The Iron Horsemen (by Krystyna)

Summary :  It is the winter of 1877 and two of Adam and Olivia’s children are lost during the blizzards. This story is about the iron like qualities the Cartwrights need in order to find a child.

Rating:  K+  (182,450)

Home is the Sailor Series: 

Home is the Sailor
The Iron Horsemen
There Will Always be Rainbows
The Pledge

 

The Iron Horsemen

Chapter 1

 

November 1877 and the wind was blowing cold from the high mountains.  Women hurried about their way in town,  one moment holding onto their hats, and the next struggling to keep their skirts from billowing above their knees.  Where possible babies were kept within doors and the children complained bitterly about having to go to school.   The doors and windows of the stores and town buildings slammed and thumped adding to the cacophony of sound that reverberated through the alleys and streets of Virginia City.

 

The two horsemen dismounted outside the livery stable, where they walked their horses inside and paid for them to be led into some  warm stalls while they were in town.   They both had a healthy respect for their beasts and the weather  had caused both horses and riders to feel bone weary .

 

“See you later…” the tallest of the two said just loud enough to be heard above the screech of the wind as they stood together on the side walk.

 

“Bucket of Blood …  in an hour?”

 

A grin and a slap on the arm indicated that the suggestion was well received,  and with a cheerful “Mind you don’t get blown away in this here breeze.”  the big man strode away towards the Hardware store.

 

With a slight smile on his face Adam Cartwright made his way to Amanda Ridley’s  Ladies Fashions Store, head down against the wind and holding onto his hat, .  The bell  tinkled as he stepped inside and he quickly closed the door behind him as the wind stole inside and threatened to topple over several of the mannequins on display.   A tall fair haired woman hurried to set a wig straight on  the one closest to the door while Amanda came and approached Adam with a welcoming smile

 

“Well,  this is an honour, and a pleasure.” she glanced over at the other woman and nodded “It’s alright, Mrs Carstairs, I’ll attend to this gentleman. “

 

Adam glanced quickly over at the other woman  before turning back to Amanda, he took a deep breath and glanced rather bashfully around the store “I want to get Olivia a present …”

 

“Oh, special occasion?”  Amanda raised an eyebrow which was matched by Adam raising one of his own

 

“Hmm,  yes, wedding anniversary.”

 

“Oh, did you forget?”

 

“Not at all,”  he laughed, a pleasant soft laugh that made Amanda smile, bringing to her mind memories of the tall lanky boy who used to take her to parties back in the days when they were both  young,  when everything and everyone seemed so young…

 

“What would you like to get?   We have some very elegant and feminine articles of clothing here.”  she led him to a counter and opened some drawers where clothing of a  rather intimate nature was revealed.  She glanced slyly to see his reaction,  and smiled at the resolute manner in which he stood his ground … most men  went rather hot  and red around the collar when being shown such items,  for some reason it seemed they could never believe their wives would wear such things… although they never seemed to worry so much when requesting her to parcel them up for their mistresses.

 

Mrs Carstairs watched the tall man as he pointed out several items and queried the size and assured Amanda that he knew exactly what size his wife was, thank you very much!  So this was the man who had sailed ships across the oceans, had become a high ranking officer in the navy,  had seen worlds others could only read about in books,  the man who had two children at the school about whom her son spoke constantly.

 

“I didn’t realise you were married in November.” Amanda said as she put the garments in the oyster coloured box with the scarlet ribbon which was her trademark, and Adam smiled and shrugged

 

“I wasn’t,  but I like to surprise my wife every so often.”

 

“Oh I’m sure she’ll be very surprised and pleased when she see’s what you’ve bought her.” Amanda laughed “I hope she likes them, Adam.”

 

He didn’t reply to that but tucked the box under his arm and headed for the door, the bell tinkled again and both women watched as he made a quick departure.    Now that he had the box  Adam wasn’t so comfortable about walking around town  with it, perhaps he should have left it for another time,  but then Olivia would have been disappointed, not that she knew about his idea of purchasing the clothing, but she had commented about seeing them a few days earlier when in town and rather liking the thought of having something so delicate to wear.

 

He smiled slightly to himself at the thought of going into the saloon with such a gift for his wife and could imagine only too well the ribald jokes, the borderline teasing and outright crude comments that would come his way.  No, he didn’t have the courage to face that, though he had been a seaman there were still some things he was fastidious about  even now.   As he passed Paul and Bridie’s home he paused, then turned and approached the door, gave it a loud rap and was more than relieved to see Bridie smiling in front of him.

 

“Bridie…!”

 

“Come on in, don’t get cold standing out there.  Is everything alright?” the door closed quickly and she smiled, her eyes anxious “Nothing wrong?”

 

“No,  nothing at all. I just need to ask if I could leave this with you for a while.” he produced the box and she nodded

 

“I see, not the sort of thing you want to be seen carrying around, is it?”

 

“Thanks, Bridie.  I’ll be back in about an hour.” he kissed her cheek and turned to the door only to be prevented from opening it by her grabbing his arm

 

“Is Mary Ann alright?   How’s the baby?”

 

“Both doing very well.  Joe is as happy as any man could be, I don’t think he can believe he has such a perfect daughter.”

 

“And little Daniel, is he alright?”

 

“Yes,  he seems very well.”  he smiled slowly, “He did ask me if I was going to take his sister back with me the other day.   I think he’s a little confused.”

 

“Most children of that age are when a sister or brother comes along.”  Bridie smiled and patted him on the arm “And what is her name, the new baby?  They didn’t seem to know when I saw them last.”

 

“I think they’ve settled on a name now, Constance Marie Cartwright.”  Adam grinned and his eyes twinkled, “I’d best go,  I promised to meet Hoss …”

 

“I’ll make sure no one runs off with your parcel,” she laughed,  her big hearted warm laugh that always made him smile.  Her hand now reached for the door handle “And has she got on alright with her help?”

 

“Yes, young Jenny has settled in very well.   I must go, Bridie…”

 

“Oh of course,  I am sorry, my dear, I just wanted to catch up on the news… Olivia is keeping well?  And the children?”

 

“All the children are well, Nathaniel has grown.” Adam frowned,  he pursed his lips as he tried to think of what other kind of things Bridie would want to know, “Everyone’s fine. Pa’s complaining about his gout although he isn’t suffering from it, but seems to be expecting it to come anytime.”  he sighed “Well, I must go…”

 

“Of course,  and Hesters well…and the children.”

 

“Yes…all well.”  he put his hand on the handle now and gave it a yank to open  the door, “Thanks Bridie…”

 

With a sigh of relief he hurried down the path, out through the gate and back into the main street.  He hugged his collar higher, and braced himself against the wind as he made his way through the town.

 

Hoss deliberated over his purchases carefully,  he had a list of things to get from the hardware … nails, a new awl,  screws and some new hinges for the door of the barn.  He watched as everything was collected and placed on the counter for him,  then there was kerosene to be ordered but not to be collected until Hop Sing could get into town with the wagon.

 

From the Hardware Store he made his way to the Mercantile only to find the one closest to the Hardware store was closed.  He stood outside it for a moment as though he couldn’t believe the sign and leaned in closer to take another look .   “It says closed.”   Mrs Garston muttered from behind him.

 

This caused Hoss to drop his packages,  he hadn’t expected anyone to creep up behind him, although of course, Mrs Garston would deny having done any such thing.

 

“He’s gone, the whole family went and left last week.   Said  business was getting too bad here, what with the mines closing and so much competition in town.  He’s gone to New York, that’s what he said,  that’s where he came from …”

 

“Ah, I didn’t know that.” Hoss muttered as he retrieved some screws that had rolled out of hands reach.  “New York huh?”

 

“Several stores have closed over the past few weeks.   Place is becoming a regular ghost town.”  she muttered and shook her head.

 

“You ain’t thinking of leaving us, are ya Ma’am?”  Hoss asked trying to look genuinely interested but she shook her head resolutely and smiled with that smug self righteous look on her face that gave all the Cartwrights an itch.

 

“Oh no,  my husband would never think of abandoning his flock just because of a mere down turn in business.   It might do some people good to have to tighten their belts a little.”

 

Hoss found himself immediately sucking in his stomach and holding his breath which he released once she had made her way homewards.  With a sigh of relief he headed towards Ridleys Mercantile and pushed open the door  to be greeted with the warm smiles of the manager in charge.

 

He produced a different list this time, mainly made up of items Hop Sing required,  and then there were the bigger things that would be required to tide them over should the weather worsen, and that would be kept in the cellar.   These he assured the Manager would be collected by Hop Sing as soon as he could get into town.   Mr Anderson nodded and promised that he would make sure his ‘man’ would be available to carry the items to the wagon taking into account the age of the Ponderosa’s cook.

 

Having accomplished that task Hoss sauntered out, stood on the sidewalk and watched the people scurrying by.   His hat nearly took flight so he had to make a grab for it, but realising that he had now fulfilled all his commissions in town he made his way to the sheriff’s office to see how Candy was getting along.

 

Clem Foster greeted him with a smile and an offer of coffee but Hoss declined that in favour of the drink he was anticipating his brother paying for in the saloon.  “Where’s Candy?”

 

“Over at the Town Hall. He had to sign some documents along with the Judge.”

 

“Oh, nothing serious?”

 

“Nope,.” Clem grinned, “Hey, tell your Pa that the Barringtons are on their way to Sacramento,   Their lawyer insisted on trying the case there.”

 

“Really?  What about Aubrey Jones?  Has he gone too?”

 

“Yep,  the three of them.  Not that they looked very happy about it.  Strange affair all round, wasn’t it?”

 

Hoss nodded and watched as Clem poured coffee into his mug, the smell was good,  it tantalised his nose so it was no surprise to the deputy when Hoss decided that perhaps a good hot drink of coffee now was just what he really needed after all.

 

 

Daniel deQuille stepped out of his doorway just as Adam was about to pass it by, he nodded and smiled “Adam.”

 

“Daniel.”  Adam returned the welcome and was about to continue on his way when Dan stopped him,  a hand on his arm to arrest his progress

 

“Adam, you recall that young lad you helped educate some while back?”

 

“Which young lad did you have in mind?”  Adam narrowed his eyes and glanced up and down the street for a sight of his brother, then looked at Daniel “Any in particular?”

 

“Jewish if I recall rightly.   His parents took over the General Store after Cameron got shot.”

 

Adam smiled “You’ve a long memory, Daniel.”

 

“Need to in this profession of mine, never know when it may come in useful.”

 

“Well,  say what you need to say…  Albert Michealson* is the lad you’re referring to,  if I follow you correctly?”

 

“You do.”  Daniel nodded, “Seems he has made quite a name for himself.  He’s just had a book published.   I think he’s going to go a long way…”

 

Adam nodded,  and for a moment his face relaxed into that of a man indulging in pleasant memories “Yes, I have never had any doubts about that,  he was a quite remarkable youth.”

 

“He owes you a lot…”

 

“Not really,  he got where he is by his own merits.” Adam replied and after muttering a farewell, he hurried on his way.

 

Albert Michealson, well, who would have thought it…  he bowed his head against the wind and thought over the brief time he had tutored the lad, ‘Mike’ they had called him, brilliant intellect, totally hopeless with people.  Yes, there had never been any doubt in Adam’s mind that the young lad would go far.

 

He saw Hoss in the distance and quickened his pace to reach the saloon alongside him.   Then remembered he had to collect the mail so did a quick turnaround towards the Mail and Telegraph Depot.

 

There was mail and Eddy passed it over with a smile, “Package for you, Adam, along with the mail.”

 

A neat package was handed over,  sealed with red wax and looking very important with all the stamps, Adam tried to decipher the post mark but it was obscured and hard to read.  He tucked letters, papers and package into the leather satchel provided for the task, and bade Eddy goodbye.

 

By the time he reached the saloon and pushed open the batwings Jake Solomon was already pouring out his drink,  Hoss was sitting at the table with his own  in front of him smiling widely and nodding affably over at his older brother.

 

“Windy today” Jake observed for probably the hundredth time that morning and Adam nodded, picked up his drink and joined his brother at the table.

 

“Got everything?”

 

“Yes,  and you?”   Adam raised the glass to his mouth, sighed, and emptied half the glass before he set it back down on the table.

 

Outside there was a crash as  the wind brought down  the signpost hanging outside the  Pharmacy,  Hoss and Adam exchanged a look, raised their eyebrows and then raised their glasses.   It was November … what else did one expect?

 

Chapter 2

 

With the wind roaring outside there was relative calm in the large room where Olivia sat and watched Sofia’s diligent care over her hand writing.  Adam had – much to Sofia’s delight – agreed that the children would be safer at home as the winds were going to increase and he hadn’t wanted his children scattered all over the territory.  This hadn’t meant they could forego their studies however, as Olivia ensured that they did the work she knew Miss Brandon would have been expecting of them.

 

Reuben set down his pencil and regarded his paper solemnly, “I’ve finished, Ma.”

 

“Just leave it there, I’ll check it over in a moment…no Sofia, write F not 5, don’t worry, everyone makes that mistake at times, try again. “

 

Reuben sighed and rolled his eyes, lolled back in his chair and swung his legs back and forth for a while.  “Ma, can I get down from the table?”

 

“Is all your work done?”

 

“I’ve some reading but that won’t take long.” he glanced over at the fire “Shall I put some logs on the fire, Ma?”

 

She glanced over her shoulder and nodded, “Be careful, don’t put too many …”

 

A gust of wind blew down the chimney at that moment and smoke billowed like a black cloud which Reuben valiantly wafted aside “Winds sure getting bad, Ma.  Do you think Pa will be alright?”

 

Olivia nodded, and managed to say “Of course he will,” even though she had been worrying about her husband ever since the winds had began to gather apace.

 

“Good thing Uncle Hoss went too,” Reuben said over the noise of the wind in the chimney and his loading the flames with more logs “If’n it had been Uncle Joe there would have been trouble, Uncle Hoss says Uncle Joe would blow away in this wind.  Do you reckon that’s true, Ma, or is Uncle Hoss just joshing?”

 

“Oh, you know your Uncle Hoss…”  Olivia said vaguely and looked at Sofia, “Well done, you did very well. I think Miss Brandon is going to be very pleased with your work, Sofia.”

 

“Do I have to go back to school?  Can’t I always have lessons like this at home – with you, mommy?”  Sofia murmured and cast big eyes up at her mother who wisely shook her head and said a very firm ‘No’

 

Reuben wandered over to the window and stared out at the yard.  The wind was whipping up to a fury now,  anything loose was being thrown about  and clattering around, not that there was much, Adam made sure the men working there kept a – what he called – a tight ship.  Reuben was never sure what that meant except that mostly everything was stored away, tied down or shored up securely.  He looked over at the outline of the stables and frowned “Do you think the horses will be alright, Ma?  Kamille might be frightened?”

 

“I’m sure she will be alright, Reuben.”  Olivia frowned, only recently, since the arrival of the new baby, had Kamille been brought down to the stables here, leaving Joe’s and much to Reubens delight, now safely  installed just across the yard from the house.

 

He thought about that day, the excitement of having Kamille right there across their yard in their own stables; he remembered how he had helped his Pa groom her, and how they had talked about her and he had listened as his Pa had spoken some Arabic words to her,  although for all Reuben knew it could have been any language under the sun.  Hoss said it was really double Dutch, but Reuben had no idea what that was either and when he had asked Ben his grandfather has just laughed.

 

“Should I go over and just make sure, Ma?”

 

“No,  you can just stay right here.   Pa wouldn’t be very pleased if you were to be blown over in our own back yard, would he?”

 

Reuben frowned, no, his father wouldn’t have been pleased,  so he sighed and left the window to return to the table and pick up the book.  “Ma, this is boring,  do I have to read it?”

 

“If it’s the work Miss Brandon wants you to do, then yes, you do have to read it.”

 

“But -”

 

“And afterwards she wanted you to write a short summary of what you had read.” Olivia collected up the pencils and set them down by Reubens hand,  “Sofia, go and practice  your piano lesson.  Reuben, you can read the chapter aloud to me…”

 

“You’ll find it boring too, Ma.”

 

“No doubt, but a lot of things in life can be boring,  Reuben,  it’s what you put into it that can make it exciting – or not.”

 

Reuben frowned, he wasn’t sure how he could make a story exciting when it was just plain boring.  He sighed and opened to the page where he was to begin his reading and in a monotone began to read aloud …

 

Olivia listened with slight interest, her mind was dwelling on her husband, whether he had decided to stay in town or venture back home with Hoss.   What if the wind got worse, it had already gathered pace since they had left, it was twice as strong as the morning when he had decided it was too bad for the children to get into town.  She sighed and shook her head, Reuben paused thinking he had misread something and then restarted when she remained silent…   one blessing was, she told herself, that he was not on board a ship in a storm like this.

 

Reuben stopped and closed the book,  Olivia blinked as though she had just woken up, he nodded “I told you it was boring, Ma.”

 

“Yes,  you were right, it was…”

 

Reuben smiled, and got down from the table.  It must  have been boring, even more so than he even realised because Ma hadn’t even noticed that he’d not completed the whole chapter.   Sofia was methodically tapping out her scales on the keyboard,  her face a picture of concentration as she played, one day she knew she would be a concert pianist,  she just knew it!

 

Cheng Ho Lee came in with a tray of refreshment and Olivia got up from the table and walked over to the window.   Darkness was falling now,  and she clasped her hands together tightly,  before hastily drawing the drapes across the glass and returning to wards the fire.

……………..

 

Mary Ann stood in the middle of the room with the baby in her arms,  she was swaying too and fro rocking the infant and whispering a little song to her  daughter but all the time  her eyes were fixed on the window as the wind buffeted and pummelled against the glass.

 

“Are you alright, darling?”

 

Joe’s voice came from behind her, and she half turned and gave a smile, a nod of the head, “Yes, of course.”

 

“You’ve  been standing there for nearly an hour….” Joe said and came to stand beside her, he stretched out an arm and hugged her to him, then smiled as she turned to look up “You look lovely, I don’t like seeing you looking anxious about nothing. The glass won’t break you know.”

 

She shook her head “How did you guess?  I didn’t think you would realise…”

 

“Of course I realised, you’ve been staring at that window and the door for almost the whole hour,”  he kissed her brow “Do you think I’ll ever forget what happened that day, when the glass blew in during that storm?”

 

She shook her head and forced herself to move away,  “No, of course not.”

 

She smiled now and looked at her baby girl, “Joe, isn’t she just perfect?  Aren’t we blessed?”

 

“More than I deserve to be,” he admitted and watched as she lowered the baby into the bassonet.

 

He loved Mary Ann, he had thought himself blessed when she had married him, but now, with a son and a daughter, he was wondering just how many blessings one man deserved in a lifetime.   He stroked her back, and remembered how  scars from that fateful day were not just on the mind,  he was reminded of it every time he stroked her back, saw the scars.  He shivered now,  his thoughts turned to the time when Paul Martin was diligently plucking out the slithers of glass from a young girls back, the blood on the floor, Hop Sing gathering up the glass and scrubbing away the blood.

 

“Are you alright Joe?” she whispered now,  realising he had stopped, frozen as though something had frightened him and he shook his head, and kissed her again.

 

“!No, I’m aright, so long as you are…!”

 

She kissed him playfully then, and her smile was in her eyes like rainbows  behind clouds, and his mind settled back to what they had now, what had happened in the past drifted away like cobwebs, equally as inconsequential.   Both of them bowed their heads to observe the baby sleeping so contentedly in her crib, and from the other room came the voice of their son chatting animatedly to Jenny Ford

 

“We’re blessed, aren’t we?” she whispered and when he nodded, smiled and his hazel eyes sparked green, she leaned forward to kiss him.

…………………….

 

It was a struggle for Ben to reach the front door, head bowed and his body straining against the wind.   The door opened so violently that it slipped from his hand and crashed against the bureau making the picture on the wall shake as a result.

 

Hope and Hannah stopped in their play as they turned to watch their grandfather fumble for the door in order to get it closed behind him, and Hester came hurrying from the kitchen area wiping her hand on a towel the look of relief on her face only momentarily wavering when she saw Ben, and not as she had hoped, her husband

 

“Winds building up” Ben muttered as he removed his hat and tossed it to one side.  He began to remove his gun belt and looked over at her, smiled and then frowned “Anything wrong?”

 

“I thought you were Hoss,  he and Adam went into town earlier and …”

 

“Went into town?  What made them do a fool thing like that?”

 

“There were things we needed here, Hop Sing wanted, and the weather wasn’t so bad as it is now.”

 

She came to help him remove his coat, not that he needed any help but it was always nice to have a pretty woman  make themselves appear indispensable.  He kissed her cheek and then held out his arms to catch his little girls whom he swung up upon each arm “Goodness me, Hannah,  have you been eating again?  You weigh twice as much as you did this morning.”

 

She giggled and Hope smiled and rubbed her cheek against that of her grandfathers,  and when both were set back on the ground they ran to continue their play.   Hannah looked over at her mother and her smile faded, she knew Hester was worried, and she knew why…Pa was still out there, in the winds and Ma was frightened.

 

“Look, Hester, Hoss won’t come to any harm.” Ben said as he nodded over to Hop Sing who had come into the room bearing a tray of refreshments “They’ll either stay in town or find a place to hole up somewhere until the worse will have passed.”

 

She nodded vaguely and walked to the window “Its  getting dark…”  she sighed, “I don’t like it when it gets dark like this.”

 

Ben shook his head, and poured coffee for them both,  then looked over to watch as she remained standing, staring out into the gathering darkness “Hester, have some coffee.”

 

She didn’t say anything but turned and joined him “I  had better get on with my job, Hop Sing wanted me to peel some apples for the pie.”  she wrapped her hands around the hot cup and smiled at Ben, “I know I’m being stupid, but I can’t help worrying,  I’ve heard enough stories about people getting lost or  killed in bad weather and I know for a fact no one’s invincible, not even Hoss.”

 

Ben nodded as he carried his cup and saucer to his chair, side stepping the toys that Hope and Hannah had left like a little mine field to trip him over. “I know, and to be honest if I had been here I would have told him to stay home or to come with me, I could have done with some help.  Never mind,  this squall won’t last for long.”

 

That didn’t settle Hester’s mind,  she sipped some coffee and then rather absent mindedly wandered off to the kitchen where she picked up her knife and began to peel the apples.   She couldn’t help but worry about Hoss,  hadn’t he only recently been injured in that mine accident?  Hadn’t they spent weeks worrying about whether or not he would ever walk again?  She shook her head and picked up an apple, it looked so rosy and plump in her hand that she had to put it back down.   She drank some more coffee and then wandered to the kitchen window and peered out into shadows and reflections, then with a sigh turned to see Hop Sing watching her anxiously

 

“I’m  worried about Hoss.” she said simply knowing that he would understand.

 

“Wind soon go.   He come home soon.  Smell roast pork and apple pie …like homing pigeon, not lost long.”

 

Hester frowned, shook her head and set down her cup.  She would prefer it if Hoss were not ‘lost’ at all.

 

…………………

 

The two horsemen leaned against the wind and when one stopped so did the other.  “What’d you stop fer?”   Hoss shouted in the hope of being heard above the sound of the storm

 

Adam didn’t waste his breath, he turned in the saddle and then signed to Hoss to get off the road and to take refuge in the rocks.   A cross wind blew hard against them and Adams horse staggered, did a side step as though to avoid being blown over.   Adam dismounted and grabbed the reins and pulled the animal behind him as he made his way for cover behind some high boulders.  It wasn’t long before Hoss was right beside him,  the two horses standing close to the rocks, their heads down, but now shielded from the worst of the blows the winds brought against them.

 

Together the two brothers hunkered down on their haunches, pulled their collars even higher and tried to shrink themselves into their coats to make themselves warmer.  Hoss shivered and bellowed in Adams ear “Better here than out at sea, huh, big brother?”

 

Adam nodded,  but said nothing.  Thoughts of the sea at times like this often filled his mind,  when the crew and himself battled against waves as high as houses, that would wash over the decks and try to snatch some unwary seaman away down to the waters that boiled and surged around them.   He looked over at Hoss and smiled, it was good to know  they were not so far from home,  and that his brother was so close by.   He turned to look at the horses and then up at the sky where the clouds were scudding furiously fast across the blue expanse.

 

“How much longer do you think it’ll blow like this?” he yelled to be heard and Hoss shook his head, he couldn’t hear, he put a finger to his ear and shrugged.

 

There was nothing for it but to stay put until there was a lull.  Adam hugged his arms around his body, and lowered his head.   Hoss did likewise,  looking up and around him every so often just to make sure that the horses were secure and safe,  and that his brother was really there.  He dug a sharp elbow into Adams  ribs and when his brother turned to look at him, he nodded vigorously “It’s good to know you’re here, Adam,  I missed you some when you were away at sea.”

 

Once again Adam nodded but looked away.   He smiled vaguely, it was good to know he’d been missed.  He wanted to tell his big brother how much he had missed them all as well but knew his voice wouldn’t carry above the roar of the wind….

 

Chapter 3

 

The storm blew itself out after a while so eventually children fell asleep, babies stopped their crying and parents gradually managed to settle down themselves.  Ben, who was accustomed to all weathers had slept through as soon as his head had settled upon his pillow.  His snores, drowned out by the growls of the wind, now were the only sounds to disturb Hester’s peace although she was far from sleeping herself.   Pulling on her shawl she made her way down stairs where the old clock greeted her by chiming twice and returning back to its normal stately ticking away the minutes.

 

2 o’clock and still no sign or sound of Hoss.   She padded with bare feet to the fire and raked through the embers,  gathered up those still red hot and put some kindling around them.  Gently blowing upon  the remnant of the fire a small flame soon flickered and within ten minutes the kindling was blazing around the logs she had put on to rebuild the fire up.  After brushing her hands free of dust she settled herself in the big leather chair and awaited her husband’s return.

 

In the house not so far away Olivia was doing much the same, curling herself on the big settee and forcing herself not to worry or fret over her husband’s whereabouts.  The storm had passed but the damage it must have done remained to be seen, all she hoped was that some of the damage had not been vented upon Adam or Hoss.

 

It had taken such a long time to get the children to sleep, Sofia had always had a dislike of the wind and had several times called out for her by which time Nathaniel would be awake and crying for attention.   It  made matters worse for the fact that he was teething., and all the noise banging about the house made him fractious and miserable.   Reuben decided to sleep walk and walked himself into a wardrobe where she found him fast asleep hanging onto one of Adams jackets.  He hadn’t woken when he was propelled back to his room and into bed, it was only when she had wearily got into her own bed that he called out for her … and that woke Nathaniel up again.

 

Such a night!   She got to her feet and went into the kitchen and stoked up the stove,  and having got it into a good blaze she closed down the damper and then put the kettle on.  If only Adam would come home, if only he hadn’t decided to go into town, if only … if only ….

 

 

Not so far away Joe and Mary Ann slept with no fears or worries about the storm,  Daniel woke up several times and called for them but soon fell back to sleep when no one came to attend to him.   Constance woke and gazed up into  a blurred darkness, coo’d  at the shadows,  listened to the sounds of the wind and was lulled back to sleep for she, having no conception of fear, heard only the music of different sounds and melodies that caused her no concern at all.

 

In her own little bedroom Jenny Ford had sat awake listening to the wind howling and growling.  She had heard Daniel crying and didn’t know what to do, was she supposed to get up and see to him?  Was she to give him food?  No one had told her what to do and without directions she was unable to do anything but cling to her blanket and stare up at the ceiling.  She wondered about her father and if he were safe,  was he happy in his new work,  did he have as nice people to work for as she – for she loved Mary Ann and although a little timid of Joe, found him quite amusing.

 

Life had changed for Jenny,  from the large ostentatious home of Patrick McGarthy she was now settled in this wooden house with the big windows  and the warmth of smaller rooms  and a ‘modern’ kitchen.   She had been there a month now.  She wasn’t sure how she had got there, nor who had arranged for her to go with the young Cartwright family, but here she was, and her father … well, for the first time in her life she had had to go somewhere without him.

 

Victor Ford had told his daughter that she would see him once a month.  He would come to collect her and they would go into town, or a ride around the countryside.  Or perhaps sometimes she could come into town with Mrs Cartwright and they would meet together at the hotel and he could  spend a little time with her then.   It had soothed her, those promises, and she had been content to come and live with this little family far from town,  where it was quiet and ‘safe’.

 

A whole new and different life.   She did what she was told – because that was really the only way she could function –  and Mary Ann had known just exactly how to manage her little assistant perfectly.   Jenny had been shown how to hold a baby and how to rock it to sleep.  It was when the baby cried and didn’t respond to her rocking that Jenny would put Constance down and walk away.   She couldn’t quite understand the mechanics of babies, and that they were spontaneous little beings who didn’t really do exactly what they were told when they were told…  it was something Mary Ann  had the patience to teach her little friend, in time.

 

So much to learn… there were the horses of course,  so many of them.   But now she knew that she could stroke their noses, and if they nibbled at her sleeves it didn’t matter they meant her no harm.   Yes, so much to learn.   As she lay there in bed and stared up at the ceiling she thought over and over again of her own mother,  whom she remembered perfectly clearly, and she thought how one day she would be a mother too… one day.

……………….

 

Adam jerked awake and looked around him, rubbed his face and blinked rapidly for a while before remembering where he was…it was still dark, stars shone from the sky and the only sound was that of Hoss snoring.

 

He was stiff from having fallen to sleep contorted in the squatting position he and Hoss had adopted to avoid the wind.   He couldn’t recall the time when he fell asleep, he wasn’t even sure if he had actually been asleep …he rubbed his face again and yawned.   Hoss was still snoring, his chin rested on his chest and he was hunched in the same squatting position that Adam remembered with his hands dangling between his knees.

 

Adam yawned again and managed to get to his feet,  the stillness of the night after the noise of the storm was tranquillity it self.  He walked over to his horse who was asleep out among the rocks, and flicked at the reins, which brought the animal back to wakefulness.  It scrabbled to its feet,  and shook its head.  Adam patted it on the neck and then reached for his canteen of water from which he took a deep long drink before pouring some into his  hat and offering it to the horse.

 

“Wassmatter?”   Hoss mumbled and staggered to his feet, rubbed his face with both hands and shook his head “did I fall asleep?”

 

“Snoring fit to bust.” Adam muttered and  walked over to his brother with the canteen of water in one hand “Here, drink this, and then we had better make our way home.”

 

“Home?  Yeah…of course…sure…mmmm”  Hoss rubbed around his face again “Thought that storm would never stop.   What time is it?”

 

“Back of three o’clock.”

 

“Hester will be worried.”  Hoss glugged down some water and then stretched, “I feel like I’ve been folded over and stuck in a box for weeks.”

 

Adam smiled and took the canteen from his  brother, slammed in the stopper and hung it back on his saddle “Let’s go, Hoss,  we have wives to make our peace with…”  he frowned,  Olivia would be worried, he knew that, and for sure Hester would have been too.   He could see the darker shadow of his brother emerging from the shadows of the rocks and as Hoss went to his horse Adam quickly mounted into the saddle.

 

They rode in silence for some miles before Hoss turned to Adam and said “Shucks, I can’t believe that I fell asleep, when did the storm pass over?”

 

Adam shrugged and grimaced “Oh some time back…”

 

“And you didn’t wake me up?  Dadburnit, Adam,  Hesters going to have my hide …and she’ll never believe that I slept through that storm.”

 

“Why not?”  Adam frowned, he couldn’t believe he’d slept through it either, nor the fact he’d slept through Hoss snoring so loudly once the storm had passed.  He sighed  “Try and imagine facing that storm out at sea if you’re so busy feeling sorry for yourself, I would say with a wind velocity of that strength the waves would be houses high… we’d have lost men on board, they’d have been washed over the side of the ship…”

 

“Did it ever happen to you?”  Hoss’ face registered alarm and concern “I mean,  were  you ever washed over board?”

 

“Almost – several times.”  Adam shook his head “It happens so fast, one moment you’re on your feet and the next flat on your back skidding across the deck and knowing that any moment you’ll be lost at sea, not that you even have the time to think it, it’s all happening so quickly.   I owe my life – more than once – to the vigilence of some seaman who grabbed me or threw me a line in time.”

 

“Shucks, Adam,  we often thought of you and wondered how you were, but never thought too much about what your life would really be like…I mean …well, you know what I mean, don’t’cha?”

 

Adam nodded and glanced up at the sky,  “I wouldn’t have missed it all, though, Hoss.  There were times I hated it, many a time I wished I were home with you all, especially after marrying Olivia, but I’m glad of it now.”

 

Hoss darted an anxious glance over at his brother, a niggle of  worry like a tiny worm  appeared on the fringes of his consciousness … surely Adam wasn’t getting restless again,  wanting to return to sea, he opened his mouth to say something but closed it again just in case by doing so his brother volunteered some information that Hoss would not have liked to hear.   He sighed and shook his head, then frowned “Remember that Jacob Brown?  Wonder what happened to his wife?  She was a great cook…”

 

“She sure was,” Adam grinned, “Last I heard she was in a place called Tombstone,  opened a diner there.”

 

“Really?”  Hoss’ eyes opened wide and he smiled slowly, “She was a good woman.”

 

“She was that…”  Adam replied but preferred not to speak any more on the subject, the incident with Jacob Brown cast a long shadow and he hated to linger within it.

 

The sky was lightening and the two men  were now on the home track towards their homes.   If one were able to stand on a mountain and look down upon the valley where the  houses were built they would notice they stood on what could have been termed the points of a triangle… Adams home was the first point, the track forked towards his home first, but by keeping to the main track it would then fork off to the very first the main Ponderosa and by returning to the main track and heading a mile up would be Joe’s home.

 

“Hoss, I’ll bring your mail over later this morning.  Don’t forget to tell Pa I’ve collected it… unless he wants to go into town for any reason.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll tell him.”  Hoss slowed his horse  and rode closer to his brother so that Adam, by the touch of Hoss’ knee against his, was forced to slow his own mount, Hoss extended his hand “Adam,  I’m sure proud of having you for a brother…”

 

Adam looked momentarily surprised, then grinned and clasped his brothers hand in his, “Hoss, I feel the same about yourself…. I couldn’t wish for a  better brother than  yourself.”

 

“Shucks, Adam -”  Hoss  nodded, sniffed and shook his brothers hand firmly, then broke away “See you later…”

 

“With the mail…I won’t forget…”

 

A wave of the hand and Adam turned his horse into the first turning off from the main track towards his home.   He knew immediately that Olivia was waiting for him as lights shone from the windows of the big room.   Smiling to himself he led the horse into the stable and after seeing to the beast, checking its feed and water, he strode home,  packages and satchel under his arm.

 

Olivia was curled up on the settee with her head resting on a cushion, her eyes closed.  Even when Adam leaned down to kiss her she never stirred.   Quickly removing his hat and jacket, his gun belt and putting that safely away, Adam returned to where she lay, whispered her name and was rewarded with her eyes fluttering open, then closing again.   Very gently he lifted her up into his arms and carried her step by step to their room,  set her upon the bed and covered her with the quilt.

 

The clock struck the hour,  the sky was streaking with the colours of dawn…he yawned and welcomed a new day.

 

 

Hoss  found Hester in the big chair with a book on her lap, as he approached her the book fell on the floor with a soft thud, but it was loud enough to startle her awake.  She opened her eyes and saw Hoss’ face close to her own, the blue eyes rather blood shot but twinkling, the smile on his face tender and loving. “Oh Hoss,” she cried and flung her arms around his neck “I was so scared.  I thought you might have been blown away.”

 

He grinned at that, and then she shook her head and laughed, and he laughed and as the clock struck the hour their laughter  became smothered with heart felt kisses.  Hoss  considered himself the most blessed of men,  he was so loved.

 

Chapter 4

 

When Olivia opened  her eyes it was to find her husbands side of the bed cold and still unslept in.  For a moment she lay very still with her heart beating like a pulsating lump of lead in her chest.  The fears she had felt during the night swarmed in on her… fears of his not having returned, being swept away in the storm;  and how did she get back to her bed?  Her last memory had been of sitting by the fire, arms wrapped around her knees, waiting –

 

The door opened and she could have laughed with relief but that feeling dispersed like a bubble when Sofia entered the room and rubbed her eyes “Mommy, is today Saturday when I can stay home?”

 

Olivia couldn’t think, was it Saturday?  She smiled and was about to speak when Sofia gave an almighty yawn and mumbled “Whats in that big box?”

 

“What big box?” she replied and turned to look at where Sofia was pointing,  and then her face softened as she saw the oyster coloured box  sitting proudly on the chair opposite the bed.  Had she not been so panic filled it would have been the first thing she would have seen when waking and obviously put there for that purpose.

 

“Daddy’s home?” she whispered as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and Sofia looked at her with slight scorn on her face as though such a comment was unnecessary, of course daddy was home.

 

The big red ribbon was pulled off immediately and the lid carefully raised and set to one side.   Sofia came and peered over her shoulder as Olivia looked at the sheer silken garment with the delicate lace trim.  “That’s pretty, mommy …I like pink.”

 

Olivia nodded, she liked pink too, her very favourite dress was pink, she wore it when she went to a ball with Robert and then .. Later… with Adam . But this wasn‘t just any kind of pink, it was a soft pearl coloured shade, and she looked at the label and saw it had been made so far away, far away in Paris, France.   She sat there and then lifted the dainty scrap of a chemise up so that it floated in her hands “Its so pretty”

 

Sofia nodded, hadn’t she already said so?  “Are you going to put it on?”

 

“No,  it’s not for wearing during the day…” Olivia hugged it against her slim body,  smiled dreamily and then looked again into the box where a matching dressing gown  was just waiting for her to pick  up, and beneath that certain other matching garments that made her laugh at the thought of her husband asking Amanda Ridley to ‘pack them in as well!’

 

Reuben came into the room “Ma, Nathaniel’s smelly.”

 

Nothing like that kind of comment to bring a mother back down to earth, she sighed and let the garments drift back into the box.

……………..

 

Sofia could hear the dull thud of an axe striking against wood so knew where to locate her father.   She ran with a skip to her feet and called out to him,  “Pa, Pa, it’s Saturday.”

 

Adam smiled and swung the axe down upon the log, splitting it evenly into two, he settled one back into position to split that into a smaller section “I know…”

 

“That means I don’t need to go to school today.”

 

“Uh-huh”

 

The axe swung again and she stepped back, keeping her distance for Adam had strict rules as to safety around the wood shed,  “That means three days and not  going to school.”

 

“I know that too…”  Adam smiled and put the axe down,  collected up the logs and nodded to his daughter “Collect those up for Ma, will you?”

 

“Pa,  that means I don’t have to go back to school ever… do I?”

 

“How’d you figure that out?”  he frowned slightly as he bent to collect up some of the logs,  while she busied herself picking up the kindling.

 

“Well,  Mommy taught me my sums and my reading. “

 

“That was just yesterday for a few hours.  Ma’s too busy here to teach you schooling at home.”  he balanced an extra log and began to bear his load towards the house “Did Ma send you out to tell us breakfast was ready?”

 

She nodded having forgotten her errand in the excitement of having another free day,  “Reuben finished cleaning out the stables.”

 

“Mmm,mmmm”  Adam nodded and gave her a quick glance as a reminder that now she had ownership of Buster she had her responsibilities in the stable too, but she pretended not to notice and skipped along beside him with the kindling scratching her arms and chest through her clothing.

 

“I helped Ma to make the breakfast.”  she said as they reached the door

 

He nodded and set down the logs,  then banked them up upon the wood pile while she put the kindling in the basket.  “I’m  going to  look after Buster when I’ve had breakfast.”

 

“Remember in future to do it in the morning before breakfast.” he said sternly, and wanted to tell her that working alongside her brother at the chore lightened the burden as well as providing time together but Olivia came to the door then, her face wreathed in smiles as she came and wrapped her arms around his neck

 

“Thank you.”  she smiled up at him, her sea green eyes twinkling the way the sea would when the sun shone and danced upon the waves

 

“Did you like it?”

 

“It’s beautiful, how did you know I wanted that colour?”

 

He laughed and wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer to him “Because I  know you …” and over her shoulder he winked at Sofia who was  grinning up at him

 

“Thank you again…”  she whispered and kissed him once more “I’ve never seen silk so delicate as that…”

 

“Nor have I…”  he laughed again, and kissed her harder “Sorry I wasn’t home sooner, you’d have had your present earlier but the storm …”

 

“But you were safe…did you stay in town?”

 

“Hoss and I found some rocks to duck behind on the way and …”

 

Reuben dashed out, “Ma, Ma, the pancakes are burning…”

 

Sofia ran in ahead of them and sure enough there was enough damage done to one of the pancakes for it to be dumped aside.  Nathaniel was wrinkling his nose and saying “Pooh” while shaking his head as smoke wreathed around his head

 

Reuben sat down and looked at his sister with a scowl “I cleaned out Buster’s stall. You should have done it.”

 

“I was going to do it after breakfast.”  she said and blinked her eyes at him, “I was helping Mommy”

 

“I had to look after Max as well.” Reuben muttered and sighed heavily while Adam poured milk into his glass and tapped him on the shoulder as a way of telling him to be quiet.  “Tell her though, Pa…”

 

Adam frowned, trust Reuben to be determined to have the last word, he nodded “I have. Now, that’s enough on the subject.   Look, Reuben, before we start eating, could you get the satchel from the bureau, I collected the mail yesterday from town and haven’t had time to check it through yet.”

 

“Sure, Pa”  the boy grinned and ran to the other room, returning with it in his hand and passing it to Adam, “Look s like a parcel in there…”

 

“There is.” Adam  nodded and waited for his wife to sit down and join them at the table.

 

Sofia didn’t dwell on the thought of mail, she never expected to receive any so it held no interest for her.   She was thinking of Buster which led her to consider the matter of Kamille’s colt and how much she had wanted it instead of Reuben’s old mount.  When Adam had brought Max along for the boy Sofia’s hopes had soared, just perhaps, just perhaps …. But no, Kamille’s colt was free to run around the corral at Uncle Joe’s while she had to make do with Buster.  Life was hard!

 

Once the meal was finished and everything cleared away, apart from Nathaniels area which was still littered with the debris of his breakfast at which he would pick for a while longer, Adam picked up the satchel to check out the letters.

 

He sifted through them and then set them into separate piles two of which he returned to the satchel.  From the remaining few he handed one over to Reuben with a flourish.   Sofia watched as her brother’s eyes lit up with delight,  the writing was familiar but it wasn’t until he said “It’s from Billy Webb”  that she remembered the boy who had pushed her into the river all that time ago.

 

Adam nodded and smiled as he replaced the mail for his father and brothers into the satchel “I promised to take the mail over to Pa’s,  Livvy, will it be alright if Reuben comes too?”

 

“Can I,  Ma?”

 

“Of course,”  Olivia nodded “I’ll be busy today, there’s cheese to make and …”

 

“Please, can I go with Daddy?”  Sofia piped up, the thought of helping in the dairy made her stomach turn over, she hated the smell of that cheese being made, the thought of playing with Hannah and Hope was much more appealing.

 

“If Pa says so”  Olivia replied and glanced over at Adam who was busily unwrapping the package.

 

He smiled when he saw what it was and withdrew it with a kind of reverence which aroused her curiosity “Who is it from? “

 

For a moment he didn’t reply, then he passed the book to her and she read the title and shook her head, the authors name was unfamiliar so she looked at her husband “Who’s Albert Michaelson*?”

 

“Well,  Mike – we all called him Mike back then – was the son of a Polish Jewish family.  A genius.”

 

“Did he come out of a bottle?” Sofia asked immediately which prompted Reuben to laugh

 

“A genius means someone who is extremely clever and intelligent… not a genie, Sofia.” Adam smiled and tweaked her nose playfully.   “I had the privilege of tutoring him for a while …”

 

“Why?   What’s a tutor?  Is that a teacher?” Reuben now wanted to know and Adam nodded and took the book back from Olivia and opened it to read the inscription on the flyleaf

 

“A tutor is someone who teaches another in preparation of an education… Mike needed help before he took the attendance examination for college.”

 

“And you helped him to get to colllege?  Was he a good boy?  Did he learn his lessons you taught him?” Reuben was all questions,  to his mind if the boy was a genius then that made his Pa even more  of one,  his respect for his Pa soared several more degree’s.

 

“Not the one he took the examination for… but we applied to the President for help and he attended U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis as a Midshipman.  He was an amazing boy, he taught me a lot.”

 

“What about Pa?”  Reuben frowned,  how could anyone teach his father anything at all when his Pa knew everything there was just about …well,  everything.

 

“Well,  about the sciences,   he was particularly fascinated by the thoughts of Leon Foucault,  and his theories on light  so -“  he paused,  smiled and looked at Olviia who was smiling at him from her side of the table “Anyway,  that’s who the book is from , Albert Michaelson.”

 

“Is there a letter enclosed with the book?” Olivia smiled over at her husband who seemed to have drifted into memories and forgotten that there were those at the table expecting him to continue with his history, so he checked inside the package and produced a letter, which was short, which was not unexpected from Albert.

 

“Greetings Adam

 

There have often been times over the years that I have had to consider the words of advice you gave me about people, I have never forgotten that particular lesson, Adam.   Yes, you were and are so right, without people, then nothing means anything at all.

So much has happened since being in Annapolis.  I worked on refining the rotating mirror method of Leon Foucault for measuring the speed of light, you know.  His work, if you recall, always held a special fascination for me.

 

I have experimented with measuring the speed of light here, did you realise, Adam, that the speed of light in air is 299,864 + 51 kilometres per second.  I am experimenting with light in a vacuum at present.

 

You will be pleased to know that I have excelled in optics, heat, climatologic and drawing and after I graduated in ‘73 I became an instructor at the Naval Academy in physics and chemistry in ‘75

 

I hope you enjoy my first book…of course, it will be revised as I make further refinements. And, by the way, I was married this year to Margaret Hemingway*.

 

Sincere best wishes and thanks

Albert ‘Mike’

 

Olivia nodded, smiled “The speed of light – how fascinating.   The next thing you know they’ll be building ships to go to the stars.”

 

Adam laughed as he folded the letter away, “You know, Mike said exactly the same thing, I can remember we had been discussing Faucault in the hay loft over the livery stables and – “  he paused, grinned and shook his head “Well, guess it doesn’t matter, he’s settled and will make his own way.”

 

Olivia sighed and looked over at her son “And you, what did your letter have to say?”

 

Reuben shook his head “I haven’t opened it yet.”

 

“You have five minutes,” Adam said after putting the book and letter back in the wrapping, “Unless, of course, it’s private.”

