nodded and smiled “What colour would she prefer?”

“Daddy said that black hair would suit her better, it would be like Hannahs.”

“Sofia, I don’t mind giving Clara belle head of black hair if that is what you would like, but I do mind being told what to do by this daddy of yours…” she carefully began to snip off the remainder of Clarabelle’s raggedy yellow hair, “Now tell me, Sofia, who exactly is this daddy you keep talking about?”

Sofia’s eyes went round in her face and she looked amazed at her mother, “But daddy is daddy, he’s Reuben’s daddy, he’s Robert.”

“Come here,” Olivia beckoned to the chair in which she was seated, large enough indeed for herself and her little girl, “Come and sit with me. I think we should talk about this a little, don’t you? After all, you never really have said much about him or why you suddenly feel the need to have him so involved in your life.”

Sofia sighed and looked up at Olivia with a quizzical expression in her eyes, then she turned away to stare at the fire, “Daddy is just daddy. He’s my best friend.”

“No, he’s not. Your daddy never knew you, Sofia, and now that he’s gone away you won’t know him. He won’t know you. He can’t tell you what to do, or what to think because he doesn’t exist. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“He does exist, he is here, he does talk to me.”

“No, he doesn’t, he can’t. The only daddy you have is Adam Cartwright, he’s the best daddy in all t he world to you and Reuben.” she sighed and put out a hand to stroke the child’s cheek, “Sofia, don’t you love Adam any more?”

“Yes, but he’s not daddy.”

“He is your daddy now. He’s Reuben’s daddy and he’ll be the baby’s daddy as well. Aren’t you glad to be living here with Gran’pa, with uncles and aunts near by and cousins?”

She nodded and looked thoughtful, “I love Gran’pa.”

“You’ve always loved him, ever since you met him two years ago, but before that you didn’t know he existed. Your daddy Roberts father died, he was your real granpa, and you never knew him either, Rupert Phillips was a lovely man, you would have loved him as well.” she sighed, and looked at Sofia again noting the pout of a mouth, the slight furrow between the eyes “Ben isn’t your real gran’pa now, is he?”

“He is.” Sofia replied with dogged insistence.

Olivia shook her head in impatience and was about to discuss the matter from a different angle when there came a knock on the door, and within minutes Cheng Ho Lee was standing by their side telling them there was a gentleman outside. “He is asking to see the Commodore.”

Chapter 78

Olivia sat without moving and Sofia’s eyes went as round as pebbles as she looked from Cheng Ho Lee to her mother and back again. It was obvious to the child that her mother was not relishing a visit from anyone associated with The Commodore.

Olivia nodded slowly “Of course, Cheng Ho Lee, invite him in and – please – make some coffee.”

Even to Olivia it seemed as though her voice was smothered in a thick blanket and she cleared her throat before standing up to greet this visitor who entered the room, removed his hat and brushed back a lock of unruly hair from his brow with an impatience that was both boyish and endearing. Olivia felt herself relaxing slightly and approached with a smile “Lord Willoughby?”

“As ever, Mrs Cartwright.” Laurence gave a wide smile and drew nearer, took her hand and shook it before bending into a slight but very British bow, “I see you are looking very well.”

She laughed and shook her head “If you say so, how pleasant to see you here again. You remember Sofia, don’t you?”

Laurence laughed his easy going chuckle as he looked at the little girl “As if anyone could forget Sofia. And how is our princess today?”

She looked at him with a slight furrow of the smooth brow and then nodded, smiled and replied that she was very well thank you very much, while all she time she wondered who he was and why he was there. Olivia was sitting down again while Laurence found himself a chair “Is Adam home,?”

The directness of his question brought a niggle of fear back to Olivia’s mind and she shook her head before asking him why he has asked for the Commodore, to which he explained that whenever he had seen Adam previously it was when he was acting in that capacity. He had thought it would give his old friend a bit of a jolt to tease him a little “After all, this easy living on the Ponderosa could make him far too comfortable and not want to go to sea again.”

She laughed at that, which surprised Sofia who thought he deserved a slap for giving her mother such a worry. “Well, I doubt if Adam would have been particularly worried, just very pleased to see you again. How is Rachel?” she smiled as she asked, always mindful that this young lady had at one time travelled from Egypt to America in order to ensnare Adam Cartwright into marriage. Perhaps Laurence remembered it too for his smile was now more cynical than mocking

“My wife is very well, thank you. She has recently presented me with a beautiful daughter,” he smiled at Sofia, “I’m hoping she’ll grow up to be as pretty as you, Miss Sofia.”

Olivia offered her congratulations and listened to Laurence as he praised his wife and lauded his daughter until Cheng Ho Lee appeared and set down the fixings for coffee. Conversation turned to other topics as coffee was poured for the adults and Sofia was given a glass of lemonade. All the while the true purpose of the visit was left unmentioned and perhaps deliberately so for Laurence’s eyes twinkled every so often as though he were hugging a big secret to himself which he had no intention to divulge until he alone was ready to do so.

The chatter was beginning to lapse a little when there was the sound of horses approaching and Olivia smiled – with some relief – and turned to her guest “That’s Adam now, he’ll be so surprised to see you.”

Laurence smiled and was on his feet facing the door as Adam and Ben entered the room. “Commodore Cartwright I presume?” Laurence said over loudly and both men turned towards the speaker in rather concerned surprise before recognition spread over Adam’s face and his smile made the dark eyes twinkle.

“Laurence Willoughy,” he exclaimed and held out his hand to be shaken by the younger man, he turned to his father “Pa, you remember Laurence? He and his wife attended our wedding and I believe painted several pictures of the Ponderosa.”

Ben smiled and shook Laurence’s hand “I remember you well. How are you?”

“Very well, sir.” Laurence replied and stepped back as Adam, after removing his hat and gun belt now approached his wife, kissed her gently and smiled into her anxious eyes as though to reassure her that all was well.

Mindful of Sofia sitting next to her mother Adam swung her up and upon sitting down gently lowered her into his lap, bestowing a smile upon her which was warmly reciprocated. Ben lowered himself into a hard backed chair and waited to hear what this visitor had to say for himself.

“I’ve a daughter, Adam. As pretty as her mother.”

“Congratulations, then she must be a very pretty child indeed.” Adam smiled and thought very fleetingly of Rachel before turning to Ben, “Laurence met his wife when we were in Egypt.”

“Of course, I remember Adam telling us about his adventures there….” Ben said and narrowed his eyes and firmed his lips as though to prepare himself for the worse. He looked at Olivia and sensed that she was preparing herself in like manner.

Sofia was sitting with her head upon Adam’s chest. The warmth of his body and the beat of his heart was soothing and pleasant, as well as reassuring and safe. It made her recall times over the past few years since she had known him and how much she had loved being near him. She sighed contentedly and allowed the adult conversation to flow over her head.

“Did you get my letter, Adam?” Laurence asked now just as Cheng Ho Lee brought fresh coffee for his master and Ben.

“I did, thank you.” Adam replied slowly and if he noticed his fathers quick glance in his direction, chose to ignore it. “So – you have been back to Egypt and seen Said and Anna?”

“Yes, and everything is going very well there. The economy is struggling slightly but British and American interests are holding their own. Said is instrumental in maintaining the balance, thankfully. Since Ismail, his cousin, was deposed there has been room for Said to show his talents, and he has done well.”

Ben set down his cup rather loudly upon its saucer, “And what has that to do with Adam?”

Laurence smiled, nodded his head at Ben and winked over at Adam “Well, not much just now, s