 

Reuben grinned and pulled out the letter, which he read quietly to himself before saying “Billy’s gran’ma died and he’s going to  a boarding school with his cousin.  He likes it there.   That’s all.”

 

“I didn’t like Billy.” Sofia announced rather grandly, “He pushed me in the river.”

 

“You liked him well enough when he came and lived with us, Sofia.” her mother said as she pushed herself away from the table and dropped a kiss on her husband’s dark curls as she passed.

 

Sofia thought about that and then nodded “Yes, I remember now.” and looked very thoughtful as she recalled to mind the lad who was so kind to her, and read her stories even when the book was held upside down.

 

“Well, enough of this reminiscing,”  Adam muttered “I promised to take the mail over to Pa’s and Joe’s.    Sofia, you have Buster to attend to.”   and when Sofia rolled her blue eyes he rolled his dark ones back at her, “Hurry now or you won’t be able to come with us.”

 

Sofia slid down from her chair and ran off,  Reuben waited awhile until Adam asked him to go and saddle his horse, Max.  “I’ll be out in a moment, son.”

 

The door slammed and he smiled at his wife “You would have liked Mike…not sure what he would have thought of you though, he had no real awareness of how people worked, not then anyway.”

 

“Some children are like that, when they are exceptionally intelligent.”  she replied and went to clean up the mess Nathaniel had made before cleaning him up as well.

 

“I guess so,  but I do think the time he had here,  being around Hoss and Joe helped him more than anything I’d have said.”

 

He wrapped his arms around her and dropped a kiss upon the back of her neck, then leaned forward a little to ruffle Nathaniel’s hair.  “Well, I had better go.  See you soon.”

 

She watched him leave and then hugged the child tightly before kissing his chubby dimpled cheeks.   The book with the letters remained on the table, and after looking at the title she decided that it wasn’t the kind of book that would appeal to her and picked it up along with the letters which she took and placed on Adams desk in the study.

…………………

 

“What time did you get in last night?” Ben asked his son who was gulping down his breakfast as though he hadn’t eaten for weeks.

 

“Didn’t …I mean, I got home about 5 this morning.  An  hour ago to be precise.”

 

“Did you get any sleep at all?”   Ben then enquired and glanced over at Hester who was  pouring fresh water into a glass for Hannah

 

“Some,  Adam and me – we hunkered down by some rocks and snatched some sleep there.  Leastways I did.”  he frowned “I reckon on him having got some too…”

 

“Well, no doubt about it, winters on the way.  Could be a long hard one this year, it was too soft last so may make up for it this year by being harder than usual.”  Ben dabbed at his mouth with the napkin,  “Did you get everything we needed in town?”

 

“Sure did, Pa.   Couldn’t get any of that stuff from Murphy’s though…it’s closed down and he’s gone to New York, according to Mrs Garston anyway.”

 

Hester sighed and shook her head “Another store closed …”

 

“Mmm,  don’t think it’ll affect Amanda Ridley much though, Adam spent a small fortune there on some ‘dooby-dats’ for  Olivia, prices she charges for a few bits of material and lace –  and Ridleys Mercantile is always full of customers.  Anyway, its all ready for Hop Sing when he goes in today.”

 

Ben  nodded and looked thoughtful  “I may go in myself later … Hester, what about yourself, what do you intend doing today?”

 

Hester was prevented from saying anything when there was a brisk knock on the door and Adam, accompanied by his children, stepped into the big room and called out a greeting along with “I’ve brought the mail.”

 

“I rode all the way here on Buster.”   Sofia declared proudly as she ran into the room and stood beside her Aunt Hester whom she loved very much.

 

Hester put her arm around the little girls shoulders and told her what a clever girl she was,  “Have you come to play with my girls?”

 

“Yes, please.”  Sofia frowned “I left Clarabelle with Jessie.”  she turned to Hannah “Jessie’s eyes fell off yesterday so Clarabelle is going to look after her until Mommy can sew two new ones on for her.”

 

Hannah nodded,  she understood all about eyes dropping off from dolls faces having experienced much the same herself and knowing it was often caused by some tugging and pulling on her part as well.  Hope said nothing,  she was busy picking up her food very daintily

 

“Adam -” Ben rose from the table and dropped his napkin beside his plate “I need you to do me a favour, well, not me exactly -”  he paused and looked over at Hoss who was looking curiously at his father

 

Ben put a hand on his eldest son’s shoulder and after looking again at Hoss turned to Adam “I promised Winnemucca that I would cut out some steers from the main herd for his people.   It’s going to be an early and hard winter this year, son, and I don’t want to have them coming begging.”

 

Adam  didn’t reply immediately,  he thought about it for a moment before mentioning that it would take a few days to which Ben nodded, “I know, I’ve already asked Hop Sing to organise staples for you to take along.”

 

“Sure, Pa.  Do you think Joe will come along?”  Adam  replied and  nodded over at Hoss who had left the table and was standing beside his father and brother now, his hands on his hips as he listened to what was being discussed

 

“More than likely,” Ben murmured and sighed “I’d rather get it done sooner than later,  son.”

 

“Hm,  well, we’ll go and see what he’s up to,  he won’t thank us for not including him.” Adam muttered and then noticed Reuben standing beside Ben watching and listening.  He paused, frowned and pursed his lips and Hoss, looking at the boy, did much the same thing.  “Reuben,  you’ve not  been to the Paiute village yet, have you?”

 

“No, sir.”  the boys cheeks reddened,  excitement mounted and he looked at his Pa, his grandfather and his Uncle “Can I come with you?”

 

“What do you think?” Adam asked of his brother who looked very serious and rubbed the back of his neck and hemmed and hawed a bit so that Reuben said “Please.” very plaintively

 

“I reckon he could, he’s gitting growed up so should be no problem.”  Hoss finally admitted and Ben and Adam both smiled and nodded.

 

“Very well, then”  Adam placed a hand on the boys shoulder and leaned down a little “Look, Hoss, if you go and check with Joe.   I need to go back and talk this over with Olivia, she was expecting me back and as we’ll be gone a few days ..”  he let his voice trail away as he turned to go, “See you in a moment, Pa.”

 

“Pa?”  Reuben stepped closer to his father, just in case Adam had forgotten him but a smile reassured him that was not the case

“Stay here and I’ll collect you when I get back.”

 

Reuben nodded and followed his father to the door, then paused “What if she says I can’t go…. I mean, she’s a girl, she won’t understand …”

 

“She will.”  Adam laughed and gave him a little shove, “Now, just wait here awhile, I’ll be right back.”

 

Chapter 5

 

Olivia was more than pleased to see  her husband home so soon after his departure, she had not yet gone to the dairy to make the cheese and had been brushing her little boy’s hair while singing to him.  Nathaniel clapped his hands and ‘sang’ some of the words that he recognised until he saw his father in  the door way whereupon he stopped and just raised his arms in anticipation of hugs and cuddles

 

“Home so soon? “ Olivia stood up and leaned towards him to kiss his cheek, while Nathaniel reached out and grabbed at Adam’s jacket so that his father was forced to take him into his arms where the baby crowed in delight

 

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,”  Adam said immediately “But Pa wants us to do an errand for him… it’ll be a few days before I – we – get back.”

 

“We?”  She frowned and inclined her head a little to one side, narrowed her eyes “A collective noun, which infers …”

 

“Sweetheart,” he leaned towards her and took hold of one hand, grinned mischievously “Have you been reading those dictionaries again?”

 

She shook her head, slapped his arm playfully “Be serious, Adam.  Now, who exactly will be going with you to wherever you happen to be going?“

 

“Joe probably, Hoss certainly with myself and – I thought Reuben would like to come along too.”

“Reuben?  And  I’m expected to agree to you taking our son …where exactly?”

 

He pouted and pulled a wistful face, sighed “Well, I thought it would be a good idea if Reuben were to join his uncles and I on this errand for Pa.   It’ll be part of his education, not only that it will help him see what being on a ranch is all about..”

 

“You’re going on a cattle drive?  In this weather?” she asked with wide eyes and amazement in her voice “Are you serious?”

 

“No,  not at all.   I mean, no we are not going on a cattle drive.” he paused, tapped his mouth with his forefinger, “Umm,  not really, well, just a little one.”

 

“You’re sounding more like Little Joe every day, why not just say it as it is…” and she raised her chin as though in challenge and along with her chin, she raised her eyebrows.

 

“Pa got a request from Winnemucca for help,  they must be anticipating a bad winter this year so Pa wants us to cut out some steers from the main herd for them.  It helps them through the winter… I thought if Reuben came to watch, he’d learn something new.  He’s never been involved with the running of the ranch yet, has he?”

 

She was silent for a moment and then folded her arms across her chest, Nathaniel leaned forward to brush chubby dimpled fingers across her face before hugging back into his father.  Adam waited, then she nodded “You’re right, he hasn’t.   There’s always been so much else for him to do closer to home.  But, Adam, he isn’t even ten years old yet …”

 

Adam frowned “What has that to do with it?  He handles his horse really well, and he’ll only be observing us, I don’t expect him to ride down and help in any way.”  he smiled then and reached for her hand,  gently rubbing his thumb against the rings on her finger “We’ll be camping at night, he’ll like that, and then we’ll go onto the reservation and he’ll see how the Paiute really live.”

 

She nodded “That’s the bit I’m most worried about -” she sighed and a slight frown appeared between her eyes “Adam,  he’s very young and -”

 

“I was a lot younger when I saw a wagon train wiped out by Indians,”  he said quietly, “And not much older when I saw what white men can do to Indians.”   he passed Nathaniel back into her arms “There is no danger of any thing like that happening so what are you afraid of?”

 

“I don’t know.”  she stroked her baby’s back and enjoyed the way he nestled his head into her neck, but even so the thought of her little boy going t o the reservation filled her with dread, “I guess I have no right to feel this way when I recall the months I spent living with the Bannock when I was a child much younger than Reuben, but …”

 

“No but’s …” he tapped her nose with his forefinger and smiled “Hard to loosen the apron strings , huh?  Guess I never had the experience of a doting Ma fussing over such with me,  wouldn’t know what it’s like … but I promise you he will be fine, and he’ll learn a lot, believe me.”

 

“It’ll mean he’ll miss some schooling.” she trailed behind him as he walked to the study and picked up Albert’s book, the mail he had yet to read.

 

“He’ll learn something more from this experience than he will from a book.”  her husband replied which quite surprised her considering his strictures about education.

 

She held Nathaniel close and followed Adam from the study to another room where he took down a box of cartridges from the drawers of the rifle rack.  It took a lot of self control not to say something about that although he must have sensed her uneasiness because he smiled and assured her they would be hunting for their food.

 

He kissed her then by the door and whispered something that would at other times have made her laugh but only made her shake her head at him this time, but he laughed and then picked up his hat which he put on Nathaniel’s head,  which elicited a howl of protest from the child.

 

She watched him leave and shook her head, watched as the dust settled and fell back onto the yard.  Looking up at the sky she saw grey clouds gathering and wondered if Reuben was going to enjoy this adventure quite as much as her husband appeared to think.

 

 

Joe, Hoss and Reuben were waiting at the junction on the road leading to the north pasture when Adam arrived, Joe grinned “Have trouble persuading Livvy to let Reuben come?”

 

Adam shook his head “No,  just wanted to collect a few things.   You alright, Reuben?”

 

“Sure, Pa.”  the boys eyes were alight with excitement and following his Uncle’s example he turned Max’s head in the direction of the field where the cattle were grazing.

 

They rode down to the pasture in silence,  the herd was not overly large as most had been taken to market during the autumn cattle drive weeks earlier.  This saved the men from having oversight of the vast numbers that were there after the spring, it meant less winter feeding during the snows and hard winter weather.  The young heifers would fatten and breed, so that by spring the numbers would have increased to a good healthy and profitable number.

 

As the three brothers looked down at the herd it was Hoss who pointed out the ones that they would cut out,  then each of them loosened their lariats from the saddle.   Adam turned to Reuben “Stay here.   Don’t move from this spot, do you hear?”

 

“But, Pa, I thought I was going to be able to help.”

 

“Not this time, son.   This is when you watch and learn,  no one gains anything by having a greenhorn running loose down there.”

 

Reuben looked hurt, that he could be considered as a green horn by his own father rankled rather and he looked sullen, “But what can I do…?”

 

Joe grinned and tipped the lads hat down over Reubens eyes “Do as your Pa says, you watch and learn.”

 

“Yeah,” Uncle Hoss nodded and leaned both hands on the pommel of his saddle, “No one knows what kind of mood them thar critters are going to be in when we go down there,  our horses can sense it though and they know what to do.  Now, Max  is a good cow pony, but even he ain’t been down there with you on his back, has he?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“Wal, you jest sit still now and keep your eye on us.   We’re gonna cut out mebbe 15 head of cattle from the herd, right? “

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Reluctantly the boy sat in the saddle and watched as the three horsemen rode down the grassy slopes towards the grazing cattle.  They rode at a leisurely pace, their lariats loose in their hands close to their legs, closer to the herd they split three ways until they were riding into the herd and slowly by use of their horses and the lasso they gradually bunched a number of the cattle together and separated them from the others.

 

Adam raised himself from the saddle, standing in the stirrups and counted the number that Hoss and Joe were herding away from the larger number,  he raised a hand and then rode alongside the several he had close by until they were also alongside those his brothers had gathered up “How many?” Hoss asked and Adam nodded “16.”

 

“I made it 15” Joe said with a grin and Hoss laughed when Adam said “You must have missed the little one still wanting to tag along with its ma…”

 

It surprised Reuben that the main body of cattle hadn’t protested about some of their number being taken from them, some had raised curious heads but then either moved on,  sat down or continued to graze.   He remained in his saddle as the smaller herd pushed their way up the hill, flanked by Hoss and Joe with Adam in the rear, his horse  going back and forth to ensure than none broke loose to return to the larger herd.

 

The boy watched them pushing and shoving against once another, not being allowed to stop or graze as the three men pushed them on,  if one broke loose then the rope would quickly bring them back, or the horse would head it off and ‘encourage’ it to return.   As Adam came abreast to the boy he nodded over to him and so Reuben edged Max so that he could ride alongside his father.

 

“They didn’t seem angry, Pa.  Don’t they mind leaving their friends behind?”

 

Adam gave the boy a quick glance, not of disapproval, but of some surprise, then had to remind himself that his son was a city boy,  his knowledge of cattle herding  was nil.  He shook his head and chided himself for that fact, knowing that had he been home before now, and not at sea, then the boy would have had a fuller and better education about ranching.

 

“They’re well fed, quite content.  It’s only if we were on a long cattle drive that they get nervous and edgy, then you have to be careful.  If they stampede…”

 

“I know what a stampede is,  one of the boys at school, his Pa was injured in one.  He told us all about it.”

 

Adam nodded,  “Well, it happens, and it can happen fast.  A man has to have total confidence in his horse so I want you to work along with Max every opportunity you get.  He’s a good cow pony but he needs to get used to you as his regular rider, do you understand?”

 

“Yes, Pa.”

 

For several hours they drove the cattle onwards,  every time one made a  break one of the men was onto it to bring it back.   They rode beneath trees where the leaves were falling,  the grass was moist and tender,  the cattle slowed as a body to graze and they agreed it was a good place to make camp.

 

Reuben listened as the three of them discussed who was to take which shift so that one of them would be on guard to make sure no cattle wandered off and got lost.  Hoss collected up kindling and fallen wood and Adam told Reuben to go help his Uncle,  which the boy was more than happy to do, at least he could do something!

 

There was no need to shoot for their food after all as Hop Sing had packed enough away for them that night.   Adam watched as his son  fixed up where he was going to sleep from his bed roll, with the saddle for his pillow.  “It’ll be a harder bed than usual, son.”

 

“That’s alright, Pa.  Shall I come on your shift and help you, Pa?”

 

Adam paused for thought, caught Joe’s eye and then smiled, “Sure, I’ll wake you.”

 

Joe had first shift so rode off on Navejo to keep watch.  Hoss, Adam and Reuben sat around the fire which was being constantly fed from the wood pile.  The flames glowed a ruddy hue over their faces, casting sinister shadows over their features so that Reuben began to think he was caught up in some kind of other world and wondered if he would ever sleep well during the night.

 

They ate some food,  drank some coffee which Reuben didn’t really like, it was bitter and hot, and he wrinkled up his nose somewhat so that Adam laughed and gave him a cup of water instead.  “We need some more wood,” Hoss said and stretched out his legs alongside the fire, put his arms behind his head and closed his eyes “Anyone with young legs willing to go for me?”

 

“I’ll go,” Reuben jumped  up eagerly, and smiled over at Adam who gave him a nod of approval but didn’t stir from where he was sitting, already engrossed in the first chapter of Albert’s book.

 

He made two trips coming back each time loaded down with wood which he dropped just near enough Hoss to wake him  up and laughing at his Uncle when he got startled.   On his third trip he reached out to collect some wood when there came the ominous warning rattle of a snake and immediately Reuben froze to the spot, his hand darting back to his side just as the head of the snake flashed forwards … and a gun shot rang out so that the snake lay like a black shadow among the wood.

 

Joe dismounted and ran forward, from the camp Adam and Hoss appeared but it was Joe who grabbed at the boys arms and demanded if he were alright.

 

“Yes, I heard  him and then  you shot him..”  Reuben said with awed admiration in his voice

 

“Yeah, good thing I was close by and heard him too.” Joe muttered as he slipped the gun  back into its holster.

 

Adam nodded at his brother with a smile of thanks but then looked more soberly at the boy “You alright Reuben?”

 

“Yes, Pa.”

 

Hoss leaned down and picked up the remains of the snake, he carried it over to the fire where the flames shone brightly and then took out his knife, with one swift move he cut off the rattle and then smiled over at the boy “I remember when my Pa gave me one of these, no fancy rattles back then, not like you and the kids back home have now.  I kin recall playing with it for hours…  remember, Adam?”

 

Adam shook his head, and picked up his book, then looked over at Reuben, “it’s late, settle down to sleep.”

 

“You will wake me up though…” Reuben said and then walked without protest to the bedding.

 

He was tired, he had never thought before that riding a horse could make a person feel so tired.  The ground was hard, the thought of rattlers creeping about made him anxious, he heard the cry of a coyote warbled not so far away and screwed his eyes tightly shut.  He didn’t think he’d ever get to sleep feeling like this…

 

 

His father’s hand shook him awake and he could see Adams face clearly enough in the dusky light of a new day. “Is it time for our shift?”

 

Adam nodded,  stepped away from the boys bedroll  and picked up his rifle.  Reuben looked around the camp,  Hoss was snoring and so was Joe, the fire was dying down.  He yawned and stretched and watched as Adam placed more wood on the flames, and then walked to his horse.

 

Max was saddled ready and Adam helped the boy into the saddle for Reuben was still half asleep and fumbled when he was supposed to put his foot into the stirrup.  Together they rode down to the small herd.  They rode slowly round them, it seemed to Reuben that was all they did for what seemed hours and he saw the dawn sky with colours so clear and dazzling that he almost forgot that most mornings he was awake and doing his chores at that time.

 

The smell of bacon wafted into the air and Adam nodded, turned his horses head and led the way back to camp where Hoss was turning the sizzling bacon over and Joe was scratching his head and yawning.   “Sleep alright, little feller?”

 

“Yes thank you Uncle Hoss.”  Reuben replied and looked over at where he had been sleeping, in the light of the new day it looked like a place full of rocks.

 

“Time to eat…” Joe muttered and stretched “That bacon sure smells good”

 

“Don’t it just?” Hoss grinned and watched as it sizzled in the pan.

 

Reuben would never forget that meal for as long as he lived, bacon had never tasted so good before, nor ever would after, but best of all, he was with his Pa.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Hoss was first to draw up his horse so that his brothers and nephews joined him on the rim rock overlooking the reservation.  Adam frowned and looked at his brothers “What’s happened to it?    Where is everyone?”

 

Joe sighed and folded his hands over the pommel, leaned over and eased his backside before settling back into the saddle “When was the last time you came to see them, Adam?”

 

His brother shook his head and thumbed his hat back from his brow, “Well,  some time ago.”

 

“Some years ago you mean.” Joe replied, “It was when Sam Parrish* was still the Indian Agent here…right?”

 

Adam inclined his head in agreement, “Yes, he was a good man, keen to help…I think his wife helped Sarah Thoc-metony *open a school *…or am I wrong?”

 

Hoss released a sigh and shook his head “Wal, you’re partly right, I guess.  It were Charlie Parrish* and his wife who got the school started with Sarah*.  Weren’t open more’n a few weeks when Parrish was sent away and the new agent came along… he aint so good.”

 

Joe nodded “Remember the agent in Red Clouds reservation?  Well  Rinehart* is of that type, I don’t think he’ll  be happy until every Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock is dead.  He’s an Indian hater of the worst kind.”

 

“You’ve met him before?”  Adam asked quietly as his eyes roved around the sight of the village that was sprawled out before them on the plateau

 

“Oh yeah, we met him…last year ….we brought ten head of cattle down and he threatened to requisition them for himself.  Government use, he said.” Hoss sighed and shook his head as though still finding it hard to believe a whole year later.  “That’s when we first noticed a decline in the number of Paiute here.”

 

“And?”  Adam prompted

 

“We  just took the cattle back.   Then when Natchez came with some of his men to the Ponderosa we let them have them…not sure if they ever did get them to the reservation but at least we tried.”

 

“Well,” Adam  stroked his chin “If that’s how he felt last year, he’ll not have changed his mind about it, he’ll no doubt try to requisition them again.”

 

“S’right.”  Joe nodded, he was about to say something more when he saw some horsemen below threading their way up the scree towards the rim rock.  “Looks like they’ve seen us.”

 

“You didn’t think we would drive these to Winnemucca’s wickieup without being seen, do you?” Adam replied scornfully and then turned in the saddle at the sound of horse approaching from the rear.  “Oh .. Mmm. ..this is going to be interesting.”

 

The three men and the boy turned to see who was approaching from the rear, a woman and several men were riding towards them and when they were close enough to speak they stopped their horses and the woman smiled “My brothers from the Ponderosa…  Manahuu”

 

The brothers greeted her warmly, and Joe rode closer “Sarah, I haven’t seen you for a long time. Is everything well with you and your people?”

 

She shook her head and looked over at the men with her, then at Joe, before turning to Adam and Hoss “The cattle…if Mr Rinehart sees them, he will take them.  Lee saw you afar off,  we came …”

 

“It’s alright,” Joe said and raised a hand, “Take them, and hurry, it looks as if the agency men are already on their way to take them.”

 

Adam rode forward “Will this cause trouble for you all?”

 

Sarah Winnemucca shook her head “If he does not see them…”  she turned again and spoke quickly to her brother, Lee Winnemucca,  upon which he and the other men rode up to the cattle and whipped them hard into a run “It is too bad that we meet like this, Adam wannnga’a.”

 

He agreed but looked over his shoulder to watch as shades of horsemen rode through the dust cloud created by the cattle.  They were quickly disappearing from view but the sign of their passing was still only too obvious.

 

He was about to speak when the horsemen whom they had earlier seen now scaled the rim rock and rode towards them.

 

To Reuben it seemed very strange that this Indian woman sat between two groups of white men, he was a child but he could sense the tension  between them.  A thin faced man with a large nose and thin lips edged his horse closer to where Sarah Winnemucca sat astride her pony “Who are these men, Sarah?”

 

“These are my brothers, my friends, the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa.”  she replied and stared into his face as though daring him to challenge her.

 

“The Cartwrights.”  he nodded, and his eyelids hooded the cold eyes as though he were looking inside himself, to remember what he knew about the Cartwrights then he was suddenly staring right at them , from one to the other of them and his thin lips seemed to disappear over his teeth “I remember, you  brought cattle last year … but I told you then, these people didn’t need any cattle from you.  If I recall rightly you took them away…or am I wrong?”

 

Hoss leaned upon his saddle horn and shrugged “Seems to me that’s about right, least ways you didn’t git them.”

 

“By rights whatever comes onto this reservation belongs to the Government.” came the cold sullen reply

 

“Not while those cattle bear the Ponderosa brand.” Adam said sharply and the cold eyes swivelled towards him “I’ve not met you before?  Who are you?”

 

Adam twitched his shoulders and narrowed his eyes “I don’t believe we have met…I’m Adam Cartwright, from the Ponderosa.”

 

The Agent scowled, but raised his chin and didn’t quail back like some had done in the past, he merely nodded “I’m  William Rinehart, *the Agent here on this reservation.”

 

For a moment there was silence and then Rinehart nodded, “I’ve heard of  you,  the one who went to sea … and whom Mr Grant thought so highly of,  if I recall the story correctly.”   now he turned back to Sarah “Where are the cattle?”

 

“There is no cattle.” Sarah replied, “Do you see any cattle?”

 

“I saw them here a little while ago, do you want my men to chase after  your brother and take them?  You know what will happen to them if you prevent me from -”

 

Joe rode his horse forward a little now, it nudged against Rinehart’s so that the other horse had to step back, “You’ll do no such thing.  Those cattle belong to the Ponderosa.  They still belong to the Ponderosa.  You touch them and I’ll  have you arrested for rustling.”

 

Rinehart stared, then turned to his men, and laughed as a result the others laughed along with him,  Sarah nervously edged her horse closer to the Cartwright brothers and  Hoss beckoned to Reuben to get closer to him.   Rinehart shook his head

 

“Gentlemen,  this is funnier than a music hall joke.   Once those cattle cross into the reservation they become Government property.”

 

Adam raised his head, removed his hat and frowned “In which case, Mr Rinehart, we require a bill of sale from  yourselves, and payment for the cattle.  As it is we are not  yet on the territory you designate as the reservation of these people,  nor are you at present.   Pay us for the cattle and we will provide  you with a receipt.”  he paused for a moment, “If you can find them, of course.”

 

For  a moment there was silence apart from the creak of leather from saddles and the shuffling of horse’s hoofs.   Rinehart again lowered his eyelids and stared down on the ground, his men casually flicked aside their jackets to reveal their hands on their pistol butts… Adam glanced towards Reuben to make sure he was tucked away safely and then was about to speak when someone cried “HO!”

 

Chief Winnemucca was an old man, to Reuben he appeared ancient, wrinkled with skin like tanned leather fallen into folds about his face, his body, clad in ragged clothing was exposed here and there as loose folds but his eyes were bright as he looked from one white man to the other “Ho, my brothers …” he greeted Adam, Joe and Hoss, his eyes swept over Reuben, timidly peeking from behind his Uncle. “Welcome…”

 

Several other men rode alongside him, the horses were mean looking, thin, wretched animals.  It gave Adam a jolt of dismay to see such a vast change in his old friend and he looked with some sadness at Sarah, and then with colder eyes to Rinehart who gave a wave of the hand to his men who turned their horses and along with him followed the track down the escarpment to the properties of the agency men.

 

Winnemucca rode his pony closer,  “Thank you.”  he bowed his head “It is good to see my friends, it is good that my friends have not left us with nothing.”

 

Hoss cleared his throat, he had not seen Winnemucca for a year and was as shocked at the sight of him as was Adam “Chief Winnemucca, your son took the cattle we brung ya.”

 

The old man nodded, his lips seemed to part in a smile although it was difficult to tell the difference.   It seemed to Adam that if the Souix and Cheyenne were suffering on the Pine Ridge reservation then a visit to their cousins, the Paiute, might make them feel they lived in the lap of luxury.  He shook Winnemucca’s outstretched hand “It’s good to see you again, Chief, but -”

 

“You see changes?”  Winnemucca nodded “Yes, our good father Parrish left us, and we now have the bad face here.   It is hard.  Thank your father Ben for his gift.”

 

“Winnemucca,  is there nothing else we can bring you?  What else can we do to help?”

 

The old mans lips twisted across what teeth he had remaining and he nodded as though he understood Adams words, then he raised his head and pointed to the sky

“See the sun?   Can you turn it backwards with its sister the moon?   Do so for  many times many times over until you bring us back to when we saw no white man.   My father was happy* when he heard of the white mans coming, he believed white brother would live alongside red brother in peace but it was not to be.  Can you do this, Adam Cartwright?”

 

Adam shook his head and Winnemucca sighed “No,  you cannot.  No man can and I am a foolish old man now.  I leave you now with my daughter.   Come another time.  Visit us.”

 

Adam nodded, shook the old mans hand, as did Joe, and then Hoss.   Reuben watched with big eyes, and when the old chief stared at him he felt as though he were shrivelling to nothing, but the old man nodded and his face softened into gentler lines before he turned his horse and together with his escort rode back, following the tracks of the Agency men to his home.

 

The brothers watched the small procession for a few minutes before Joe turned to Sarah “It’s been a long time since we talked, Sarah pune’e.  It seems as though a lot has happened since then…”

 

She nodded her head, “Yes, and all  bad.   Come … xkay”

 

No one said a word as they turned to follow her along a narrow track away from the rim rock and in the opposite direction from where Lee Winnemucca had taken the cattle.  Reuben rode close to his father, his eyes turning this way and that to make sure that he didn’t miss a thing.  He noticed how straight his father’s back was, and when he looked at his Uncles he could see they deported themselves similarly.  All he knew was that he somehow had not imagined an Indian village to look anything like what he was seeing now.

 

Sarah led them to a building that was ramshackle but still standing.  Dismounting she didn’t stop to see if they were following her but entered and turned to face them as they stepped inside, removed their hats and waited for her invitation to sit.  Unlike many Indians, Sarah liked the comfort of the white mans furniture and chairs were arranged around the room, close to a table where pens, inks and paper were collected together.

 

“You see many changes, my waaang’ga …it is because our good Father Parrish, and Charley his brother have left us.   He said to us that the reservation was ours*, the Government had given it to us and our children and they will help us if we work to make the reservation good for us and our children.   He taught us to irrigate the land, to work it so that it produced food.  All this the Good Father Parrish did for us.”

 

She turned and began to prepare coffee, no one spoke, they each felt that in her own way she wanted to tell the story of what had taken place to bring about the changes they had seen.

 

“He told us  how the poor white man has no one to help him, he gets land and works at it as best he can, but we had much, because the Government wanted to help us.*  My father said that he was a good man, he and the sub chiefs agreed and so we worked. It was good, very good.”

 

She poured out the coffee and offered a cup to each of them, even to Reuben who didn’t want to drink it but felt he should take the cup from her at least.

 

“We worked hard.  The old men and the women worked even when Parrish said he did not want the old men and women to work. * But we wanted to work and show the Government and the Good Father Parrish that we were grateful for the land.  But…”

Now she sat down and cradled her cup of coffee in her hands, her mouth drooped, the dark eyes were clouded, “We were all good friends, and our agent liked my people, and my people loved him. All his men were good men.A day came when he called all the men together and told them a man, Judge Curry*, had written to our Big Father in Washington and lied about us, saying we were lazy and didnt work.  Our Father Parrish said he would speak with our Big Father and my cousin Jarry went as Interpreter.  It was May 1876 and we opened the school.  We had 305 boys, 23 young men, 69 girls, and 19 young women.    We were happy, Mrs Parrish was very kind to all the children.”

 

Another pause and Joe glanced over at Hoss, both nodded slightly one to the other.  Reuben noticed and wondered what that meant but he saw the attention that they were paying to the lady with the black eyes and sad face.  They drank their coffee and set down the empty cups, and then she began to pick up the story from where she had left it “Three weeks and very bad news came.  Our white father, Parrish, was going away to leave us.  He had received a letter from our Big Father in Washington saying another man would take his place.   He told us that it was because he was not a Christian and all the reservations were to be under the Christian men’s care.    I was given again my role as interpreter.”

 

She rose and refilled the cups, except for Reuben as he had not drank any but she said nothing about that, just passed on by and returned the coffee pot to the stove.  Reuben wondered why no one asked her questions,  what had happened to Mr Parrish, where had he gone.  Why didn’t they keep him on the reservation, fight for him to stay?

 

“The new agent is a bad man.  When he calls the men together to speak with them they hang their heads and no one looks at him while he is talking.  Since that time there has been abuse, and threats.  He steals the clothing for his own store and sells it there, our people go hungry and when we speak of it he tells us that if we do not like it we can go and leave, he does not care.  Children are beaten, old men starve, women are …” she paused and frowned, “We are dyng, my waaang’ga.”

 

This was the end of the narrative although all three men knew that there was so much more she would have said had there been time.   She hung her head and her long hair hung down her shoulders “When you would come even before good father Parrish was here, when the land was not called reservation but was our own land, then we would play, and laugh, and run together.  It is not possible for those times to return now, is it?”

 

Adam looked at his brothers and then shook his head, but he leaned forward and took hold of her hand “Thoc’metony, I shall write to Big Father Hayes in Washington, and tell him what is happening here.  Are you able to leave the reservation at all?”

 

She nodded and looked up at him, “I can.”

 

“Then you must take the letter to Washington.  I will give you the money and a man will accompany you who will  be a good friend for you.  When the Big Father has read the letter you will have to answer his questions truthfully, do you understand?”

 

“Can I take my brother, Natchez?  Or Lee?”

 

Adam nodded and looked over at his brothers “Take a walk around the camp, take Reuben with you while I write this letter.  Sarah -” he stood up now and stretched out a hand to draw Reuben to his side, “This is my son, Reuben.   Reuben, this is Sarah, Thoc’metony, she is the daughter of the Chief, grand daughter of a great Chief, Truckee.”

 

She looked at the boy and smiled, her face softened and she looked at Adam and smiled wider as her glance moved on to Joe and Hoss “I hear of your families and how you prosper.   It is good.”   she turned to the door “xkay … come…”

 

Reuben looked at his father, already seated at the desk, and then keeping close to Hoss, he followed them out of the building.

 

Chapter 7

 

Sarah led the way through the village of scattered wickie-ups,  and both Joe and Hoss found themselves feeling more and more dismay every step they took.  Reuben, even as a child from a reasonably wealthy family, knew what poverty was, he saw it every time he went to town.  Children from homesteader families eking out a living arrived with barely enough warm clothing on their backs and their shoes or boots were mostly hand-me-downs from families in town who donated to Bridie’s refuge/clinic.  He knew of those in the shanty town, as it was now called, who lived on barely enough to keep them alive although there seemed to be new babies born every year.  He saw the feckless who wandered the streets begging for handouts…but this, it bewildered him, to see so many with so little.

 

There remained the pride of the people however, he could see that in the way they would look directly into their faces, those who knew the Cartwrights would acknowledge them with pleasure, sincere and unbegrudging.  Children ran and called to Sarah “Thoc’metony.   Thoc’metony” and men rode by with straight backs on horses that looked as though they could collapse at any time beneath the weight of their riders.

 

A boy of Reuben’s age ran up to them and looked at the white boy with a frown, then a grin which brought about a twinkle in the eyes and dimples in his cheeks “Kxay…” and he  beckoned to him, Kxay”

 

“Go along, Reuben”  Joe said with a nod of the head “He is saying ’Come’  he wants you to join him.”

 

Rather hesitantly Reuben turned to follow this child, who nodded and ran away, holding out a hand as though to grab at the white lads.  It was only moments before they were among a group of other children,  girls with their dolls although they were nothing like the ones his sister possessed, and boys running and kicking the blown up bladder of a pig around .   The boy looked at Reuben and grinned again,  received a nod of the head in return and both plunged into the fray.

 

Boys were boys the world over, that bladder was kicked about until no one had any energy left so they paused and gathered around Reuben who found himself under careful scrutiny.  A little girl came holding her baby, which was a dried out corn-cob wrapped in cloth and carried in a beautifully bead decorated back cradle , she looked from Reuben to the other boy  and shook her head before running away.  Obviously Reuben didn’t amount to much in her eyes.

 

“I’m Reuben Cartwright.”  he pointed to himself and smiled, the others smiled and nodded, looked at one another.  Several boys ran off together to pursue something more interesting but the lad who had first drawn Reuben away from his Uncles nodded and said something that the other boy didn’t understand at all, then turned away, beckoned to him “Kxay”

 

Joe and Hoss continued on their walk through the village with Sarah as their guide, watchful and observant to what they saw and the changes so evident from the previous visits they had made in previous years.  They were deep in conversation when their progress was halted by the presence of two white men,  both of whom had been among those with Rinehart when he had confronted the brothers on the rim rock.

 

Sarah immediately lowered her eyes and looked down on the ground,  not to indicate subservience as some white men interpreted it, but to show her dislike, distrust and disgust at the sight of them.  One shoved her to one side with his shoulder in order to draw closer to Joe and Hoss “Well,  come to look around have you?   Going to report back to your daddy what you see’d here?”

 

“That’s nothing to do with either of you,” Joe replied calmly, and looked from one to the other of them “Now just step aside and let us on our way.”

 

“What if we feel you can’t go no further?”  the other man stepped forward now, he looked at Joe and then at Hoss, realised for perhaps the first time that Hoss was considerably larger than himself so drew his gun “Why don’t you just go back and stay away.”

 

“Why don’t you put the gun away, and just let us continue on.” Joe looked over at Hoss who nodded,  and clenched his fists.

 

Sarah stepped forward  and stood between the four men,  “It is not good to fight over words.  My friends wish to speak with my father, Chief Winnemucca…”

 

“We knows who your daddy is, Sarah, you don’t have to go into that spiel with us you know.”  the first man muttered and spat into the ground, before lowering the brim of his hat over his eyes and moving away.

 

“You don’t need to go see  your daddy, Sarah, he’s busy with his new wife…you know what I mean?” and with a crude leer and laugh the second man followed his partner although both stopped after a little distance to watch and see what the Cartwrights would do.

 

Sarah shook her head and turned towards Joe and Hoss “It is true, my father has a new, young wife.  He is an old man but -” she sighed and was about to say more when her name was heard, she smiled briefly “It is my brother, Natchez”

 

Joe and Hoss greeted Natchez with a handshake, but refused offers of hospitality saying they needed to return to where they had left Adam.  Natchez nodded “We have the cattle safely hidden.  Thank you.”

 

“We would have brought more had we realised how bad the situation was here….” Hoss muttered as Natchez walked alongside them “This new Agent sure don’t seem the generous kind”

 

“He is not – as you say – generous.” Natchez agreed, “He is not like our father Parrish.”  he frowned then and glanced nervously around as though anticipating others to be more interested in the conversation  than he would have liked, “Listen …my father and others are going to leave the reservation and ride into the mountains.  They want to live as free men,  not here as prisoners of the Government.”

 

“I can hardly blame him for wanting to do that, will you go as well, Natchez?” Hoss asked and when the other man nodded both Cartwrights said nothing, only shook his hand and wished him well.

 

They were now back at the building where Sarah lived,  and Adam was standing at the door with an envelope in his hand, he smiled briefly when he saw Sarah,  then asked his brothers for the whereabouts of their nephew.

 

“He’s safe, he is playing with a new friend” Sarah smiled and entered the building. ”Now you have seen for yourselves how sadly we live here, and how desperate we are.

Do you think, my brother Adam, that the Big Father in Washington will listen to your letter.”

 

“I hope so,  but remember what I said earlier about going to see him, Sarah, if you take it and delivered it personally you may be a better mouth piece for your people than this letter could be.” Adam replied and passed the envelope into her hands.

 

“I shall go.”  she nodded and for a moment was silent,  “There are those who have good hearts, and mean well.  If I do not find them, they will find me.”

 

“True enough,” Hoss nodded, “But your brother tells us that your father’s going back into the mountains,  can’t you persuade him to stick around?”

 

“And die  here?”  she laughed then, and shook her head, her long black hair moved like a wave down her back, and her black eyes gleamed  “Remember, Joe waaang’ga  when we met before?  When the white soldiers took you away in the cage along with your  Cheyenne friends?  The size of a prison means nothing, when it is still a prison.  Let my father die on the mountains a free man if he chooses,  it is our way, we must honour a mans decision to do what he feels right for himself.”

 

Adam nodded and placed some dollar bills on the table, without a word Hoss and Joe did the same “For your journey, Thoc’metony.”  Joe said quietly.

 

She nodded and hid them away “The Agent is a bad man, a thief, he stole* my stove and did not pay for it,  he says it belonged to the Government but it did not, I bought it myself with my money I earned as an Interpreter.  $40 a month* …” she paused and shrugged “I shall leave tonight.”

 

Adam nodded and shook her hand,  as did his brothers before they picked up their hats and walked to the door,  by which time Reuben was running, short of breath, towards them followed by two other lads who were laughing along with him.  Adam nodded and pursed his lips, neither he or his brothers said a word about the shirts and pants the other boys were wearing that Reubens father recollected folding neatly into the boys saddlebags a few days earlier.

 

 

As the Cartwrights rode from the village William Rinehardt strode out to the doorway of his house and watched them go.   His eyes were like stones in his face, cold, without feeling.   He turned back into the building and scowled at two of his men “Those Cartwrights are known for their interfering,  if we’re not careful they could cause trouble for us here.”

 

“How can they?  They don’t have the power of the Indian Affairs Bureau behind them, do they?”  Colby muttered only to receive a scathing glare from  the Agent.

 

They were interrupted by the sound of a mans thick voice cursing and the squeal of a boy as one of the men who had earlier confronted Joe and Hoss came in.  The boy was being hauled in by having his ear gripped firmly and painfully before he was thrown down onto the floor “Caught this thieving baggage about to run off.”

 

The three men stood up and surrounded the child who was whimpering now with pain,  his hand cupped his ear and as brave as he tried to be, he could not prevent  tears trickling down his face.   Colby leaned down and took hold of the shirt the boy was wearing, he rubbed the material thoughtfully between finger and thumb before grimacing “Not from my store this isn’t, where did you get it, you little thief.”

 

The boy didn’t understand the  words, he cowered back and cried a little more.  Rinehart stood folded his arms across his chest and shook his head “Only one way to get it out of him.”

 

Colby nodded and walked over to the wall where a thick bull whip hung upon a hook, he took it down and handed it to the Agent who slowly unfurled it to its full length, raised his arm and was about to bring it down when Sarah stepped through the doorway  “What do you think you are doing,  Mr Rinehart?   Do you not realise yet that our children do not speak your tongue?   If you ask me then may be I can tell you what you wish to know?”

 

Rinehart paused, lowered his arm and scowled “This boy is a thief, he’s obviously taken clothing from the saddlebags of  your friends,  he deserves a good whipping.”

 

She sighed, shook her head, “They were given as gifts by the white boy, Reuben.  We are not thieves, Mr Rinehart, but we do know those who are…”

 

Colby  spluttered something and turned his back on the woman,  Rinehart nodded “We’ll talk about this matter another time, Sarah.”

 

She said nothing to that but beckoned to the child and in silence both left the Agents house.  Once back at Sarah’s house the boy wept and sobbed, he was in much pain but Sarah knew there was little point in taking him to the Agency doctor for he was a man who had stolen everything he could even when father Parrish had been the Agent there.

 

As darkness fell and the Cartwrights prepared their own camp on their way home to the Ponderosa, Sarah and several Paiute left the camp walking with their horses on leading reins until they were at a safe distance from any Agency man who may have seen them.   An hour later Chief Winnemucca and a band of his men, with women and some children, did likewise only they headed for the mountains and their vaguely hoped for freedom.

 

Chapter 8

 

Monday dawned and Sofia gazed out of the window with a heavy heart for there was no Reuben nor father sharing the meal at breakfast time.   Nathaniel chewed his food and dropped some over the side of the chair and watched it fall to the ground as though studying some scientific theory on gravity before picking up another morsal to eat.   Monday, and school beckoned.

 

“Come along, Sofia, don’t look so miserable.” Olivia passed a glass of milk to her daughter, “This will be your chance to show Miss Brandon just what a good girl you are and how hard you have worked.”

 

“I don’t want to .” she pushed her plate to one side, “Can’t I -”

 

“No, you can’t.”  Olivia said before another word could be spoken, she looked at her daughter thoughtfully and then leaned forward to tweak her nose “I’m taking you into town today, so hurry up.  Don’t make me late will you?”

 

Sofia shook her head and although she wasn’t totally miserable at the prospect of going to school the fact that her mother was taking her in was an extra special pleasure. “Will daddy be home later?”

 

“I don’t know,  Sofia, it depends on how far they have had to travel.”  Olivia replied and began to  attend to Nathaniel in order to get him ready for the trip into town. “Hurry now, dear, I want to be out of here within fifteen minutes.”

 

Sofia didn’t say anything about not yet being able to tell the time, but she did as she was told and ‘hurried’.  By the time she was in her out door clothes her mother was bundling Nathaniel up and calling out goodbye to Cheng Ho Lee.

 

It was reasonably mild, the wind had died down and rain had held off.  Soon there would be frosts and perhaps snow.  Sofia gloried in the thought of snow,  the pass would be cut off, they would have to stay home perhaps for days, even weeks.  She sighed with contentment at the thought and smiled up at her mother who nodded her head and settled the baby between them.

 

“Why did Reuben go with daddy?”

 

“Because daddy feels it’s time for Reuben to learn about things to do with the ranch” Olivia took her seat in the buggy and flicked the reins,  the horses set off at a steadily paced walk.

 

“I could have gone too,  Buster would have taken me.”

 

“I know, but you are still a little young, Sofia, and daddy would rather you went to school. “

 

They lapsed into silence with Nathaniel chattering between them, until his little nose went quite red from the chill, and he slowly fell to sleep.   Sofia wished she could fall asleep, perhaps if she did she would fall out of the buggy,  mummy would be upset and sorry and take her home.  But then she was sensible enough to remind herself that being home because of some painful hurt, was not quite the same as being able to enjoy oneself when fit and well.

 

 

Miss Brandon listened to Olivia’s explanation for Reuben’s absence and whether she agreed with the reason or not she had the sense not to comment .   Sofia went to her seat and set down her books and slate,  looked around her and noticed that one other child was missing also…Jimmy Carstairs’ seat was empty.  Joy of joys, she sighed with relief and sat down as though floating on air.

 

 

From the school house Olivia carried her little boy to where Bridie lived, and was warmly welcomed by her dear friend.   MrsTreveleyn provided refreshments and said she would be more than pleased to look after Nathaniel while Olivia did her few hours work at the refuge with Bridie.   This arrangement didn’t actually suit Nathaniel who bawled as loud as possible for as long as he could when he saw his dear mama leaving the house,  and no one to care for him except  a stranger.

 

On the way to the refuge Olivia and Bridie paused to talk to Mrs Garston and her daughter, Lucy.   Although there was no love lost between any of them there was a semblance of courtesy existing between them all, a tolerance that most people in town bore towards the Garstons who had the sad ability to alienate people by their smug self righteousness.

 

From his vantage point in his office Dan deQuille  watched as the ladies grouped together, and then separated.   He stepped to the door onto the street and watched as Mrs Cartwright and Mrs Martin made their way to the refuge,  a project that had become a resounding success even though it could no longer function as a clinic due to a lack of doctors in the town.

 

He knew for sure that Olivia would be in town for some hours,  and that the Cartwright men worked long hours on the ranch,  starting early and arriving home late.   He paused a moment, the frown on his brow deepening until his decision was made,  he turned and snatched up a warm outer jacket, his hat and gloves and left the building.

 

He chose to take a horse on this particular journey as he wanted to have some speed for there was no accounting for error in his calculations.  Of course there was the cook , Cheng Ho Lee,  but even so he could well be too busy to notice an uninvited guest to the house, he was of no concern to the journalist who was confident that his mission would work out totally to his satisfaction.

 

……………

 

The brothers ate their meal in comparative silence and for Reuben this was something of a relief.  There had been little communication between them all since leaving the reservation and the boy had been aware of the fact that his uncles and Pa may have found his presence one of the reasons for such reticence to talk.   As it was he had a lot to think about himself, and would occasionally look over at his father to see if he could work out what he would be thinking about by the expression on his face.

 

“Well, son,  you’ve  been very quiet.” Adam said after emptying his plate and gulping down the first coffee of the day, “Guess you had a lot to think about, huh?”

 

“Yes, Pa.”  Reuben nodded and chewed on the bacon,  “Pa?  Why are those people so poor?  Do they have to live there in that place?  Why can’t they come and live in town with everyone else?”

 

Joe  stood up and walked over to join them,  he stood balancing his plate in one hand and feeding himself with the other “Segregation, that’s what it’s called, Reuben.  Some of it of their own choosing, but most of it because that’s how the Government prefers it.”

 

“I don’t understand.” Reuben said and shook his head, “There’s a lot of people in town who speak different from us,  Josef’s folk are Polish and he speaks funny, so does  Jose…”  he frowned “What’s does that seg – seg – ation mean anyway?”

 

“Segregation.  It means keeping something or someone separate from others.  It doesn’t make sense does it? “ Adam sighed and then gave his son a rather whimsical smile “Believe me, it doesn’t just happen here, it’s world wide.  A disease of humanity.”

 

“A sickness you mean?” Reuben frowned, trying to make sense of it all

 

“A terminal illness is what Dr Martin would call it,” Joe muttered, and strolled  back to the fire to set down his plate and pour out some coffee, “It stops the human race from actually being a united – what do you call it – family?   A family of nations … mmm,  well, that isn’t going to happen any time soon.”

 

“Is it because of those bad men who wanted to take the cattle away from the Paiute?”

 

“That’s part of the problem. Just a small part.” Adam sighed and stood up, stretched and walked over to his horse, picking up his saddle and bed roll as he went while Reuben struggled to finish his meal.

 

“Uncle Joe, I made some friends there,  they didn’t mind me being white at all.”

 

“Yeah, well, they might do when they’re a few years older.” Joe muttered and then shook his head, “Sorry, Reuben,  I didn’t mean to say that, I hope they stay your friends.”

 

“Will I be able to see them again?”

 

“That depends on your Pa,  and how things work out.”  Joe sighed again and emptied his cup,  throwing the dregs into the fire which spluttered and hissed.

 

Hoss ambled into the camp and nodded over to Reuben “You alright, Reuben?”

 

“Yes, but I didn’t sleep very good.” Reuben admitted

 

Hoss stretched, and pulled his jacket tighter, the morning was cooler and they had started camp earlier than he would have liked.  He warmed his hands by the fire and then poured out more coffee for himself.  For a while he stared into the flames and then glanced  up as Adams footsteps approached “You reckon your letter will do any good?”

 

“To be honest -”  Adam paused, stroked his chin for a second and then shook his head “Not really.   I guess it will be put in with a lot of other papers in a fat file which will stay on someone’s desk for some time before it gets shuffled down to the official in charge of the Indian Affairs Bureau.”

 

“Then why bother writing it at all?” Hoss muttered with a scowl

 

“Because it gets Sarah out of that place, and gives her the chance to speak for her people.  She may be able to achieve far more than my letter ever will.”

 

“Is she really  a princess?” Reuben asked which gained a gentle smile from the three men and Joe nodded and said that yes, in a manner of speaking.

 

“Sarah Thoc’metony…that word means shell flower by the way, Reuben … is a very intelligent young woman.  She speaks several different languages and at least three different dialects, and she knows how to use words.   She has what some would call…charisma… others would say she knows the power behind words.  She’s a lot like her grandfather in that respect.”  Adam looked at his son and stroked his head affectionately, “We will have to wait and see what happens now, not much more we can do.”

 

“Cant’ we go again?  My friends don’t have much clothes and toys like we have…”

 

“We’ll see,” Adam replied without looking at him and for some reason Reuben felt disappointed.

 

“But, Pa …”

 

“Reuben, I said, we’ll see.  There’s a lot more involved than clothes and toys …” Adam paused, realised he had spoken more abruptly than he had intended and squatted down to his son’s level “We have to be patient, son.  Sometimes that’s a very hard lesson for us to learn, but -”  he sighed and playfully tapped Reuben on the chin with his fist, “we  are sometimes forced to learn it.”

 

“And,.” Hoss winked “Some of us never do… learn it that is…”

 

They dismantled the camp, smothered the fire and cleared the area before mounting up and turning their horses towards the Ponderosa.   There was still a long way to go yet, Reuben wondered if he would ever get used to riding so far for so long.  He rode alongside his father and looked up at Adam, who smiled down at him “Alright, son?”

 

“Yes, Pa.”  the boy smiled, everything was alright while he was with his Pa, even if he didn’t understand much of what was happening about him, he’d learn, his Pa would show him and so would his Uncles.  “Pa, I’m going to be the President one day and make people get united.”

 

“That’s good.   Ambition is a good thing…just aim for small reachable goals first, son, then you won’t get so many disappointments.”

 

Reuben nodded and for a while was silent as  he thought over his ‘ambitions’.

 

…………

 

As he had expected the door was unlocked and yielded to his gentle pushing against it.  Daniel had already seen Cheng Ho Lee leaving the house and driving towards the premises where Hop Sing resided.  Perhaps,  Daniel mused, the two men shared a few leisurely hours together … while the cats were away the mice will play…and he smiled at the thought as he stepped further into the house.

 

He knew where to go to find what he was looking for, and it was only a matter of moments before he had the journal in his hands.  As he turned the pages he realised that the book was actually comprised of a series of smaller journals, collated together but not attached.  Each journal was dated, and entitled with the voyage undertaken at the time.  His hand hovered over one, then another…which to choose,  which would be best and least missed.

 

He selected one, the thinnest which would he hoped, create less of a gap and be less noticeable by its absence.   He slipped it beneath his jacket and quickly replaced the book and took his leave.   If he had any pangs of conscience he silenced them by saying that it was only on loan,  he would return it, it wouldn’t be missed.

 

Chapter 9

 

Miss Brandon observed her class of children, they ranged from all ages, some were shy and timid, some were brash and belligerent, a few were exceptionally intelligent and others just needed a lot of nurturing.   She knew that once the bad weather came some of her pupils would be missing, for they came from long distances to be educated.  Sometimes it seemed to her she was fighting the elements during every season in the year for the bigger children would be needed on the homesteads,  or caring for their mothers and smaller children when the father was absent from home.  It was the towns children that were the most reliable but they were not, in all honesty, necessarily among the most intelligent.

 

Miss Brandon had always had a thirst for teaching, she loved to see young minds growing as knowledge expanded their reasoning powers and intellect.   She was still young and had lost her suitor recently, a young man she had loved, but whom she felt she could not marry as the law forbade married women to teach.  It was unfair and rankled somewhat in her mind,  the loss of someone she loved conflicting now with her love of teaching.

 

“Children…pay attention now please.”

 

Silence and all eyes turned to her with respect and obedience, for which she was grateful.   She nodded and clasped her hands together “Jimmy Carstairs has been taken ill.   Quite seriously ill and I thought it would be a kind gesture on our part if we all wrote him a little letter to wish him a speedy return to health.   Rosie…” she nodded over to Rose Canaday “If you would hand out the sheets of paper please.”

 

Rose felt very important as she walked along the desks handing out the note paper, she smiled and simpered at everyone, and Sofia had a strong desire to slap her for no other reason than it seemed unfair that her ‘cousin’ was given such a privilege.  She looked down at the paper and noticed that Miss Brandon had painted a little flower in the left hand top corner.  She looked up and saw her teacher smiling at them all, looked around her and watched as everyone began to pick up their pencils.

 

Heads were bowed, Rosie returned to her desk and smiled over at Annie Sales.  Sofia sighed and picked up her pencil and stared at the blank sheet of paper.  What was she to write?   Her parents had always told her to tell the truth, always.  Did that go as far as writing something down?  Could she write a lie and once written would it stop being a lie?

 

She chewed her pencil and drifted into a day dream…  in stories animals could talk, dragons breathed fire, princesses had very long hair that people could climb up and some even wore glass slippers.   Nothing like that happened in real life, did it?  So they were lies,  weren’t’ they?

 

Scribble scribble…she could hear the paper rustling around her and pencils and pens scratching out little messages of sympathy for Jimmy.   She wasn’t sorry for Jimmy,  she was glad that it meant he would not be at school for a few days.   She should write that …

 

“Deer   Jimmy

 

Will   you   be   away   for    long?

 

Sofia Cartwright

69

 

She had just finished writing when her name was called out and Miss Brandon smiled at her when she stood up “Would you collect up the notes please, Sofia?”

 

She blushed and glanced quickly over at Annie Sales who must have thought she would have been asked for she stuck her nose in the air and her glasses looked a bit steamed up.   Sofia didn’t care.   She collected up the notes and handed them to the teacher who put them into a large envelope.

 

“Very well, and thank you, everyone.  I am sure Jimmy will be really happy to read your notes and to know you are thinking of him.   Now, let’s get on with our lessons for the day.”

 

Sofia sighed,  stared out of the window and thought of the coming week.  Even without Reuben by her side, she was going to really enjoy these next few days at school, she just knew it.

…………….

 

Reuben thought that he would  never forget this time with his father and Uncles. He felt at times much older than his age, and at others so very young and naïve.   By mid day Hoss was complaining that his stomach felt ‘mighty empty’ so they made camp and Adam took his rifle and went aways a little distance.   He had nodded over to his son as he passed him and the boy had taken it as an indication that he could go along as well.

 

“We’ll have to go on more hunting trips, Reuben.” Adam said as they made their way carefully through the boulder strewn ground.  A few shrubs and straggles of trees grew here and there, nothing like the green canopy that they had ridden through earlier.  He checked the chambers of his rifle and hunkered down, signalling to Reuben to do likewise.

 

It seemed a while before some rabbits decided that just perhaps it was safe to go bobbing about their business.  They appeared behind boulders and out from among the undergrowth, eyes alert, noses twitching and then off they bounded.  Reuben was quite enjoying watching them running around together as though playing tag, which reminded him of his recently made friends and brought a sigh to his lips.

 

The sound of the rifle being fired made him jump, but by the time his heart had settled back down again his father had reloaded the rifle and fired off twice more.  The rabbits had disappeared apart from three that lay dead on the ground.  Adam sighed and rose to his feet, then slowly walked over to collect up the limp little bodies.

 

Reuben was going to say something inane like “Poor little things…” when Adam handed them over to him to carry back to camp.  He faltered a little, but kept his eyes down rather than look up at Adam, Adam sighed again “Well, think of it in the same way as fishing, Reuben.   If you want to eat then you  have to take advantage of what is available.  You enjoy fishing, don’t you?”

 

“Yes, Pa, but -”  he frowned and then looked up at his father who was looking down at him with a slightly bemused expression on his face  “They were only playing ..”

 

“Aw, son, you’re still a city boy at heart, aren’t you?”  Adam didn’t laugh, although he had been tempted to do so,  “We shall definitely have to go on more hunting trips.  Hoss will show you how to track.  Joe will show you how to skin a rabbit faster than any man I know … and …” he paused and turned on his heel, the rifle in his hands aimed ready for use.

 

Hoss came and grinned “Wondered where you had wandered off to,  thought you might have got yourself lost.”  he stretched out a hand “Here Reuben, I’ll take those.”

 

“Do you like rabbits, Uncle Hoss?”

 

“Sure I do.”  Hoss grinned and nodded in appreciation at the plumpness of the rabbits now in his hand “I like ‘em served up all manner of ways.   Hop Sing knows more ways to cook a rabbit than you’d believe.”

 

“Didn’t you ever have a pet rabbit, Uncle Hoss?”

 

“A pet what?  Shucks, lad, you don’t keep wild critters for pets….” he paused and then lowered his head as he caught his brothers sardonic grin, oh yes, he remembered all those little cages he had made for damaged, injured and crippled little creatures he had brought home.   Feathered or furred, if they were hurt, regardless of size it would be Hoss who would gather them up and fondly bring them home

 

“Ask you Uncle Hoss how to make splints out of chop sticks, Reuben…” Adam said and laughed at his sons expression of incredulity   “We never knew what he would bring home to  put right, brought home a skunk once…”

 

“Yeah, but it had a broken leg, Adam…”

 

“It still stunk the house out ….”

 

“Wal,”  Hoss rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head “Guess that‘s what skunks do…”

 

“Hmmm.”  Adam winked at Reuben and said nothing more for a while “Hoss, we’ve got to get this boy educated.   We need to take him on a few hunting trips before the winter really sets in.”

 

“Good idea,” Hoss nodded thoughtfully, “He needs to learn how to survive in this neck of the woods.  Education -” he looked down at his nephew who was getting a trifle confused “isn’t just going to school and learning from books.   It’s about life, and learning about what really makes things matter in this world.”

 

“But Pa says going to school is important, and I go to school -”  Reuben frowned and looked from Hoss to Adam  as though he was caught up in some kind of conspiracy and didn’t quite know how to get out of it.

 

“Yeah, well, that’s your Pa for you…” Hoss grinned and as they stepped into the camp he tossed the rabbits over to Joe who caught them deftly in his left hand.

 

The rabbits were strung together and hung from Joe’s saddle horn for the evening meal, coffee was poured out and some of the food Hop Sing had packed away was eaten.  Joe wiped his mouth “Be careful with the coffee there isn’t much left.”

 

“Any sugar?”  Hoss asked and when Joe shook his head the big man sighed “Shucks, I gave mine away too.”

 

Reuben looked over at his father who was staring into the fire as though a million miles away “Where did they give it away?”

 

“Give what away?” Adam frowned and then smiled as he put his arm around Reuben and hugged him “You may have noticed that Sarah’s friends didn’t have much to eat? Well,  guess they just left some staples behind,  Hop Sing gave us enough to last us a week …we can well manage without for a day or two.”

 

Reuben frowned “Did you give them yours as well…”

 

“Of course. That goes without saying,  as  you said earlier, we have to help those who have less.”

 

Reuben nodded, he couldn’t recall saying any such thing but it pleased him mightily that his Pa and Uncles were prepared to go without  in order to help Sarah.  Adam sighed “You know, Reuben, when I was your age we’d only just got to the Ponderosa.  Winnemucca’s people numbered into the thousands then, and all this was  their land.  You had to tread careful in those days, too.”

 

“Yeah,” Hoss came and sat down on a rock next to them, he was chewing on dry tack and washing it down with weak coffee “Sometimes the younger bucks would get riled up about something and get together to try and scare the lives out of the homesteaders and such.  I was only little at the time, but I know some who never got to live out the year… wasn’t until after the Pyramid Lake uprising* that things settled down some.”

 

“Only because the Government moved them onto reservations,*” Joe muttered and scowled , Reuben knew already how much his Uncle Joe hated talking about reservations and glanced at Adam who was frowning and his mouth a tight line, obviously he didn’t like reservations either.

 

“I remember Sarah telling me about how, in her grandfather’s time, there was a raid on their camp.  She and her sisters were very little at the time,  and their mother buried them in the ground, just  wild brush * covering their faces. They were there all day while the white men razed that camp to the ground, Winnemucca’s wife was shot, and his youngest child was thrown into the fire* …” Adam sipped his drink and shook his head “Her grand father, Truckee,  only wanted to have peace with the white men, but that sure shook his confidence in them.”

 

He threw the coffee away as though the conversation had turned it too bitter to drink, he looked up at Joe “Let’s get on, there’s a way to go yet.”

…………….

 

 

Daniel deQuille set the journal down upon his desk and just stared at the cover.  He thought of all those other journals nestled back to back,  and wondered if he had picked out an adventure that he could use as a story for his readers.   He gently brushed with his fingers the words written upon the fly leaf and then turned the page…

 

“Jack Lawson

 

Josef Rostrov

 

Irena Pestchouroff

 

Inuit       Yu’pik      Valentina Pestchouroff

 

It’s supposed to be spring.   Back home there would be flowers blooming and blossoms on the trees.   There are no trees here.  Ice and snow.   Snow falls from the skies and freezes into ice pellets that strike the skin and brings pain with it.  The sound of wind is constant, it shifts the snow underfoot.   There is the constant howl of dogs.   Ice moves in floes upon a black surging sea.  Seals stare at us with luminous wet eyes before diving under cover of the waves.   The cold bites into one’s flesh until there is no longer any feeling.

 

“Poetry … words spin like music against the wind … Tennyson,  Yeats, Longfellow…I will never forget during the hardest storms Adam, Lawson, Rostov and myself huddled behind the sledges and reciting poetry.

 

“Treachery … Adam left in a two manned kayak with Lawson… I fear that he will not return safely, Lawson is a proven traitor and has the ardour of youth for his cause. Fool though he is, but if he harms the Captain I shall personally see him strung from the yard arm and left to freeze in the wind.

 

“I don’t understand how Adam can  be so calm, paddling off into the freezing waters with Jack Lawson seated just ….”

 

“Mr deQuille?”

 

Daniel jumped, startled, he shut the pages of the journal and looked up as his clerk stepped into the office “Just wanted to check on the by line for to morrows issue.  We had a bit of a problem setting up the type earlier, best if you come and check it out.”

 

Daniel nodded, took a deep breath and slipped the journal into a drawer of his desk, he turned the key in the lock and pocketed it.   His mind was still on seals and ice floes,  a two manned kayak being paddled out into icy waters as he followed his clerk out into the printing room.

…………………

 

In the evening the fire was lit and the rabbits skewered securely over the flames.  Reuben watched the fat dripping and splattering, making the flames flare up higher for a moment before settling back again.  Hoss was making coffee and Joe was seeing to the horses.  Adam was setting out the bedrolls for himself and Reuben, their saddles at the head.   Reuben wondered if he was getting used to all the riding now, his backside didn’t feel so sore, and his legs didn’t ache so much.  He looked around the camp and then up at the stars.

 

The vastness of the heavens stretched above their heads reminded him of the boy his father had tutored, Albert somebody or other.  Had he really thought it was possible for man to actually get to the stars.   He turned to his father as Adam came closer to him “Pa,  did Albert really think we could fly to the stars?”

 

“He thought it was possible,  he may think it more probable now as he’s studied more on the subject.”

 

“Do you think it will happen?”

 

Adam smiled and shrugged “Well,  I don’t know.”  he settled down on one of the many fallen logs in the area they had now reached, and stretched out his long legs “I guess the way things are progressing in this world of ours nothing can be said to be impossible any more.”

 

“I wonder what it will be like.”  Reuben sighed and narrowed his eyes to get  the stars more into focus.

 

Joe came and checked on the meat before joining them, bringing with him a mug of cool water for Reuben and weak coffee for Adam “Albert Michaelson … had a head full of triangles and logarithms, never could make out a word he was talking about…”  he smiled and looked at Adam who was smiling himself at the memory of the boy.

 

“Pa, did you fight the Indians when they went to war?”

 

Adam raised his eyebrows, and looked over at Hoss who shrugged and turned his attention to his own bed roll,  “Well, when we first settled on the Ponderosa Pa made sure we befriended the Paiute.   We got along fine with Winnemucca,  I made friends with some of the young ones and they taught me their language and how to hunt.  So for a long time we were able to maintain a peace with them. Joe and Sarah were good friends, being more or less the same age…”

 

“Yeah,  then things changed, didn’t they?” Hoss muttered, “Lots of things change over time, some things don’t never git put right either.”

 

“Reuben,” Joe leaned forward now,  seated on a log opposite Hoss and the fire glowing ruddy over his handsome face, “We had to fight hard to keep the Ponderosa in those days.   Wasn’t just Indians we had to fight, there were white men too… there was a lot of blood spilt to keep the Ponderosa.”

 

“A lot of blood spilt and a lot of hearts broken.” Adam murmured, and stared into the flames as though he could see within them the faces of some of those lost, perhaps loved.

 

Hoss was about to speak when Joe jumped up with a chortle of a laugh, some meat was burning having fallen into the fire …

 

Chapter 10

 

Sofia went to school the next day quite content and without causing her mother any anxiety by protesting too much about going.   As she walked to the porch way where the big school bell awaited Miss Brandon’s attention, Sofia looked around at the children playing,  or just talking together,  and looked for the one person who just by being there, could cause her grief.

 

Annie Sales ran up to her “Sofia,  is Reuben coming into school today?”

 

“No, he’s still with my Pa.”  she looked at Annie,  who blinked behind her glasses and sighed, “They’ve gone away”

 

“Away?  Will they be back?” Annie asked and Sofia shrugged, her shoulders almost reaching her ears as she did so.

 

Before she could say any more Miss Brandon was there, smiled her good mornings to every one and began to ring the bell.

 

Sofia followed the other children into the class room and took her seat at her desk.  She once again looked around the class room to make sure Jimmy wasn’t there and sighed with relief at his absence.

 

A door at the back of the school room opened and there was the sound of foot steps.  A tall man appeared with his hand on the shoulder of a girl, “Sorry to be late, Ma’am,”  he pulled off his hat and gave the girl a slight shove forwards

 

“Oh of course, our new student.”  Miss Brandon smiled her welcoming smile and the girl reluctantly stepped forward, head down  and long straggles of red hair obscuring her face.

 

The man had gone, almost as quickly as he had come, and nothing was heard, not even the sound of the door closing.

 

“Children,” Miss Brandon looked at them “Our new student is Charlotte – please make her welcome.”

 

Sofia frowned as she watched Charlotte slouch to her seat, it seemed to her that this girl looked just how she herself felt about school, but while she was unable to express it this girl did with every fibre of her being.  Sofia couldn’t imagine Charlotte liking Jimmy Carstairs and putting up with his games of tag, no, not in a million years!

 

Despite the day being quite cold there was no wind creating further discomfort so the children pulled on their outdoor clothing and ran out to the yard to eat what they had brought from home and then play in order to run off their energy and keep warm.  Sofia watched as Rose and Annie tried to establish some acquaintance with the new girl and, from what she could see, not establishing much as they finally gave up and ran off together.

 

From her corner of the playground Sofia noticed as the girl stood very still watching everyone.  Her red hair seemed to have a life of its own, blown here and there even when there was no wind blowing.   Finally her eyes swivelled round and met Sofia’s.  Sofia didn’t move, she stood her ground and stared back until Tommy Conway ran up with David Riley, tapped her on the shoulder and yelled “You’re it!”

 

“No, I’m not.” she shouted and turned her back on them in order to walk away to where there were some  logs  close to the area where a school teacher long ago had set up some swings.  David ran up and stood in front of her “Come on, Sofia.  Don’t spoil the game.”

 

“I’m not playing the game, go away, leave me alone.”

 

David looked at Tommy,  Rosie ran up “Come on, Sofia, we’re needing you to join in.”

 

But Sofia just shook her head and looked away from them so that even Rosie gave up on her and ran off, yelling and shrieking with the two boys.

 

“Don’t you like playing with the kids?”

 

Sofia looked up and frowned at the other girl who had suddenly supplanted herself right before her feet.  Rather hostile blue eyes stared at her,  and a defiant toss of the head indicated that the girl didn’t care if she answered or not, but she still stared at her.

 

“Sometimes.  Not today.”

 

Charlotte nodded and pushed her hands into the pockets of her coat which Sofia noticed was rather threadbare and had a button hanging by a thread.  Sofia knew that her mother would have sewn that button on before it dropped off and got lost, she looked up at Charlotte “Where do you come from?”

 

“Wisconsin.”  she didn’t move from where she stood,  but for a slight puckering of her brow  she appeared totally immobile

 

“Why are you here?”

 

Charlotte said nothing to that, she just stared at Sofia as though the girl had no right to question her and then turned her back on her.  Sofia shrugged,  she didn’t care one way or the other either.   She stayed sitting on the log and watched the girls straight back and stick thin legs take her off to the other side of the playground.

 

The bell tolled and Miss Brandon ushered them all in, paused as the new girl stopped to whisper something to her, and nodded before continuing on to her desk.  Sofia  was getting her slate ready for her work when she realised that someone was sitting at the empty desk beside her.  Charlotte nodded “I asked to sit here.”

 

Sofia said nothing except “Oh!”, blinked her blue eyes and turned her attention back to her work.

 

“Where do you live?” Charlotte asked as the children began to put on their outdoor clothes and collect their lunch pails, books and anything else they had brought along with them.  Sofia paused in the act of pulling on her hat that Olivia had knitted to keep her head warm during the colder weather

 

“On the Ponderosa.”

 

“Ponder-what?  That’s a girls name innit?”  Charlotte wrinkled her nose and shrugged “I live in town.  My Pa’s working for the railroad.”

 

Sofia nodded, she really didn’t care, the comment about the Ponderosa had rankled and she just buttoned up her coat and pretended she wasn’t interested in the other girl.   She got caught up in the crowd of children pushing and shoving to leave the school building and  hoped that Hank would be waiting for her with the wagon.  As it happened it was Cheng Ho Lee who looked down at the crowd of children  and waited for Sofia’s distinctive red hat to be seen.

 

79

 

“You can call me Charlie if you like ..”

 

“What?” Sofia turned and looked at the other girl who was running close beside her.

 

“Don’t call me Charlotte, that’s what my aunt and Pa call me…you can call me Charlie.”

 

“Why?”  Sofia  pulled on her gloves and tried to pretend she wasn’t really interested

 

“Because I said so.”

 

Sofia blinked,  frowned and then watched as Charlotte ran out of the school grounds and along with the other towns children streamed out on to the streets.  She herself turned to the wagon and clambered aboard.  Cheng Ho Lee nodded, smiled and greeted her in Cantonese to which she gave a polite Cantonese response.

……………….

 

Ben accompanied by Hank rode down the escarpment and made his way towards the small group of horsemen who greeted him with smiles and a warm shake of the hands.  He  looked at Reuben and slapped him gently on the shoulder “Well, lad, enjoy your trip?”

 

“I nearly got bit by a snake, Grandpa, Uncle Joe shot him and I got to keep the rattle.”

 

“Really?” Ben raised his dark eyebrows and looked enquiringly over at Adam “And what was your father doing at the time?”

 

“Reading a book I think.” Reuben replied innocently

 

“Hmm,  some things never change.” Ben muttered and shook his head before riding up close to his eldest son,  the nod of his head was an indication for Hoss and Joe to ride closer, “Did you know that you’re being followed.”

 

Hoss glanced at his brothers,  all three nodded “Reckon they caught up with us just before we made camp last night, Pa.” Hoss said quietly, “We didn’t say anything in case it scared the boy.”

 

“Two white men, one riding a black mustang and the other a pinto … anyone you know?”  Ben shot an enquiring look at each of the men who shook their heads, “They seem to be keeping their distance,  not rushing to catch up at all.”

 

It was Joe who suddenly exclaimed “I think I can guess who it is… two of Rinehart’s men.  They were there with him when we delivered the cattle.”

 

“Who’s Rinehart?”

 

“The new agent on the reservation.” Adam said quietly and glanced over at Reuben who was chatting animatedly to Hank who always had a soft spot for the children.

 

“What happened to Parrish?”

 

“Got moved on …” came the short response and from the way Adam’s lips thinned Ben could guess that the move didn’t meet with his sons approval.

 

Joe nodded “Yeah, and seems things have gotten real bad since, Pa.  We managed to get the cattle delivered, but I have the distinct feeling that the people will suffer as a result.”

 

“What has Winnemucca to say about this?”

 

“Wal,” Hoss thumbed  back his hat and shook his head “Seems he got himself a new young wife to distract him.  Anyhow,  we heard tell he was going to ride on out to the mountains with anyone who wants to go with him.”

 

Adam nodded and looked around him, they were on Ponderosa land now,  if the two men continued to follow them  it would be easy enough to pick them off and send them packing on a charge of trespass.  “Remember what it was like when we got here?  The Paiute numbered into the thousands.”

 

“True enough, leastways, “ Ben murmured “It appeared as though there were several thousand living hereabouts at the time.”

 

“I reckon there’s less than 600 now.  Conditions are bad,  and as a result the people look …” he passed a  hand over his mouth and looked over at Joe who nodded and said quietly “They look like they’ve lost hope.”

 

Ben said nothing for a while as he knew only too well that his sons felt strongly about these issues.  Politics, justice and injustice, they were just words for when it came down to a people suffering, that really was the bottom line, that was what it was all about… people suffering.

 

“Did you see Sarah ?  Natchez?”

 

“We did,” Adam nodded, “They’re on their way to Washington to put the matter to the President.”

 

Ben rolled his dark eyes, obviously he didn’t think much success would come of that idea, but he said nothing but chose to ride closer to Reuben in order to share the boys experiences rather than dwell on the matters that made for such morbid telling.

 

Joe looked over at his brothers “What do we do about our followers?”

 

“If they’ve had any sense they’ll have stopped at our borders and gone back to where they belong.” Hoss growled.

 

“Maybe that’s all they were ordered to do,” Adam said quietly, “Just make sure that we reached our borders and left their territory alone.”

 

Joe thought about that and nodded “Could be.  I guess time will tell…”

 

Adam smiled just slightly “It usually does.”

 

Hoss grinned “Told you my head was itching, didn’t I?”

 

Joe and Adam said nothing to that, they merely rolled their eyes and continued on in silence.

……………………….

 

Seated cross legged on her bed Sofia Cartwright watched as Reuben showed off his treasures… the rattle from the snake which she declared ‘disgusting’, some beads nestled in the palm of  his hand which she said were pretty and took into her own hands to claim as her own.  There was an eagle’s feather which Reuben told her his friend had given him “What was his name?”

 

“I don’t know,  I didn’t understand what he said.”

 

“He can’t be a friend of  yours then if you don’t know his name.”

 

“I gave him the cookies that Hop Sing had wrapped up in my saddle bag.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because they don’t have anything to eat there…”  Reuben heaved a sigh, girls knew nothing,  he shook his head in exasperation “You should have seen ‘em,  Sofee.  The girls didn’t have dolls like you and Hannah got,  they just have dried up corn cobs or sticks of wood  wrapped in bits of blanket.  Some don’t even have any shoes to wear.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because they’re poor.”

 

“Can’t they work?”

 

“I don’t know…I think so…I think the bad man there takes all their money.”

 

“Pa won’t let them do that.”

 

Reuben swallowed his words,  he stared at his sister and realised for the first time that, perhaps, after all, there really were some things that Adam Cartwright and his Uncles and his Grandfather all combined, could not put right.   Sofia put the beads carefully into a small glass bowl and set it in her lap.  “There’s a new girl at school.”

 

“Is she nice?”

 

“She’s called Charlotte.   She has red hair like Aunty Hester, only Aunty Hester’s is prettier.”  she counted the  beads,  “There’s two red ones, two blue ones, and a green one.  There’s a black one and a white one.” she smiled and leaned over to  give her brother a kiss on the cheek.

 

“I said – is she nice?”

 

“No, not really.”  Sofia wrinkled her nose “But I like her.”

………………………..

 

Odds were against Adam if he thought he would see his wife in her new silk chemise and dressing gown that night as it happened to be her time of the month.   Nathaniel decided to  be sick over his bedding which had to be cleared away while he was set down in the big bed to climb over his father and keep him awake while mother cleaned out the  crib.

 

Chapter 11

 

The sound of gunfire rippled over the valley and for a moment Adam froze in order to listen and get the location of the shots firmly in his mind. When there was a pause and then a staccato burst of six shots yet again, he relaxed and mounted his horse before turning its head towards the main house.

 

As he had suspected he found his youngest brother Joe, standing beside Hoss, waiting for Ezra to set up the tin cans and bottles along the fence for target practice. He slowly edged his horse around to the hitching rail before dismounting and after watching his two brothers loading their pistols made his way into the house.

 

Hester was brushing Hope’s blonde curls while Hannah sat very sedately in one of the chairs reading a book, or rather, looking at the pictures. She held the book up for her Uncle’s inspection “Look, Uncle Adam…”

 

Adam made the appropriate sounds and nodded over to his sister in law before asking for the whereabouts of his father, Hester looked momentarily blank as though the fact that Ben had disappeared without her knowledge had totally escaped her attention “I think he’s somewhere about.” came the murmured response.

 

Before Adam could say another word Ben came from the kitchen area wiping his hands on a cloth, he nodded to Adam, offered no explanation but asked him what he intended to do for the day, to which his son looked at him rather blankly before offering to go and see McManus at the timber yard.

 

“Good idea, I wanted to know how that order for Jacobson was getting on.”

 

“It went off a few days before we took the cattle down to the reservation, Pa.”

 

Ben stared at nothing in particular for a moment and then nodded, “That’s right, I remember now. Slipped my mind because he hasn’t contacted me yet about payment. Mind you, he doesn’t usually pay until he’s written in to complain about something, and I haven’t had that in writing yet either.”

 

Gunshots rattled once again and Hannah put her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut while Hope clung closer to her mother. Adam sighed “Why the target practice?”

 

“Joe’s worried about that agent. He thinks there’s going to be trouble and he wants to make sure he can remember how to use a gun when the time comes.” Ben replied and led the way to the door with Adam close behind him.

 

After closing the door in order to muffle the sounds a little so that the little girls would not be too frightened the two men stood on the porch and watched Hoss and Joe as they aimed and fired at the targets. Joe would hit the target every time while Hoss missed at least two but as he said the targets he would be firing against usually came larger than a tin can.

 

“Gonna try Adam?” Hoss nodded over to the fence as his brother stepped down into the yard, “Seeing how you ain’t been used to firing a gun for so long, might be a good idea to get some practice now.”

 

“No, that’s alright, boys, I’ve work to do.” Adam replied with a wave of the hand as he strolled towards his horse.

 

“Really? Where to? What for?” Joe asked concentrating more on reloading his gun than his brother

 

“Timber yard.” Adam muttered and with a nod of the head, mounted his horse and turned it out of the yard.

 

Hoss frowned, his nose wrinkled “Hey, Pa, how come you let Adam go off on his own?

 

“Your brothers a big boy now, Hoss. I think he can take care of himself…” Ben drawled

 

“Yeah, and I thought you said at breakfast that none of us should be alone while that thar Agent has his men hanging around.” Hoss put his hands on his hips and looked like an angry bull as he lowered his head

 

“I said, if you can prove those men are hanging around.” Ben replied curtly, “And as no one has seen hide nor hair of them since you all got home, I really don’t see what there is to worry about…if they were around then, yes, I’d rather you didn’t go alone. That goes for your wives too.”

 

Joe shook his head and with a twirl of his revolver slipped it into its holster. “Well, it’s best to be prepared, Pa.”

 

“I agree, when there is something to really worry about.” came the immediate reply “Now, if you two nit wits don’t mind, there’s work to be done…Hoss, you and Joe go and check out the lowlands, make sure the rains haven’t turned it to bog. You could check out that stream by Jessops while you’re there….”

 

“Sure, Pa.” Joe grinned, and looked over at Hoss who was keeping his head down although there was something of a smile lurking around his face “Where are you going Pa?”

 

“I just remembered – I need to remind McManus about something and forgot to mention it to Adam. I’ll chase after him and see if I can catch him up,”

 

“Good idea Pa.” Hoss nodded and slapped his father on the back “Make sure you catch up with him soon, then you can both ride in together.”

 

“Yeah, s’right, Pa. Both of you…together.” Joe smirked and ducked when his father playfully swung his fist at him.

……………..

 

Riding through the Ponderosa always had a calming effect on both Ben and his son. The height of the trees towering above them, the dappling of the sunlight through their branches so that patches of gloom would suddenly burst into a spangle of gold was a reminder to the smallness of man in comparison. The horses tread was dulled by the thickness of the damp dead pines beneath their feet, and the clouds in the sky, whatever colour it happened to be, always seemed to be moving more slowly than usual.

 

But it was winter time, even though just the edge of the season, the cold chill of snow on the wind could now be felt and it keened lazily between the trees causing the two men to raise the collars of their coats around their ears and bend their heads a little lower. Ben began to hum “In the pines …” as Cinnamon matched his stride to the older horse, Sport.

 

“Worried about something?” Ben suddenly asked, as he glanced over at his son’s anxious face “You’ve not looked too happy with life since returning from seeing Sarah.”

 

“It left me feeling uneasy.” Adam admitted and nodded “I didn’t like Rinehart.”

 

“No, I got the impression last year that he was going to be a hard character to handle. It’s hard to imagine such a swift transformation in the people as Hoss and Joe described.”

 

“And fewer in number too. “ Adam coughed, and glanced about him uneasily, “Remember how we would have to ride through these woods fully armed, rifle in hand, constantly on the look out for Paiutes?”

 

“I can.” Ben nodded, “That wasn’t really so very long ago.”

 

“Used to get the odd hunting party even as recent as 6 years ago.”

 

“Well, there got to be less game available for hunting, and they got used to having regular food from the Indian Bureau. Guess that’s all changed now. “Ben sighed, “I can recall expecting a Pauite, or Bannock, to appear from behind every tree I rode past.”

 

“Pa, do you -” he stopped talking, both men halted their horses and stared as though they couldn’t believe what they were seeing as two Indians rode their horses towards them.

 

Johnny Tall Bear drew his horse up and the other man did likewise, both waited for the Cartwrights to speak and it was Ben who said sternly “You’re on Ponderosa land, what are you doing here?”

 

Johnny nodded “It is I, Tall Bear. My brother … Musk Elk.”

 

Adam smiled, and rode Sport a little closer so that the gap was closed and he was able to shake hands with the Bannock, and his brother. “What brings you here, Tall Bear?”

 

“I was coming to you.” the Bannock replied as though surprised to have been asked, “I came to speak with you.”

 

“You’re more than welcome, any time, you know that…” Ben now said, having shaken the outstretched hands. “We‘re headed back that way if you want to ride along with us.”

 

Tall Bear shook his head “No need. I speak now. Musk Elk and Tall Bear – we were to see our sister married to Paiute but -” he shook his head as though in amazement “There are no Paiute.”

 

“How do you mean? There were Paiute a few days ago. We were there, we saw them” Adam protested, and looked at his father as though needing confirmation for his sanity

 

“No more. The agent Rinehart has moved them onto the reservation at Malheur in Oregon. They have all gone there.”

 

“How do you know this? Who told you?” Ben demanded, after all if there were no Paiute there who could have told him and Tall Bear shrugged and looked from Ben to Adam before nodding

 

“A white man, the one who sells things…Colby” his black eyes seemed to drain of colour now as he shook his head “He was loading his wagon and moving out to join them.”

 

Musk Elk glanced at his brother, he was tired of sitting just talking to more white men, he was restless and wanted to continue the journey, Tall Bear nodded again, and turned his horse away from the Cartwrights and onto the track through the trees that would lead them to their own homes on yet another reservation far away.

 

“ I find that hard to believe,” Ben muttered “A whole tribe of people, uprooted like that and -” he paused and shook his head “Who am I fooling? If he said so, then it must be so.”

 

“It wasn’t exactly a full tribe, Pa.” Adam said quietly, “Hardly that at all.” and he lapsed into melancholy as he wondered what Sarah would say to it all when she returned.

 

He thought also of President Hayes, sitting there behind the grand President’s desk where Grant had customarily sat, and he recalled to mind the promise Hayes had made him, about caring for all Americans, regardless of colour or creed. The assurance that he had been given to ensure the Native American Peoples would have protection by the Government, and an end to their wars and broken treaties. That time, that kind of thing, would not be tolerated … and Adam knew, yet again, that it was yet another promise broken.

…………………

 

Reuben didn’t like Charlie, as the girl preferred to be called. He found himself forever telling Sofia that her friend was a naughty girl, who would get her into trouble. But it was the spirit of the girl that fascinated Sofia who found in her a freeness that quite unknowingly she longed for herself. She drew the line at some of her friend’s conduct for it seemed wrong to her to push smaller ones over, or snatch away their lunch pails, or toss their books in the air. She was one of the new children herself, one of these smaller ones and felt for them when they found their slates broken, or their food taken, and she didn’t understand why Charlie couldn’t see that such unkindness was wrong.

 

“It’s because you’re just a kid yourself.” Charlie grumbled as she huddled into her coat and stared over the scarf she wore at the younger girl.

 

“I wouldn’t like it if you did it to me…” Sofia said as her defence and Charlie shrugged and said she wouldn’t because Sofia was her friend.

 

Jimmy Carstairs was back at school, he was pale and listless with dark shadows under his eyes. He trailed around behind David Riley and the other town boys, and avoided Sofia when she was with Charlie. It seemed to Sofia that the best thing she could do was to stay as close to her red headed free spirit of a friend as possible, even if she was trouble.

 

That day just as recess was ending Charlie managed to wedge a wooden stake against the outhouse door while Jimmy Carstairs was inside ‘doing his business’. She told Sofia, who was aghast, but at the same time awed by her friends audacity but as it was Jimmy she laughed and giggled about it and ran into the school room without thinking any further about the matter.

…………

 

Adam was tired and weary, irritable and anxious when he arrived home that evening. He smiled and kissed Olivia, who knew instantly that her husband was not in the best of moods, and after he had washed up and sat down she wondered what would be the outcome of their daughters latest misdeed.

 

Reuben was subdued, he looked at his mother with big eyes as though he could tell from just looking what she was thinking and when that didn’t work he looked at his father. “What’s wrong?” Adam asked immediately, his napkin only half open and his hand frozen in mid air.

 

“Sofia -” Reuben paused and looked over at his sister for he knew that Pa preferred everyone to speak up for themselves “Sofia has something to tell you, Pa.”

 

“No, I don’t…” came a timid quiet little voice as Sofia tried to shrink in her seat

 

Adam sighed, a release of a long drawn out breath, he frowned and shook his head “What happened?”

 

“Nothing.” she shook her head and looked down at her plate

 

“If it was nothing then what are you looking so worried about?” he smiled, although it

was rather a grim smile, and she wilted a little more, “Sofia?”

 

No answer, she bowed her head and stared at the plate, but she could feel his eyes still on her and slowly raised her left hand to display the welts upon it. “Miss Brandon hit me with the ruler.”

 

Olivia now lowered her eyes, she didn’t like to see the welts on her daughters little hand, she didn’t want to imagine the pain her daughter had suffered, and she didn’t like to recall to mind the reasons for it. She looked at Adam and saw his lips twitch, before becoming stern again “What did you do?”

 

“I – didn’t do anything – I truly didn’t Pa.” she looked at him, big eyes and innocence framed by her pale gold ringlets.

 

“You must have done something, Miss Brandon wouldn’t have punished you unless there was some reason. If you don’t tell me, Sofia, we’ll be taking a walk to the barn anyway.”

 

“Yes, Pa.”

 

Cheng Ho Lee hovered, food was getting cold, he didn’t know whether to serve it or leave it. Olivia decided to concentrate on Nathaniel who was thumping on the table for some food and wasn’t understanding the ’politics’ of this around the table discussion. Sofia still remained silent, so Adam turned to Reuben and raised an eyebrow

 

“She didn’t do it, Pa.”

 

“You’re saying that Miss Brandon was wrong in punishing your sister?”

 

“No, sir. Just that Sofia didn’t do it, but she knew about it and laughed.”

 

Adam heaved in a deep breath and lowered his head. Years ago he had got used to hearing about Joe’s misdeeds, punishments, detentions… but he had never expected to have to relive it all again with his own daughter. He rubbed his jaw “Go on… Sofia, what happened.”

 

She opened her mouth but nothing came out, so Adam pushed his chair back, stood up and lifted her out of her chair, “Right, no more nonsense.”

 

Sofia squealed and wriggled but once her feet were on the floor she started to cry, and begged him not to punish her just because she laughed at Charlie having stopped the door being open for when Jimmy went into the outhouse. Adam looked at Reuben for a translation which he received with a stony face, after which he shook his head, wished he had stayed away from home and then gently led his daughter out of the house.

 

They returned five minutes later, the food was not as hot as would have been preferred, and Sofia tried not to cry. It was a silent miserable meal.

……………..

 

“Did Pa give you a tanning?” Reuben whispered later.

 

He had crept from his room to hers, and was sitting on the edge of her bed while she hugged Clarabelle and Jessie (eyes now intact).

 

“No. Just talked. Said I was not nice.”

 

“It wasn’t a kind thing to do to Jimmy, Pa was right, so was Miss Brandon.”

 

Sofia sniffed, wiped wet eyes and squeezed them shut. She would have preferred a tanning, she knew that, even if she couldn’t put it into words, she hated the thought of having upset her Pa. That her own Pa had said she wasn’t a nice girl quite broke her heart.

 

“It was Charlie’s fault, Sofia. You got to stop being her friend.”

 

Having pronounced his opinion, Reuben got to his feet, and padded lightly across to his room. Before he fell asleep he lay there wondering how he could help his little sister before she got into really serious trouble.

 

Chapter 12

 

The murmur of voices from the main room  drifted up the stairs where Olivia was dressing her youngest son.  She wondered if Sofia had got herself ready for school and paused for a moment to listen but could only hear Adams distinct voice and the softer tones of Reuben.  As she forced Nathaniel to sit still while she buttoned on various garments she thought over  the previous evenings debacle and shook her head, who would have thought that it would be her little girl who was the cause of so much trouble.

 

Going down stairs with Nathaniel in her arms she smiled at the sight of her husband and eldest son as they sat around the low table.  Although she detested guns and weaponry of any kind she knew that in this territory they were almost an essential item, for a man to go unarmed was an invitation to disaster.

 

She found Sofia seated at the piano,  reading her sheet music or appearing to, and beckoned her over to her side in order to re-button her dress. for Sofia had missed several buttons and everything was lop sided.  Her braids needed tidying too,  and as she quickly attended to her daughters dress Olivia listened and watched as her husband explained how to clean a revolver.

 

Reuben took the bore brush and was carefully following Adam’s instructions on how to  push it through the barrel.  The smell of oil on the rags  to be used was common in the house for Adam was careful to clean all rifles and guns regularly, but this was the first occasion where he had any time to show Reuben how to do it.

 

“Right, now,  clean around the muzzle…” Adam said and placed a hand on Reubens to show how it was done, then afterwards reminded the boy to clean out the rear cylinder opening.  Reuben’s mouth was a tight button of concentration as he followed Adam’s instructions.

 

For a few moments they shared that time together, while Olivia finished with Sofia’s hair, set Nathaniel down in his chair and brought the coffee pot to the table,   when she called out that breakfast was ready Reuben gave a groan of protest to which Olivia reminded him that if he didn’t eat now, he would go to school hungry.

 

They hadn’t long started when there was  a knock on the door and Joe stepped into the room, followed by Hoss.   Both of them grinned “Sorry to be so early, thought you’d be ready by now,  big brother.”

 

Adam nodded and glanced at Olivia, smiled and then turned to them “Have some coffee,  plenty of time.”

 

The brothers nodded and Joe kissed Olivia on the cheek, pulled Sofia’s braids and ruffled Reuben’s hair while Hoss  just pulled up two chairs to the table and helped himself to a flapjack

 

“Pa’s been teaching me how to clean his revolver.” Reuben said after smoothing down his hair

 

“Has he indeed?” Joe nodded, winked over at Adam “Thought I could smell something other than bacon.”

 

Olivia smiled as she poured out the coffee for her brothers in law “He’ll be teaching the boy how to use it next.”

 

Joe wasn’t sure whether this was some kind of rebuke from her, but Hoss nodded and looked thoughtful “Well,  he’s a mite young yet.   But it’s always useful having someone around the house who knows how to look after the things.   If you don’t keep your weapons clean and in good working order you could end up dead.”

 

Olivia sighed and rolled her eyes, but smiled over at Adam who was concentrating on his food and listening to what was being said while Sofia was sipping her milk and looking quite angelic.  Nathaniel was waving his spoon about and poked himself in the eye with it so creating a little hiatus of mayhem which prompted Adam to get up and drop his napkin beside his plate.  Hoss and Joe gulped down their coffee and pushed away from the table.

 

“How’re  you getting on at school,  pumpkin?” Hoss asked his niece who glanced at her daddy before muttering that she hated it.

 

Joe laughed “A girl after my own heart.”

 

“Thanks for that, Joe.”  Adam murmured, “You don’t know how true that is…”

 

He went to the table, and checked his gun, spun the cylinder and reloaded the chambers before carrying it over to where his holster was hanging.  Olivia was there to hand him his hat, and kiss him goodbye,  and after calling his farewells to the children Adam left the house in the company of his brothers.  “Did Pa tell you about our visit from Tall Bear?”

 

“He sure did, “ Joe sighed, “He’s writing to the Indian Affairs Bureau in protest.”

 

Hoss picked some bacon from between his teeth and spat on the ground, “I get the feeling that this is going to lead to trouble.”

 

“What do you know about the  Malheur Reservation?  Apart from being in Oregon.”

Adam asked and noticed how both his brothers immediately looked concerned, “Bad is it?”

 

“It will be if Rinehart is in charge as the agent.” Hoss muttered and Joe nodded,

 

“Shoshone,  Bannock …they’re there already mostly.   Won’t do them any favours having the Paiute move in on them.”  Joe frowned, “Won’t help the Paiute either, they won’t want to share what little they have with the Snake people.”

 

They were in the stables now and Joe grinned as he saw Kamille in her stall, “When are you going to start riding her, Adam?  Sport deserves his retirement now, he’s getting to be an old man.”

 

“He’s still got a lot of years in him,” Adam replied as he carried the saddle over to where Sport waited with stoic patience,  “To be honest, Joe,  Pa keeps on so much about Kamille being a hay burner and not much use for anything, that I’m feeling a mite self conscious about owning her.   She won’t never make a good cow pony….”

 

Joe stroked his chin and looked at Hoss who nodded, “Wal, she ain’t equipped to be one is she?  What do you intend to do with her?”

 

Adam shrugged, and shook his head as he buckled up the cinch, then brought over the bridle and bit “Have  you named the colt yet, Joe?”

 

“No,  thought I’d leave that to  you, after all…” Joe frowned  “Well,  he’s a beauty that’s for sure,  but I’ve not thought of a name yet.”

 

The sound of the children running into the yard could be heard and as Adam walked with his brothers and Sport  out of the stable they watched as Reuben and Sofia clambered onto the wagon.  They were bundled up warmly for the air was cold,  Sofia wore her woolly red hat and matching gloves, Reuben the same but in a striped pattern, it was a long drive to the school house, they needed to be kept as warm as possible. Ezra, turning the wagon carefully, was sporting a warm hat beneath his stetson,  being as bald as he was, he needed all the help he could get, and it wasn’t even the middle of winter yet.

 

The children waved and Adam called out “Don’t be getting into any trouble.”

 

Hoss grinned and shook his heads “Won’t be long before Hannah will be going along with ‘em.   Time sure flies.  Sofia looks like a little angel, don’t she, Joe?”

 

“She sure does.” Joe smiled and looked at Adam, “You must be very proud of them, Adam.”

 

Adam heaved a deep sigh and rolled his  eyes,  glanced over to his wife and raised a hand in farewell.

 

For a while they rode along in silence before Joe asked Adam if Tall Bear had any other news for them, but his brother shook his head “He seemed in a hurry to leave, his brother was with him.”

 

“Yeah, so Pa said.”  Hoss nodded, and again they lapsed into silence before Hoss changed the subject by asking Adam how he had found things at the timber yard.

 

They  talked as they rode together, Joe telling them about how well Jenny was getting on,  under Mary Ann’s careful patient guidance the girl seemed to be emerging from some kind of dream world.  He told them how little Constance was gaining weight and how besotted with his sister young  Daniel was now.

 

Hoss mentioned that he needed to collect some things from town and place an order for more barbed wire, explaining how the north boundaries had come down when the cattle had stampeded earlier that month.  “Dang Hank and Zeke, never told us until it was too late and them fool cows halfway to Tuscon.”

……………………

 

Daniel de Quille put his cigar to one side and unlocked the drawer where he had his private note book and the journal relating to Daniel O’Brien’s expeditions with Adam Cartwright.

 

It was a quiet time during the working day, the printing presses were being set up, the machinery idling as the typesetters arranged the metal letters that would eventually form the next edition of the Territorial Enterprise.  DeQuille knew he would not be disturbed for an hour and having  a large hot coffee at his elbow he slowly drew out the journal and flicked over some of the pages….

 

“Lebedev

 

Dimitri Doestov

 

Jack Lawson

 

The names of these individuals haunt me.   I am sure they must also do likewise for the Commodore as we both came closer to death than I ever thought possible … Lebedev, walking across that snow laden tundra in that long fur lined coat and with his face set like, well, it would not be an exaggeration to say when I remember his face he made me think of Lucifer.  Vengeful, hateful man.

 

“Jack Lawson died that day.  Reckless, fool hardy, misled.  Poor boy,  when I think back to those last weeks with him out there, in his own way he was brave, he was facing those same hazards as we were, and all for a purposeless reason, for a long lost cause.  At least I could reassure his family that he died bravely.

 

“Rostov fell by my side and I know Adam will never forget him, he was oh, I don’t know, a character, rough and ready, grateful to have become an American citizen and he died to prove it.

 

“And then Adam fell …”

 

Daniel paused there,  the writer had obviously done so also, perhaps to recall that moment in time, perhaps to reconsider his feelings and wonder how to put them into words that would explain exactly all his feelings, there was a thickening of the ink as though O’Brien had rewritten over the words before proceeding on

 

“And then Adam fell and the snow seemed to part to gather him into itself.  Slow motion.  Almost graceful.  Unbelievable. I never could never conceive of the fact that Adam would die, could die. I  couldn’t let Lebedev think he would just saunter away as casually as he was doing.   I couldn’t, couldn’t….”

 

The sharp rapping on  the glass of the door intruded upon him and he was startled into movement, the cigar rolled and fell upon the journal and as deQuille went to see what was requiring his attention in the outer room, the cigar slowly burned the pages a dark smouldering brown.

…………………..

 

Jimmy Carstairs was standing on the stairs leading to the school house and stared hostilely at Charlotte who poked her tongue out at him and tossed her head before flouncing in to the building.  Sofia followed behind Annie and Betty Sales and when Jimmy put his hand on her arm she flinched away from him.

 

“Sofia, I’m sorry you got into trouble yesterday.  Is your hand alright now?”

 

 

She stared at him, blinked and felt her face reddening.  She had laughed at him,  been as her father said ‘not very nice’ and here he was,  being kind, being thoughtful.  She lowered her head and nodded, “Yes, thank you.”

 

“I’m  glad. “ he didn’t say anything else, but waited for her to get to her seat and then followed with David and Reuben.

 

Sofia couldn’t hear what Miss Brandon was saying, her mind was too full of what Jimmy had said,  the kind way he had said it, and the gentle look on his face.  He was thinner now since his illness, and seemed taller as well.  When Charlie jogged her elbow and made a face to prove her dislike of whatever Miss Brandon was saying, Sofia shook her head and concentrated on her slate.

……………..

 

The errands in town took very little time and t he three brothers decided that a drink at the Silver Dollar would  be a good idea.   This particular saloon would serve up a good strong hot coffee on a day like this,  and as the day was getting colder by the minute that, they all agreed, was just so much better than a beer.

 

They were hit by warm air as soon as the batwing doors swung shut behind them.  The bar keep nodded over and took their orders, and as they made their way to the table they unbuttoned their coats and shrugged them off, along with their hats.

 

“I thought I’d go and see Roy later.” Adam said, easing his shoulders a little to get the kinks out of them.

 

“Oh yeah, see how his romance is going with Miss Tennant.” Joe grinned and winked over at Hoss who was rubbing the back of his neck and scratching his head “What’s wrong with you, Hoss, got fleas?”

 

“Nope,  and you just button your lip, young feller, you ain’t too old yet for a -” he thumped one clenched fist into the palm of his hand with a grin on his face.

 

“Do you think he’ll marry her?” Joe leaned across to Adam who frowned, shrugged and was about to speak when a shadow fell over them.

 

Adam turned round as the look on Joe’s face indicated that it wasn’t old Thad bringing over the coffee’s they had ordered.  Hoss had narrowed his eyes and his mouth had set into a stubborn line as he half rose from his seat, only to be pushed down again  by the man facing him

 

“Well, this is cosy.”  one of the men said and looked at his partner  “What do you say, Mick?”

 

“Yeah, real cosy.”  Mick replied and stepped back for Thad to bring in the coffee.

 

“We don’t want no trouble in here,” Thad muttered as he moved away from the table, “Best leave now, boys,  and keep it peaceable for folks in here.”

 

“We ain’t gonna cause no trouble, are we,  Zeke?”

 

“No, no trouble at all.  We’re peace loving folk, real peace loving.  More than can be said for these Cartwrights.  You know they’re Indian lovers, don’t’cha?”  Zeke swung round to address the few customers there, “Bleeding hearts, that’s what they are?”

 

Adam , Joe and Hoss said nothing… Hoss ladled in some sugar into his coffee and Joe  did likewise, Adam was about to reach for a spoon when Zeke turned to see what they were doing, their silence having irritated him for it fell short of the Cartwright reputation he had heard so much about in town.

 

“Hey, you want some sugar…”  Zeke said and picked up the bowl, “You know, them thar Indians love their sugar, they’d do anything to get their hands on some sugar. Here …” and with a grin he upturned the bowl and the sugar poured into the cup, spilled over into the saucer, along with the coffee.  “whoops, guess I put in too much.”

 

Mick laughed, and slapped Hoss on the back as though he should be laughing too, but Hoss only drew in a deep breath “Look, fellers, we ain;t looking for trouble, why not just leave.”

 

Adam pushed his cup and saucer away from him, at the counter Thad was wondering whether or not to get the sheriff,  in Virginia City people got shot for doing less than what these men had done.  Joe eased away from the table but then Mick’s eyes fell on him, cold, steel grey and the threat in them was very clear.

 

“why don’t you do what my brother said,  Mister, just leave while you can.” Joe said quietly.

 

Adams long fingers tapped on his chin,  his eyes watched as coffee trickled into a bigger puddle on the table.   “You’re Rinehart’s boys, aren’t you?” he finally said and Mick and Zeke found that really amusing, they almost doubled over laughing.

 

“Sure took  your time to work that one out.” Mick said and then stepped closer,  smiles and laughter gone from his face “And you had better remember us for a long time, Cartwright, because Mr Rinehart doesn’t want you interfering with our business.”

 

“What exactly is your business, Mr …” Adam shrugged,  and raised his eyebrows

 

“Our business is protecting Mr Rinehart’s interests and just now he’s interested in you three, and he wants to make sure you don’t interfere in what he does, you hear?”

 

Adam was about to speak when Mick leaned forward, picked  up Hoss’ cup of coffee and upturned it onto the floor.  It was an act of total stupidity, and bad timing,  for there was no need to push the matter quite so far.  Their point had been made and it would have been more sensible for them to have walked away and left well alone; but Mick was too stupid to have considered that and as he walked away with a smirk on his face and about to make some sarcastic quip to Zeke,  he found his progress stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

 

He was spun round so fast that his hat fell off,  then Hoss’ fist connected with his chin and he was rocking back on his heels before he fell upon the neighbouring table.  Within minutes Joe and Adam had joined in the fight, not that it was much of one as the two men were no match for Hoss alone,  and being up against all three brothers was more than Mick and Zeke were capable of handling.  In less than five minutes they were out of   the saloon and making tracks for their horses.

 

Thad came scurrying up to them cloth in hand to mop up the mess Sorry about that… more coffee, Mr Cartwright?”

 

“No,” Adam picked up his coat and hat, “I think I’ll go and see Roy.”

 

He shrugged himself into his coat and slipped his hat on, nodded to his brothers and left the building, the bat wings swung too and fro as he passed.

 

“He’s rattled,” Hoss said and called over to Thad for fresh coffee for himself and Joe.

 

Chapter 13

 

Roy greeted Adam like a man who had just found his long lost brother, or in his case, his son.  “Come on in, Adam.  Take a seat.”

 

Adam flipped his hat onto a table and removed his coat before settling into one of the comfortable chairs placed close to the fire.  He looked around the room and nodded, then smiled over at Roy  “Everything alright with you, Roy?”

 

“I guess it is, Adam.  Want some coffee?”

 

Adam paused a moment, then decided the stuff Roy brewed at  home couldn’t be as bad as that he used to pour out in his office, he nodded “Sure, that’ll be fine.”

 

Roy  took himself off to the small kitchen area and returned with coffee steaming hot from the cup.  He placed it on the low table and nodded “What brings you this way, young man?”

 

“You know anything about the Paiute reservation close to our borders?”

 

Roy’s eyes narrowed, his back straightened and he nodded slowly “The one they’ve just moved on to Malheur?”

 

“You know about that?” Adam looked surprised, “How’d you get to know?  We just found out for ourselves yesterday.”

 

“I have my contacts.” Roy replied but his voice was lower,  he shook his head “That Rinehart is a bad lot, Adam.  Those folks have been dwindling in number since he became the Agent there.  I can’t see many of them getting to Oregon, they’ll either die on the way or scuttle off to where they think they’ll be safer.”

 

“In to the mountains?” Adam raised an eyebrow and looked at the older man who nodded.  “Games low, it’s not good hunting nowadays.”

 

“Better than the plains Indians, son.   I hear just about all the buffalo have gone now.”

 

“Yeah, most of the Souix and Cheyenne have as well, they’ve crossed the border into Canada.”

 

They sipped their coffee and stared into the flames of the fire, each lost in their own thoughts.  Roy  finally got round to asking how Ben was and the families, and smiled as Adam told him how well everyone was doing.  “How about yourself, Roy?  Any advances on your plans to marry Dorothy Tennant?”

 

Roy heaved a sigh and shook his head “I reckon not,”  he leaned back in his chair and stroked his moustache with the back of his hand, “Seems I got competition.”

 

“For Dorothy?  Who?  I thought it was practically a foregone conclusion between the two of you?”

 

“Yeah well, a real case of counting chickens before they were hatched…” Roy heaved a sigh and shook his head, emptied his cup and set it down  on the saucer. He leaned forward “She still works here as my housekeeper, still is a good friend.  But it kinda cooled off what with all that business – you know – with McGarthy.”

 

Adam nodded and sipped his coffee,  it was strong and hot and as disgusting as any he had ever tasted, after a while he had to leave it and just put the cup down. “Roy,  who is the other man?  Anyone I know?”

 

“Probably.   Victor Ford.”

 

Adam whistled softly and shook his head “Victor Ford,”  he echoed.

 

“Known Dorothy a long time, she helped him with his wife apparently, when she was ill.  Victor tried to cover for her when it looked like she was a suspect in that thar murder.  Seems that kinda rekindled something she had felt for him years back.”  he sighed and shrugged “Guess I was being a mite hopeful, and more than a mite foolish to think she would want to settle down with an old curmudgeon like me, Adam, but I had hopes.”

 

Adam nodded in sympathy and stared into the flames of the fire,  Roy turned his head and sighed again, so that for a few moments the two men just sat together looking in silence at the fire.

 

After a short while Roy got to talking about some of their past adventures,  they shared a little laughter about some,  talked gravely about others until Adam realised he needed to get back to meet his brothers.  Roy watched as Adam picked up his hat and pulled on his coat “Were you going to ask me something, about the Paiute?”

 

“Ah, yes…” Adam paused, buttoned his coat more slowly as he looked at the ex-sheriff “The men Rinehart employs there, would you know any of them?”

 

Roy frowned “Only one I know of,  recognised him from an old poster … and seen him in town.  Rides a pinto. “

 

“I know him.. Met him again earlier.  Zeke ?”

 

“S’right, Zedekiah Murray.  Wanted in several states for manslaughter and horse stealing and sundry other matters.  Mind you, Adam, I’m reckoning that some of those manslaughter charges should be murders, he’s a mean cuss.”

 

“Why would the Indian Affairs Bureau allow Rinehart to hire him on the reservation?” Adam  muttered as he headed for the door,  which opened seemingly of its own accord forcing him to step back and admitting Dorothy Tennant who looked at him in surprise and then gave him a big smile  “Good morning, Miss Tennant.”

 

“Good morning, Mr Cartwright.” she passed on by, giving Roy a smile as she continued on into the other room.

 

Both men looked at one another, Roy shook his head and sighed while Adam raised his eyebrows and also shook his head in sympathy for his old friend before leaving the house.

…………..

 

Hoss and Joe had left the saloon and found their way over to the Telegraph and Mail Office where Eddy passed them over the pouch containing a variety of letters and packages.  It was then their intention to see Candy so headed towards the sheriff’s office.  Hoss nudged Joe and nodded over to where he had seen Adam walking on the opposite side of the road,  but by the time Joe had turned to see for himself Adam had simply disappeared from view.

 

“Where’d he go?” Joe  looked enquiringly of Hoss who was staring wide eyed at where Adam had been “You sure it was Adam?”

 

“I do know my own brother,“ Hoss snorted derisively, “But that ain’t right, him jest disappearing like that,“ and began to walk faster before breaking into a run, closely followed by Joe.

 

They reached the alley that ran alongside the barbers shop and paused just long enough to hear the sounds of a fight that was taking place in the shadows between the buildings and both turned immediately without slowing their pace to come across Adam slugging it out with the two men who had accosted them earlier in the saloon.

 

“Dadburn it, if that don’t beat all.” Hoss growled and pulled out his gun, fired a shot in the air while Joe continued running towards his  brother and his attackers.

 

The shot had the desired effect in drawing attention away from Adam who was able to throw a punch just as the men stepped back, looked over at Joe and Hoss,  gave a last kick and punch at Adam before running to the rear exit of the alley, turning to take a pot shot before disappearing.

 

Now that he no longer had to put up a fight Adam slumped against the wall of the building and struggled to get his breath,  he bent over double and was grateful when Hoss’ arm reached out to give him some support while his brother muttered words that he couldn’t hear for the ringing in his ears.  Joe had ran to the end of the alley and fired off another shot at the two men who had saddled up and taken the way out of town.

 

“You alright, Adam?”  Joe now asked as he joined Hoss in an attempt to support his brother.   “Adam? “

 

Adam nodded, waved his hand at nothing in particular and struggled to stand up, but then had to double over again, Hoss was about to speak when Candy and Clem arrived,  both with guns in their hand “What happened?” Candy demanded which was rather an obvious question to an obvious event, “Adam, are you alright?”

 

Adam hissed something between his teeth which prompted Hoss to say “I’ll get him to Paul Martins.”

 

“Do you know who it was?” Candy now asked, ”How many?”

 

“Two.” Joe said and leaned forward in an attempt to prevent Adam from sagging down  to the ground.   “They rode off, a black mustang and a pinto…headed out of town.”

 

“Did you know them?”  came the next question to which Hoss said ‘yes, but not intimately,’ before he half carried half dragged his brother out of the alley with Joe trailing behind holding Adam’s hat in his hand.

……………

 

Paul rolled his eyes and shook his head when Adam was hauled into the surgery.  He indicated the bed upon which Hoss carefully arranged his brothers body for  Adam had passed out during the time it took to reach the doctors.   The damage caused  during the fight had certainly doubled due to his brothers hauling him along and putting pressure on his ribs,  which, in turn caused pain in his lungs and chest.

 

“I thought as you boys got older you would have grown out of this kind of thing,” Paul muttered “You two had better get out and answer Candy’s questions, if you can, while I attend to Adam.”

 

Ushered out in such an unceremonious manner Joe and Hoss dithered around for a few minutes and then did as Paul had advised;  they found Candy patiently waiting for them in his office.  Clem filled two cups with coffee and placed them on the desk for the Cartwright’s to ’wet their whistles’ while they disclosed what information they could.

 

“So you know the men involved?   Seen them before?” Candy looked from one to the other of them and accepted their nods as an affirmative ..”Whereabouts?  I mean, where had you seen them before and when?”

 

It was Joe who acted as spokesman and told Candy about the visit to the Paiutes and having seen them there,  working for the Agent, William Rinehart.

 

“Were they the same men?”  Candy asked, he looked at them both with a frown and his blue eyes darker than usual “I need to be sure, if they’re employed by the Agent that means they’re Government employees, and it can get messy tangling with that kind of personnel.”

 

“Shucks, Candy, they ain’t personnel, they’re just thugs.   If we didn’t recognise them, which we did, we would recognise their horses.   One rides a pinto and the other a black mustang.”

 

“One’s called Mike and the other is Zeke….” Joe rubbed his chin, and shook his head “Makes it kind of personal when they can ride into town and beat up on one of  us.   What are  you going to do about it, Candy?”

 

Candy released his breath and pulled out a wad of Wanted posters which he slapped down on the desk “Look through those and let me know if you recognise any of them.  In the meantime I’ll go over and see how Adam is,” he raised a hand as both Cartwrights jumped to their feet “I’ll go.  You stay put here and look through them.”

 

Hoss and Joe said nothing, slumped back into their chairs and glared at Candy as he strode out of the building.   “It’s our brother over there, Clem.” Joe hissed between clenched teeth

 

“I know that, Joe,  but sooner you can put a finger on those men the sooner we can git a posse organised and go look for ’em before they reach Oregon.”

 

“You know about Oregon?” Hoss widened his eyes, “Shucks,  didn’t take long for that to get known around town.”

 

“Came through the official line, in case the Agent needed the law to assist them.” Clem explained and poured himself some coffee before taking a seat at the other desk.

 

 

Adam was on his feet when Candy stepped into the surgery, his cheekbone had a bruise that was swelling rapidly and his bottom lip was split,  but was no longer bleeding.  Paul had just finished bandaging his ribs as the sheriff closed the door behind him, “I understand  you know who did it?”

 

“Mick Howell and Zedekiah Murray.” Adam replied and stretched a little just to make sure that everything other than his ribs was functioning as normal.

 

“Stand still” Paul growled and continued with his bandaging.

 

“Joe says they work for the Agent, Rinehart?”

 

“S’right,  they were there when we took some cattle to the camp.  Then when we left they followed us.”  Adam winced,  he could feel his bottom lip swelling and there was a pain over his left eye.

 

Paul pinned the bandage in place and then handed Adam his clothes,  “Get some ice on that cheekbone as soon as you get home, and your knuckles as well.  I’ve cleaned them but they still look quite bloody to me, you must have knocked some teeth out.  How’s  your leg?”

 

“My leg?”  Adam scowled, then nodded, straightened his leg and then bent it a little, “It’s alright.”

 

“Thank goodness for that, I know it’s healed well and truly now, but it’ll always be a sensitive area. “  Paul stepped back and nodded “Well, so far as I can tell, no concussion,  two broken ribs, bruises to the upper torso and his back, facial bruising you can see, sheriff.  He’ll live…” and he smiled and patted Adam on the shoulder as though he were a two year old who had just grazed his knee.

 

Joe and Hoss were waiting less than patiently for their brother’s return,  and both breathed a sigh of relief when Adam stepped into the sheriff’s office behind Candy, nodded at them both and accepted the coffee Clem handed over to him.

 

The posters of Murray and Howell peered up at them from the desk, Candy looked at the brothers “Hoss, Joe, want to come along?   Can’t include you, Adam, you’re under doctors orders to get home.”

 

Adam pulled a wry face of protest and scratched his neck while Joe paused and looked from his brother to Candy to the posters,  he frowned “I think I’d best ride home with Adam, make sure he doesn’t fall from his horse on the way there.”

 

“I’ll ride along with  ya, Candy.” Hoss said, “It’ll give me a lot of pleasure to see them two buzzards in your cell.”

 

“That’s settled then,” Candy nodded and looked at Clem “Go and get Watts and some more men, just in case those two happen to find themselves some friends on the way to Oregon.”

 

Hoss picked up his hat, then pinned on the deputy’s badge that Candy handed him, he nodded over to his brothers and left them to stare at the closed door.   Adam shrugged “Well,  I guess we had better head for home, little brother.”

 

“You sure you’re well enough, big brother?  I don’t want you falling off your horse half way there …”

 

“I won’t.”   and Adam attempted a rather lop sided painful grin as he limped across to the door.

 

Daniel deQuille had jotted down several eye witness accounts of the incident and was stepping into the Enterprise office when Adam and Joe rode slowly out of town.  He watched them go with some considerable feeling as the memory of a partially burned journal instantly came to mind.  He closed the door sharply and looked guiltily at the drawer where the evidence of his crime lingered.

 

Chapter 14

 

The posse, headed by Candy with Hoss close by his side and a group of six men along with them, galloped from town  sending the townspeople scattering out of the way.    Deputy Watts had been left in charge of the office and available should any situation arise in town that would warrant a lawful presence.  He was studying the posters when the door opened and Dan deQuille stepped inside, gave the young man a familiar nod of the head and smile “Just came to ask about what’s going on,  deputy.”

 

Mark Watts was eager and ambitious, and being referred to as deputy by one of the leading men in the town went slightly to his head, he expanded visibly and indicated the chair for the journalist to sit down in order to take notes more comfortably

 

“Some coffee, Mr deQuille?”

 

Dan nodded his head and pulled out his note book and pencil, he leaned back a little and surveyed the deputy and then wrote a few words, pausing to say very politely “It is Mark Watts, isn’t it?”

 

Mark was putty in Dan’s hands, answering the questions at length and providing enough material for the newspapermen to spin a good tale for the citizens of Virginia City.  After drinking the coffee,  copying details of the miscreants from the posters to his note book, Dan stood up, shook Mark’s hand and then left the office.

 

It helped to be kept busy, then he didn’t have to worry about the journal or how to return it, or what would happen when Adam Cartwright discovered the burn mark that obscured several pages of Daniel O’Brien’s writing.   He could still recall Sam Clemens telling him what it was like to be on the other end of Adam Cartwright’s fist when it collided, forcibly, against his jaw.

……………..

 

Cheng Ho Lee was in the yard when Joe and Adam entered but he dropped the bucket he was carrying when he saw his master listing dangerously sideways out of the saddle.  The haste in which Joe dismounted added to Cheng Ho Lee’s fears that something had happened and had reached the brothers just as Adam attempted to dismount the normal way but failed.

 

“It’s alright, I’m alright” he insisted as he fell into Joe’s arms and felt Cheng Ho Lee grabbing his jacket in his efforts to prevent him from falling to the ground

 

“You’re far from alright,” Joe hissed between clenched teeth, “Stop arguing, Adam.”

 

“For  goodness sake, Joe…”

 

“Shut up, Adam.”  Joe looked over at Cheng Ho Lee and nodded, together they managed to get Adam upright again and onto his feet just as the door of the house opened and Olivia appeared wiping her hands on her apron and looking anxiously over at them.

 

Something about the way the three men were clustered together brought a chill of alarm trickling through Olivia’s nerves, she paused, stepped back and then forwards, then began to run from the front door to where she could now see her husband being supported by Joe and Cheng  “What happened?  Is it bad?  How bad is it?”

 

“I’m alright,” Adam insisted as he tried to push Joe away from his ministrations, “I keep telling them I’m alright.”

 

“There was a fight in town,” Joe said as he turned to Olivia, one hand pressed against Adam’s chest as though that would prevent the man falling down. “Adam got bushwhacked.  Then he fell off his horse on the way here…”

 

“I did not -”Adam protested indignantly, and then frowned “Did I?”

 

“You did, now, shut up and let us get you inside.”

 

“I can walk.” Adam shrugged his shoulders in an attempt to push his helpers aside, “Thank you very much.”

 

“He can’t -” Joe said to Olivia with an anxious look on his face which made the poor woman  more worried than ever.  “Here, Cheng Ho lee,  let’s get him inside, he needs to  lie down.”

 

Adam rolled his eyes, shook his head and insisted that he did not need to lie down, he was perfectly capable of walking on his own and would they just please leave him alone.

 

“How much damage is there?   Has he seen a doctor?” Olivia asked as she hovered close to her brother in law, watching carefully as the two men ‘helped’ Adam to the house

 

“Dr Paul said he had some broken ribs,  bruises and the normal kind of things you get when you’re in a fight, and then fall off a horse.”

 

Adam scowled but said nothing, he couldn’t recall falling off his horse but that was due to having blacked out and not knowing anything until he was back in the saddle again and wondering why they had stopped.   He was, however, extremely grateful when allowed to sink down into one of the chairs, he closed his eyes for a moment to stop the room spinning and gingerly felt around his cheekbone which was beginning to feel more painful.

 

“Some brandy” Joe said and Olivia hurried to pour out a small glass which Adam pushed away with a shake of the head

 

“No, it’s alright, I feel drunk enough already.” her husband groaned and closed his eyes again.

 

Joe drank the brandy and licked his lips and nodded, “Right,  best get you upstairs.”

 

“No, thank you.” Adam raised a hand, “No,  I’d rather just stay here.   Hoss will be back soon anyway.”

 

“Where is Hoss?”  Olivia asked after thanking Cheng Ho Lee for his help, she looked at her husbands hands and shook her head “Adam,  you need those knuckles  attended to,  I’ll get some ice for your face.”

 

“Hoss went with Candy,  there’s a posse out looking for the men who bushwhacked Adam.”

 

“Why?” Olivia asked anxiously “Why did they do it?”

 

“Good question,  no doubt we’ll find out when Hoss gets back.” Adam sighed and accepted the ice pack from Cheng Ho Lee with a grateful nod of the head, “But I don’t think it was to pick my pocket,  more likely something to do with Rinehart.”

 

Joe perched himself on the arm of the settee and frowned “You reckon so?   Candy said that if they’ve been hired by the Agent that makes them Government Personnel.  That means we may have trouble getting any charges to stick”

 

“Why?” Olivia asked as she helped her husband out of his coat and hugged it to herself as she looked at his poor bruised face.

 

Joe shrugged and looked at his brother “Pa won’t be too pleased when he see’s you looking like this.”

 

“Well, I didn’t exactly intend to come home looking like this.” Adam growled

 

Olivia began to laugh, more from relief than anything,  she shook her head “And you told the children to stay out of trouble.   How are you going to explain to them the trouble you managed to get yourself into,  Adam?”

…………….

 

Mike Howell spat out blood and several bits of tooth before wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, he shook his head “Should have left well alone, Zeke.  Just ridden out and left ‘em.”

 

“Rinehart wanted them to be warned off, didn’t he?  You think we achieved anything in that saloon?  All we did was make them curious, and I wasn’t prepared to take on the big feller.”  Zeke rubbed his knuckles and stared thoughtfully down at the road that snaked back to town,  “Looks like they got a posse, see there?” he pointed to where a dust cloud indicated that some horsemen were on their way and out of the dust cloud could be seen a number of men

 

“Reckon we can be tracked up here?”  Mike muttered as he leaned over to see for himself, “I can see the big feller, the one with the big hat.”

 

“So what?”

 

“They reckon he’s the best tracker in the territory.  He’ll work out where we are sooner than you can sing Dixie”

 

“He won’t find us here.”  Zeke said confidently and looked up to the rocks that towered ahead of them,  “Let’s get moving.”

 

“I think it best we just stay where we are,” Mike replied, “Leastways we can see what they’re doing from here, and they won’t notice any movement that just might catch their eye and make ‘em want to investigate.”

 

This was greeted with a cautious nod of the head so that they both dismounted and after hiding the horses behind some boulders returned to where they could see the track.   Watching from the rocks they followed the posse until they had galloped out of sight as they took a curve in the road that led away from them.  Both men remained where they were for a while,  waiting, just in case the posse realised their error and returned back on themselves.

 

“Looks like they fell for it,  must think we’re stupid to stay out on the open road like that.” Zeke whispered.

 

“Yeah,  real stupid.”   Mike nodded and stood up, “Let’s move on out.”

 

“Do you think they’ll give up or keep trying to find our trail?”

 

“I don’t care one way or the other, but now’s the best time to get out of here and lose ‘em altogether.” came the irritated reply to that question.

……………….

 

Hoss drew Chubb to a halt, pushed his hat back and then shook his head, when Candy came to ask him what was wrong he had to admit that he wasn’t sure except that something didn’t feel right.

 

“ I reckon we’re riding away from them, going in the wrong direction.”

 

Candy frowned and looked around him, he stared up at the high boulder strewn rock face and then back to the way they had come, “They could be ahead of us.”

 

“No,  more than likely turned back and took a route through that away.”  Hoss pointed to  the high rock strewn terrain “I kin almost feel their eyes watching us.”

 

Candy shook his head “I can’t.”

 

“Wal, then you jest go ahead like you are and I’ll go back and see what I can find back there.   If I find any tracks I’ll fire off three shots.”

 

Candy nodded and told Clem to go with him, while the other five men rode along with himself.  Clem edged his horse closer to Hoss “You sure about this?”

 

“Gut instinct sometimes is more reliable than any track left in the sand, and, let me just add, Clem, I ain’t see no tracks of any strange hoss around here for a while, have you?”

 

Clem shook his head and admitted he hadn’t been looking, he just followed the leader.  “In that case,” Hoss said, “You’d best follow me and stick close.”

 

It took an hour to find where the two men had broken away from the track to thread a way through the rocks and edge up higher as they went.  The wind was getting keener as a result and both Clem and Hoss pulled the collars of their jackets tighter.  Hoss dismounted at one stage and nodded, he beckoned to Clem “Look at that, Clem?  Better than any sign post, huh?”

 

A neat pile of horse droppings could be said to be as good a sign post as any, and Hoss passed his hand over them, nodded and grinned “Quite fresh too, and look here …”  he hunched on over and stepped carefully to where the imprints of two bodies could be seen, very faintly in the dust among the rocks, “They must have been looking out to see if they were being followed.”

 

“Reckon they know that we’re on their tail?”

 

“Maybe,  but from what I can see,  they’ve moved on from here some hours back, maybe they didn’t see us leave the others.   Best loosen your rifle and keep  your gun handy just in case.”

 

Both men remounted and checked their rifles in their scabbards, then took the loop from the gun so that it would come out of the holster easily.  With greater caution now they began to thread their way through the rocks following Howell and Murray.

 

“Didn’t Clem say something about firing off three shots?”   Clem whispered only to see Hoss shrug and pretend that he hadn’t heard.   “Do you think -”

 

“No,  we keep quiet.  Candy will hear gun shots when we git to find ‘em.  Not before.”

 

They rode on in silence, with Hoss in the lead with his eyes fixed on the trail that the other men had left.  Their confidence in not being followed was coupled with their ignorance of just how capable Hoss was as a tracker, for he seized on every disturbed stone,  every sign of a metal hoof having struck rock,  he was as convinced that they were riding not far ahead of them as they were that no one would pick up their trail.

 

The day was shortening, Hoss stomach was rumbling and he was getting distracted by the thought of food when he saw the two men riding ahead of them.  He nodded to Clem, pointed in the direction of Howell and Murray, and both of them slowly withdrew their weapons.

 

“You men,” Clem shouted, “You stop right there, put your hands up and dismount from your horses.”

 

Moving their own horses forwards Clem and Hoss watched as the horsemen ahead drew up, but instead of dismounting  and complying with Clems orders they turned their horses heads around and with guns blazing came at a fast gallop towards them.

 

Hoss felt his hat sail from off his head even as he dived for cover behind a boulder, close behind him came Clem cursing as he landed heavily but managed to roll  and duck down by some rocks.

 

They fired at random, so that the two other men had no choice but to dismount and try to find shelter while they reloaded.   Hoss and Clem checked out their own guns, waited a moment and then began to blast away at the area where the men had hidden themselves.

Chapter 15

 

Murray was the first to start whining when chips from a rock cut across his cheek and drew blood, “This ain’t no good, we’re sitting ducks here.”

 

“Quit jawing and keep firing, we need to get out of here, and fast.” Howell fired off several bullets in quick succession which left him with an empty chamber.

 

“Why’d you stop fer?”

 

“’cos I’m outa bullets, ain’t I? Hand me your gun?”

 

“Are you crazy? Why don’t you use the rifle?”

 

The two men cowered for some moments behind the boulders and then Howell nudged Murray “Best thing is to make a run for the horses, then git out of here.”

 

Murray shook his head “By my reckoning there’s only two men down there firing at us, that leaves the rest of the posse ahead of us. We’ll just ride slap bang right into them”

 

“I don’t intend to go the way they expect, now, come on, follow me.”

 

With grave misgivings Murray did as his partner suggested and scurrying along on all fours and keeping close to the rocks they soon came upon their horses, mounted into their saddles and pulled out the rifles “This way…” Howell yelled and turned the horse round while discharging his rifle at where Hoss and Clem had been located.

 

This move hadn’t been anticipated by either of the deputies, and Hoss was somewhat mortified to find himself confronted by a mad horseman bearing down on him firing his rifle in all directions. Indiscriminate firing could at times be more dangerous and more successful than when actually aiming at a target, so both he and Clem shrunk back into the rocks to let the men pass by, before re-emerging to fire at their retreating backs.

 

As Howell and Murray disappeared in a dust cloud Clem and Hoss lowered their guns, looked at one another and shook their heads “Well, we did our best,” Clem said

 

“Would have been better if Candy had backed us up and come with us,” Hoss muttered rather darkly as he slipped his gun into its holster.

 

They remounted their horses with a despondent air, and headed back the way they had come only to have to draw up when gun shots from near by were sounded and before they could think as to the cause they saw Murray and Howell galloping back towards them.

 

Even before they had time to withdraw their guns or the rifles both of the other men realised that there was little point in trying to fight it out any more. They were boxed in with Candy and his posse behind them and Hoss with Clem before them … with much cursing they stopped their horses and raised their arms as they waited for the sheriff to approach them.

………………………

 

Joe Cartwright tip toed into the room where Mary Ann was feeding little Constance while Daniel was playing quietly with some bricks, piling them up high and then toppling over. He had removed his outer coat and hat, placed the gun belt safely away and now enjoyed this moment looking at his family.

 

Who would have thought it, Little Joe – breaker of hearts and mischief maker – now a father himself. He drew in a deep breath and approached his wife, who had turned at the sound of his approach and smiled at him “How are you, sweetheart?” he whispered and kissed the top of her head, while looking down at the blue eyes of his daughter as they stared up at him.

 

“You’re early, I didn’t expect you home so soon. Is everything alright?” she spoke softly as though afraid to spoil the harmony created in the room , “Did you ask Jenny to make you some coffee?”

 

“Sure, she’s making me something now.” he smiled and then leaned over her to stroke back the blonde hair of the infant “Mary Ann, she’s so beautiful.”

 

“She is,” Mary Ann nodded and smiled up at him, “Your Pa says she reminds him of Marie. Do you think so?”

 

“I can barely remember her,” he said truthfully, “Just vague memories but from the picture I have, yes, there is a likeness.”

 

Daniel came running up now and tugged at his father’s trouser leg, “Pa, Pa… come play and see?”

 

Joe laughed, left his wife and swooped down on the little boy, tossed him high to the ceiling and caught him again. It was a game Daniel loved and he laughed and chuckled every time until Joe finally deposited him on the ground “We had a bit of trouble in town,” he said quietly while he followed Daniel to where the bricks were scattered on the floor.

 

“Pick up, Pa.” the child insisted and handed a bright red brick to his father with a beaming dimpled smile.

 

“What kind of trouble? No one was hurt were they?” Mary Ann turned to look at her husband anxiously “You’re alright, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes. I’m fine, but Adam got quite a beating.” he placed a blue brick on the red one and smiled at his son who placed a yellow brick very carefully on the other, “Broken ribs, and some bad bruising.”

 

“Oh no, who did it?”

 

So he told her all about the two men, the incident in the saloon and what happened afterwards all the while building up the tower of bricks so that his little boy could happily knock them all over again.

 

Jenny tapped on the door and came into the room with a big smile and bearing a tray of coffee, biscuits and milk for the child. Joe stood up to take the tray from her and thanked her for the cookies, so that she blushed a little and then asked Mary Ann what else she needed to do, “I’ll be down soon, Jenny. We can prepare the meal together.”

 

“Yes,” Jenny nodded, “ I shall read a book until then.”

 

“That’s good, I won’t be long.”

 

The door closed and they could hear her footsteps leading away from the room, Mary Ann cuddled her daughter, winded her and then wrapped her in her shawl before she was placed carefully in her crib. Daniel went to peek over the top and pat his little sister on her head, thankfully without a brick in his hand.

 

“Adam will be alright, won’t he?” Mary Ann asked as she poured out their coffee while making sure Daniel had sat down to drink his milk

 

“I hope so, he fell off his horse on the way home, I’ve not known him do that before.”

 

“That must have hurt some more…” she observed and frowned “Olivia will be worried about him.”

 

“I told Pa, on the way here. Hoss went with the posse to see if they could catch the men who did it.”

 

He paused then, nibbled a biscuit and thought of his two brothers, he wasn’t sure which of the two he was more worried about, and allowed his mind to wander just a little.

……………..

 

Adam refused the whole idea of going to bed and resting, and had stayed seated by the fire. When his father arrived and demanded to know what had happened Adam’s replies were short and to the point, which didn’t lessen the anxiety in the older man who felt that Adam had sustained worse injuries than Paul had thought.

 

“I’m alright, Pa. A few broken ribs, that’s all.”

 

“Joe said you fell off your horse.”

 

“I can’t remember doing that,” Adam shrugged and winced, “Hoss went with the posse, no doubt he’ll be home soon with some news.”

 

Ben was not to be mollified he looked over at Olivia who had just come in from the other room “Olivia, he needs to get to his bed.”

 

“I’ve told him, Pa, but he won’t listen to me.” she smiled fondly at her husband and shook her head as though to admonish him further. “Are you going to stay for supper? The children will be home soon. Nathaniel, go and see Gran’pa?”

 

Nathaniel didn’t want to see Gran’pa, he was more interested in investigating the wood pile so that Ben had to quickly grab him by the leg and haul him back, then bounce him on his knee to stop him from crying. He was about to speak when the sound of the children coming into the room prevented him, he looked over at Adam who sat straighter as though just perhaps he wouldn’t look as beat up as he was and therefore would not have so many questions thrown at him by Reuben and Sofia.

 

Both of the children yelled in delight at seeing Ben there, “Granpa, Granpa” Sofia shrieked and ran at him with her arms wide so that Ben had to swing Nathaniel onto the settee in order to catch hold of her.

 

“You staying with us for supper, Gran pa?” Reuben asked with pink glowing cheeks and bright eyes and then he saw his father and his smile slipped “Aw Pa, what happened to you?”

 

Sofia stopped laughing and hugging Ben and turned to look at Adam, her eyes went round and her mouth opened wide, “Oh Daddy, Daddy…” she wriggled down from Ben’s arms and ran to Adam’s side “Your poor face…” she reached out to touch his cheek bone but he leaned away from her “Does it hurt?”

 

“I bet it does hurt.” Reuben observed as he approached Adam as he would a rare specimen of animal life that had suddenly appeared in the yard “Did you get into a fight?”

 

“I did, and yes, it does hurt.” Adam said honestly, and he sighed “It was none of my doing, but -” he shrugged

 

“You said not to fight,” Sofia scolded “It‘s norty.”

 

“Indeed it is, but as I said -” Adam paused and sighed “I didn’t start it, and when someone decides to beat up on you, then -”

 

“Yeah, you have to fight ’em back.” Reuben nodded, he quite understood and he put his arms around his fathers neck “Oh Pa,-”

 

“It’s alright, Reuben -” Adam winced, the pain in his ribs caused by the pressure of the boys body was intense “Just – step back will you?”

 

Reuben stepped back and regarded his father solemnly “Who did it, Pa?”

 

“Some men, Uncle Hoss has gone on the posse with Candy, they’ll catch them and no doubt they’ll be in the cells soon.” Adam assured them and leaned forward in an attempt to get to his feet, it was a difficult task, and Ben had to put his arm under his in order to help.

 

“You won’t die, will you, Daddy?” Sofia whispered, her voice wobbling and tears trickling down her cheeks “Oh Pa, don’t die… please don’t die.”

 

Adam felt deeply touched while at the same time rather irritated at the fact that he obviously looked so battered and bruised that he was scaring his children, he sighed “I promise, Sofia, I won’t die, now… come along, let’s see what Ma has for supper.”

 

Sofia hurried forward and grabbed hold of one of his hands so that with Ben supporting him and Sofia leading him by the hand, the invalid was able to reach the table without falling down, not that he intended to do so, but he was beginning to think that everyone else felt convinced that he would…. Reuben drew out his chair and patiently waited to make sure he managed to sit down in it.

 

Olivia passed him to her own chair and kissed him gently, then smiled over at Ben who was looking rather sombre as he took his seat, and Cheng Ho Lee proceeded to place the various dishes upon the table.

 

………………..

 

Daniel deQuille was jotting down some names in his note pad that he fully intended to check on in the morning. There was a familiar ring to some he had read in the journal…Lebedev, and Doestov … something that he was sure had involved some men of that name, perhaps the same men, not so very long ago.

 

He leaned forward to turn up the flame in the lamp and only looked up when one of the clerks opened the door, saw him and apologised for disturbing him “Working late, Mr deQuille?”

 

“Yes, just a while longer. I’ll lock up.” Daniel replied and nodded over to the other man who quickly closed the door behind him and left the building.

 

Daniel sighed and leaned back, stared at the ceiling and narrowed his eyes. He was more than sure that he had actually seen those names in print, in the Territorial Enterprise. It was after the fire, and certainly some time after the cholera outbreak. He jotted down those dates as a starting point to his enquiries next day.

 

His hand lingered over the key in the drawer, just another peek? He paused in the act of doing so and resisted it. There was always another day. He still felt guilty about the scorch marks on the pages where his cigar had landed the previous day. Had he been away from the office a moment longer the lot would have gone up in flames. He felt sick at the thought of it, not only because there was still so much he had to read, but also because there would be no way of returning it to the Ponderosa.

 

He stroked his chin thoughtfully, there were so many other names to think about…Rostov, Lawson, and Irena Pestchouroff. The connection to the Alaskan sale was too obvious, had he stumbled upon some state secret? Something involving the Russian sale of the Alaska’s which no one else knew about? His heart beat faster just at the thought of the possibility. It was just too wonderful for words, just too wonderful….

 

And no one else knew, not really.

 

Chapter `16

 

Sofia didn’t like to see her Pa so beaten up and when Olivia told her not to hug him because of his ‘poor broken ribs’ the little girl thought she was going to burst out crying right there and then.  She leaned against him as he sat in his chair and kissed his ‘poorly hand’   “Did you bash him hard, daddy?” she whispered in a sweet little voice that  left Adam  unsure whether to laugh or cry

 

“Hard enough, I think I knocked some teeth out.” he replied as calmly as possible.

 

Reuben raised his eyebrows “Wow, Pa, that must have been some punch.”

 

Adam raised his fist and observed his knuckles, from the indentations and grazing he had to nod and accept that his son was correct, it had been quite some punch.

 

“Do you reckon Uncle Hoss will have caught them by now?” Reuben leaned against his fathers leg jostling Sofia a little out of the way.

 

“I don’t know, guess it depends whereabouts they run to.”

 

“They’re norty.” Sofia asserted and gently dropped a kiss on her fathers hand.

 

Such an action caught at Adam’s throat, he had long been without such spontaneous tender affection from any other than his wife..and looking down at Sofia’s blonde head remembered when long ago  a golden haired woman had tenderly kissed his grazed hand, from a fall or something, he couldn’t recall that only the way she had kissed the hurt and said softly  “There now, all better, my darling.”

 

Olivia noticed the look that had passed  over his face, momentarily though it was and asked him if he were alright to which he nodded “I was reminded of Inger for a moment…”  and then he lapsed into silence, turning his head to look into the fire.

 

“Daddy,  shall I read  you a story?  Will it make you feel all better?” Sofia asked and he smiled and looked at Reuben who settled himself on the arm of the chair and leaned his head  upon his father’s shoulder.

 

Sofia ran quickly to find her McGuffey’s Eclectic First Reader and turned to the very first page which she gave to her daddy “See, daddy… that’s John, and Ann, and Jane.   Do you want to read it?”

 

Adam smiled and took the book from her, it seemed as though he had seen this book and all the collection of them for many years.  He could remember Joe coming home with his first primer and tossing it on the table with a snort of disgust “Don’t wanna read.  Don’t wanna read sloppy girls books.”   He smiled and turned to the first page which he read as well as he could …

 

“See,” Sofia beamed and kissed his bruised cheek “You read that real good,

Reuben shook his head “You were supposed to read it, you dimwit.”

 

“I – I wanted daddy to read it, that’s all.”

 

Adam nodded and smiled,gave his son a reproving look before he glanced at the cover of the book, which was bright and new.  He recalled to mind the battered editions he had seen over the years and after closing it gave the book back to his daughter.  Olivia smiled at the sight of Sofia’s furrowed brow as she turned to page 2, “My mother taught my brothers and myself from all those books,  Reverend McGuffey was a remarkable man.”

 

“He was,”  Adam nodded “I forgot that you had been home schooled, Livvy.”

 

“Well,  Pa didn’t want us to have any contact with the towns, as you know.” she sighed and looked down at her sewing,  “She had been a teacher once,  a one roomed school house and gave it all up to marry  my Pa.   That’s the law nowadays still, isn’t it?  If you love teaching it must be a hard thing to do,  to give it all  up for the love of a man.”

 

Adam smiled more broadly “Is love of a man such a little thing then, my dear?”

 

“No,  I would give up anything for the love of MY man.” she looked at him and laughed a little, “I suppose I was thinking more about the kind of man for whom my mother gave up her career.”

 

“Pa?”  Reuben tugged at his father’s sleeve knowing from experience that there were times when his Ma and Pa tended to get a bit soppy in their conversations, “Pa, tell us a story before Ma chases us up to bed.”

 

“I want Pa to chase us up to bed tonight.” Sofia protested,  and scrambled up onto the other arm of the chair so that she could ‘share’ her fathers attention equally as much as her brother.

 

“I don’t think I will be able to do any chasing up stairs or anywhere else tonight,” Adam said with a slight furrow on his brow “But I shall tell you a story.”

 

The children shared a conspiratorial smile and settled down by their  father’s side,  while he himself inched himself a little higher in the chair in order to be more comfortable.

 

“A small boy was travelling a long way in a wagon with his Pa,” he began and Reuben said “Is that you, and Gran’pa?”  to which Adam nodded,  “Sometimes they would stop at settlements or Forts and Pa would get a small amount of work, just enough to pay for food and the necessaries to get by… there was the wagon to be maintained and perhaps new parts to be bought,  the horse had to be cared for and perhaps re’shoed.  There was clothing and food, all sorts of things that had to be stowed away for the next leg of the journey.”

 

“Why a leg?  Why not an arm?” Sofia wanted to know and Reuben hissed  “Shush” right in Adam’s ear

 

“Well,  more than anything the little boy wanted a book to read.  Sometimes he would go to what passed as a school,  usually a room in some woman’s cabin,  and he would see her reading from a book, teaching the children how to read, how to do math… some of the children even possessed their very own book.   More than anything he longed for one of them for his very self.”

 

“Did he get one?” Sofia breathed softly, her breath like warm air drifting past Adams nose.

 

“Well,  he knew his Pa would never be able to buy him a book like that, it was a luxury, something that wouldn’t feed them, or keep them warm, or care for the horse and wagon.   And Pa worked hard, really hard, for what he could get.   Some days when the  travelling seemed to go on forever, the little boy would think of those books with the pictures and words in them.   His pa had a bible,  and some books that had lots of words and no pictures,  but he wasn’t allowed to touch them.    Each evening by the fire light his Pa would scratch out words in the dust to teach him, but he could only think of those books.

 

“One day they reached a settlement and he was sent off to the school house,  there were only two other children there, each with a book of their very own.  He could see that they were brand new and he just longed to have one.   The teacher was a man,  not old,  probably the same age as Pa,  and his voice was kindly.  He looked at the boy and said “Are you staying, boy, or moving on?”  and the boy replied “Moving on, sir, but I sure would like a book like that to move on with…” “

 

“And he gave you one?” Reuben said “Didn’t he?”

 

“No, as happens he did not.   I was there for a few days before Pa said this wasn’t the place we were going to settle in, so  I .. I mean … the little boy got ready to move on.   As pa was loading up the wagon a woman came to him and introduced herself,  and after shaking  hands with Pa she passed over a small package, then looked over at the boy and smiled, “Make good use of them, child.” she said,  “You may be surprised how what you learn will put food in your belly,  and keep your clothes on your back.”  I didn’t understand then what she meant of course but I took the books from Pa and there they were McGuffeys Eclectic Readers the first three …  Pa told me that they had been her own little boys, but he had died recently and she had seen the look on my face …”  he paused then and turned to look at the fire,  “Well, that’s the end of the story, so, off you get now and give me room to breathe. “

 

“That was a good story, Pa, did you ever see the lady again?” Reuben asked

 

“No,  in fact, it wasn’t long after that we saw smoke coming up from the settlement, and later learned that it had been destroyed in an Indian raid.”

 

Reuben frowned “Are Indians wicked, Pa?”

 

Adam glanced now over at his wife who said “When I was taken by the Bannocks as a child I thought all Indians were wicked, Reuben, but I learned that they were just like everyone else, some do what seem to be very wicked things, and some do not.  Just as white folk do … “

 

“They never hurt you, did they, Ma?” Reuben asked leaning now against her skirts and slipping his hand into hers

 

“No,  none of us were hurt.  Uncle Luke will tell you about  what it was like, he has a better memory of those times than I do.”

 

“Off to bed now,” Adam said briskly, “School tomorrow,  we don’t want you sleepy in the morning do we?”

 

“I’m always sleepy in the mornings,” Sofia declared as she stood on tiptoe now to kiss her father goodnight.

 

“I know,  so – off to bed.   Now ..!”

…………………

 

Ben had not been returned home long from Adam and Olivia’s when Hoss pushed the door open and entered the house.  Hester greeted him with a big smile, and hurried to give him a hug and kiss as well as assist him in getting his coat removed.

 

“How did you get on, son?  Any success?”

 

Hoss nodded “Yeah, we got ‘em both.”  he rubbed both hands together and headed for the fire “Sure is beginning to get cold out there.”

 

“I’ve your supper waiting for you,” Hester said fondly and hurried into the kitchen to get her husband’s meal for him, while Hoss settled himself by the fire and stretched out his legs

 

“No one hurt?”

 

“No,  only  Murray from where his teeth got knocked out by Adam in that fight.  No, they’re alright,  Candy’s got them locked up and charging them for causing an affray.  I reckon that means for ambushing and beating up on Adam.”

 

Ben nodded and frowned thoughtfully over at his son “It was the two men from the reservation then?”

 

“Yeah,  and not happy either.  They’re keeping pretty close mouthed just now, but Candy said they’ll talk,  he has posters for both of them,  they’re wanted in several states so he’s going to wire the law over there and arrange for them to come collect them for trial.”

 

“Good.   A mans known by the kind of men he employs and seems to me that Agent is pretty suspect to my way of thinking.”

 

“Mine too, Pa.”  Hoss sighed and shook his head “Have you seen Adam?”

 

“I have,” Ben nodded, “He’ll be alright in a week or so.  Got worse injuries than that breaking horses.”

 

Hester came in then and called her husband over to the table where the smell alone was tempting the big man to leave his comfortable seat by the fire.  Ben smiled and watched as Hoss kissed his wife again, and sat down to eat.  Sometimes it seemed the blessings poured down in an abundance and he sighed contentedly as he reached for his pipe and tobacco.

 

Chapter 17

 

Pain and discomfort brought about a restless night for Adam Cartwright, so much so that he eventually abandoned the bed and made his way downstairs to pour a little brandy into a glass and then wander out into the yard.  It was cold,  the first frosts of winter were decorating the surfaces of the buildings and yet everything was completely still.     For a few moments he looked up at the moon and thought of the countless nights he had done the same, wondering if his family were looking  up into the sky and thinking about him.

 

With a sigh he returned to the house, hugging one arm close to the ribs that had been broken.  He closed the door gently behind him and made his way to the chair by the fire, eased himself into a comfortable position and sipped the brandy slowly.  Odd how often his thoughts turned back to those times on board ship,  the faces of old friends flashed across his memory .. Hathaway and Gibbs,  O’Brien and Myers.  All those days spent in the company of so many men, loyal men,  some of whom had faced death alongside himself many a time.

 

The cover of the McGuffey book that Sofia had taken out of her bag to read to him brought back memories too,  of Inger and how she would hold him close to her side while reading through the words and how she had laughed and said “Oh Adam, I am learning to speak English too.” in that lovely lilting voice of hers… no wonder his father had loved her so much.

 

‘Getting maudlin,’ he thought to himself and swallowed down the last of the brandy, ‘Must be a sign of old age.” but he smiled at the thought, because memories had often flashed forward to torment and taunt him,  or to refresh and enlighten him.

 

He was tired, but his mind refused to shut down and he knew if he returned to his bed he would disturb Olivia.   He sighed and leaned back to stare up at the ceiling,  and wondered now what sort of life his children would have in the future.  So many changes were taking place, progress …  he smiled to himself, memories of conversations about progress with O’Brien came to mind, of steam ships and their benefits as opposed to the dignity and beauty of the clipper ships.  He could hear O’Brien‘s voice now “Just remember how many men lost their fingers trying to unleash the sails when they had frozen to the yardarm.”

 

For a moment he was tempted to go and read through O’Brien’s journal but even as he thought of doing so he knew it would be best not to,  at times like this it was better to let the ghosts of the past stay there rather than read their words and begin to put flesh and bone back on them.

 

He  fell asleep after having rebuilt up the fire and seen in the flames the Ainola in her dying embrace with the fire ship… brandy, he realised, had never been the best of things for him to drink at this time of night.

 

He awoke to the sounds of Olivia calling his name, a gentle hand on his shoulder as she looked anxiously into his face   “Why aren’t you in bed? Are you feeling worse?  Are you in pain?”

 

“Couldn’t sleep.”  he rubbed his face and yawned, groaned as the pain trickled through him, “Bed makes it more painful.”

 

She stepped back and shook her head “You’ve removed the bandages …oh, Adam, no wonder you’re in pain.”

 

He frowned slightly and risked a slight shrug of the shoulders “Can’t breathe with them on, Joe took them off when I -”

 

“When you fell off  your horse?” she snapped and brought both hands down on her hips to indicate her impatience with him “Paul knows what he’s doing, Adam… he strapped your ribs for a reason.”

 

“Of course he did, but -”  he sighed and raised a hand in order to seize hold of one of hers, but she refused to give way to him “he doesn’t know everything.”

 

“And YOU do?”  she shook her head again “Are you a doctor now?”

 

“No, but I do know that with those bandages on I couldn’t breathe, that’s why I fell off my horse…if Joe is to be believed because I can’t recall doing so … just being unable to breathe and everything going black for a moment.”

 

“You – you really are impossible, you know that, don’t you?”

 

“Livvy, I haven’t got broken ribs, just a bit bruised and battered ones is all…” he tried to look hard done by, after all it worked for Joe, and sometimes, occasionally, worked for him but she was too concerned about his health to fall for that trick and slapped his hand aside “Livvy, I’m an engineer and …”

 

“An engineer …what on earth has that to do with your broken ribs!”

 

“Well, a good engineer knows that you have to have some lee-way in a building, and -?”

 

“Adam,  if -”

 

“And not only that, I’ve been tossed off a lot of horses in my time and banged up my ribs often enough without having to be bound up like an Egyptian mummy!  And -”

 

“And …?”

 

“I had a very good doctor on board the Shenandoah, and he said ..”

 

“I thought you’d have to bring in your wretched ship somehow or other.   This has nothing to do with horses, ships or -”

 

“And he said that if you bind up ribs it prevents the lungs from working properly.”

 

“He knows more than Dr Martin?” she turned away now, refusing to look at him as her temper cooled, instead she distracted herself by picking up a log and placing it carefully on the fire.

 

“In this case, yes, he does…did … come and sit beside me, Livvy, and let me tell you a story.”  he grinned, knowing he was slowly wearing her down and when she raised her nose in the air and pretended to be engrossed in replacing the log his grin only widened  “Euan explained all about ribs and lungs, you know.   And if you stop  breathing you know what happens, don’t you?”

 

“For heavens sake, I’ve enough to think about without imagining you dead…”

 

“Which is why I took off the bandages.  So’s my ribs could allow my lungs to breath and then I was in less pain and able to get home.  But, they still hurt a lot…” he pursed his lips and frowned “Come and sit down, Livvy, come and hold my hand.”

 

“No.”

 

“Oh, why not?”

 

“Because, that’s why.”

 

“Because of what?   Are you worried about what happens when a girl sits beside a boy and holds his hand?”

 

“Don’t talk rubbish.”  she tossed her head and the curls around her face fluttered, “No, I’m going to bed.  Are you staying here …on your own?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Sure?”

 

“I’m still breathing but it hurts to lie down, thought I’d already explained about that, but as you want to go to bed anyway, and not sit here and give me a little comfort …well,  go to bed then, good night.   Sleep well.”

 

“You are a grump.”

 

“You are a very unfeeling wife.”

 

“I love you.”

 

“Huh.”

 

She laughed then and leaned down to kiss him, “I wish your ribs were a whole lot better, Adam, I really do.”

 

“So do I.”  he sighed, winced and kissed her again “Sure you don’t want to sit here with me, look into the fire, and just day dream a little?”

 

“Yes of course I do,  Mr Cartwright,” she laughed again, “But with your ribs all banged up as they are, I’ll have  you and Nathaniel to look after for the next few days.”

 

“Could be weeks…” he sighed and held her hand more tightly

 

“Mmm,  I doubt it, knowing how stubborn you are.  Joe needs a slap on the side of the head for taking those bandages off you like that, Paul would be mortified.”

 

“I would have been dead ..”

 

“Don’t –    talk  –   like   –   that…” she leaned in to kiss him again “See you in the morning.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really.”

…………………………..

 

He must have fallen back into sleep, and opened his eyes to see the children up from their beds, fresh logs burning on the fire and he could smell food cooking.   By the time the children had prepared themselves for school  he had returned to the bed room, fallen asleep in the chair by the window.

 

Hoss and Joe arrived just as Olivia was clearing away the breakfast things and the children were on the wagon with Ezra, muffled up warm against the cold.  Warm breath steamed into the cold air as the two brothers knocked and entered the house to be given a warm welcome by their sister in law.

 

“Where’s Adam?” Hoss asked looking suspiciously around the room as though his big brother would pounce out at him from somewhere and Joe frowned and grimaced

 

“Is he alright, Livvy?”

 

“Asleep.   He had a bad night.”   she smiled at them and offered coffee which they agreed would be a good idea.

 

It was Hoss who lifted his nephew from his high chair and walked around the room with him while Joe slumped into a chair  and bit his finger nails for a few moments until Olivia reappeared with coffee pot steaming and cups ready.  She smiled over at Hoss

 

“How did you get on yesterday?  Did you catch the men who were responsible for Adams broken ribs?”

 

“Yep, we got ’em alrighty”  Hoss said and deposited Nathaniel on the floor to crawl around as he wished.  “Candy’s going to deal with them now.  They’re wanted in several states.”

 

“So Adam  said, Roy told him yesterday.”  she frowned “Dos this mean more trouble for you all now?”

 

“I doubt it, Rinehart has moved the Paiute to Oregon, that’s way out of our territory” Joe muttered and took his cup from her, “We just came by to check on Adam.  Didn’t expect him to be well enough to join with us on checking out the cattle down  in the low pasture.”

 

Hoss nodded and watched as Nathaniel clambered to his feet and despite swaying too and fro a little, stood awhile chewing on the corner of a book which Livvy with an exclamation of dismay realised was Sofia’s McGuffey.

 

“Seems to have the same appreciation for literature that I had,” Joe laughed and stretched out his legs “I guess we should be moving, Hoss, stay too long and we’ll get a mite too comfortable.”

 

Hoss sighed and nodded, “Tell Adam we were asking for him…”  he paused “And tell him we got them thar men.”

 

They both kissed her cheek as they left the house and waved as they rode out of the yard,  for a moment she watched them until they disappeared around the corner of the  barn and then closed the door upon them.

 

Having rescued the McGuffey from Nathaniel and preventing him squalling by giving him a biscuit to chew on inside, Olivia collected up the coffee fixings and took them into the kitchen.   From the window she could see the sun shining brilliantly through a mist laden sky, soon it would be burned up and a pretty golden autumnal day would begin.

 

Adam came slowly down the stairs with his hair tousled and his eyes heavy “Did I hear Hoss earlier?”

 

“You did.”  she smiled and told him the message that his brothers had conveyed to her,  “Do you feel well enough for some breakfast?”

 

He nodded,  smiled rather sleepily and tightened the belt of his dressing gown.  Nathaniel held out his arms to him for a cuddle, something that Adam would have been tempted to do but knew the ribs would complain if he gave way.  He played a little game of peek a boo for a few minutes before taking a seat at the table.

 

“I think he’ll be walking soon.”  she came and put a hand on his arm “You will be alright, won’t you?”

 

“I don’t intend going anywhere until these ribs are a lot better than they are just now.”

 

“Good, I don’t want to find you’ve been down to the low pasture checking out the cattle there with your brothers.”  she laughed and leaned forward to kiss his cheek, rough stubble prickled her lips and she wrinkled her nose.

 

“What did you have planned for today, sweetheart?”

 

“I had thought to go and see Marcy.  She hasn’t seen Nathaniel for a while, and – to be honest – I’ve not been near the Double D in such a long time.”  she frowned,  and then smiled “But it can wait,  I’ll go when you are feeling better.”

 

“No,” he shook his head and took bread from the platter which he slowly began to pick into pieces,  “No, don’t change your plans because of me.  The weather’s holding good just now,  it won’t for much longer.  Anyway, I’m a bad patient,  it’s best you go.”

 

She looked at him doubtfully but turned to attend to cooking some bacon and eggs while her husband shared out the pieces of bread with Nathaniel, “Are you sure? I don’t like the thought of you being on your own here, not when you’re not well.”

 

He smiled and leaned towards Nathaniel “D’you hear that, your Ma thinks I’m sick.”

 

She laughed at the sound of Nathaniel’s giggle, and shook her head “Well, I wouldn’t say staggering about the house with broken ribs a sign of good health, Mr Cartwright.”

 

“Perhaps not, but I’m alright, Cheng Ho Lee will get anything I need, but mostly I find that plenty of sleep is sufficient for me.  Honestly, Livvy, do go and see Marcy,  the fresh air will do you good, blow away cobwebs and all that kind of thing.” he smiled at her as she placed the hot food in front of him “Thank you, Mrs Cartrwight.”

 

“You’re welcome,” and she leaned down to accept his kiss.

 

“Me too…Me too.”  Nathaniel wriggled his fingers and toes as he waited for his mother to drop a kiss on his chubby dimpled cheek and then clapped his hands when she had done so.

 

As Adam ate his meal and thought over his wife’s plans for the day it made him realise that since Roberts death which left her a widow with two young children to care for, and himself at sea for weeks, perhaps months, she had become proficient in the art of caring for herself.   He watched her as she busied herself around the kitchen, humming a tune to herself,  or clearing away the dishes, pouring out more coffee, kissing her little boy,  and realised that she didn’t even need Cheng Ho Lee, not really

 

“What are you thinking about, darling?” she sat down close to him and slipped her hand across the table to take hold of his, looked deep into his dark eyes, “You seemed miles away…”

 

“I was thinking of a scripture… ‘a capable wife who can find?  She is more precious than corals.’”

 

She laughed a little then, and squeezed his hand, “And what do you intend to do today, Mr Cartwright?”

 

“While you’re at Marcy’s?” He raised his eyebrows and she shook her head and leaned forward again to kiss him

 

“Adam Cartwright, do you really think I can go off to visit Marcy when you’re at home?  All those times you have been away at sea, away from home…”  her voice caught in her throat and for a moment he wondered if she were going to cry, “I would imagine days when we would be together just the two of us …”

 

Nathaniel burped and Adam laughed “He has excellent timing,  hasn’t he?”

 

“I know, he takes after a man I know…”  and she didn’t blush when he took her hand and raised it to his lips in order to kiss her fingers.

 

She found him a sunny spot in which to sit, asked if he wanted a book,  wanted more coffee?   He sat and watched her, his eyes grew heavy,  he was aware of her being near him, close by, her perfume smelled so good, the sound of her skirts drifting over the floor … he hadn’t realised he was so tired.

 

.…………….

 

The back editions of the Territorial Enterprise were surprisingly sparse on the information for which Daniel was searching.   If he had anticipated the names Lebedev and Doestov to leap out at him from the printed page he was to  be disappointed for no such thing happened.

 

He did discover a small paragraph referring to the shooting of Candy Canaday by three perhaps four men one of whom was killed.   The dead man was identified as a Peter White, from Bedrock.   After lingering a while over that  he thought over  the occurrence and began to remember several other things that had happened at that time.   He began to methodically examine yet another edition of the paper.  There he was informed about the deaths, by shooting, of several men,  and one man brought back by the militia, to  be buried with his companions.

 

“Some mystery surrounds these men as it is known that they are not Americans and all information about them has been with held by the authorities.  There is no doubt that they were involved in the attempted murder of Candy Canaday and were brought to account by Commodore Adam Cartwright, and his brothers Hoss and Joseph Cartwright in a shoot out some  way out of town.  It has been circulating around town that the man brought in by the militia committed suicide by poison but no clarification as to why has been given.”

 

Daniel spent a further hour searching through the papers for information but found nothing to enlighten him about the deaths of those men, or of the two Russians.  But the lack of information did not worry him unduly,  if he had stumbled upon a secret, then he would not have expected too much information to be scattered about for just anyone to find.  He felt a degree of satisfaction as he put the old editions to ‘rest’ and jotted the details of what he had in his notebook.

 

The men had been buried in town,  so the next task was to locate the undertaker who had been involved.  There were several, Jenkins, Riley, Conor … he stroked his beard thoughtfully and after he had informed his secretary that he was going to be out for a while, he left the building.

 

Riley the Undertaker listened to what Daniel had to say and shook his head, no he had had no dealings with anything like that,  but from what he could remember Jenkins did,  for the older man had been a little too free with his tongue after some drinks and  the sheriff had warned him he needed to keep his mouth shut.

 

“That was sheriff Armitage,  the one that caused all that trouble with the Indians that time … he was a bad ‘un and no mistake.  Roy took over the reins again for a while after that, let things cool down a bit.”

 

Daniel nodded and smiled,  thanked him and left the premises.   Everyone had cause to remember Armitage and he shook his head with a grim smile, remembering how he himself had been fooled enough by him to write an account of a stolen black stallion when it had been nothing of the kind.  Ah well, he sighed, one can’t get everything right all the time.

 

Mr Jenkins the undertaker listened  as he worked,  he nodded every so often and thought about what to say in reply after all Daniel was more than likely to slip something one said into the following days newspaper and then where would one find oneself?    “I remember the incident all very well,” he said as he set aside his tools of the trade and led the journalist out of the work shop, through the chapel of rest where, thankfully, no one was actually ‘resting’ and into the  ‘shop front’.   He pulled out a ledger and turned over some pages running his stubby finger down through the lists until eventually he came to the date he sought

 

“This was the first to  be brought here, they said he was Peter White from Bedrock.  He was shot when there was an attempt on Candy Canaday, nearly killed him they did.  He only had one visitor,  a chap called Lorimor who had been at the same boarding house at him. “ he pushed his spectacles further up his nose   “They weren’t American, you know.” he fixed Daniel with a sharp eye that sparkled through the lenses of his spectacles.

 

“So I understand, Russian I believe?”

 

“Mostly,  I think one was Polish … anyway the man Lorimor, was brought in later with another man, both shot by the Cartwright boys.”  he pursed his lips and then leaned upon the counter where he had set down the ledger, he indicated with a jerk of the head that Daniel draw closer to him, even though the only person who could possibly            over hear anything they could say was, already, dead.  “Now then, you may know this already anyway, so I wont be telling you anything new, but there were three men went after the Cartwrights that day.  Two returned tied over the back of their horses but the third one they put in prison.”

 

“I remember that -” Daniel nodded and narrowed his eyes, “The militia came and took him away.”

 

“For a while, next thing they brung him back didn’t they?  He -” Jenkins heaved in a deep breath “He took poison, killed himself.  Now, what do you say to that?”

 

Daniel refrained from comment, he remembered only too well asking Adam Cartwright for a story and getting that cold blank stare he usually received from  the man.  Jenkins nodded and scratched the back of his neck,

 

“They were all buried in Boot Hill.”  he tapped his forefinger at several figures “That’s where you may find them?”

 

“May?”  Daniel frowned

 

“Well,  that’s the mystery.”  Jenkins removed his spectacles, folded them and then tapped the side of his nose with them, “There were two others that died…got shot … “

 

“And?”

 

“Had to put those two on ice until the authorities took them away, said they were noblemen, Russian, and would be buried where they came from,  some fancy big estate back in Russia I daresay.”

 

“What were their names?”

 

“Ah, now that’s something I can’t tell you.  Never got to know.  I did ask mind you,” he nodded his head as though to  prevent Daniel commenting on his lack of procedure “But I was told that it was ‘classified’ business.  That means the Governments involved you know.”

 

“I realised …” Daniel nodded and frowned “So no idea who they were?”

 

“No.   Can tell you this though, it had something to do with Adam Cartwright.  It was about the time when he was still at sea,  an officer wasn’t he?”

 

Daniel nodded, everyone knew that much and he stroked his beard and looked at the list of names thoughtfully “Nothing more you can tell me?”

 

“The Government man was called Dutton.  Sheriff Armitage didn’t like him very much,  they sparked off each other that’s for sure.  Not a very pleasant man, that Armitage, although its not for me to speak ill of the dead.”

 

“Bad for business is it?” Daniel grinned and the undertaker frowned and shook his head as though that comment needed some thinking about it.

 

 

When Daniel checked out where the graves of the four men should have been he found nothing.   The soil had been flattened over and grass grew sufficiently to indicate that nothing had been touched there for some time.  He shook his head, and stood there staring before reminding himself that dead men couldn’t talk anyway, so no point in getting bothered by the fact that some time or other the four bodies had been removed.  He wondered where they had been taken and shook his head,  he’ll probably never know.  Perhaps the only one who could tell him was Adam Cartwright.

 

As he passed the grave of the late Sheriff Armitage a small bunch of flowers at its  headstone caught his eye.  Well now, another mystery, someone actually still cared about a man who had caused so many problems and so much heartache to the town over which he was custodian.

 

Chapter 18

 

The first frosts arrived and with them came beautiful sunsets and sunrises. It prompted early risers to leave their beds and get on with their chores as fast as they could so that they could enjoy the fresh crispness of pink and orange dyed frost as the white hoar reflected the colours of the rising sun.

 

If early enough Adam would let Reuben mount Kamille and ride her around the corral, watching him with approval from the fence as he continued his work. At Joe’s house little Daniel was getting used to feeding and currying Kamille’s son, standing on a box in order to reach some parts that were just a little out of his reach. The little colt was not quite so little now and more than once had toppled the child from the box with a nudge of his handsome head.

 

Miss Brandon had wisely separated Charlotte from Sofia, putting steady and reliable Annie Sales beside her instead. Sofia had Betty Sales seated next to her, she was more Sofia’s age and as steady and placid as her sister. This new arrangement had not suited Charlotte one bit and she had displayed shocking insolence and been forced to stand in the corner more than once each day.

 

Sofia was beginning to realise the wisdom of her brothers words, Charlie was naughty, and disobedient. She was everything that Sofia knew her parents would not want their daughter to be but even so, she was as drawn to the girl as a moth is to a flame.

 

“Let’s go into town,” Charlotte suggested one lunch recess, “My ma has had a baby, you can come and see it if you want.”

 

“No thank you.” Sofia said politely, “I’ve a baby of my own at home.” she paused a moment “I didn’t know you had a Ma, I thought you just had an aunt.”

 

Charlie looked at the younger girl scornfully and raised her eyebrows, the freckles on her face stood out against the pale skin with equal scorn “Don’t you know anything? She is my aunt, but now she has a baby so she’s my Ma.”

 

Sofia blinked rather at that, it made no sense to her whatsoever and she stared at Charlie long enough for the other girl to realise that this was a child with no idea about birds, bee’s or what happens in ‘real life’. She shrugged and looked around her, “Well, we can go down to town anyway. Nothing to stop us.”

 

Sofia frowned and remembered what had happened the last time she has skipped school to go to town, she murmured that she didn’t think they should even though the idea was really exciting. Reuben was playing with the boys, kicking some ball about the yard, girls were in groups and gossiping, or playing together. Charlie was already walking out of the playground, and before she knew it, Sofia was running after her.

 

When they returned no one said a word about it, even Reuben didn’t seem to have missed her. Sofia looked over at Charlie and smiled at the wink her friend gave her, it had gone just so well. No one noticed, no one said anything, no one cared.

………….

 

Despite the fact that his ribs were still tender and ached if he overworked himself, Adam and Hoss chose the weekend to take Reuben hunting, or, if not successful, to show them how hunting was done whether one brought back anything or not. Olivia was a little doubtful as to the wisdom of going as the weather was getting colder, Adams ribs were still not as good as she would have liked them, and she was concerned about her boy going out into the wilds.

 

“He isn’t going without anyone with him” Adam said for probably the tenth time that morning, “Hoss has been looking forward to this, Livvy. I can’t let him down.”

 

“Yes, you can -” she said as she watched him fill his saddle bags with some staples, “It’s getting colder, Adam, what if it snows?”

 

“Snows?” he said as if the thought had been a million miles from his mind, “Well, it will be much easier to track something if it snows.”

 

“But, Adam, what if -”

 

He interrupted her by kissing her, smiled and shook his head “I promised Reuben, Livvy. This is the first opportunity where we can all get together and take him out with us. “

 

“Why isn’t Joe going too?” she asked as she noticed her son now loitering by the door, watching and listening in order to find out the outcome of this particular family discussion

 

“Because he doesn’t want to,” he shrugged “He’s teaching his son how to take care of a horse. I want to teach my son how to hunt and provide for himself should he ever need to.”

 

Olivia came and wrapped her arms around his neck and looked anxiously up into his face “You won’t go too far?”

 

“Just far enough, my dear.”

 

“And if it snows….you will come home?”

 

“Dear Livvy, you are such a city girl, seems you’ve forgotten all about how your folk managed survive so long before there were stores and such.” he teased her sweetly, and then gently turned her away as he buckled down his saddlebags and looked over to the door “Ready, son?”

 

“Sure thing, Pa.”

 

“Your ma wants to make sure you’re really dressed for the cold weather.” he beckoned Reuben over and watched as Olivia fussed a little and then nodded at the boy, “Right, let’s go.”

 

Sofia came and stood on tiptoe to kiss her father goodbye, and just as Adam put his hand to the latch the door itself opened and Hoss stepped into the room with a wide beaming smile on his face “All ready then?”

 

“All ready, Uncle Hoss.” Reuben beamed a huge smile up at his Uncle, kissed his mother and nodded to his sister “see you soon, Ma. Sofia.”

…………….

 

Adam had decided to take Kamille on this trip, he had toyed with the idea for a while, tossing it too and fro as to whether or not it were a wise thing to do, but the beast was eating its head off and doing so little that he felt it was time to test her mettle.

 

He ignored Sports dark eyes following him out of the stable as he led Max and Kamille into the yard, Hoss was on Chubb II and already looking impatient as Adam waited for Reuben to mount. Within minutes they were trotting out of the yard and onto the track which would take them to the ponderosa laden hills beyond the houses.

 

Reuben was excited, it had taken him some while to get to sleep the previous night for Adam had not mentioned the trek for some time, no doubt anxious about his ribs and not wanting to disappoint the lad. But now, here he was, jogging alongside his Pa and Uncle and all ready for his first major hunt.

 

Hoss turned in the saddle and observed his nephew “There’s a lot to learn, young’un, so you behave yourself, you hear?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Their warm breath plumed out into the cold mists of the air around them, everywhere was quiet, not even a breeze disturbed the silence. He became aware now of the sound of their horses hooves upon the damp duff underfoot, of a sudden chirrup of some bird, the rustle of leaves as some small animal ran across them.

 

“Pa? Will it take long?”

 

“What do you mean, son?”

 

“To find a deer or whatever it is we’re hunting.”

 

Adam smiled faintly, looked over to his brother who grinned and gave a slight nod of the head “Well,, Reuben, this isn’t just a hunt. Your Uncle and I thought we’d take the time to teach you how to track so that you’d know what to look for, what kind of animal you’re hunting, or what kind of animal could be hunting you.”

 

“Really, Pa?” Reuben frowned “What would be hunting me?”

 

For a moment both men were silent, then Hoss said “Well, guess the bears will be getting ready to hibernate by now, another week or so, especially if weather worsens.”

 

“Are there many bears around here?”

 

“Only the black bear…mind you, a black bear comes in all kind of colours, but they don’t mean no harm, cept you get in between a mom and her cub, so you don’t do that.” Hoss frowned, “Not that it’s likely, seeing how it’s winter. If you do see a bear, just stand still, try and look as big as you can and stare right at it. Don’t run otherwise it’ll chase ya.”

 

“Have you been chased by a bear, Uncle Hoss?”

 

“Er — yeah – several times. That’s why I’m telling ya not to.”

 

Adam smiled slightly, but it did make him realise yet again that while he had been away at sea he had lost valuable time with the boy. The questions Reuben was asking a child much younger would know, a youngster born and bred to the wilds.

 

“Pa, did you get chased by a bear?”

 

Adam shook his head, “No, only your Uncle Hoss had that pleasure.”

 

Reuben nodded and thought about that for a while, he looked around him, they were entering the woods now, and it was getting darker, the natural light from the sky, even though so slight that early in the morning, was rapidly diminishing. “Pa, how did you learn hunting and tracking?”

 

“Your Gran’pa taught me some, but mostly from the Paiute.” Adam replied slowly, “When we first came to this territory most of this land belonged to them, it was their natural right. I got friendly with some of the youths in the tribe and they taught me to track, they taught Hoss as well.”

 

“Yep,” Hoss scratched the back of his neck and smiled “Lots of weeks and months would go by before we ever got to see a white man around here. Adam was practically a wild Indian himself back them days.”

 

“And Ma lived with Indians too, with Bannocks.” Reuben said slowly, “Did they teach her to track and hunt?”

 

“No,” Adam shook his head “No, she was too young, and a girl, she was taught other things.”

 

“Ma was real brave, she wasn’t scared or nothing, was she?”

 

“No, I guess not.” Adam smiled and thought of the little girl he had barely known, he glanced over at Hoss “Uncle Hoss liked your grandmother, Martha. She baked good cakes didn’t she, Hoss?”

 

“She sure did. Pity what …er … yeah, she did. Anyhow, let’s just stop here and look around, see what we can see, huh?”

 

Both Adam and Hoss unsheathed their rifles and walked slowly, bent double to check the ground they were walking over, behind them Reuben trailed looking at the leaves, all damp and sodden and nothing by way of interest to him. Hoss paused, pointed “What do you make of that?”

 

Adam looked, nodded and glanced at Reuben who was leaning over his fathers shoulder to look at what just seemed a pile of dirty leaves “What do you see, son?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

Hoss and Adam exchanged a glance, “Look agin, Reuben, and use your nose.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Sniff, son…” Adam muttered so thus encouraged Reuben sniffed, hard and long, then grimaced

 

“It smells like – the outhouse when it needs cleaning out.” Reuben wrinkled his nose and wished now he hadn’t sniffed so hard.

 

“That’s right,” Hoss nodded and began to explain how this was an indication of what animal had passed that way, when it had gone by, and what size it was, he explained how running a hand down the bark of a tree would tell a similar story.

 

“So what came by here, Uncle Hoss?” Reuben asked when it looked as though his Uncle was running out of steam in explaining about such a thing.

 

“Oh I’d say a deer, a stag more than likely, probably seven horned antlers.” Hoss replied and winked at Adam who smiled and looked up at the sky.

 

“Really?” Reuben’s eyes went round and large, he had always been told his Uncle was the best tracker in the territory, but wow, that was just amazing!

 

“Are we going to hunt it down?” He asked as the two men turned to get back to their horses

 

“No, we’ll just ride along and see what else is out there. Something a bit smaller.” Hoss said modestly.

 

 

They made camp that night under the trees, Adam showed Reuben how to make a comfortable dry bed with the leaves, the importance of clearing the ground where the fire was, while Hoss prepared the food they had caught, and hung the carcases over the flames to cook.

 

“Uncle Hoss, did you go to school like my Pa?” Reuben asked as they sat around the fire later, nibbling on rabbit meat and bread.

 

“Shucks, no, I hated school. Sides which, thankfully, there weren’t no school when we first came here. Like we said, only Paiute, Bannocks and a handful of homesteads.”

 

“Didn’t you want to get an educ’shun?”

 

“Nope, I only ever wanted to learn about the animals, and the trees around here on the Ponderosa.”

 

“Who learned ya then?”

 

“Taught, Reuben, who taught your Uncle Hoss!” Adam sighed and poured himself some coffee

 

“Well, your gran’pa, and your Pa, and Joe’s Ma, Marie.” he frowned, “Your Pa went to all the schools there were available during the trek to the Ponderosa. He loved book learning, but it wasn’t for me.”

 

“Didn’t you never ever go to any school at all?”

 

“Once .. Maybe twice…in some settlement” Hoss muttered and bit into his bread as though he no longer wanted to talk about it.

 

Nor did he, he could remember the one time he went, the first time. He could recall it to mind because it was the first time he realised that he was – different. He stared into the flames and his mouth set into a firm line, Adam came and put a hand on his shoulder “Alright, Hoss?”

 

“Yeah, sure, Adam.” he nodded, and poured out more coffee.

 

“Reuben, get to bed now. Sleep well, son.”

 

“Good night, Pa. Good night, Uncle Hoss. Thank you for learning …teaching me I mean … all about tracking.”

 

They heard the rustle of leaves as the child’s body settled into his covers, Adam sat nearer to Hoss, his knee nudged that of his brother and for a while they sat in silence, staring into the flames, seeing memories.

 

He had not expected the laughter. He had not thought that anyone would laugh at him, but they did. He had stood there in front of them and smiled, listened to the teacher introducing him to the other children and they had laughed. He had worn his smile on his face while the pain of the laughter dripped into his heart the way acid drips onto metal and burns it away. So the pain swelled more and more until all the joy of the day had melted away.

 

So much excitement and so much anticipation all evaporated and ran to nothing. He looked at the laughing faces and every bone in his body ached with misery. He had recognised them as boys and girls he had seen in the settlement when he had come on the wagon with Adam and Pa, he knew them, and they knew him, but still they laughed.

 

It should have been Adam here, the one who love books and learning, but Pa had said ‘No, this was Hoss’ chance to find out about schooling, besides which they would leave within the next few days in order to finish building their own home on the Ponderosa. Adam could earn some nickels by doing a few tasks’ so, here he was, confused and miserable and wondering why he wasn’t enjoying it all the way Adam always seemed to do.

 

Pa had explained that it wasn’t a real school, just a room in some cabin and a man willing to spend the time to teach what children were prepared to attend .. . and the man was old looking, and tired, too tired to exert himself and stop the ruckus.

 

He had sat down on the wooden bench, he heard the whispers, the giggles, he could see the sly looks, the smirks behind fingers to hide their mouths. He wanted to get up and get away but as he stood up his shirt button had got caught on the bench seat in front of him and had popped off, shot across the aisle and landed on Sid Murphys lap.

 

Sid Murphy held it up for all to see and pointed at the boy who sat wedged between the two rows of bench seats. The children laughed again. Shrill giggles. Snortled snuffles behind grubby sweating hands. The pain surged through his whole being and without a word he eased his frame from the seat and ran out of the building.”

 

Hoss sipped his coffee and then glanced out of the corner of his eyes at his brother who was staring at the flames with an intensity that indicated he was in deep thought. He sighed “I could never understand how you could tolerate them schools, Adam. Different buildings, different kids …”

 

“Same books, same things to learn.” Adam smiled and looked over at his brother, “I know, I remember …”

 

“Do you?” Hoss sighed, after a pause he murmured “Remember Arnie? They called him The Ape, because of his size, because he was – like me – different. They – they didn’t like him, did they?”

 

“Well, they were frightened of him. He used his strength to hurt people, remember?”

 

“Do you think I could have been like that…I mean, do you think people could have been afraid of me so much that I could have been like that?”

 

“You’re talking rubbish, Hoss.” Adam tossed the dregs of his coffee away, the flames flickered and cast dancing shadows over their faces.

 

“I just remembered that first time ever going to a school, you always were so excited about it an’ I thought it was going to be such an adventure, but … it was the first time I realised I wasn’t like them.”

 

“No, true enough, you were better than them. You would never have been like Arnie, Hoss.”

 

They sat together in silence, Adam picked up the coffee pot and poured out more of the stewed liquid into their tin cups.

 

“He had been forking fresh hay into the mangers for the horses, then had filled a bucket with water to fill the troughs. He stopped once to glance upwards as something moved to cause straw and dust to sift down from between the boards. He moved to one side and watched the slowly descending dust mote drifting swirling downwards as they were caught in the shaft of light from the door.

 

For a moment he had leaned against the wall with his arms folded across his chest while he thought of his brother going to the house where their Pa said some man was teaching school. Adam couldn’t go, there was work to do, and he was old enough now to do some and earn a nickel or two. He remembered an excited little boy going away, running and waving his hand, he remembered feeling envious because he wanted to sit in a room with a book in his hand, being taught …

 

He had slowly mounted the steps of the ladder to the hayloft and peered over the edge of the floor. Huddled in the corner he saw the boy who sat with his knees up to his chin and his arms hugging them close to his chest “Bad day, huh?”

 

He went and sat next to his brother, their knees touching, he put his arm around the boys shoulders.

 

“Guess – guess so.” came the quiet muffled response

 

“What happened, Hoss?”

 

“Nuthin’”

 

“Do you want me to tell Pa to come and talk with you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Do you want me to go over there and thrash ‘em good ?”

 

“No.”

 

“We could go together…”

 

Hoss had only shaken his head and muttered something, while a shudder shook his body “They – they laughed at me.”

 

He had raised his head and looked at Adam, with his blue eyes lost in the red rimmed puffiness caused by many tears that had been shed since he had ran from that building and sought solace in the hay loft.

 

“Laughed at you? Why?”

 

“Because….” Hoss had inhaled a deep breath and shuddered again, the humiliation seared through him once more, a hard heavy fist of self loathing clutched deep within his heart “Because I’m big and I’m ugly.”

 

Adam had felt bewilderment, and pain for his brother, he had shaken his head and wondered why anyone would laugh at such a handsome boy. Sure, Hoss was bigger than the average child of his age, and he was strong too, but his face was genial, gentle, kindly. He had seen what years of love for Inger’s son helped him to see and he had ached for him at other childrens lack of kindness

 

“See, it’s true, you agree with ‘em. You ain’t said nothing so you must agree with ‘em. I’m fat, I’m plain fat and ugly and they laughed at me.”

 

“No, Hoss, no, you ain’t…”

 

“I am, Adam, I am. I ain’t never going to go back there and be laughed at agin, never.” he wiped his nose on his sleeve and sniffed hard, “There’s a boy in there with ears that stick out like a mules and no one laughed at him. No one laughed when the other boy’s pants fell down cos his Ma couldn’t afford nothing better. It was jest me they laughed at. Then I got stuck between the seats cost the darn thing was too small and .. I felt an idjit, Adam.”

 

He looked with wide eyed trust and pain into his brothers dark eyes, “It hurt, Addy, it hurt, right here.” and he touched his heart and blinked tears.

 

“HOss, you have to go back”

 

“I ain’t though, not never.”

 

Adam had held his brother close, as he had done many times before, he sighed “Hoss, you got to go back, you got to get them to see you for who you really are… they won’t laugh at you tomorrow, honest they won’t.”

 

“They won’t … why not?”

 

He hadn’t known what to say to that, he was, after all, only a child himself with limited experience of other children. He had tried to imagine what it was like with a small boys pants falling down, a boy with ears that stuck out “I guess they were all scared about something today, I guess they won’t be scared so much tomorrow.”

 

“Would you – I mean – are you skeered when you go to them thar places?”

 

“’Course I am, after all, look at me? I got ears that stick out, freckles all over, crooked teeth and too big an opinion of myself, so they told me anyhow. But… we’re all different Hoss.”

 

Hoss had nodded, leaned against his brother, listened to the beat of his brother’s heart against his ear…but he hadn’t gone back, not there, not again.

 

“What made you think of Arnie?” Adam asked, he picked up a stick and prodded the dying fire to create some flames for the wood he was going to place on it.

 

“School, what Reuben said…” Hoss frowned, “Some things you don’t never forget.”

 

Adam nodded, but chose to say nothing, he glanced instead over to where his son slept and sighed, looked up through the boughs of the trees and thought how they were like the tall masts of the ships in which he had sailed. He put a hand on his brother’s arm “Some things aren’t worth remembering though, Hoss.”

 

“Yeah, I know…” Hoss nodded and smiled, he watched as Adam leaned over to pick up the wood, “How’re the ribs now?”

 

“Oh well, you know?”

 

Hoss grinned “Oh yeah, sure, I know…”

 

Chapter 19

 

Reuben heard the coyotes howling at the moon and peeked over the edge of his bedroll to look around him.  He saw the dark form of his father placing more wood on the fire, he could see the rifle in Adam’s hand and still  the spine chilling howl echoed through the woods.  Another coyote gave voice and he pulled his blanket over his head and wriggled down further in order to smother the noise.

He felt more vulnerable outside where there was no solid wood walls to protect him or heavy shutters to close against the glass windows.   Here it was just him, his Uncle and Pa… he shivered and almost cried out aloud when a hand touched his shoulder

 

“Alright, son?”

 

“Yes, Pa.  Are they wolves?”

 

“Wolves?”  Adam frowned and glanced up at the sky, his ears listening to the sounds that trickled through the trees “Coyotes,  they’re a long way from here.  They’re singing to each other, don’t mind them.”

 

“Really singing, Pa?”

 

“So I was told a long time ago.  it’s alright, don’t worry, they haven’t sniffed you out for their breakfast.”

 

 

When he actually awoke the fire was hearty and breakfast was cooking.  Uncle Hoss was frying bacon and it smelt good,  Reuben delighted in feeling such an edge to his stomach and hurried over to where the big man was busy forking the bacon over.

 

“Hurry on up and do your ablutions, Reuben, then we can all eat.” Hoss muttered, and frowned as he watched the boy  hurry to do as  he was told.  He sighed and looked over at Adam who was cleaning his rifle, “I sure envy you, Adam, you got a good lad there.”

 

“Yes, he is,” Adam said quietly and looked over at his brother with narrowed eyes “Won’t be long before Hannah goes to school.”

 

“True enough,” Hoss smiled, and poured coffee into his cup “I would have liked to have had a son though,  I ain’t much good with girls.”

 

“Seems to me  you do well enough, Hoss.”

 

“Yeah, but cant take ‘em tracking and hunting,  can I? “

 

“You’ve nephews though …”

 

“Yeah, guess so.  Mind you, Joe will no doubt want to teach Danny himself, and …”he paused, “Sorry, Adam, I guess I’ve no right to complain, I’ve been well blessed.”

 

“You have, Hoss, you have.” Adam nodded, and regarded his brother anxiously, before turning back to cleaning his rifle.  “Life doesn’t always turn out just how we would like, brother.”

 

“As I said, I ain’t got no right to complain.   My girls …  shucks, Adam, when I think of my girls I get so full of love for ‘em…” he sighed, wiped his eyes and then insisted the darn bacon was burning.

……………….

 

The day slipped into one that Reuben would treasure for many years, perhaps his whole life time long.  He learned more during the daylight hours about tracking and hunting down game,  to recognising different animals from their spores, from the other signs they left behind, than he ever thought possible.  Around the camp fire his Uncle and Pa told him stories, and for the first time he learned more about their involvement with the Paiute.

 

“Your Uncle Joe was born around the same time as Sarah Thoc’metony” Adam said as he stretched out his legs and folded his arms behind his head to stare up at the stars, “Seeing how limited we were with any white companionship we had quite a lot to do with the Paiute.  Marie wasn’t too sure about the wild ways we were getting into and would lick us into shape every so often…”

 

“How’d she do that, Pa?  Did she beat you?”

 

“Shucks no,” Hoss guffawed, “She didn’t have to beat us, she got Pa to do that…”

 

“Only if we were really wild, really ‘malcontent’ as she would call it.”  Adam chuckled,  “She was a lady from New Orleans, don’t forget,  and she came to a wilderness with not so many fine ladies around at the time.   But she helped nurse Sarah through some illness and that’s how we got the land around Papoose Peak, as a gift from Winnemucca.”

 

“Pa,  were there lots of Paiute then?”

 

“Almost everywhere,”  Adam sighed “Gradually the diggers came to find gold, which they did, and …” he shrugged “Now there’s just a handful of Paiute left, being shunted  back and forth like so much garbage.”

 

Reuben nodded, he remembered his friends who had played happily with him, even though he was white, and didn’t know what they were saying.   He wondered where they were now,  if he would ever see them again.  He turned to Hoss “Uncle Hoss, we didn’t find that big stag you said you thought was hereabouts, do you think he’s gone someplace else now?”

 

Hoss had to think about that and then said, very wisely, “Oh I guess so… probably gone to higher ground.”

 

Reuben nodded thoughtfully “Yeah, I guess he did too,  he probably knew you were out after him, Uncle Hoss.”

 

Hoss didn’t, couldn’t find anything to say to that … but looked over at Adam and rolled his eyes.

……………………………..

 

Work on a ranch during the gathering days of winter are long and hard.   Extra hours needed to be put in as weather conditions hampered the horses, streams had to be cleared of debris, bridges reinforced and cattle moved on to where winter pasture could be more readily available.

 

It meant that bad rainfall loosened the posts that kept the fences up, so they had to be checked out, and on the Ponderosa that meant a lot of miles of fencing.   There were evenings when the Cartwright brothers were glad to find a line shack and sleep over the night there.

 

It was on a particularly cold night that they gratefully sought refuge in one line shack, and while Adam saw to making up a fire it was left to his brothers to check out the oil supply for the lamps as well as the food stocks.  They were fortunate in this instance, it wasn’t long before a fire was burning and coffee was brewing in the pot, while they removed their heavy coats and set them aside.

 

“Hey Adam, I’ve been thinking..” Hoss said as his brothers busied themselves with preparing something to eat

 

“Huh?   What about?” Adam said with a slight scowl, his ribs ached as much from the cold as anything, and he was hungry

 

“That horse of yours.”

 

“Sport?” Adam glanced over at him as though surprised that Sport would arouse that much interest in Hoss

 

“No, Kamille.  When are you going to start training her to be a cowpony.”

 

Joe gave a laugh, and shook his head “I can’t see Kamille ever being any good as a cowpony.”

 

“Then what’s the point of her being there in the stables if’n  you ain’t gonna get her to do any work?”

 

Adam shook his head “You’re getting as bad as Pa.   Anyhow, we had this conversation already, why not just drop it …alright?”

 

“Nope,  I ain’t.  The fact is that Sport is getting old and near retiring age and you kept on about  training Kamille but the only time I ever seen her was on that hunting jaunt last weekend.”

 

Adam nodded and flipped over some bacon, “You’re right, Hoss.”  he stood up with the skillet in his hand and  placed it on the table, “I just can’t bring myself to treat Kamille as a regular cow pony.   I rode her down to the herd once and she was so skittish that I didn’t dare to stay longer, had to come back and put her in her stall.  She just isn’t cut out for a working horse.”

 

Joe shook his head even as he picked up some bacon,  blew on it a little “A regular hay burner then.”

 

“Yeah” Adam nodded “I hate to admit it, but I guess she is…”

 

“Just a show horse then?” Hoss muttered as he took some of the bacon from the pan

 

“I know.  I haven’t even dared to ride her too often into town in case it raises the wrong thinking in folk… Hoss, you got enough bacon now?”

 

“If you’re cooking some more?” Hoss raised his eyebrows in hopeful anticipation.

 

“What do you intend to do with her then?” Joe asked now as he poured coffee into three cups.

 

“I don’t know.   The children are fond of her,  it’s hard to explain to them that she just isn’t profitable.   How’s the foal getting along?”

 

“Growing fast,  he’s handsome.   Should give him a name really but keep leaving that to you to figure out.”

 

Adam nodded “I’ll ask Reuben, it can be his choice.   I should imagine the horses we can  breed from him will be good solid stock with a dash of his pedigree…whatever that may be on his father’s side.”

 

Hoss laughed at that and nearly choked;  outside the wind howled eerily around the shack and blew smoke down the chimney.

………………

 

It was cold in her room,  even under her bedding Sofia shivered.  She hugged Jessie and Clarabelle closer in the hope that they would provide some extra warmth.   Every where in the room there were shadows, and she watched for a while as some lengthened and some shortened.   She could hear her mother moving about in the next room, and listened as Olivia sang a little song very quietly to Nathaniel.

 

Sofia was confused and worried.  She didn’t understand how things worked with the people at school,  she quite enjoyed the lessons and worked hard at them. Miss Brandon said she was a good student and had even told her how well she was doing at math.  It was when she had to mix with the other children when everything seemed to go wrong.

 

She had always felt safe when she was home with her cousins, the only children she had ever previously known.   She couldn’t remember having anything to do with any children when they lived in the big house in San Francisco.  There was just the funny old lady, and Aunt Morgan and Uncle Booth, and, of course, Reuben.

 

She sighed and put her thumb in her mouth, and closed her eyes.  Reuben didn’t like Charlie, and he played with boys his own age, even Jimmy no longer pestered her and yelled and ran around with the boys.  Charlie was older than herself, but liked her,  and even though Sofia knew that the girl was naughty it was fun to be with her.  The other little girls of Sofia’s age were not so much fun, they didn’t understand Sofia and she didn’t understand them.   Sadly their antipathy towards the little girl actually pushed her closer to her association with Charlie, they were isolated from the rest, like animals sometimes would shove out the runt in the litter.

 

There was no doubt that Charlie was badly behaved, and Sofia didn’t like the things she did, but sometimes it was …  well, it made her laugh.  Like the time she threw Martha’s bag in  the air and the straps wrapped around the boughs of the old tree and so the bag had to stay there until one of the boys had climbed up to get it down.  Although Sofia didn’t like Charlie throwing the bag like that, it had been funny to watch how they had got it down afterwards.

 

She had ventured down to town with Charlie twice now, and each time she had been scared of being seen and getting into trouble with her daddy.  Her heart had hammered away inside her little chest all the time, and it was only when she was back in her seat in the class room that she could calm down and view it all as an adventure.  It seemed as if Reuben didn’t even notice she was gone for he never said anything.

 

She tossed about a little, and hugged her dolls closer.  Deep down inside herself she knew that Charlie was not a good friend,  that feeling that her daddy would have said was her gut (for want of a nicer word), was warning her to stay away.   But … how could she when Charlie was the only friend she had,  or thought she had, in all the world.

………………………

 

Daniel deQuille examined the scorch marks on the paper carefully and turned each page to ensure that there was no further damage done.   There was little point in saying if only,  life was full of those, the fact of the matter was that the damage was done.

 

He turned up the flame in the lamp and looked more closely at the words that could be seen, very vaguely, through the charred sections.  There were not many words lost, he stared at them thoughtfully and stroked his beard, the frown on his brow deepened as the idea in his mind wriggled like a worm on a hook …

 

After some moments he picked up some paper and compared it to the size and colour of the ones that had been damaged.  Well, the difference was slight,  very slight.  The size was exact and if he could perfect the writing then the problem would be solved.   He leaned forward for examine the paper and the writing upon it more carefully and nodded to himself, he was quite sure, quite positive, that Daniel O’Brien’s hand writing would be an easy task, it just required a little practice.  He dipped his pen into the ink well and carefully began to copy from the top of the page exactly what O’Brien had written.

 

As he attempted to copy the words down Daniel thought back to the first time he had met Adam Cartwright.   He smiled now,  and paused in his writing in order to look up and stare at the poster on the wall.   Sam Clemens had not long been hired and had written some story about a kind of monster frozen in ice in Lake Tahoe,  on Ponderosa land as it happened.  What a prize for anyone who found it?  What a handsome reward would be paid!  And the Ponderosa was swamped with people seeking the monster out … so many in fact that Adam Cartwright had stormed into the offices and thumped Sam in the jaw and sent him flying.  Not exactly true,  Daniel grinned, Sam just fell down,  and Adam had not stayed over long after that,  but it was then that Dan had told Sam “The reason I call my self Daniel deQuille is so that no one knows who I really am.”   and hence Mark Twain came into being.

 

He put down the pen now, and sat back.  He and Sam had been good friends, they had similar tastes in humour and style of writing.  They had both written books, and while Sam’s had flown off the shelves,  his had not.  He couldn’t understand it, and it was like a part of him had died upon realising that while Sam was touring Europe and money was pouring in, he was still the newspaperman writing articles for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City.

 

So why this?  Why borrow these journals from Adam Cartwright?  What drove him to such an action?  Some would call it theft, some would perhaps accept it as borrowing but even so…why had he done it?

 

He put down his pen and turned down the light.   He didn’t like to ask himself questions like that, he didn’t want to be forced to answer them.  He remained for some time a solitary figure staring at the dark shadows ahead of him, deeply immersed in his thoughts and not many of them were pleasant.

……………………

 

At Del Monico’s restaurant Victor Ford rose from his chair and attended to the woman who was preparing to leave her seat.  They shared a smile and he looked over to the Maitre d’ who beckoned to the girl in the cloak room to get the required coats ready for their departing customers.

 

As Victor escorted Dorothy from the restaurant the thought crossed his mind that just perhaps she was not ready for the question he was going to ask her.  The thought also occurred to him that she could well have been harbouring fond feelings for Roy, a man whom Victor had respected and admired for many years.

 

“It’s a beautiful night, “ Dorothy said quietly and looked up at the stars before smiling at him, “What’s the matter, Victor?  You seem very subdued this evening.”

 

“Yes, I have something on my mind and I’m not sure whether or not I have the timing right.”

 

“The timing for what?”  she frowned,  and sighed “Is this to do with Roy?”

 

“In a small way, more to do with us …”  he smiled down at her for he was a tall man, which appealed to her as she was not short and preferred to be able to look up at a man.

 

“And Jenny?”  she raised her eyebrows

 

“Yes, even Jenny.”  he nodded then, and looked into the distant shadows as though he could see his daughter standing there “Perhaps her more than most.”

 

“Well,  a trouble shared is a trouble halved, so they say?”  she squeezed his arm and hoped that would encourage him to speak his mind;  if nothing else it stopped him from walking for he paused in his stride and turned to her

 

“Dorothy, I’ve loved you for a v ery long time, you do know that, don’t you?”

 

“I suspected it,” she admitted with a slight frown appearing between her eyebrows, then she sighed “Yes, I think I was aware of it even back in the days when Liam and I were friendly.”

 

He nodded “The timing was definitely wrong back then, wasn’t it?”

 

She laughed quietly at his slight smile and nodded “Yes, it was.”

 

“Well, I loved  you more than ever now,  and there really is no reason -” he paused again, drew in his breath “Dorothy, will you marry me?”

 

She didn’t think about Roy,  nor of Jenny but looked into the attractive face of the man standing by her side and nodded “Yes, Victor.   I would be honoured to accept your proposal.”

 

For a moment he was speechless, he had expected that she would say yes, had hoped very much that she would, but there was always that doubt in his mind, that concern over her feelings about Roy, even now he couldn’t help but say “What about Roy?”

 

“Roy’s already come to terms with the fact that I cannot accept him as a husband.  He’s a good man, a dear friend, but although I care about him very much, I don’t love him enough to commit myself to him.”

 

He nodded, smiled and kissed her cheek “Thank you.”

 

They walked on a little distance until Widow Hawkins house suddenly loomed out of the shadows, very gently he took her into his arms and kissed her,  then released her “We’ll talk more about everything tomorrow,  it’s cold now, get inside and – sleep well.”

 

She nodded, felt her heart swell with pride and love.  To be loved, truly loved, and to be married by a man who felt that way about her choked her with emotion,  she leaned forwards, kissed his cheek and then hurried through the little gate to the house where Clemmie Hawkins waited to learn the latest !

 

Chapter 20

 

Time ticks by as time does, with a relentless persistence which brings about changes in seasons and the shortening of days.  In comparison to some years it was still a soft winter, and for the children from the homesteads and ranches, from the mining settlements that surrounded Virginia City it was still possible to reach school.

 

With the decline in population as the mines began to close,  the schools also lost  students as families made their way to what they hoped to become more prosperous towns.   Some schools in various areas of the town closed down altogether and the

few students remaining were drafted into the nearest school available.

 

Miss Brandon was more than pleased that her school remained unaffected by these changes.  It was difficult enough to accommodate the various ages and intellects of the class she now supervised.   With the threat of winter weather looming ever closer she had to accept, as the other schools did also, that soon  the only children able to attend would be those from the town.

 

As she watched the children clambering the steps into the school room,  muffled up with scarves and bonnets, mittens and gloves with red noses peeking and eyes bright from where the chill wind had struck them  she was more than grateful that the vast majority of them still arrived diligently each day.

 

“Is everyone well this morning?” she smiled at them all, her eyes lingered over those who had recently had sniffles and snotty noses, they smiled back at her

 

“Yes, thank you, Miss Brandon.”

 

The stove pumped out heat,  outside a chill wind blew old paper and straw across the yard, the swings swayed back and forth with a creaking groaning sound but inside was warm and comfortable,  heads were bent over papers, books or slates.  The sound of the smaller children, including Sofia, recounting their times tables drifted over the heads of the older and more industrious students.  Miss Brandon sighed with contentment and nodded approval as the little ones beamed back at her awaiting her commendation.

 

At lunch recess Charlie came running over to Sofia who had eaten her food seated alongside Reuben.  Once the food was gone Reuben had ran off to play with David and Tommy; Jimmy Carstairs was absorbed in a book which he was discussing with Annie Sales who nestled her McGuffey’s on her knee and listened intently to the boy.   Sofia pulled her scarf closer and watched as Charlie ran up to her and grabbed at her hand,

 

“Come on,  Sofia, let’s get into town.”

 

“Why?  It’s cold ..”

 

“It won’t be if we run.”  the older child laughed and her cheeks glowed rosy red, while the blue eyes gleamed with mischief and the joy of living.

 

Betty Sales and Rosie Canaday ran up “Sofia, come and play.”

 

Charlie scooted them off, “Sofia’s playing with me,  go away,  imps.”

 

The two little girls looked at one another and Sofia realised that they were genuinely disappointed, she smiled and put several steps towards them only to have Charlie grab her arm again “Come on, I want to show you something.”

 

“What?”  Sofia was immediately all attention “Not that baby?”

 

“No, no… pooh, who cares about a baby.”  and laughing Charlie turned and ran only too sure that Sofia would be running behind her.

 

It was hard for Sofia to keep up with Charlie who had long legs and several years more than the little girl, but she soon caught up to find Charlie standing outside Banners Mercantile.  They both stood and stared at it,  the big glass window with all the different coloured glass  jars filled with candy and liquorice sticks and myriad other delights.

 

“What’s your favourite?” Charlie asked with her hands innocently behind her back and a smile on her face.   Several people came out of the store and smiled back at her and Sofia.

 

“What?”  Sofia looked around her, conscious that she was a long way from the school yard, this was the furthest they had come and it made her nervous

 

“What do you like best?”  Charlie pointed to the glass jars and before Sofia could reply she had ran into the store leaving the little girl staring and wondering which were the ones she liked most of all.

 

Within a moment Charlie was running back out of the store, several red and white striped candy bars in her hand which she thrust into Sofia’s mittened fingers “Here you are… hurry, run …” and with a laugh she disappeared

 

Sofia just stood there and looked bemusedly about her, then at the candy bars and wondered what she was supposed to do with them.  She was about to turn and call out to Charlie when a hand clamped down on her shoulder, a very heavy hand “Got you, you little thief.”

 

Sofia looked up into the red face of Mr Banner himself, looking very unlike his usual genial self when he served Mama or her aunts,  “Caught you red handed,” he shouted, and gave her a shake

 

“But I didn’t –  didn’t take them.  My friend gave them to me.” Sofia wailed and looked around for some sign of Charlie but it was a futile chance of her being any where in sight,  she had long gone, munching her candy that was stowed safely away in her pocket.

 

In no time at all Sofia was dragged over to the sheriff’s office and much to her surprise, and Candy’s also, found herself standing in front of the big desk behind which the sheriff sat looking  anxiously from her to Mr Banner

 

“What’s going on,  Mr Banner?”  Candy asked and stood up to come around from behind the desk to sit on the chair where the public would sit to answer his questions.  He looked  at Sofia who was still clutching the sticks of candy to her chest but with big tear filled eyes staring up at her Uncle Candy and wondering what to say, wondering what had happened, wondering oh just wondering what trouble this was all going to lead to now.

 

“She stole this candy, caught her red handed, just standing there – look at her, no shame, none at all.” Banner spluttered

 

Sofia shook her head, tears dripped from her eyes “I didn’t, I didn’t…” she whispered.

 

“I tell you she did…” Mr Banner shouted “There’s too much pilfering going on around here, and I have to put up with more than most let me tell you.   Just because I’ve been here for a long time doesn’t mean that I -”

 

Candy raised a hand for silence and looked from the child to Banner “This is Sofia Cartwright, you do realise that?”

 

“So what?  Just because she’s from the Ponderosa doesn’t mean she should be let off from stealing my goods.  It’s shameful, shameful … she deserves a good thrashing.”

 

Again Candy raised a hand for silence and heaved in a big sigh,  Sofia blinked and suddenly seemed aware of the candy in her hands, she stared at it, then at Candy and then turned to look at Mr Banner “Oh Mr Banner, these are yours.”

 

She held them up to him and was about to speak when the store keeper erupted into a monologue about theft, children needing to be punished, ’put in the stocks, that’s what they should be.’

 

A slight cough came from behind them and silenced Mr Banner who turned to find his wife standing with a patient look on her face, she stepped forward and looked at Sofia, smiled and nodded before she approached Candy

 

“She didn’t steal the candy, she didn’t even know what was going on .  She was just standing there looking at the jars, I watched her from the store,  she was fascinated and -”

 

“For goodness sake, woman,” Mr Banner exploded again, “She had an accomplice…”

 

“She’s a child.”  Mrs Banner said and shook her head as though she just couldn’t understand the vagaries of men, her husband in particular, “Sheriff, believe me, this child didn’t know that the other girl was going to steal anything from the store.  She was and is totally innocent.”  and she turned to look at her husband once again “And if a few sticks of that stuff is so important to you, then here…” she foraged about in her purse, and handed him some coins “Here, take the money, it’s paid for now.”

 

“But I can’t take this, you’re condoning a crime…” Banner stammered and looked at Candy for support “Sheriff, it may seem a little thing, a few sticks of sweet stuff but before you know it her gang …”

 

“Look,” Candy stood up, both hands raised in placation “Please, Mr Banner, Sofia is no more a thief than you are, and as for accusing her of being in a gang that’s nonsense.”  he looked at Mrs Banner “Please, ma’am, take your husband home.”

 

Still blustering, still yelling Mr Banner was propelled out of the office by his wife, while Candy looked at Sofia and smiled “why aren’t you at school?”

 

“I don’t know.  I just followed Charlie.”

 

“Oh, yes,  I’ve heard about Charlie.” Candy sighed and straightened himself up,  Sofia had to crane her neck back to be able to see his face now for he was as tall as her Pa.  “I think we had best get you  back to school before Miss Brandon realises you are missing.  Shall I take those from you?”

 

Sofia looked at the sticks of candy and nodded,  they were rather fluffy now from her mittens but she set them down upon the desk and then looked trustingly at him “I didn’t take them.  I don’t even like them.”

 

“Well,  I think perhaps you should stop playing around with Charlie in future, she doesn’t seem to be a very nice little girl.”

 

Sofia nodded,  she knew her father and mother would say just the same and in her heart of hearts she knew they were quite right.  Charlotte really was not a very nice little girl.  She took hold of Candy’s hand and he didn’t seem to mind that her mittens were rather sticky as he held it tightly in his own,  “She’s older than me, she doesn’t have any friends.”

 

He nodded,  he understood,  but it didn’t change things, not really.

 

Sofia was left in the playground by Candy just moments before the bell rang for recess to be over.   Reuben ran up to her “What are you doing?  Where have you been?  Why did Uncle Candy bring you here?”

 

She couldn’t speak, she didn’t really know how to answer the questions and looked rather dazedly about her.  Then she saw Charlie and felt herself shrinking inside,  she sidled closer to her brother and grabbed at his arm while Charlie came running over to her, stopped, put her hands on her hips and scowled  “Where’s the candy?  What have you done with it, you dope!”

 

“Hey,” Reuben protested, “don’t you go calling my sister a dope.”

 

“What’s it with you, you just shut your mouth -” the fiery little red head demanded and gave Reuben a shove.

 

The little scuffle caught the attention of the other children, and then of Miss Brandon who came hurrying over.  She grabbed at Charlie’s arm and pulled her away despite the girl flinging her arms about and kicking out.  Reuben reached for Sofia’s hand and held it tight, they stood side by side, wide eyed, non comprehending of what was happening as Miss Brandon hauled Charlie away into the classroom.   Annie Sales came up and stood on the other side of Sofia and put her hand into the little girls. “You’ll  be alright, Sofia.  She’s just a very naughty girl.”

 

Sofia, all big eyes and pale cheeked nodded,  yes, she could see that for herself now and without a word allowed her brother to lead her back into the class room.

 

Charlie was standing facing the corner, her hands clasped behind her back, and her head held high with her freckled nose in the air.   She stood there all afternoon until it was time to leave and as she passed Sofia she hissed “I’ll get you for this, you sneak.”

 

Sofia paused in wrapping her scarf around her neck and looked up at Reuben “What did she mean, Boo?”

 

“Nothing, take no notice.”  Reuben said and smiled “You’ll be alright, Sofee.  I’ll look after you.”

 

Sofia nodded and tied her scarf neatly around her neck, she saw Jimmy and Rosie, Annie and Betty as they all filed past her and bade her good night.  She had friends, that was a good feeling, a very good feeling.

 

Chapter 21

 

The wagons and buggies that ferried the children to the outlying homes were always aligned up close to the playground and with it being shorter days many had their lamps twinkling like little stars to guide them along.  One by one children were collected and even some neighbours children would be taken along to be dropped off along the way.

 

Ezra blew on his hands and waited patiently along with the others as the children began to stream out of the school house.  He knew that the weekend was coming and was glad of it, sitting and waiting around for the children was a thankless task, one he was glad he shared out with Hank.  Of course there were the occasions when Cheng Ho Lee  would take the children into town, but that was not as often as Ezra would have liked it to have been.

 

Lydia Brandon’s attention was taken away from the children by the presence of a tall  young man who stood by the porch door with his hat in his hand and the wind ruffling his hair.  Although her heart fluttered erratically at the sight of him, her mind prepared itself for battle as the two choices and the one decision that was hers to make once again yawned before her.

 

Ezra glanced down at the sound of a voice calling up to him, he listened to what was said and nodded, grunted and muttered beneath his breath and then slowly turned the horses back in the direction of the Ponderosa.   He grumbled and cursed for a while, pulled his jacket closer and wished people would tell him what was going on instead of leaving a fella to find out when it was all arranged.  It was getting colder, and darker, and a fella his age didn’t need to be driving about for hours on end on fool errands.   As he drove along the thought occurred to him that instead of going on to the Ponderosa he would head into town and stop for a beer at the Bucket of Blood.  At least there he would be appreciated, and it was warm.

 

Reuben held onto his sisters  hand as they walked from the playground to the sidewalk along side which the vehicles were usually lined up to pick up the children.  He looked up and down  “I guess Ezra’s late.”

 

Sofia looked up as Reuben spoke, she had buried her nose into her scarf and kept her head down.   “There’s Mr Conway’s buggy.”

 

“Always first to arrive and last to leave, ” Reuben said nonchalantly

 

“Will Ezra be very late?  Will he come in a minute?”

 

“I guess so.  Something must have caused him to be delayed.”  Reuben said in an effort to sound very grown up.  He looked up and down the main track and noticed that the last twinkling star that meant a buggy driving away from the school was rapidly disappearing.  “I bet a wheel has got loose.”

 

“Will he be able to mend it?”   Sofia looked up into her brother’s face, confident that her brother knew exactly what to do “Will he know how?”

 

“Oh sure, he knows just about everything to do with wagons and wheels and things.”

 

“And will he be very long?” Sofia asked again and Reuben shrugged and stared out in the direction of the wagon that should be coming to collect them.

 

It had never happened before,  Olivia had instructed the men who would collect the children to be always half an hour ahead of time just in case they were to be allowed out of school earlier.  They were dropped off exactly on time, and they left always promptly to the hour.   Half an hours lee-way gave what was considered sufficient time for unforeseen occurrence to be dealt with… usually.

 

The wind was getting keener and Sofia shivered, she tightened her grip on Reubens hand “I need to go …” she whispered and Reuben dutifully led her back to the outhouse.

 

While she groped around to find everything Reuben looked around him and wondered what had happened to Ezra.  He looked back to the school house and saw Miss Brandon standing very close to a young man, they were holding hands.  The school house windows glowed bright and warm from the lamps inside the building.  He wondered if he and Sofia should ask Miss Brandon if they could sit in there a while until Ezra arrived.   He could just imagine the scene…they would be warm and cosy in the school house and Ezra would come stamping up to the porch and thumping on the door,  and no doubt would cuss and swear because they were late and he would, of course, blame them.

 

“Are you alright in there?” he whispered loudly through the knot hole in the wood

 

“Its dark.”  Sofia said with a slight whimper in her voice

 

“Hurry up.  It’s cold.”

 

The little girl stepped out and shivered, Miss Brandon stepped back into the school house and suddenly all the lights had gone out, one by one,  and then the door had been closed.  Reuben watched as Miss Brandon slipped her arm through that of the young man and walked away,  in the opposite direction to where they stood by the outhouse.

 

“Has he come?” a little voice whispered near by and Reuben had to concentrate.,

 

“Who?”

 

“Ezra.”

 

“No,  no one has …”

 

“It’s getting darker.  Shall we wait some more, Boo?”

 

“Yes, just a bit longer.”

 

Hand in hand they walked down to the main road which led out of town.  A buggy came by,  but it wasn’t the one they needed, and the people inside didn’t even notice the two children in the shadows.  A few vehicles trundled by, some going into town,  several leading out to the other direction.

 

Time seemed to slow down, not that they were aware of it, just that nothing happened for so long and it was getting darker and it was colder, the wind moaned and sighed.

 

“Reuben? “

 

“What?”

 

“I’m cold.”

 

Reuben nodded and squeezed her hand tighter “So’m I.”  he sighed “My toes feel like they dropped off.”

 

Sofia didn’t say anything to that, she looked up at the sky,  the moon was out now, sliding between clouds “Mommy will be worried if we’re late.”

 

“Shall we go and see if Uncle Candy can help us?”  Reuben suggested, and taking her silence as consent turned towards the town centre

 

Deputy Watts looked at the two children and shook his head “Sheriff ain’t here just now.  He had to take some prisoners to Gold Hill so’s the deputy there can take them to Yuma.”

 

“Ezra didn’t come for us.” Reuben said with wide hazel eyes and his nose beginning to thaw in the warm room,

 

“Is that so?”  Mark frowned,  he was sure he had seen Ezra in the saloon just half an hour earlier, “You stay jest here and I’ll go and look see if I can find him.”

 

Sofia looked at the deputy and watched him as he left the office.  She looked at her brother “Will he find him?”

 

“I don’t know, Sofee.”

 

“What if he doesn’t find him?”

 

Reuben sighed and frowned, he looked at his sister and noticed tears had streaked her cheeks and she was trying hard not to cry now.  He leaned forward and wiped the tears away with his gloved hand “It’ll be alright,  you’ll see.  We’ll be at home again quicker than you can say Hoss Cartwright.”

 

Sofia’s eyes went round,  “How many times do I say it?” she whispered.

 

 

Mark Watts returned to the office with a frown,  there was now no sign of Ezra or the wagon.   He looked at the two children and wondered what to do with them.  He was in charge of the office and couldn’t leave it empty, his instructions were that the office had to be manned at all times, and just checking to see if Ezra was in the saloon had already breached that order.

 

“Ain’t you got any place  you can go and wait for someone to come fer  yer?”

 

Reuben looked at his sister, then at Mark “I guess we could go and see if Aunt Ann were home.”

 

“Flannel will be home.” Sofia squeaked.

 

Reuben relaxed, of course, Bridie.  He smiled and nodded “We’ll go and see Flannel.  Thank you Mr Deputy.”

 

Their feet scampered along the sidewalk as they hurried hand in hand towards the Martins house.   It was some distance down the street and several cross sections and alley ways had to negotiated along the way.   A group of men suddenly came out of the saloon ,  carousing and yelling together.   Half drunk they seemed to fill the street, and didn’t notice the two children who were swallowed up by them and whirled around.

 

Reuben felt his hand slip away from Sofia’s as the body of men pushed him into the road.   He fell, landed on his back upon the mud packed ground, a wagon wheel trundled by and just missed his head.  He felt fear and panic well up inside of him and he closed his eyes tightly because he was afraid to keep them open.  Rough hands grabbed his jacket and pulled him onto his feet “There now, you’re a right handsome little shaver, ain’t’cha.”

 

Someone was leaning close to him, beer on his breath wafted into Reuben’s face, and an unsteady hand slapped his  hat back onto his head “There, there, little man…”

 

Someone laughed, the group of men turned, some rolled away arm in arm, singing and shouting as they went down the sidewalk.   Dazed and a little confused Reuben adjusted his hat, blinked to clear his eyes and looked around him… he couldn’t see any sign of Sofia.

 

Sofia rubbed her eyes and stared at the ladies who surrounded her, they were laughing, pinching her cheeks, telling her what a cute little thing she was … she was perched up on the counter of the saloon,  and everywhere was very  bright and colourful, very noisy and strange.   A man came and looked at her “Ain’t that Cartwright’s gel?”

 

One of the ladies looked and laughed “Well, dearie, are you Cartwright’s girl?”

 

She shied back,  put her mittened hands over her face because she just didn’t like being there, she didn’t like seeing the women with so much of their bodies on display, and all that stuff on their faces;  the men were staring at her,  there was the noise of a roulette wheel spinning and people shouting.   She bowed her head “I want to go home.  I want my mommy.”

 

“Poor little lamb,” one of the women said quietly, “Come along, dear, I know a nice man who will take you home.”

 

“Reuben -”

 

“Who?”  The young woman lifted her from the counter and set her down on the floor

 

“My brother, Reuben.  He’s waiting for me outside.”  she pointed to the batwing doors and the woman nodded

 

“I suppose he wants a lift too?”

 

“Yes, please.”

 

Veronica took the child’s hand in her own and led her away towards the door, a man shouted to her not to be too long accompanied by some ribald comment which made her laugh, but her fingers tightened around Sofia’s as she pushed the bat wings open.

 

The relief Reuben felt at the sight of his sister was vast, he ran towards her “I lost you.. Where did you go?”

 

“I don’t know.  Inside that place.”  she looked up at Veronica who was smiling at them both “The lady said she would get us home.”

 

Reuben looked at Veronica and was not too sure,  street lamps were being lit on the outside of the buildings now,  a fat man came and lit the lamps outside the saloon.  “Don’t take too long about it, Vron.” he  yelled before going back inside.

 

Veronica nodded and called  back some smart answer before she leaned down to be level with the children “Are you really Adam Cartwrights children?”

 

“Yes’m’” Reuben nodded

 

“Well, you really should be home by now,  what happened?”

 

“Ezra didn’t come for us.” the boy replied and glanced anxiously around, noticing as he did so that a different kind of  people walked the dark streets of town to those he usually saw during the day.

 

“Come along, I know someone who will take you home.” Veronica smiled and offered a hand to each child which was grabbed at with a trust that she found quite touching.

 

“We can go to Flannels…” Reuben said after a few moments and upon realising that they were walking away from where Paul and Bridie Martin lived.

 

“Flannels?”  Veronica smiled and shook her head, “who is Flannel?”

 

“I mean – Mrs Martin.  She’s Dr Martins wife.”  Reuben pronounced in his best grown up manner.

 

“But I thought you wanted to get home?”  Veronica said with a little laugh, “And Dr Martin doesn’t live on the Ponderosa does he?”

 

“Do you know where we live?”  Sofia asked in awed tones

 

“Of course I do. Everyone knows where the Ponderosa is,”  Veronica said smugly and tightened her grip on their hands.  “Come along,  my friend will be only too happy to take you there.”

 

They walked briskly through town,  Sofia had to skip at times to keep up and was getting out of breath when Veronica stopped outside a rather dilapidated building.  Reuben thought it looked rather lop sided but decided it would be bad manners to comment about that,  and waited for Veronica to open the door and lead them inside.

 

Sofia immediately shrunk back, the smell wasn’t pleasant nor one to which she was used to experiencing.  Reuben also was unsure of what to do or say as he looked around him at the mess that littered the room in which they had been left standing while Veronica went to the door of another room and yelled for someone called “Fitz.”

 

“I don’t like it here.” Sofia whispered but Reuben just shook his head, put his finger to his lips and remained silent.

 

Fitz came out of the other room struggling to get his shirt buttoned up,  and looking rather dishevelled.  He looked from Veronica to the children and listened to what she was saying, nodding his head every so often before he said loudly enough for them to hear “Right.  The Ponderosa huh?”

 

“Don’t take too long about it, Fitz.  Their Ma will probably be getting anxious about now.”  Veronica said, “Why on earth are you such a mess anyway?  Look at you?  Have  you been drinking?”

 

“Look, Vron, what else is there to do?  There’s no work around here is there?”  he sighed and looked at the children, “Well,  have you the money to pay for hiring a rig?”

 

“You can borrow Ma’s, she said we could have it anytime we needed it.”

 

Fitz nodded,  he buttoned up his shirt, and then pulled on a thick sweater over which he pulled on a worn old jacket.  “Alright, kids, let’s go.”

 

“Go where?” Reuben asked immediately and Fitz laughed “Got to get a rig, fix up the horse and then we can take you home.”

 

Reuben nodded, it all made perfect sense, he turned to Veronica “Thank you, Miss.”

 

Veronica smiled, her eyes twinkled and she had dimples.   “Take care, kid.”

 

She left the house then, hurrying to get back to work while Fitz picked up a hat and led the children out of the house.  The cold air was cleansing, both children drew in a deep breath of it to get the stench out of their noses.

 

The rig was not in the best of shape and the poor animal that was harnessed onto it was definitely not in peak condition.  If Reuben had not been as polite as he was he would have commented about it,  but he said nothing but helped Sofia up onto the plank seat before turning to Fitz “Thank you very much for helping us, Mr Fitz.”

 

“Aw, don’t worry about it.  Gives me something to do.”  the young man grinned and led the horse out of the shed before clambering up beside the boy.  “Your dad’s a generous sort, no doubt he’ll be more than glad to see you both home in one piece.”

 

Reuben nodded, he wasn’t sure what his father’s generosity had to do with them getting home, but decided to be grateful for small mercies.  Sofia leaned against him and groped for his  hand, when she found it she held onto it tightly.

……………….

 

Olivia looked at the clock and clasped her hands together as though by doing so she could better calculate the math involved in how much time it took usually for the children to return home after leaving school.   She walked to the window and looked out at the darkness beyond, and then hurried to the kitchen where Cheng Ho lee was preparing supper “Have you heard the wagon yet, Cheng Ho Lee?”

 

“No wagon, no sound ..only wind.”

 

Only wind, yes, only the wind howling around the house.  She looked at Nathaniel who was chewing on some bread that Cheng Ho Lee had given him,  and then returned to look at the clock.

 

Adam was away, with his brothers, he wouldn’t be home for another day yet.  Ben would be home,  perhaps, she wasn’t sure – she shook her head and released her breath, the children were late.  They were never late.  Why were they late now, after all,  anything could have happened, anything.

 

She went to the door and opened it,  and despite the wind pulling at her hair and her clothes she walked to the yard, to the corral but there was nothing unusual there.  The horses were skittish, they didn’t like the wind so it wouldn’t be long before Jake and Hank would come and take them into the stables.

 

She returned to the house and found herself shivering,  her hair was straggling about her face, and she pushed it impatiently away behind her ears.   She would give Ezra another half an hour,  by which time the children would be sure to be home.

 

This, she told herself, was one of the reasons her father preferred them all to be home taught,  not just because he hated everyone in town, but because things happened, could happen -.   She began to wring her hands, then tried to stop herself from doing so because it accomplished no purpose other than to make her feel more anxious than ever.

 

Nathaniel was calling for her and she hurried to pick him up and hug him,  a grateful distraction.   She carried him over to the big chair and sat down with him on her lap, began to sing to him a song he knew well, a song that meant every so often he had to clap his hands, touch his nose, say boo .

 

The clock chimed the hour and she knew that she was not worrying for no reason, her children should be home now.

 

Chapter 22

 

Ezra turned his hat round and round between his fingers.  He was cold, and miserable and as he stood in front of Mrs Olivia he wished he were standing in front of Ben and having a strip torn off him.  Instead he had to answer the questions the mistress asked of him in a voice that was thin from anxiety and fear

 

He felt extremely guilty and reprehensible for leaving town without checking and rechecking the situation with the children.  He knew even as he stood there that the weather was worsening, and he also knew that he had no idea where the children were now.  His mouth was dry and the memory of that beer in the saloon came back to haunt him as Mrs Olivia asked him to go and get Ben.

 

When the door closed behind the wretched man Olivia turned to Cheng Ho Lee, who had stood deferentially some distance behind her but there to support her should the need arise.  “Cheng Ho Lee,  I don’t know what to do…”

 

For a moment he thought she was going to faint for she swayed a little back and forth, then covered her face with her long fingers before beginning to pace the floor with such misery in her eyes that his heart went out to her, he stepped forward “Missy,  perhaps good if I get horse and go, look for children now?”

 

Her eyes were wide and tear filled when she looked at him “No, it’s my responsibility to do that, Cheng Ho Lee.”  she paused then and looked at Nathaniel who gave his Momma a big beaming smile and held out his arms to her.  “I’ll wait and see what Ben says then ride into town.”

 

He shook his head “Mr Ben not let Missy go,  him go,  yes, and Cheng Ho Lee go also with him.  Missy stay with child.”

 

Her hands clenched and unclenched,  she shook her head, and approached the window that looked out into the blackness yonder, the glass now  awash with rain that was being hurled against it.  She remembered the helpless feeling that she had experienced before, when Sofia and Hannah had got lost, but this was different, somehow she knew it was different.  Both her children were somewhere, out there in the dark with the wind driven rain and once again she wrung her hands, covered her face with them, struggled to keep her emotions in check.  Adam, if only Adam were home now… and she felt hysteria well up inside her for he was home,  home from the sea, but even so, he was not there by her side.

……………………

 

Fitz drew up the horse which was not before time, the poor creature was about to stop anyway.   He looked about him and shook his head, “Sorry, kids, I’m lost.”

 

“You’re not even on the Ponderosa yet.” Reuben said and he felt his sister cringe even closer towards him, “We’ve still some way to go.”

 

Fitz nodded, “I know, but this old horse is finding it hard going against this wind.  Look, tell you what we could do, we could go to my uncle’s place, he isn’t far from here.  It will be warm and dry and then when it stops raining we can start all over again.”

 

Reuben said nothing, he was too tired, too cold and getting too wet to argue, he just held his sister’s hand very tightly and sat still.  Fitz clambered down and had to grab the harness to pull the horse round,  both he and Reuben were both wondering the same thing, whether or not the poor creature would survive another hundred yards let alone the trip to the Ponderosa.

 

The cabin was in darkness but that didn’t deter Fitz.  He pushed open the door and yelled for his uncle, but when silence prevailed he turned to the children “Come on, Uncle’s not here but it’s warm.  He won’t mind us staying here,  anyway, your Pa will make good for it.”

 

Reuben frowned, but helped Sofia down from the wagon and then took her hand to lead her into the cabin.  Fitz obviously was familiar with the place for he was able to locate matches and started to light the lamps which gave the place a warm merry appearance.  It was clean and neat, surprisingly so, and the children stood looking around them with a feeling of safety and relief finally taking away the awful feelings of fear and sickness they had been experiencing while swaying back and forth on the plank seat of the old wagon.

 

“I’ll light the fire, then it will be much warmer.”  Fitz smiled and knelt by the makings of the fire in the hearth, the flames ignited right away and he began to put more kindling on them,  “You probably know my Uncle Pete, he’s one of the stage coach drivers.  Has been for years.”   he coughed then, harsh and unpleasantly so, and his face contorted a little as though it caused him some pain.

 

“Are you alright, Mr Fitz?” Reuben asked politely but the young man nodded and began to balance some logs onto the little fire.

 

“Got the cough some time back,”  he said in a mumble, “My mother wrote to Uncle and asked if I could come stay with him.   Thought the climate here would be good for me.”

 

“Are you sick, Mr Fitz?” Sofia asked now and approached the young man with such a gentle expression on her face that Fitz smiled and assured her with as much cheerfulness in his voice that he was just a little bit sick, but getting better all the time.

 

Thunder rolled overhead, it growled  over the roof of the building and the children looked up as though expecting rain to pour down upon them at any moment.  Fitz frowned and got to his feet, “Look, we need to get some food inside ourselves, right?”

 

His grin was wide and infectious,  Reuben couldn’t help but grin back, “Yes, sir.”

 

“Right, let’s see what my Uncle has in the way of staples.”

 

While Fitz rummaged around to get food organised Reuben quickly removed Sofia’s wet clothing, then pulled off his coat and wet boots.  The fire was positively roaring up the chimney now and the cabin was warming up very nicely.  “It’s a nice cabin” he observed very politely to Fitz who nodded and placed food down on the table.

 

It wasn’t the food that they would have expected were they at home for there was no great cook here like Hop Sing or Cheng Ho Lee,  but the children were hungry and grateful for what was provided.  They ate enough to get their tummies filled and drank down something  from a bottle that Fitz assured them was better than the water.   Fitz told them more about his home back in Pennsylvania and his sisters, and how he got the cough from working in the coal mines.  “I got a job working at the Yellow Jacket for a while, above ground, as a clerk.   But I wasn’t able to keep it with things getting so difficult and people being laid off.”

 

He rambled on for a while and then noticed that Sofia was nearly falling off her chair she was so tired.  “Best get to bed then…it’s over there.  In the morning I’ll get you home, if that old nag of Ma’s hasn’t keeled over and died before then.”

……………………

 

Ben dismounted outside the sheriff’s office and shivered, the rain was fierce and had found every possible way of soaking him.   He pushed open the door  and looked around for the sheriff, found Candy talking to Mark Watt both of whom turned to him and looked surprised at seeing him there, wet through and dripping water on the floor “Anything wrong, Ben?”

 

Candy’s voice was sharp with apprehension,  and he stood up to walk a few strides towards the rancher who had removed his very limp and wet hat  “I  – I – er – the children, Reuben and Sofia, they didn’t get home from school.  I just wondered if by any chance they had stayed at Ann’s for some reason?”

 

Candy shook his head and looked surprised at the thought while Mark nodded “I think they went to Mrs Martins.  The lady …you know… the one they call Flannel.”

 

“You have seen them then?” Ben said with relief in his voice and Mark nodded as he told about the children arriving at the office earlier

 

“Seems Ezra didn’t pick them up, but I saw him in the Silver Dollar saloon having a drink about the time the children get collected.  When I went to find him he had already gone.  That’s when the children decided to go to see Mrs Martin.”

 

A flash of lightning lit up the room,  vanished almost immediately leaving them back to shadows and smoky lamps.  Ben felt a tingle of fear touch the back of his mind, Sofia would be terrified if she were somewhere strange in this weather.

 

“I’ll go and see if they are still there.” Ben said “Knowing Bridie she wouldn’t let them travel in this weather.”

 

Candy frowned “I would have thought she would have got a message to Olivia that the children were with her.”

 

“Well,  that’s easier said than done,” Ben smiled after all just who would want a long journey to the Ponderosa in this weather,  he sighed, nodded his head “I’ll let you know if they’re there.”

 

“Do that, Ben …” Candy nodded and watched as Ben quickly left the building accompanied by the clash of thunder immediately overhead.

 

 

 

Bridie had gone to bed, she had had another long arduous day and was tired, her bones felt tired and she had a head ache that reached right down to her stomach.  Ben could see the lamp light wobbling its way towards him as he stood on the threshold and waited for the door to open, and then was greeted by Bridie looking in amazement at him “Ben!   What on earth …!!   Come in, why, man, you’re soaked through.”

 

“Is Paul home?”

 

“He is, and in his study at the back of the house.  Go on through, Ben, I’ll make a hot drink.”

 

“No, it’s alright, Bridie.  I can see that you’re tired and – and really all I need to know is if the children are alright.”

 

“The children?   Which children do you mean, Ben?”  she looked puzzled, her tired eyes were confused, anxious

 

“Reuben and Sofia.  They didn’t get home today from school.  The deputy said that they told him they would come and stay here with you.”

 

“They havent been here, Ben.”  her voice trembled, and she set the lamp down on the hall table, “I’ve not seen them.”

 

Ben felt his throat constrict, he couldn’t find the words to speak, he just stared at her while she looked at the clock and worked out the hours they had been missing.

 

“Olivia and Adam … they must be worried ..”

 

“Adam’s not home.  He and his brothers had work to do down at Papoose Peak.  They won’t be back until tomorrow.”

 

She nodded,  lightning flashed and Ben could see how it lit up the parlour as the door was open to that room,  the hall was still in darkness save for the lamp.  A noise from behind and there was Paul, rubbing his eyes and looking at Ben “What’s wrong?  Which one is it this time?”

 

“No, nothing like that -” Ben said hastily, “Reuben and Sofia haven’t got home from school.  Olivia’s – we’re – worried about them.”

 

For a moment Paul just stood there beside Bridie although he put his hand on her shoulder, knowing how anxious she would be feeling about this news “It is possible they went to stay with Ann Canaday?”

 

“No,  they said they would come here.”  Ben shook his head and for a moment they stood,  lost for words and mindless of suggestions.

 

“What can we do to help, Ben?” Paul said quietly and Bridie looked at their friend earnestly,  wanting him to suggest some activity that would keep her mind from working overtime on fearful things that could happen to little children

 

“Nothing, there’s nothing either of you can do just now.  Thank you anyway.” Ben sighed and turned to go but was prevented by Bridie grabbing at his arm

 

“Ben, you need something hot inside you.  And dry clothes.  Come along,  another half an hour won’t change a thing.”

 

He nodded, he knew she was right, riding from home to town he had had that same thought, that whatever had happened,  well, it had already happened.  There was more thunder, it crashed like cymbols overhead followed instantly by lightning.  Bridie shivered “Sofia will be frightened.”

 

It crossed Ben’s mind that he would prefer her to be feeling frightened,  at least then it meant she was still alive.

………………

 

In the line shack at Papoose Peak the three brothers slept restlessly, the storm rumbled and growled overhead, and the rain thundered down upon the roof.  At times the winds buffeted so hard against the cabin that the whole building shook.   It had been a long miserable day and each one of them was feeling in need of a bath, a good meal, and a comfortable bed.

 

The weather had delayed them,  the ground had been so sodden that holes they had dug out filled with water so quickly that it took twice as long to get the posts installed.  It would be another two days before they would reach home.

……………..

 

Cheng Ho Lee brought in another cup of hot coffee which he passed to Olivia.  She sat very still now, after all the pacing around the room,  checking and rechecking that Nathaniel was safely asleep, and then opening the door just in case the children would be standing there on the porch waiting to come inside… it was as though all her energy had finally deserted her.

 

She gave him a brief smile and nod of the head “Go to bed, Cheng, you’ll be tired tomorrow.”

 

He wanted to protest, to tell her that he would prefer to drop dead from exhaustion rather than to leave her on her own.  It would have made  no difference, really, though. He knew whether he stayed or not it would be a lonely and long vigil, there would be nothing said, because all the words would be locked up in her head and unable to  be spoken until Adam returned home, or Ben walked through that door with the children.  He bowed and left the room to retire to his own and to make his prayers for the safety of Reuben and Sofia.

 

Olivia leaned against the chair back and closed her eyes,  she had cried hot tears of fear once Ben had left the house, her mind went over and over the information that Ezra had given her, that he had been assured that someone had already collected the children.   If that were true, then who could it have been?  Ben had confirmed that Hester had been home with the girls, and that Mary Ann had not left the house.  Who else could it have  been?

 

She felt sick with worry,  the distance was so long, the weather so bad.  Sofia would be frightened of the storm and Reuben would try his best to comfort his little sister, but just whereabouts would they have gone?

 

Once again nervous energy prompted her to get back on to her feet and to walk to the clock.  It was now 3 o’clock in the morning, and still the storm raged, and still the darkness surrounded the house apart from the lightning streaks.  How much longer could she wait?   When would Ben come home?  Would he have the children, would he bring them back safe and sound?

 

She prayed again, she had prayed so much already but nothing had happened. Nothing.   Only the roar of the wind to create more turbulence to her tortured mind.

 

Nathaniel was crying now, that needy sob of a frightened baby and she turned to the stairs to mount them when the door opened.  Her heart stopped as she turned, hope leapt and anticipation made the colour rush to her face “Ben?   Are they with you?  Are they safe?”

 

Ben could only shake his head, remove his hat and drop it sodden and dripping.  “I’m sorry, my dear,  I didn’t find them.  Candy is going to organise a house to house enquiry.  I would have stayed in town but thought it best to come back to let you know.  I – well – I had hoped that they would be home somehow.”

 

She was in his arms, soaked through though his clothing was it didn’t matter, she just needed strong arms and to be held while she wept tears that she thought no longer existed within her.  Nathaniel stopped his crying, asleep in his cot and his troubles forgotten.

 

Chapter 23

 

“I don’t like it here, I want to go home.”

 

Reuben tried to close his ears to his sisters voice, after all, how many times did he have to be told that she wanted to go home?  How many times did he have to reassure her that he wanted to go home as well?

 

Fitz was coughing badly, hunched over in the chair by the fire and drinking something from a bottle.  Reuben could see him from where he lay on the bed with Sofia curled beside him, and he wondered if the young man would ever be well enough to take them home after all the weather was bad out there, and there was a long way to go yet.

 

They must have fallen to sleep at some time for when they woke up the storm had subsided and the sky was lighter,  that soft purpling before the dawn broke with its splendid array of colours.   Reuben rolled from the bed and looked around the cabin before turning to his sister  “I guess we had better get dressed and head for school.”

 

“School?”  Sofia’s eyes widened and tears immediately came to her eyes, “But I want to go home.  Can’t we go home first?”

 

Fitz coughed,  their voices had disturbed his sleep for he slept lightly due to his illness.  He opened his eyes and looked at them both standing beside the bed “Awake then?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Reuben approached the young man and looked at him before glancing at the fire which was nearly dead, just a few red embers glowed through the white ash.

 

“Look, kid, I’m sorry, I just feel too ill to go any place soon.  Do you reckon on giving me a few hours?”

 

Reuben sighed and looked at his sister before venturing to say that he thought it would be better to get back to the school.

 

“You don’t want to go home?” Fitz frowned,  he felt too muzzy headed to think straight and had to rub his eyes, scratch through his greasy hair and think a while.

 

“No, sir.”  Reuben said

 

“I want to go home” Sofia cried and ran up to Fitz, “Please take me home, I want to see Mommy.”

 

Fitz  looked at Reuben, “Your Ma won’t know where you’ve been, she’ll be worried about you.  Its best you get home.”

 

Reuben nodded,  he looked at Sofia and knew she was scared, he was also but it didn’t do to cry in front of his little sister because that would frighten her even more so.   He swallowed the lump in his throat “I guess so, Mr Fitz.”

 

“Tell ‘em I did my best, won’t  you?”  Fitz leaned down and groped for the bottle which he picked up and looked at intently, “You had best get something to eat first.”

 

“Thank you,”  Reuben looked at Sofia and nodded so that she whispered a thank you as well, before they approached the table to survey the remains of their supper.

 

It didn’t look very appealing,  but they nibbled on what they could digest, and then drank some water.   As quickly as they could they pulled on their outer clothes, grateful to find them dry and warm, even their boots were dry.   After adjusting their scarves the two children quietly left the building.

 

“What do we do now?” Sofia asked as she reached out to take Reuben’s hand.

 

“We go home,  of course.  After all, that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”

 

She nodded but remained silent for she knew by the tone of his voice that he was cross with her .  What she didn’t know was that her little brother was frightened,  he had stepped out of the cabin expecting to see familiar sights, or perhaps the town just ahead of them, but everywhere was unfamiliar.  He had never seen the place before and felt as though he and his sister  had been picked up and dropped in the middle of nowhere.

……………….

 

Olivia had decided to ride Kamille into town rather than hitch the buggy.   She was a capable horsewoman and she knew that the horse was fast on her feet,  and as far as Olivia was concerned time couldn’t be wasted pacing the floor and worrying.  Ben had returned home and promised to be back by the crack of dawn,  but Olivia couldn’t wait that long for as soon as Cheng Ho Lee had presented himself for the days duties she had told him to look after Nathaniel,  to take the child to Hester or Mary Ann’s and to tell Ben she was going to town.

 

Candy had not long stepped into his office when Olivia was pushing the door of the building open.   The mud splattered woman looked so different to the one Candy was accustomed to seeing that for a while he wasn’t sure that he was actually looking at Olivia Cartwright but as soon as she asked – no, demanded – if there was news of the children he walked towards her, took her hand and led her towards the stove, to where the heat could warm her bones.

 

“We did a search of all the saloons, asked questions there last night.  Seems the children were seen in the vicinity of the Bucket of Blood,.”

 

“What does that mean exactly, Candy?  Were they seen or not?”

 

“They were seen, and a woman took Sofia with her, at least, some reports say she was seen with a little girl leaving the saloon.”

 

“What woman?   Where was Reuben?   Weren’t they together?”

 

She was struggling to stay composed,  too many questions were crowding her mind and too many worries coming as a result of so few answers.   He almost forced her to sit down,  “Olivia, I don’t know where Reuben was at the time, but as soon as I can locate the woman involved I’ll be able to tell you more.   I’ve got my deputies to do a house to house enquiry today.” he glanced up to the clock “They’ll have started already.   They’ll ask everybody in town if the children have been seen.”

 

“The school.”  Olivia jumped up as an idea struck her “If they missed Ezra, they may have stayed in the school.   The teacher usually stays behind a little while to clear away, they would have realised they would have been warm and safe there…perhaps Miss Brandon took them home with her because of the storm.”

 

Candy nodded, smiled placatingly “Yes, I had thought so as well.  I called in on Miss Brandon on the way here, she hasn’t seen them.  Last time was when they left with the other children.”

 

Olivia nodded, bowed her head as she realised another straw had floated out of reach,  she frowned and clasped her hands together before looking back up at Candy “The little girl – there was a little girl who told Ezra that they had been collected by someone earlier.   May be she would know where they were?  Perhaps it was a game and -”

 

“No, it wasn’t a game, Olivia.  From what I can make out from the things that happened yesterday, I think someone deliberately lied to Ezra to make him think the children were safe,  so that he would go off without them.”

 

“But who would do a thing like that?” Olivia leaned back, the ridges in the chair dug into her spine and the fact that she could feel the discomfort was almost a relief, some kind of penance for being a neglectful mother perhaps?  She accepted a cup of coffee, warm and steaming and looked into Candy’s blue eyes “What do you mean, from the things that happened yesterday?   What things?”

 

Candy stroked his chin thoughtfully for a moment as he looked at her, “When’s Adam due home?”

 

“Adam?  Sometime today, tomorrow perhaps… he doesn’t know about this,  he’s at Papoose Peak.”

 

Candy winced,  that was annoying, too far to send anyone to deliver a message that would mean … he calculated distances and times and dismissed the thought, then he looked at  her again “Would you not rather go and rest awhile at …”

 

“What things, Candy?  What happened yesterday?  Was it to do with that Jimmy Carstairs?   Did he have something to do with it?”

 

He shook his head “No,  it was a girl, Charlotte -”

 

“Charlotte – you mean, Charlie?  Sofia’s friend?”  she looked puzzled, pushed back a strand of mud caked hair from her forehead and then wondered what had happened to her hat.  “Charlie – what happened to her?”

 

“Nothing happened to her, Olivia.” Candy said quietly and as quickly as possible he told her about the shop lifting and how Charlie had ran off to leave Sofia facing Mr Banner.

 

As Olivia listened to the facts that Candy presented to her, she sipped more coffee, felt exhaustion trickle through her bones, wondered if she were going mad and then thought of her little girl being so confused, frightened about what had happened.  She wanted to cry, but somehow she couldn’t manufacture any more tears instead she sipped the coffee and let the words pour over her.

 

“She’ll be at the school, won’t she?  This Charlie?  She’ll be sitting there in that class room with the other children. “

 

“Possibly, she’s a wild child, Olivia.  I’m surprised that Sofia got so friendly with her, my Rose was concerned about it but Sofia didn’t take any notice of what she was told,  I believe Reuben was worried about it too.”

 

“They never said -”  Olivia murmured and felt guilt on top of all the other layers of guilt and reproach that she was suffering right then,  she should have known, asked more questions,  but Reuben had never mentioned anything about Charlie being a wild child

 

“What do you mean, about her being a wild child?”  she asked as though it meant something important and Candy shrugged

 

“Just that,  she’s wilful, disobedient, skips school whenever she can.  Her father works for the railroad so he’s not often at home,  he has a woman living with  him, just had a baby, I don’t think she’s Charlotte’s mother -.”

 

Olivia nodded and rose to her feet “I think I’ll go and visit Miss Brandon, and  the school.”

 

“No, I don’t think so, Olivia, I think you should go and stay with Ann for a while, or Bridie’s.   You’re in no fit state to go asking questions, and besides,  it’s a matter for the law now, so – why not leave it to us, please?”

…………………

 

Daniel deQuille had heard of the missing children and already written in a small paragraph referring to it for the days editorial.  He watched as Olivia stepped from the sheriff’s office and then approached her “Mrs Cartwright?”

 

“Yes?” she spoke eagerly, hopeful that there was some positive news from him, after all, who better but a man who poked and pried to find out some lead?

 

“I’m really sorry about the children, has there been any further news?”

 

“No, nothing.”  she approached Kamille and placed her hand on the bridle, some people had gathered, mostly men, admiring the horse’s finer points and speculating on whom she belonged, seeing Olivia they nodded and walked away, better to say nothing, they theorised, than embarrass her by asking awkward questions.

 

“Does Adam know?”

 

“He’s at Papoose Peak, he wont be home until tomorrow, perhaps later today.  No, he doesn’t know.”   she took the reins and began to walk with Kamille pacing behind her, Daniel walked for a while by her side in silence.

 

“Mrs Cartwright?”  he sighed and shook his head, such a lovely woman, wretchedly unhappy, capable though, he admired the fact that she hadn’t been weeping and wailing at home while her husband was away but had acted independently to come into town. “What are you going to do now?”

 

“I don’t know.” there was a slight note of hysteria in her voice and she stopped walking, pulling the reins down to get Kamille to stop as well.

 

“You’ve a beautiful animal there?”  He nodded towards the horse “Arab strain?”

 

“Yes, pure Arabian ….”  she muttered distractedly and shook her head, “I’m sorry, Mr deQuille, I have – I have to go and see someone about the children”

 

“Do you want me to come with you?”  he volunteered kindly, “Is there anything at all that I can do for you?”

 

She frowned and shook her head “No, thank you for asking.  Oh yes, you could find out some information about a family, I think they are called Beckett .. There’s a little girl, Charlotte Beckett.  And – and ask people you meet if they know anything,  seen anything of Reuben and Sofia.”

 

He nodded and touched the brim of his hat, then stepped back to let her walk by with the horse on the leading rein ambling along behind her.

 

As he turned back towards his office he noticed Ben Cartwright dismounting outside Candy’s office and stopped in his tracks as he thought over the facts he knew ..not about the Becketts or the children, but that Adam was not home, Ben was not on the Ponderosa and Olivia was also here in town.  Without a moments hesitation he hurried into the offices to reappear minutes later dressed warmly against the weather.

 

Bridie opened the door to the light tapping, and gave a mingled cry of misery and sympathy at the sight of Olivia on her doorstep.  Opening her arms wide she embraced the woman and urged her indoors while Tilly hurried into the kitchen to prepare something hot to drink, something that would put heart into the poor woman who looked as though ready to collapse

 

“Any news?” Bridie asked as she ushered Olivia into the parlour and when her guest just shook her head and buried her face in her hands, Bridie ushered her into a chair and sat beside her  “Nothing?  Nothing at all?”

 

“Candy’s set up a door to door search, asking everyone …  oh Bridie, what could have happened to them?   He said they were seen at the Bucket of Blood saloon, that a woman there took Sofia home… or …took her somewhere…”

 

“And Reuben?”

 

“No, he didn’t mention Reuben.  I can’t think straight, Bridie, I’m sorry, my head is just going round and round.”  she grasped at Bridie’s hands now, “Where could they have gone, Bridie?   Why would anyone tell Ezra such a terrible lie and leave my children all alone?”

 

“Surely they would have come here,  they would have known they could have come here.”

 

“Reuben told  the deputy they were going to come here … that must have been before …they must  have been coming here and passing the saloon,  perhaps got separated?”  she paused, shook her head “But … why didn’t they just keep coming here?”

 

Chapter 24

 

Sofia shivered, big shivers ran up and down her back and little shivers trickled around her head.  She had to stop walking,  and tugged at Reuben’s sleeve “Boo… my feet are cold, my hands are cold, my tummy’s wiggling. “

 

Reuben stopped walking, he was glad to stop, his legs ached and his feet had stopped having any feeling in them for some time.  He turned to his little sister and could see from her swollen eye lids that she had been crying.  He looked up at the sky and then at her again, “Alright, we’ll stop here.  There are some trees up ahead we can make a little camp if you like?”

 

“A camp? A real camp?”  she opened her eyes as wide as she could and then yawned, the cold made her weary to her bones,  and walking so far, for so long, “A real camp, Boo?”

 

He nodded and took her hand to lead her up the little incline to where the trees were grouped.   “Now, look, you pick up some wood, make sure it’s dry …can you do that?”

 

She looked doubtful, then nodded, anything was better than just walking.  “Will daddy see the fire and come for us?”

 

“He may do just that, Sofee.”

 

He watched her walk away, called after her  not to go too far, and then cleared away the damp leaves that had gathered on the ground.  He had to think about what Pa had done next,  and after a while found a few fir cones, dry and nestling together at the foot of the tree.  He unbuckled the strap that kept all his books together and then tore off several blank pages from his tablet, which he screwed  up and placed at the base of the fir cones, then he drew from his pocket the matches he had taken from the cabin, while Fitz was coughing and spluttering beside the fire and wouldn’t notice.  |t was stealing, he knew that Ma would tell him so, but he would buy Fitz more out of his own pocket money so it was really, only like borrowing.  He struck a match but the wind blew it out.  After several attempts and realising his store of matches were dwindling one actually caught on the paper and a small flame burst open like a blossoming flower.

 

“Is this enough wood?” Sofia asked staggering to wards him with several bits of fallen tree in her arms and he nodded and watched the flame ignite a fir cone, then the other, so he was able to put the wood around it and reached for her hand which she grasped tightly

 

“There, see…  you can get a little warmer now.”  he looked up at the sky and squeezed her hand “It isn’t raining, and it isn’t too cold and windy here is it?”

 

“I can’t see our house from here though.”

 

No, of course not, no house, in fact, no houses.  No town, nothing but the occasional scattered copse of trees.   The road had looked familiar at first when he had led her along it, but not now.  Nothing looked familiar, he was lost.  He wasn’t even sure if this was Ponderosa land.  He pushed her closer to the fire “Get warm, Sofia, while I get some more wood.”

 

“Will daddy see the fire?” she cried as her brother scrambled off and Reuben paused to look at the feeble flames and mustered up a smile, assuring her that their Pa would be sure to see it.

 

The wood he collected was enough to keep the fire burning for an hour or more, and big enough to cook something on it except that there was nothing to cook.  There was nothing to drink either and both children looked at one another, at the fire, and then tried to think of what to do next.  Sofia had limited imagination for such a situation, she was still very young, and the last time she had got lost was close to home.  It wasn’t long before her eyes closed and she slumped down on to the ground and fell asleep.

 

Reuben tried to work out how to set a snare.  Pa and Hoss had shown him how to make the loop but he had no string.  He wondered if the strap he used to keep his books together would be workable but soon realised it was too thick.   He knew how to tell the time by the sun though, and knew that it was reaching noon,  and his stomach was rumbling to prove that it was time to eat.

 

When Sofia opened her eyes the fire was still burning and there was the smell of something cooking, she wasn’t sure what it was but it looked like something that had once had legs.  She looked at Reuben and then back at the charring corpse “What’s that?”

 

“Something to eat, I  caught it myself.  I remembered how Pa and Uncle Hoss showed me how to set a snare and I did it,  with my boot laces.”

 

He was proud of himself, she could tell that and offered him a smile.  The fire was spitting and spluttering as the fat dripped onto it and she sat closer, holding her hands out “Did it cry?”

 

“What?”

 

“The little animal, did it cry when you caught it?”

 

“Of course not, animals don’t cry.”  he shrugged and turned his head away, he didn’t like to admit the little creature had squealed, and he hadn’t expected that to happen and had gone away to hide until it was all over.  Then, of course, he had had to skin the poor little thing…  he shivered now at the memory, but Uncle Hoss had said Hop Sing never cooked a chicken  with its feathers on, so why eat a rabbit still wearing its fur coat?

 

“This is an adventure, Sofee.   We can tell the kids at school about it, bet they never ever had an adventure like this.”  he smiled at her, knowing as he said it that it was a lie because quite a few of the lads on the homesteads had to survive their parents frugality by going out snaring rabbits and catching fish, but it as all new to them and so he tried to cajole her into some sense of excitement to make the burden less.

 

The both nibbled at the meat when it was cooler,  and Sofia said her brother was very clever but she didn’t sound convinced, not really.   “It’ll be dark soon,” Reuben said as he licked his fingers “Shall we stay here or walk on a bit further?”

 

She cuddled in closer to him, there was comfort in his body, warmth and solidity, and the fire was still bright.  She didn’t want to walk any more, she was thirsty and tired.  She shivered, and reached for his hand “Can we stay here until daddy comes?”

 

“Sure, Sofee, if that’s what you want.”

…………………

 

Bridie opened the door to the abrupt knocking and stepped aside for Candy to enter the house.   He followed her into the parlour where Olivia and Ben were seated talking in low tones to Roy Coffee.  They all looked up expectantly as Candy stepped inside, removing his hat as he did so.

 

“Any news?” Ben asked, getting immediately to his feet as though whatever was said meant he would have to propel himself from the house as fast as possible.

 

“We traced the woman who took the children from the saloon.   Veronica Fawcett.  She’s a good hearted girl and meant well, she took them home with her and a friend there agreed to bring them home to the Ponderosa.”

 

“So?  What happened?”  Ben queried “We’ve seen no one…”

 

“No,  well, according to Veronica her friend,  Fitz, has tuberculosis, it’s quite bad, the cough I mean.  He took Ma Cooper’s horse and wagon and they left town during the deluge we had yesterday … she’s worried about him as well, seems he never returned to town.”

 

“We need to find him then,” Roy muttered and reached out a consoling hand to Olivia who had sat still and said nothing, only hung her head and stared into the fire.

 

“We’ve got a posse out looking.” Candy said and before Ben could protest about not being kept informed he raised a hand for silence “We just wanted to get on with it and find them as soon as possible, before more time was wasted.”

 

“And -?”  Ben snapped abruptly

 

“We found Fitz, he’s in a bad state.  The rain and cold didn’t do him any favours I can assure you.   He doesn’t know where the children are, he can’t even remember having any children in the cabin with him.”

 

“So?”  Ben growled and shook his head in frustration while Olivia clutched her hands together in her lap and willed herself not to give way to tears.

 

“The posse are out looking for them, but it’s getting dark now.  We may have to start again tomorrow.”

 

Roy stood up and reached for his hat “Where was this cabin where you found the lad?”

 

“Pete Riley’s cabin north of town, way off the Ponderosa trail.” Candy replied looking at the older man with a slight furrowing of the brow, “What’s on your mind?”

 

“Ben and me… we’ll pick up from where your boys left off.  That way we get an earlier start when first light comes tomorrow.”

 

Ben nodded, “Seems good to me, I’ll get some provisions arranged.”

 

“I’ll come too.”  Olivia said quietly as she rose to her feet, “I’ve sat around too long as it is doing nothing.”

 

“No, my dear,” Ben smiled gently, and put his hand upon her arm “Its best you stay here, with Bridie.”

 

“Don’t, Ben.” she shook his hand from her, “Don’t patronise me, not now.  They;’re my children and I need to do something about finding them.”

 

Candy looked from one to the other of them and nodded “Well, I’ll leave you just now.  I’ll meet you in the cabin … we can start the search from there.”

 

Ben nodded and then turned his attention to Olivia who was about to leave the room to talk to Bridie about preparing for the journey, “Olivia…”

 

“I’m going, Ben.” was all she said as she quickly made her way to where Bridie and Tilly were standing, waiting, with baited breath to know what was going on.

 

Roy nodded and picked up his hat “Only natural, Ben.  She’s their mother after all.”

 

Ben said nothing to that, he thought a lot though and more than once wished that his son was there to keep his wife in order, but Roy was right, he knew that, he knew that a woman would want to be with her children and would risk anything to accomplish that fact.

 

Within less than half an hour they were leaving the comfort of Bridie’s home and riding towards old Pete’s cabin.

……………………

 

Daniel deQuille stoked up the fire in his study and turned up the flame in the lamp.  He very carefully opened the slim volume that he had taken from among those that made up the journal of O’Briens Memoirs.   Everything had gone well, the house had been empty, even the fire had been banked down.   He had replaced the other ‘loaned’ book and made sure that it was in the exact place where he had taken it.

 

He had hesitated to take another but … well, temptation was there to be avoided or enjoyed and he chose the latter.  He had made sure that there was no sign of his activity, no evidence of his presence.  The rain had washed away any sign of his horse and buggy having been in the yard.

 

He leaned back in his chair and settled down to read.

 

Chapter 25

 

The day dawned laden with fog within which dew hung so heavily that it created rims of diamonds around everything it touched.  Reuben had made up a little bed among the leaves for them both and promised his sister that there were no spiders, that snakes like the warm weather and that nothing ‘scarey’ would come and eat them during the night.

 

Of course he spent a long time worrying about that even when Sofia had fallen into a deep sleep.  Whenever he found himself awake he would look over at the fire and creep out to put more wood  onto it.  He had prayed hard that in the morning everything would look different and he would know where he was so that he could take them both home.

 

But in the morning everything was the same, only worse because the fog concealed what lay beyond a 20 foot boundary

…………………..

 

Charlotte walked into the class room with her head held defiantly high and her nose in the air.  The sheriff had visited them that morning and asked a lot of questions to which she had answered with a sweet and tearful response,.  How well she knew how to play the innocent.  She fluttered her eyelashes, sobbed when told the children were missing and insisted that she hadn’t meant to get Sofia into trouble just that she knew her little friend liked those particular candies and wanted to please her.  Such a dear friend was Sofia Cartwright.

 

Had she told Ezra that the children had already been taken home?  Oh no!   How could he think it?  That was a lie, a downright lie…  the children at school didn’t like her, that was why she was so fond of Sofia, but to tell Ezra such a lie?  People went to hell if they told lies, didn’t they?  And she had looked up into his blue eyes and blinked tears from out of her own.

 

Now she had to face the children and they were not so easy to fool as the sheriff and his deputy for children have an uncanny knack of sniffing out those that were unwholesome and cruel.  Jimmy Carstairs was first to tackle her head on “Why’d you tell that Ezra to leave without Sofia and Reuben, Carrot top?”

 

“Who said I did?  And who are you to call me Carrot Top, you runt?” she stood her ground, hands on her hips and her nose just an inch from his but Jimmy was riled up and his mouth became a pinched button of protest

 

David Riley came and stood beside Jimmy and looked at her as though she were something he had found on the bottom of his shoe after walking through a cow pat “The sheriff was at our place this morning,  he said Sofia and Reuben hadn’t got home.  What have you to say to that, Beckett?”

 

“I ain’t got nothing to say, not to you anyhow,  Riley” she tossed her head and turned to go but Jimmy grabbed at her arm and pulled her back

 

“You told Ezra they had gone home.  I saw you talking to him.  I saw you, Carrots.”

 

“You didn’t see anything, you’re too dumb to see anything, leggo of my arm.”

 

Other children arrived, paused to stand and stare, some knew what had happened having had a visit from one of the deputies at their home and having to answer questions as to when they had left and if they had seen the Cartwright children. Some children knew nothing about it but listened to the whispered story in horror, living so far from town and being lost was indeed enough to make every child there think ‘It could be me…lost …what would I do…’

 

Miss Brandon ran the bell and looked anxiously at the children as they filed into the classroom.  The two she most wanted to see were not present and her heart sunk.  She felt her own guilt, knowing that those moments with her young man may well have contributed to the children’s loss.  Had she known how true that was she would have resigned immediately.

………………

 

Sofia rubbed her eyes and looked around her, she had slept as close to her brother as she could have done but morning had come and a new day beckoned.  “Reuben?  Reuben?”

 

Her brother sighed, and turned to look at her “Are you alright, Sofee?  You seemed to sleep well.”

 

“Did I?”  she frowned and looked around her “I can’t see our house? “

 

“No,”  he sighed again, even if the house was right there a 100 yards away they wouldn’t have seen it.  “Are you alright, Sofee?”  he asked this in an anxious voice for he was more than afraid that upon realising what kind of day lay ahead of them she would start to cry.  Reuben hated it when his sister cried as he never really knew what to say to placate her.

 

“I’m thirsty.”  she paused and frowned “And hungry”

 

“There’s some meat left and I still got some biscuits from Fitz’s …” he groped in his bag and produced some which Sofia pounced on in delight “We’ll get something to drink later.”

 

“We can get milk out of a cow,” Sofia suggested and looked around her as though she  expectated a cow to come strolling towards them through the mist.

 

“We’re not home, Sofee,  there ain’t no cows around hereabouts.”

 

They walked together towards the dying embers of the fire, and Reuben felt suddenly very tired, very young.  He felt tears prickling his eyelids, filling his nose, he wanted the fire to be burning bright so that they could get warm and feel safe, but this dying relic of what once was, just reminded him that they would need to move on.

 

He tried to think of what to do, what direction to go in, whereabouts had they walked from?  The fog obscured everything and there were no landmarks, nothing he recognised at all.

“I can drink out of that puddle…” Sofia exclaimed suddenly and pulled away from him but he grabbed at her hand immediately even though she protested and lost her mitten as a result

 

“You can’t drink out of puddles, Sofee.  Pa told me that people can get sick if they drink out of puddles.”

 

“Why?  it’s water?  I’m thirsty.”  her face puckered up, her lip protruded and she blinked fast, tears were threatening.

 

“Pa said we have to find a stream.  He said always drink water where it’s moving …”

 

“Water always moves, silly.”

 

“No, he didn’t mean that.” Reuben frowned and tried to remember what exactly Adam had meant when he had been explaining about the dangers of drinking dirty water and best to find a stream, or river

 

“I want a drink. I want  a drink. I’m thirsty.   I want …” she paused and hic coughed “I want daddy.”

 

“Lets eat some meat and our biscuits and then we can walk until we find a stream.  I can hear one near by, Sofee.”

 

“Can you?”  she turned her head, this way and that, but the fog hemmed them in, “I can’t hear anything.”

 

Reuben heaved yet another sigh,  to be honest nor could he.

 

………………..

 

The cabin was warm and Pete had been more than surprised to find Ben, Olivia and Roy Coffee on his doorstep when he had opened the door to a hefty thumping.  “Well, best come on in,  now you’re here.” he had muttered and watched them as they came in one by one, each of them looking weary and the woman looking as if she were about to fall down.  He promptly pulled up a chair and offered it to her “Sit down, ma’am.    Mrs Cartwright, ain’t it?”

 

“Thank you,  Pete.” Ben muttered as he helped Olivia to the chair for she was exhausted, totally spent.  “Have you any coffee?”

 

“Just brewed.  Not long got in myself.  You know my nephew Fitz was here ?  Took ill he was, had to get him to the doc in town.” he  paused to hand some coffee to Olivia and then rummage for cups and mugs for his other guests “The sheriff came with a posse, they took him into town with them.  I heard in town about some missing children, they said Fitz had something to do with them being lost”

 

“That’s right,” Roy nodded and took the mug which warmed his fingers enough to make them tingle “Sofia and Reuben Cartwright.  They – er – they didn’t come home from school..  Your nephew kindly offered to take them home but -”

 

“I see,  he took ill.  Full of good intentions is that lad, but not well enough to carry most of them out.  Poor boy.  They don’t give him much longer, you know.  Not sure how I’m going to tell Cissie. That’s my sister, he’s her boy you see.”

 

They nodded and although it reminded Olivia that others had their own grief it did little to ease her own.  She heaved in a deep gulp of air, closed her eyes and fought off sleep.  If she slept she was wasting time. Time.   She didn’t have enough time and her children … she shook her head and forced herself to drink some coffee.

 

“Fogs coming down.”  Pete was saying, “I was late with the Placerville stage last night, due to the rain, there was a rock slide as a result and I had to clear that away.  Now this here fog will mean a delay this morning as well.   What do you folks intend to be doing?”

 

Ben looked at Olivia and then at Roy, “We had hoped to find some trace of the children here.  I know Candy’s already been and checked but …”

 

Pete shook his head “Ain’t no chance of you finding any tracks around here.  The rain would have cleared most away, and now this fog …   but to be honest, I think you would be wiser to get that little lady home so she can get some sleep.  She looks just about dead on her feet.”

 

Ben nodded and saw a flash of grim indignation on Olivia’s face so sipped his coffee but it was Roy who said in his quiet but brusque manner “P’raps if Mrs Cartwright could sleep here for an hour or so, Pete?   We’ll go scout around and perhaps you could rustle up something to eat?”

 

Pete nodded, “The bed’s over there…”

 

In a no nonsense manner Ben took Olivia by the hand and led her to the bed, “Olivia, you need to sleep.  Promise me you’ll try?”

 

She nodded, said nothing and lay down,  her head touched the pillow where hours earlier her little girl had rested her own and the smell of her children touched her nostrils, touched her heart and as the door closed upon her she broke into silent sobs.

………………..

 

As far as Hoss was concerned the subject of Kamille was not going to go away, and as the three brothers rode their way homewards he brought her back into their conversation.  Adam listened with a slight smile as he waited for Joe to chip in and say his nickels worth and finally said “I’ve decided to keep her.”

 

“Yeah, and what for?” Hoss said, “You been saying she ain’t no good as a cow pony.”

 

“I know.  But she can breed good cow ponies,  she could even breed riding horses for ladies, you know how they like to look good riding side saddle on a fine horse?  I reckon Kamille would breed beautiful creatures.  Just look at her son?”

 

“Yeah,  I get your point.” Hoss nodded and stroked his chin. “Could sell the colt …”

 

“No,  you can’t” Joe protested “Daniel loves that colt …”

 

This elicited a guffaw of laughter from Hoss and a smile from Adam.  There was no fog where they were, the sun shone in a sombre apologetic manner and they were on their way home.

……………

 

Candy felt at the end of his rope, he was physically tired, and mentally worn out.  The responsibilities of being the sheriff of his area of Virginia City were onerous but manageable, until they affected those nearest and dearest.   When the situation involved children it created raw nerves and it seemed that everyone in town suddenly had something to hide, some hidden agenda they didn’t want revealed.

 

He pushed aside his half empty cup of coffee and was about to make a suggestion to Clem about whether or not to go back to the saloons and stores to question them when the door opened and a young black haired woman stepped inside.   She was an attractive woman, with dark eyes, slim build and a wide generous mouth and with her style of dress could have passed for a wandering gypsy

 

Candy stood up  and then indicated the chair on the other side of the desk, “Sit down, Miss Veronica.   Have you any thing more you want to tell us… could perhaps remember from your previous statement?“

 

She shook her head and knew from the look of disappointment on their faces that they had hoped she’d have remembered something that would have solved the problem of the missing children like some kind of magic.

 

“No, I – I just saw Fitz.  He’s in hospital.  He did try to get the kids home but – but he wasn’t well, and the old horse is just about ready to go to the glue factory. “  she spoke all in a rush, pulling her shawl around her thin shoulders and trying to appear much older than she was, she looked at the two men and then returned to look more directly at Candy  “And I wanted to know if you had found them, but -”  she shrugged, a waste of breath asking “I’m sorry, I should have taken them to that Mrs Martin like they asked, but Fitz so wanted to help, to feel  useful.”

 

Candy smiled in a kindly “You both did what you could, you’ve nothing to blame yourselves for….”

 

“Got caught in all that rain didn’t he?  Coughing something awful, and a high fever.  He was – is – a kind lad,”  she stood up and stared at Candy rather disconcertedly, then with a nod of the head asked if she could leave.

 

Once the door had closed behind her Candy grabbed for his hat, “Clem, I’m going home for a while.  If I don’t get some sleep now I’ll fall off my horse …  you do the same, as soon as Watt gets here tell him to stay put.”

 

For a while he stood outside, watching the fog swirl about the buildings and making them appear like something from a fairy story instead of the old clapboard stores and saloons that had been there for years.  He bowed his head and thought of Olivia, and the children.  The thought came to mind that when Adam found out …  he shivered, he didn’t want to even think about what it would be like when Adam found out.

 

Chapter 26

 

Daniel deQuille walked slowly towards the Telegraph Office noting as he went the difference fog makes to a place.  Sounds came from long distances away, the jingle of a horses harness caught one’s ear by surprise and the clop clop of their hooves boomed with a odd resonance.   Buildings wrapped in threads of fog and mist took on a strangely ethereal appearance while the lamps that had been lit inside shimmered like glow worms through the murk.

 

His own footsteps sounded dull to his ear, and there were fewer people on the streets, despite it being usually a busy time of day.  He raised his hat to the woman he bumped into and apologised before continuing on his way.

 

Some while back Hoss Cartwright had referred to deQuille’s contacts as weasels ferreting out information to the journalist, and in some ways that was more accurate than he would ever had realised.   Information and news meant money to a journalist like deQuille.   What he had read in the latest of O’Brien’s journals made him realise that there was no sensible way in which he could write a book based on those memoirs but the information within them could be put to good use and provide him with money … if the price was right, if the interest were there.

 

Eddy nodded and took the slip of paper from the newspaperman and glanced down at it.  Just a series of names and dates, and to be sent to the ‘usual’ contacts.  He accepted the money and wrote out the receipt, once deQuille was satisfied that the message was being sent on its various ways he left the building.

 

It was, of course, a gamble. Commodore Adam Cartwright may have faded out of public interest now, but how was he to know being so far from where everything was happening?   It was difficult to keep one’s finger on the pulse of what was big news while rotting in a town that was slowly dying by inches as the mines dried up.  He pulled a cigar from his pocket and struck a match, he would have to wait and see what fish nibbled at the bait and gauge the interest from thereon.

…………….

 

Roy and Ben stood on the track and said nothing.  They didn’t say much either as the fog crept wisps of mist about their heads and bodies.  “What are we supposed to find?”  Roy finally muttered

 

“Hope.” Ben murmured and shook his head “Anything that will give us some idea as to where the children could have gone.”

 

“Hope?  In this?”  Roy stepped forward some paces looking as best he could at the ground beneath his feet that had been churned up into mud by the hooves of the horses that had belonged to the posse., He straightened himself and returned to Ben’s side “You can tell the posse came here,  that’s about all.”

 

“How far do  you think the children could have got, Roy?   Little legs can’t travel much of a distance, can they? “

 

“No,  no, they can’t.”   Roys voice sounded like the voice of doom, if Ben was looking for some hope,  he wasn’t going to find it with Roy at his side.  “They would be tired, scared …”

 

“Perhaps we’re looking in the wrong direction….” Ben suggested and turned around to face the direction in which they had come

 

“We didn’t pass them on the way here, Ben.”

 

True enough, the big rancher’s shoulders drooped and he shook his head again.  “It may be better if we wait for the fog to lift. We could be wasting more time following our noses and getting misdirected as a result than if we stay inside and wait.”

 

Roy nodded but drew out his gun and after looking significantly at Ben, raised his arm and fired three shots.  The plainsmans signal for distress or reassurance that help was on its way “Let’s hope they hear it, Ben.   Let’s hope that they’ll know we’re here looking for them.”

 

Inside the cabin Pete had food cooking, Olivia still slept the sleep of the exhausted that when aroused would have given her little respite.  The two men sat down by the fire and slipped their hats onto the floor   “A pity young Fitz can’t remember anything about what happened.” Roy sighed as he accepted a mug of coffee  “This cabin is some distance from town, Pete…I always thought you lived closer?”

 

“I did once, when I had a woman… then realised I liked peace and quiet so bought this piece of land and settled here for when I’m in town between trips.  I like being away from folk, see too much of ‘em in my job.”

 

Ben raised his eyebrows and wondered about that, after all perched on top of a stage coach didn’t exactly bring a man into much contact with people, Pete obviously disliked humankind more than even he realised.

 

“Where does this road lead to, Pete?” Roy now asked “North of here is the road into town, right?”

 

“S’right, that’s the way you came by to get here.   Go east and you get onto Ponderosa land, same as south.  If you go west there’s the river, well, ain’t so much a river, a stream …  gets mighty high in the winter with the rains and snows, that’s a fact.  If you keep on the road you get to no where in particular, although I did hear tell that there’s a small town growing there.  Mind you, that’s some days ride from hereabouts, the children would never have gone that far as yet.”

 

“So you’re slap bang in the middle of nowhere, Pete.”

 

“Yep., that’s how I like it too.” he eased himself into a chair and glanced over at the bed where Olivia still slept  “I sure hope those kids of hers are safe, no knowing what kind of critter lurks around out there, and I ain’t talking about the four legged kind either, wal, not jest them anyhow.   You can get the occasional renegade creeping around and it’s a haven for outlaws, as you know …”

 

Ben raised a hand for silence “Thanks, Pete.  If you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to have to think about them.”

………………..

 

“I can see it, I can see it”  Sofia clapped her hands and then clasped them together  beneath her chin.   There it was, the little brook bubbling away over the rocks and pebbles, and as clean and cheerful as could be.

 

“I told  you, didn’t I?”  Reuben felt a surge of relief reach from head to foot at the sight of the water and looked at his sister “Come on,  Sofia, come on …”

 

He was running, and behind him Sofia ran with glee for she had been so thirsty for so long that she had been surprised at being able to open her mouth at all.   Now she ran behind him, skidded and slipped to land on her bottom and to get mud on her coat, but what did that matter?   She crouched down beside him and scooped up water in her cupped hands, slurping it up just as her brother did.   It was cold, really cold and it made her stomach ache, even her teeth ached but it was good to have moisture in her mouth again even though she couldn’t bear her hands in the water for too long. She shook her fingers “It’s cold, Boo.”

 

He sighed and nodded, and stepped away from the water to look at her   “We could walk along here a bit, just follow the stream then later on I’ll catch a fish, maybe two, and we can have a fire and eat it here.”

 

“Here?  Right here?”

 

“Well,  may be further along.  I think the waters too fast for fish here.  If we walk a bit more we can find a real good place for our camp.”

 

“Then daddy will find us won’t he?”

 

“I don’t know …” some doubt crept into his voice, the fog was thinning he was sure of it, but he remembered that his Pa was with his Uncles some days distance away “I don’t think he knows we aren’t home, Sofia.  I don’t think he’ll come for ages yet.”

 

“He will, he will.”  Sofia cried and scrambled to her feet “Daddy said we were to stay just where we are and not wander off…and we did… and now daddy will be angry with us.”

 

“No he won’t.  He’ll find us, that is, if we don’t find him first.” he struck out his chest, so far things had worked out hadn’t they? “Look , we had a good camp last night, I caught that rabbit didn’t I?”

 

“I want to go home, Boo.  I want mommy and …”  she started to snivel, and bowed her head in an effort not to let him see her tears for she wanted to be brave, like he was being for her.

 

For a moment he felt like crying too, and came to her side and hugged her.  His little sister.  He could remember when she had been born, and how important and precious she had been then.  Perhaps it had been because father had died only months earlier, or because mother had been so ill,  but he had cuddled her as a baby,  comforted and loved her.   He hated seeing her cry, but her words stung him just a little too, because in his heart of hearts he had realised long ago that they would have been wiser to have stayed in the cabin.

 

“We won’t get home if we just stay here bawling, now, come on, cry baby, let’s go.” and he put out a hand to take hold of hers “Come on,  Sofia, don’t be a baby.”

 

“I’m not, I just want to stay here and wait for daddy.”

 

“But daddy’s with Uncle Hoss and Uncle Joe,  he’s a long ways off,  it’ll take ages for him to find us.  Better for us to keep walking …look, Sofee, we can walk alongside the stream and make a camp further up.   Wouldn’t you like that?”

 

She shook her head, folded her arms across her chest and pouted “No, I want to stay here.”

 

“Well,” Reuben squared his shoulders and stuck out his chin “you can stay here if you like, but I’m going to walk on a bit further.   Are you coming?”

 

“No, I’m staying here.”

 

He hesitated, dare he say it?  Dare he? “Well, I’m not, so you can stay here by yourself for all I care …”

 

He didn’t wait to see the effect of his words but turned around and marched off.  Soon the mist would clear away, he would know exactly where they were and he’d get home.  He didn’t look behind him but was satisfied by the crunch of her footsteps on the pebbles and stones to know that she was close behind him.

 

They walked for some distance, keeping close to the stream, occasionally stopping to drink some water which slaked their thirst but did nothing to quell the hunger pangs.  The fog was lifting and ahead he could see a bend in the direction of the stream, he stopped for a moment to observe it.  Had he seen it  before?   Was it familiar or was it just one of many others, similar but not the same?

 

Sofia was dragging behind,  she was very tired and hunger was making her feel light headed.   She sat down on a rock and shivered,  looked over at Reuben and called to him to stop, but resolutely he continued on, so deep in thought that he didn’t even hear her voice.

…………………….

 

Olivia cupped her mouth with her hands and called out again as loudly as she could “Reuben … Sofia …   Reu – ben   ….    Soo – fia”

 

The words bounced back as the fog swirled around them.  Ben came and put his hand on her shoulder “Come along, Olivia, I think we should head for home before this fog gets any thicker.”

 

She felt a strange tightness in her chest, and for a second her throat seemed to close up altogether making it difficult to breathe.  Leave, how could she possibly leave? She shook her head “I can’t leave here, Ben.  How can I?  The fog will clear,  it cleared earlier on didn’t it?”

 

“That was a few hours ago,  and all we’ve done is ride and waste time.”  Ben sighed, “We went in the wrong direction and if we carry on like this we’re going to be riding further away from them.”

 

“You don’t know that for sure.  We could be getting closer to them all the time now.” her words were a vain protest, she knew that, she had known and felt it ever since they took this fork in the road.  She couldn’t even remember now why they had turned into it, there was certainly no indication that the children had passed that way.

 

“It’s the fog.” Ben muttered, “It makes familiar landmarks look in the wrong place,  you need to really know your territory around here to know exactly where to go.”

 

She rubbed the back of her neck where the pain was, she ached all over and yet, and yet, she could not possibly stop, not now.   “Ben, can’t we try just a little longer?”

 

Roy joined them now, he had ridden on further into a copse of trees where he had thought that perhaps the children would have taken shelter but there was nothing to report back to them.  He looked at them both sadly,  obstinacy on both their faces.

 

“I reckon we took a false trail back along,”  he nodded towards the way they had come, “Easy to do in this weather, it tricks the eyes.”  he leaned forward, resting his folded arms on the saddle horn “Look, Ben, Miz Cartwright, you’re both exhausted.  You should head for home, get some rest.”

 

Olivia opened her mouth to protest but Ben’s hand on her arm stopped her and Roy nodded “I know it’s hard to accept, but we need to get  better prepared for tomorrow.  This fog will clear, we’ll be able to get a clearer lead, you’ll see.  We already lost time with no results today,  ain’t no point pushing on in the wrong direction and this clearly was the wrong direction.  Tomorrow the weather will brighten,  I’m going to stay at the cabin so that I can get  a good start.”

 

“Then I’ll stay too,  I can rest overnight and -” she paused as the pressure on her arm from Ben tightened and she turned to look at him

 

“Adam will be home tomorrow,” he said quietly, “He’ll need to know what’s happened, Olivia.  You’ll  have to be there to tell him.”

………………

 

Sofia couldn’t go any further, she just curled up into a tight little ball and waited for Reuben to make a fire like he promised he would.   She felt strange, she felt light and heavy all at the same time and her throat hurt her so  much, and her tummy was really very strange.  She closed her eyes, perhaps if she went to sleep then when she woke up Mommy or daddy would be there, they would pick her up, and hold her close, and tell her how much they missed her.

 

Reuben  built up his little fire and struck the matches.   Pages of his book were sacrificed willingly because he was so cold,  his fingers were numb and he dropped some matches on the ground as a result.  When the paper ignited he was even too tired and weary to feel glad about it.  The smoke rose and was gathered up into the fog.   He watched it as it spiralled up and disappeared.   He collected more wood,  made a good fire and then went to sit beside Sofia.  He should catch a fish, he should, he knew that he should … somehow he was too tired, he just wanted to sleep.

 

The damp moist air of the fog had seeped into their already damp clothing,  his feet and hands were so cold and he knew that his sisters were just as  bad.   He lay down  by her side, wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer to him.  He didn’t cry, but the tears came anyway, silently trickling down his face as he thought over all the mistakes he had made…  he thought them over,  one by one, and realised he had failed, he had not kept his sister safe, he had forgotten the basic rules Adam had taught him,  his father would be so ashamed of him.

 

In the distance he heard what he thought was thunder,  it boomed three times but his head was reeling and he just buried his face into his sister’s neck, feeling the damp wool of her bonnet against his cheek, the smell of it reminded him that he needed to get her home.

 

 

Roy slipped the gun back into his holster and the three of them waited,  as though somewhere out of the fog two little figures would come running towards them, smiles on their faces, relief bright in their eyes.  Olivia strained her eyes into the fog willing her son and daughter to appear,  and when nothing happened she turned to Roy and asked him what good had that done.

 

“They’ll know we’re looking for them…” he said, once again, and nodded his craggy head, his moustache dewed by the mist, his eyes dewed with something other that that, and with a sigh he looked at Ben “You’d best take the lady home, Ben”

 

Chapter 27

 

Candy buckled his gun belt securely around his waist and then pulled on his thick winter coat.   The situation with the missing children was tearing at him in every way,  and his responsibilities as a lawman seemed to be hindering rather than helping in his finding them.  Rules and procedures, teeming rain and then the fog, everything combined together to prevent him just riding on out and looking for them without any hindrance.   He had met Dorothy Tennant earlier who had told him that Roy had ridden off with Ben and Olivia to look for the children, and it had rankled sourly that an old man would be able to do mor e than he had done.

 

Ann, his wife, had assured him that he was doing the best he could after all he had located the cabin as a result of the saloon and store search he had conducted so promptly after the report of them missing.  He had taken a posse out despite the pouring rain because it had been assumed that the children could never have got so far away from the cabin as to be lost.  He had found Fitz and provided the necessary help for him, thereby saving his life.

 

It was all well and good telling him that, but the fact remained that he had not found the children.  He knew that Adam Cartwright would demand reasons and answers as to why they had been allowed to wander off for so long,  and he knew he would not be able to give an answer.  Well, he could, but  he didn’t think it would go down very well.

 

Charlotte Beckett had admitted, upon a further visit, that she had told Ezra that the Cartwrights had gone ahead,  it had been told him begrudgingly and only because the girl knew that Jimmy and Billy and several others were going to tell the sheriff anyway.  At the end of the day, Candy had concluded, the blame lay at Ezra’s door, the man should never have accepted the word of a child and just ridden off,  leaving Reuben and Sofia alone.

 

Then Miss Brandon had admitted that she had neglected her duties by not checking all her pupils had been safely collected for their respective homes.  Had she made her customary check she would have found the children and taken them into the school house, until she had found a means of getting them home.  Blushing she had told Candy about her young man coming to see her, and that had caused her negligence.

 

It had eaten into time listening to them, taking down their statements.  But basically all he had wanted to do was get his horse, ride out to that cabin and go looking … all he wanted more than anything was to find those two children and bring them home, hopefully, before Adam returned and found them gone.

……………..

Ben had insisted that Olivia return with him to the main house and she had said nothing,  too tired to resist because emotionally and mentally everything she felt or thought was bound up with her missing children.   He had to help her from the horse she was so stiff and as a result had to be half carried across the yard as she seemed to sleep walk along side him.  Hank hurried out to take care of the horses and lead them into the stable.

 

Hester had opened the door wide as soon as she had heard the sound of horses, she said nothing, for her eyes told her all she needed to know.  There were no children, Olivia was in a state of near collapse and both she and Ben looked exhausted.

 

Mary Ann rose from the chair in which she had been seated by the fire,  and glanced over at Hop Sing who promptly disappeared into the kitchen.   Her eyes then turned to Hester who, standing behind Ben and Olivia in order to close the door, shook her head slightly.

 

Gentle hands led Olivia to the settee and helped her to sit before she actually fell down.   She struggled within herself to be strong, not to give way to tears, not to sob and wail when within her everything was screaming and being pulled apart.  She looked up at her sisters in law and sighed, leaned back and closed her eyes.

 

Hester was rubbing her hands, Mary Ann pulled off her wet muddy boots and began to massage her feet, Ben added another log to the fire before going to the bureau and pulling out a thick blanket which he draped carefully over her once the wet coat had been removed, while Hop Sing came and the rattle of crockery heralded coffee.

 

“I don’t know what I’m going to tell Adam.” Olivia whispered suddenly as though aware that they were waiting for her to speak,  prepared to take their cue from her before speaking and saying the wrong thing.  “How am I going to tell him that they didn’t come back from school.”

 

“Drink the coffee, it’ll warm you.” Hester murmured

 

“Did you find no sign of them at all?” Mary Ann asked and Ben shook  his head, took his seat by the fire and bowed his head which he rested in his hand “Nothing,” he said, “If we didn’t know from the saloon girl that her friend Fitz had taken them … we would have been none the wiser as to where they had been.”

 

“Who’s Fitz?” Hester wanted to know and so Ben explained all that had happened during their absence while the two women did their best to pay attention while at the same time making sure that Olivia was being cared for, whether she wanted it or not.

 

She wasn’t listening but stared into the flames of the fire while her mind went over and over the events of the past 24 hours, the futile waste of time.   Suddenly she sat upright and the cup rattled down upon the saucer “Nathaniel …where’s Nathaniel?”

 

What if he was lost too? What if he were at the other house, alone, in the cold and without food?   She wondered, momentarily,  if she were going mad, whether it was exhaustion or fear or something worst that had triggered this sudden panic and she rose to her feet, the blanket puddling around her feet.

 

It was Cheng Ho Lee who appeared from the kitchen with the infant in his arms, and Nathaniel bouncing up and down with glee with his finger in his mouth and eyes wide.  He saw his mother and gave a crowing cry of delight “Mommom”  and both arms were stretched out towards her while dimples appeared in his cheeks and his mouth widened into a smile that exposed his little white teeth.

 

He laughed,  a gurgle of sound that showed his pleasure at seeing this one person he loved more than anything on earth.   He loved his brother and sister, and his father, but mother was different, mother fed him, kept him warm and dry, cuddled him and sang to him.  Even her smell was precious to this little bundle of mischief and when she held out her arms to him he wrapped dimpled arms around her neck and buried his face against her neck.  “Mommom”

 

“Hey, my boy, my Nathaniel….” she whispered and kissed him gently, looked into his face and wondered how would she survive if he also had been taken from her.

 

“He’s been a good boy,” Mary Ann assured her and smiled her gentle smile, “He missed you though.”

 

Olivia nodded and kissed the chubby cheek and Nathaniels fat little fingers stroked her face, played with her lips and he giggled as wisps of her hair tickled his nose, as he held her tightly and wondered in his baby way why she held him so close to her, so close in fact that he could barely breathe.  He wriggled a little and she relaxed her hold,  then sat down with him on her knee so that he clapped his hands and dimpled more smiles up at her.

 

“Olivia, have something to eat now,” Hester said quietly.  “You need to build up your strength.”

 

She nodded, but she didn’t move.  She just wanted the warmth of the fire to thaw out her bones,  help her relax;   she just wanted to hold her baby and enjoy the sight of his chuckles,  his bright eyes and wide smile.

 

…………………..

 

Roy opened the door to the abrupt rapping and nodded when he saw Candy on the other side, “Wondered if you’d find yourself hereabouts.”

 

“I couldn’t stay in town,  not knowing that those children were still …” he paused “Unless you’ve found them and Ben …”

 

“No,  no sign of them.  The fog messed us up,  couldn’t read or find any sign of them being in the area.”

 

“They must be hereabouts, Roy.  Where else could they have gone?”

 

Roy sat down again and stretched out his legs, he pulled several hairs out of his moustache and shook his head “Depends on whereabouts they thought they were going, I guess.   We know they didn’t  head for town,  they headed in quite the opposite direction, but that’s as much of a guess as anything because we ain’t seen no clue of it.  It’s as though they left this cabin and just walked into — thin air!”

 

“No one walks into thin air, Roy.   Look, the fogs thinning out.  It’ll be dark soon,  but we could still go looking,  if Pete has some lamps?”

 

Pete inclined his head to indicate he had been listening and that he had some storm lamps.  “Good,  let’s go and see what we can find before it gets too dark to find anything at all.  We don’t want to waste more time than we already have.”

 

They walked alongside the horses holding the lamps low so that the light could pick up any sign, any small clue of the children’s whereabouts… a small foot print, a thread of wool from their clothing, anything at all.   “Seems that rain washed out most sign near the cabin.” Roy muttered after a while and he raised the lamp he was holding up a little higher “We took that route there, seemed the kind of track they would take but we didn’t find anything.”

 

Candy nodded, he was impatient to get on,  impatient to find something, anything.  He walked on pulling at his horse’s reins as the animal walked behind him.   He swung the lamp back and forth over each patch of ground he paused at before he moved on to another patch.  “The posse made a mess here, didn’t they?”

 

“All that rain, what did you expect?”  Roy shrugged

 

“To be honest I expected to find them in the cabin, waiting for us.  I didn’t think that they would decide to walk home.”

 

Roy nodded, it was logical after all,  he said nothing but held the lamp low by his feet and continued walking onwards.   After an hour they had to replenish the candles in the shutter lamps and then Candy said “Whats that up there?”

 

It was something white, even now the breeze caught at it so that it drifted further down the slope towards them.   Candy hurried to pick it up and both men leaned closer with the lamps providing greater light upon the paper in Candy’s hand …it was a scorched corner from a page taken from a McGuffey exercise book.   Both men looked at one another “They came this way…” Candy whispered almost reverentally.

 

Now they stepped up the slope scanning around them for further clues and it was Roy who found the remnants of the first fire that Reuben had made, evidence of a rabbits carcase was also found, and once again the two men stood together, heads close as they examined what they had come upon.   “The boy did well, the best he could anyhow.” Candy murmured.

 

Roy nodded  “Seems so … “  he paused and turned around, then looked up at the sky “Nights closing in, we won’t find much more now,  we need to get back.  At least we now have a new starting point and tomorrow, if there’s no more fog, we should find them.”

 

“Amen to that,” Candy whispered and with an abrupt nod of the head he turned to mount his horse “Considering how small they are, they made quite a good distance.”

 

“S’right, they did,  and in the right direction too.  That is, if they were heading for the Ponderosa.   Would have taken …let me see … about two days walking to get to the ranch house from here though.”

 

Candy said nothing to that, with the weather conditions as they were, he didn’t think the children would have lasted two more days walking across the boulder strewn harsher route to the Ponderosa, even less chance had it been undertaken during the summer.   He turned his horse towards the way they had come and felt a slight lightening of heart at the thought that they had found something, not a lot, but enough to keep that flicker of hope burning bright.

 

Chapter 28

 

It was miserably cold, miserably so. The fog rolled away into the clouds and revealed a black and purple sky with pinpricks of light, a hazy moon shrouded by clouds. Reuben opened his eyes and wondered why he had felt so cold, why it was that his body was shaking so much. He could see the glimmer of the fire close by and instinct told him that it needed to be fed, more fuel had to be placed upon the embers so that they could be warmed.

 

He was stiff as he stood up and swayed a moment on his feet, swayed and shivered. How glad he was that he had gathered up a stack of wood by his little fire, meagre though it was it gave some warmth. Sticks and twigs and little branches, bits of drift wood from the banks washed up by the waters were all piled there and carefully he placed them upon the glowing embers.

 

His hand shook and he remembered a time when he had made a snowman, it was bitterly cold but he wanted to finish making the snowman and had remained outside until he could not feel his fingers, his toes or his nose. It was the same now and some of the twigs he dropped because he was shaking so much.

 

“Reuben … Mommy, mommy…I want my daddy.”

 

“It’s alright, Sofee, it’s alright, I’m here by the fire. Come on, come and get warm.”

 

She could see him silhouetted by the flames and rubbed her eyes to try to see him better. She was wet through, during her slumbers her bladder had emptied after all when all one had taken into ones stomach was water then no matter how small, it had to go somewhere. Her mouth felt dry and so did her tongue but she managed to get up and totter over to the fire which had livened up enough to throw out some heat.

 

“It’s pretty, Boo” she smiled and nodded, blinked her eyes as smoke drifted into her face “It’s warm”

 

“You can get closer, Sofee, then you’ll feel warmer.”

 

She nodded and stepped nearer, he was beside her, his hand on her arm and both of them stood close together as though transfixed by the sight of the flames eating up the fuel Reuben had so carefully gathered up earlier

…………………

 

It was common to take a short cut across the Ponderosa if one knew where it was and Clifton Reid, anxious to get to Bodie as soon as possible chose to do just that in order to avoid the longer public roadway. He had lived in the area many years and had once scouted with the army during the Pyramid Lake affray in the ’60’s. He knew the Cartwrights by reputation, and he knew this area of the Ponderosa in which they were travelling now very well, having ridden through it many times in the past. The Ponderosa was a big place, and no one could keep track of exactly who came and went on the various back tracks throughout such a vast territory.

 

It was later than he would have chosen for the journey back to Bodie, but when they had left for the homeward journey there had been no indication that the weather would turn so unpleasant. There had been little he could do or say about it, after all, he had been taking orders from the Royale’s for years now, ever since he had signed on to serve under Colonel Royale.

 

The two women in the closed carriage didn’t really know where they were, but had trusted Clifton for several years now and had no reason to doubt his ability to get them back safely this evening. It had been a nuisance having the fog come down as it had, but as usual Clifton had prepared well for the delay and apart from some little discomfort in being caught out in the open in what they would consider, wilderness, the ladies were quite pleased with how things had gone.

 

Mrs Rosemarie Royale was a wealthy woman, a widow, and had travelled around the west for many years with her husband who had been a military Officer, and upon retirement had decided to settle in Bodie. Their daughter, Katherine, had been engaged to marry a young officer who had died in Montana during the Indian troubles, so the younger woman had joined them at their new home. Colonel Royale with all his authority and money had soon been established as the Mayor of the prosperous town that was mushrooming when other towns were declining. Of course, it was his nature to assume it was always due to his ’magic touch’. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy everything that he would have felt rightly due to him.

 

Katherine Royale was more than aware of the passing years, the lack of a husband and family. They were returning now from visiting her sister,  who lacked neither and had rather enjoyed seeing the yearning that Katherine had been unable to hide, upon seeing her sister’s new born son, and the little neice, Alice.   Throughout the return trip she had spoken little which had only caused the older woman to be bad tempered and sharper tongued as a result.

 

The fog had not dampened Rosemarie Royale’s temper and now as the carriage bumped its way homewards she began to talk about her disappointment in her daughter, in the lack of a son in law, the disadvantage of having no grand children to continue the family name and fortune.

 

Katherine listened, as she always did until she could stand it no more, then, without a word, she half rose from her seat and rapped at the thin wall that divided them from their driver and said very loudly “Stop!”

 

Whether the word was meant to be for her mother’s benefit or Cliftons she was not sure, but the carriage stopped almost toppling Mrs Royale onto the floor, while Katherine opened the door and stepped out onto the track.

 

“Where are you going? Katherine, what are you doing?” Mrs Royale’s voice vibrated through the cold night air, “Get back inside, girl, before you catch cold.”

 

It was dark, but standing a short way from the coach made Katherine feel isolated from anyone else in the world. She could hear the sound of the horses as they shook their heads, stamped their feet, the jingle of their harnesses. She could hear her mother’s strident tones, but as though from far away. All she wanted was this few moments of isolation, to take some deep breaths in order to restore her equilibrium.

 

When she looked up above her the sky was all shades of black and purple with clouds still visibly grey while stars twinkled and shone.

The cold air touched her cheek and she closed her eyes and thought how one day she would be alone, actually alone, to live her own life, to enjoy living. She imagined herself with a loving husband, children around her, surrounded by love and never a cross word to be heard again.

 

Opening her eyes again she noticed what appeared to be a small fire just ahead of her. Who, she wondered, would light a fire here, of all places?

 

“Clifton, is that a fire?”

 

“Whereabouts, Miss Katherine?”

 

When he realised she was going to walk across the stones and boulders to reach the fire he followed close behind her, just in case she fell and broke an ankle or slipped and needed a helping hand. Neither of them expected to see what they found though, and both of them just stood there and stared in amazement at the sight of the child fast asleep and as close to the fire as possible.

………………..

 

Olivia woke to find herself in a bed that was somehow familiar but which she knew was not her own. She lay very still and kept her eyes closed so that she could go over and over in her mind what had happened. Perhaps it had been a dream, all a ghastly nightmare of a dream. Perhaps any moment now she would be able to get up and walk to where Reuben and Sofia were sleeping.

 

Reality came crashing with full force and her heart beat quickened so rapidly that she felt sick, dizzy. She had to half raise herself up on her elbow to try and stop the pounding in her ears, and to still the thudding of her heart by placing her hand against her chest.

 

A sound close by startled her and made her heart beat faster as she asked herself if she were really alone, who was in the room, who was there? Adam? Was Adam home? How was she going to tell him that the two children were missing?

 

Clasping her hands together she pressed them close over her beating heart and forced herself to take shallow breaths, and the sound came again and a voice close by said “Mommom Mommom”

 

She bowed her head and buried her face within the chalice of her hands, tears trickled slowly from her eyes as though in protest at being shed at all. Had she not wept enough? “Mommom Mommom”

 

The lamp beside the bed suddenly flared brighter and a deep voice said “Olivia?”

 

Just for a moment hope soared, only to falter as she realised it was Ben, dear Ben, sitting guard over her as he had done countless times over one or other of his sons. She brushed away tears and turned to him “How long have you been there, dear ?”

 

“Since you fell asleep.” he leaned forward and looked into her face, saw the tears and nodded “You have a little boy who wants a hug?”

 

She didn’t know if it was a rebuke, a reminder that there was still one child who needed her and who was demanding her attention from close by but she was grateful for it. She turned towards where Nathaniel was standing in the cot, a smile on his lips, dimples in his cheeks and his hair a mass of black curls. “Oh Pa, thank goodness for Nathaniel.”

 

She had whispered the words, but he heard them, nodded and lifted the child from the cot and into her arms. She held him close, smelled the warmth of his body, the scent of his hair and he put his arms around her neck and settled his head upon her shoulder, put two fingers into his mouth and closed his eyes … mother was near, all was well with his world.

 

“What is the time, Pa?”

 

He glanced at the clock on the wall and said that it was 4 o’clock in the morning, and to that she said nothing but continued to stroke her little boys back, running her fingers up and down his spine, feeling his nearness so that she couldn’t remember just how far away her other babies were now.

…………………

 

Adam pushed away the blanket and scrambled to his feet, yawned and stretched. Hoss’ snoring was loud enough to remind him that his brother slept near by, while Joe lay as still as a log close to the fire.

 

Adam flexed his back and stretched out his weaker leg, which he then rubbed for a few moments. The cold affected it more than he had realised or wanted, a reminder of something he would much rather forget. Looking up at the sky he watched as a shooting star fell to the earth and he smiled as he remembered the first time Sofia had seen one and he had said “Make a wish, pudding” and she had looked at him with a puzzled expression on her face and just said “How?”

 

He was smiling to himself as he built up the fire, yes, how do you make a wish … how do you explain to a little girl what a wish was? How do you explain when a wish doesn’t come true? He rubbed his face, feeling the prickles of stubble beneath his fingers. He put the coffee pot onto the flames once he had poured water onto the coffee grounds and having done that he found the log upon which to sit and think awhile, in peace, before his brothers woke up.?

 

 

 

Life had been different since returning home. From being an officer in command of several hundreds of men, making decisions that they were to obey, without question, he was back to taking orders from his father, some of which he disagreed with and didn’t follow through on.; back to giving orders to his brothers most of which they ignored, and it was hard to constantly bite his tongue and to turn the other cheek.

 

It was good to have a wife like Olivia, a woman who was intelligent but didn’t flaunt it, who could be quiet, and he smiled at that thought as words of a song trickled through his mind “I love a quiet girl …” and he did love her, even now thinking of her gave him goose bumps. He hummed the tune of the song beneath his breath as he found his mug and filled it with the coffee, and then began to sip it.

 

Well, he was no longer an officer in command of a ship or ships full of men who obeyed his every order, but he was a father now, and he smiled again at the memory of children who wanted stories, needed discipline, played games and laughed with him. His smile softened at the thought of the baby, who had now got round to calling him daddy just like Sofia, and clapping his hands when he saw him first thing in the morning.

 

He glanced up at the sky and sighed, if they kept up the speed at which they had been riding they would be home soon. He cleared his throat at the sound of Hoss, mid snort, muttering about coffee and bacon and the noise his big brother made on getting out of his bed roll. Opposite them Joe remained sleeping, but small movements indicated that he also would soon be awake.

 

Once awake, breakfasted, washed and shaved, they could head for home. He was so looking forward to seeing Livvy again, and, of course, the children.

 

Chapter 29

 

Roy was the proverbial early bird that catches the worm, only this particular morning he was hoping to catch two little lost children. He shook Candy awake and after eating the breakfast that Pete had prepared for them, washing it down with coffee they left the cabin and took to their horses.

 

Neither of them spoke much, they prepared their horses, mounted up and departed.  It was as though even the danger of speech could rob them of time and both felt that time was of the essence, lives depended on prompt action.

 

They headed immediately to the spot where the remains of the rabbit had been found and from there they walked the horses while they kept their eyes firmly on the ground, scouring the rain soaked mud, the rocks and scrubby shrubs that grew in the area.   It seemed to take some time before they came across the next sign of the childrens whereabouts and after getting down from the horses in order to be closer to the ground they made a scrupulous search once again.

 

They separated, hoping by doing so that one of them at least would find some sign of them.   When Roy located the dead ash of a small fire he immediately called over to Candy “They’ve done well,” the sheriff murmured as he glanced around for more evidence of their presence and raised his head to look around him “I would think they would be heading for the stream.  It’s just a trickle in the summer, but there should be quite a good flow just now.”

 

“That fog certainly messed up their sense of direction, this here has taken ‘em miles from the way home.”  Roy scratched the back of his neck “I guess young Fitz taking them to that cabin would have done it,  it’s on the wrong side for them, Reuben would not have had a clue where he was when he came out of there.”

 

“He should have stayed where he was, until someone found him…” Candy sighed and shook his head, a strand of black hair fell across his brow which he impatiently brushed away

 

“You have to remember, son, that Reuben’s a city boy, and Adam ain’t been around that long to teach him all the things we take for granted around here.   Sides which he would have wanted to get his sister home, thought he was doing the right thing at the time.  We all fall prone to doing that now, ain’t we?”

 

Candy nodded thoughtfully, but it still stuck in his head that all this would have been avoided had the children stayed at Pete’s with Fitz or, better still, insisted on being taken to Bridie’s

 

They walked along with their horses on leading reins and soon came across the stream burbling away as merrily as ever, a silent witness to what had passed but certainly not a forthcoming one.   It was Candy this time who noticed the prints of small feet, even the impression of Sofia’s body from where she had slid and slipped onto her bottom.  “They stopped here to get a drink I should imagine.”

 

“Water’s cold”  Roy frowned, and looked up at the skies with a shake of his head “Candy, if we don’t find them soon,  we’re going to have real problems.  Look -”  he pointed upwards to where the sky was burgeoning darker clouds and he pouted so that his moustache stuck out in a fierce bristling ridge above his upper lip “Reckon snows on the way.”

 

“Early this year.” Candy muttered and shivered, then looked down again at the clues that they had found “Best get moving along, seems they followed the stream from here …”

 

Within less than an hour they located the last of the fires, dead and dormant now.   Both men stared down at it, and at the small heap of wood still ready to be piled onto what had been a decent little fire.  Roy squatted down with a scowl on his face and pushed his hat back “What do you make of these here, Candy?”

 

It was Candy’s turn to squat and stare,  his fingers traced the marks he saw …”A child…children… seems they slept here, or lay here by the fire awhile.”

 

“One of them slept here… look…over there, footprints leading off.”

 

“Where to?”

 

Roy didn’t say a word but followed the track of disturbed soil,  broken down blades of strubby grass, then he paused, turned and looked back “Seems to me these here tracks seem to go back and forwards, like as if …” again he stopped and muttered something beneath his breath.  “If Hoss were here he’d know what this would mean…”

 

Candy said nothing but only tugged at Roys sleeve and pointed to where the river bank sloped quite steeply just ahead of them.   It was easy to see, even without his glasses on, the small pile of books and the lunch pail toppled upon the ridge top.  Both men began to run, until they had reached where the items had been cast and then glanced over to look downwards where a small body lay crumpled close to the edge of the stream.

 

“Doesn’t look good,” Roy said with a lump in his throat, and he swallowed hard before scrabbling his way down the slope to where the child lay.   Candy came close behind him but was the first to reach Reuben,  touched his face, his throat for a pulse and then looked up

 

“He’s alive, Roy.”

 

The old man nodded, cleared his throat again and passed a hand over his eyes in order to wipe away evidence of tears.  Relief made his heart flutter wildly, and he nodded again before approaching the man and boy “Looks like a bad bump on the head”

 

Candy nodded “He’s soaked through,  but he’s got a good steady pulse.  The way he fell …” he heaved in a deep breath “Just a few more inches and he would have smashed his skull, as it is, he fell between these boulders and they protected him from the worst of the weather last night.  Thank goodness for that, Roy.”

 

His blue eyes, unashamedly awash with tears looked into Roys faded denim and he bowed his head for a moment as though unable to speak.  Roy put a hand on his shoulder, “Where do  you think Sophia is?”

 

“Reuben wouldn’t leave her,  she must be near by.”

 

Roy nodded and stood  up while Candy scooped the boy up into his arms and held him close against his chest, when the boy stirred and opened his eyes he found a kindly face smiling down at him “You’re alright, Reuben.  You’re quite safe now.”

 

“Sofia?” Reuben croaked through dry parched lips “Sofia …gone … “

 

“Gone?  How’d you mean, son?”

 

“Where’s Pa?” Reuben whispered, his eyelids fluttered and closed,  “Where’s Pa?”

 

“Reuben?  Where’s Sofia?” Candy insisted as he trudged up the slope holding the boy tightly, feeling the wet clothes seeping into his own, “Do you know where your sister is?”

 

Reuben sighed heavily and forced his eyes open “She’s gone.  I looked and looked.  Fell down. She’s gone. They took her…”

 

“Who?   Who took her?”  Candy now asked but Reuben had slipped back into that comfortable blackness that protected him from thinking anymore about running for his sister, trying to find the little girl, blocking out the sound of voices that rattled about in his head.

 

Roy was standing by the horses and took the weight of the boy while Candy mounted up, then passed the child back into the sheriff’s arms.   Candy quickly told Roy what Reuben had said and the old ex-sheriff listened attentively before suggesting that Candy took the boy to the cabin.  “Get him warm, something warm in his stomach.  I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

 

“Don’t take too long, Roy.   I intend to get this child back to his mother as soon as possible.”

 

Roys face gentled into a smile and he placed a kindly hand upon Candy’s leg “Of course you do, but first of all, he needs a little warmth back into his body, then you can take him home.”

……………………………….

 

Reuben was quickly stripped off his clothing and wrapped in a dry thick blanket then placed upon the bed.   Pete built up the fire so that even he was worried about the cabin burning down,  but the wet clothes steamed dry as a result and it wasn’t long before Candy was spoon feeding some broth into the boys mouth.

 

Reuben’s eyes were rather glassy, and he seemed to want to go back to sleep more than Candy would have liked, he said no word about his misadventure but swallowed dutifully as the broth touched his lips.   “Can you remember what happened to Sofia?”   Candy asked several times as he fed the boy but Reuben shook his head and frowned, looked worried and finally closed his eyes and turned his away.

 

He fell asleep again almost immediately and Candy was checking to see just how dry the clothing was when Roy stepped back inside “There’s some snow now.  Very slight but we need to get the boy back to his mother.”  he grabbed at the bowl of broth Pete handed him and ladled in a few mouthfuls as he watched Candy carefully dressing the boy again “No sign of the girl, none at all.  There were signs of some one having been there though, by the fire.  Far as I could make out a man’s foot prints and smaller ones, perhaps a woman. “

 

“Nothing else?”

 

“Horses,  stood awhile and dumped some on the track.   But it’s all rock and boulders and hard to read sign there.   At one point I thought there had been a coach or buggy there, some wheel prints, but no sign of how long they had been there.”

 

“Where’d they come from? What direction?”

 

“No idea.” Roy shook his head and put down the bowl,  “Pete, you said there was a new town being built nearby… how far away?”

 

Pete sucked at his moustache and shook his head “Reckon quite a distance from here,  I ain’t been there mind.   Only hear reports of it from some folk.  It ain’t on the scheduled route for the Overland that’s for sure.”

 

Roy and Candy looked at one another, and then without a word began to pull on their own outer clothing, Roy slapped his old hat onto his bald head “Take the boy back home, Candy. I’ll head for town and get Paul Martin to ride on out and check on him.  His mother needs to know he’s safe and we have some idea of where the girl may be … hopefully.”

 

Everything hung upon that word, Candy thought as he carried Reuben away, hopefully!!

……………….

 

Adam had separated from his brothers at the fork to his home, a mile further along Hoss would deflect to the left to make his way to the old Ponderosa ranch and Joe would take the turning up to his own house further up into the hills.   Each one had raised a hand,  called out a cheery farewell and mentally thought of the pleasures of home, wife, children that awaited them.

 

As soon as he looked on the house Adam felt a niggle of apprehension,  there was no smoke coiling up from the chimneys.   He knew the time was past breakfast, food would have been cooked and now being prepared for the mid day meal and supper later.   He dismounted and paused a moment beside his horse, stared at the silent building and tried to work out where Olivia could be,  and Cheng Ho Lee…what were their schedules for this particular day that would take them from home.

 

He shook his head, decided he was worrying about nothing,  irritated at not getting a warm welcome and patted his horse’s neck as he passed to reach the house. He was tired, bone weary, his injured leg had ached throughout the hours of the journey this morning and he was cold.  He hated being cold.

 

Having pulled off his gloves he ran his fingers across his jaw, none of them had bothered to shave that morning, preferring to get home as soon as possible and soak in the tub, shave then.   He paused again at the door and then pushed it open.  It was very quiet.   He entered the main room and found the dead ash in the hearth, no fire, no warmth.  Alarm bells began to trickle through his head and when a sound  came from behind him he spun round, the gun in his hand ….    “Ezra?”

…………………..

 

Mary Ann almost fell into her husband’s arms as Joe stepped into the large room, and for a moment he was momentarily panic stricken.  What had happened to her?  Where were the children?  The baby?  He held her close for a moment and forced a smile as he then gently held her away from him “That was quite a welcome, honey?   Anything wrong?  You are alright, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes, of course, we’re alright, it’s just that -”  she pulled at his hand to draw him closer to the fire, “You’re cold, is it raining?”

 

“Er – no, it’s just started to snow.  Couldn’t wait to get home … where’s Danny and … the baby?”

 

She nodded and tightened her fingers around his hand “They’re alright, Joe.  It’s just that something awful has happened, the children…” she drew in a deep breath for emotion was getting the better of her, she shivered and struggled a moment before saying “Reuben and Sofia are missing, they didn’t get home from school.  There’s been no sign of them…”

 

He stood there and just stared, frowned “What?  Slow down, sweetheart, you’re not making sense. “

 

“Ezra didn’t bring them home.  They’ve been missing two nights now.   We can’t find them, and Ben went, with Olivia, to find them, but couldn’t.”

 

He just stared harder, looked into her face, saw the misery in her grey eyes and pale cheeks, “Two nights?  Where –  what happened?”

 

He led her to the big chair and together sat down, side by side “Ezra was told they had been collected earlier, but they hadn’t been.  He believed what he had been told and came home without them.  Olivia is – is distraught.”

 

Joe nodded slowly,  so she would be,  he knew that were he to lose his children he would be more than distraught,  he’d be tearing the town apart.  He thought then of his brother, Adam, and rose to his feet “I have to see if – if Adam is alright,  where is Olivia now?”

 

“At Pa’s.  At the Ponderosa.”

 

He nodded, looked thoughtfully at her and then gently kissed her cheek “Don’t worry, I’ll just go and see what’s going on, Pa should – might – know something more by now.  Adam will no doubt go there to see Livvy.”

 

“I’ll come with you … Jenny has the children, she’ll take good care of them.”

 

For a moment Joe hesitated, nodded and then waited until she had her coat on, before leaving the house together.  The snow fall was slight, more sleet than anything, but it indicated the weather was taking a turn for the worst.  He shivered, not just from the cold.

……………………

 

At the sound of a horse entering the yard, both Hester and Olivia got to their feet, and it was Hester who ran to the door and threw it open to see Hoss’ beaming face as he strode across to greet her.   As usual she ran to meet him, to hug him close and feel his arms around her.  Safe and secure, she always felt safe and secure when Hoss was home.

 

By the time Hoss had stepped into the house Ben had left the study area and was standing beside Olivia.   Hannah and Hope were shouting with glee as they saw their Pa and were instantly in his arms and hugging him “I lubs you, Pa.” Hope declared and tightened her grip around his neck to prove it.

 

Olivia felt her heart tug at the sight of the two girls being bounced in the arms of their father, being lavished with kisses and cuddles.  Nathaniel bounced a bit as well, as though bouncing was contagious and he laughed, a happy laugh of a little child who was ignorant of the misery and horror that lay ahead in his future.

 

“Hey, this is a great warm welcome home.” Hoss exclaimed, “Hi Pa, Hi Olivia…”  he nodded and tossed his hat onto the bureau, paused and frowned “Anything wrong?

We ain’t lost the Ponderosa have we?”

……………………….

 

Adam could feel his clothing shrinking as he seemed to swell with so many different emotions as he listened to Ezra’s bumbling explanation of what had happened during his absence.   He had inclined his head a little as though if he didn’t he may have missed an important word, something that mattered, in the things he was being told. When Ezra finally stopped, twisting his hat round and round between his fingers, there was silence.  A long silence as though Adam had to mentally process what he had been told before he trusted himself to speak.   Finally he gulped a little, blinked and then stared at the man in front of him

 

“You didn’t think to wait?”

 

“There weren’t no other person near, Mr Cartwright.  They’d all gone.  I – I just thought -”

 

“Thought?  You just thought?”  Adam hissed the words, it was almost impossible to get the words past his lips his chest felt so constrained by the knowledge that the children had gone missing.  “And how long ago?”

 

“Two nights they bin missing, sir.”

 

“Two nights?  In this weather?”   he clenched his fists, Ezra stepped back, he had seen and felt the damage those fists could do in the past, but Adam didn’t move he just stared ahead of him “Two nights?  Has anyone been looking for them?”

 

“Yes, sir, there’s been searches …”  and Ezra stammered out what he had heard when he went to town, about the posse finding Fitz and the cabin;  how Ben and Olivia had gone looking for the children and returned home late but without any sign of them

 

“Where is my wife now?”  he scowled and grabbed for his hat, of course she would be at the main house, he retied the thong of leather around his thigh and without a word pushed past Ezra as he hurried to make his way out of the door, his shoulder knocking the other man to one side as though he didn’t exist.

 

Outside his head spun with the information and he forced himself to concentrate on what he had been told,  stood for a moment to steady himself and not let emotion take over before he vaulted back into the saddle and set Sports head in the direction of the Ponderosa ranch house.

 

Chapter 30

 

Adam barely noticed his family gathered in the big room of the Ponderosa, he asked where his wife was and when Ben said that she was upstairs with Nathaniel he mounted them two at a time.   Everyone downstairs watched with wide eyes, saddened hearts and wondered what would take place behind the door that they heard click with a sharp closure.

 

Olivia had expected to burst into tears the moment she saw her husband but seeing him standing with the door at his back looking at her with such sadness and misery on his face gave her a curious sense of protection and love.  She had just got the baby to sleep so settled him onto the bed, put a finger to her lips to indicate to her husband to keep his voice low and then walked quickly into his arms.

 

What a haven, what a joy, to feel his arms around her, and his hand gently cup her head while his lips kissed her cheek.  She couldn’t weep, not that there wasn’t a fountain of tears left for there were, but just his presence was so reassuring, so strengthening that she just wanted to sink into him, and stay there until everything had blown over and he could tell her it was alright.

 

After some moments where Adam wasn’t sure if she were supporting him or vice versa, he led her to a chair further away from the bed whereupon Nathaniel slept, and once settling her there he sat opposite her on the wide window ledge,  holding both her hands in his and looking into her face, before nodding slightly and asking her to tell him exactly what had happened.

 

She held his hands and if every so often her grip tightened it didn’t matter to him;   if every so often her voice wobbled and she had to stop for  breath, to close her eyes and force the tears back, he said nothing just gently squeezed her hands in sympathy and tender love.

 

He would nod occasionally, here and there he would ask a question to which she would answer if she knew what the answer was or shake her head bleakly when she didn’t.   He waited until she had finished and then sat there as though he had to think over everything again and again until it was fixed in his head.

 

“Adam,  Candy’s done all he can, and more …  so has Roy …” her voice faltered, and her shoulders slumped “Adam,  I don’t know what to do now.”

 

“How do you mean?  What do you expect that you have to do, sweetheart?  You have already done more than many women would have done.” he kissed her fingers and sighed, then leaned forward to gently stroke her face while his dark eyes lingered over the way her eyes had darkened with tears, still unshed.  “You don’t think that I’d leave them out there, do you?  You must know that I’ll be leaving here in a moment to go for them?”

 

“But -” she paused,  she wanted to mention that he had just returned from a long trip away, that he would be tired, he needed to rest, he was dirty and weary and countless other things besides, while at the same time she also wanted to ask him why it was he was still sitting there, doing nothing when the children were out there …lost, needing him, needing them.

 

“As soon as I’ve got a fresh horse saddled up and some food ready.  I’ll pick up the trail from the cabin and find them, I promise you, Livvy, I’ll find them.”

 

“But, Adam, you can’t go on your own…”

 

He frowned, scratched his brow as though the thought hadn’t occurred to him and then nodded “I guess Hoss and Joe may want to come along too, although…”

 

“No, no, I’m coming too, I can’t stay here wondering what’s happening while you’re away. I must come too.”  her voice rose, she checked herself in order to lower her tone and glanced over to the bed where Nathaniel had stirred, then leaned in towards her husband “I can’t stay here, Adam.”

 

“Well, you can’t come with me, Livvy.  That’s impossible.”  the hold on her hands tightened as he sensed that she was about to pull them free from his grasp “Livvy, you have to stay here.”

 

“No,  no, I can’t.”  she did manage to pull her hands away now and rose to her feet, immediately  he was standing upright beside her “Adam, they are my children.  I have to go and find them. I can’t just stay here and …”

 

For a fraction of a second she saw the gleam of something in his eyes, anger?  Dismay?  She shook her head “You have to understand, Adam,  please understand?”

 

He seemed to be struggling with himself, trying to find the right words to say to a mother who was heart  broken,  to a woman who was plainly exhausted, to a wife whom he adored and treasured but her words had hurt something inside himself, perhaps his pride, his ego?  He cleared his throat and shook his head “No, you have our son here, he needs you, Livvy.”

 

“But he’s a baby, he won’t miss me for a few hours, a few days even.  Mary Ann and Hester will care for him…” she stopped,  there was that look on his face, the one that warned her that she had overstepped herself, had said too much, but what of it?  She had to think of her children, and she shook her head “You don’t understand, do you?”

 

“I do.”

 

She stopped from turning away from him, those two words so profoundly said, so deeply meant, caused her to pause a moment to look at him and then hopefully say “Then let me come with you.”

 

He shook his head and then came nearer, taking hold of her arms in his hands he held her tightly against him,  “Livvy, I do understand how you feel.  They are my children too.    How do you think I feel knowing that you, that my Pa, my children were going all through this while I was absent from home?  How do you think I feel when you remind me that they are not my children … or that Nathaniel can be set aside so casually because you don’t think I will find them or care about them enough without you being with us?”

 

“I didn’t mean that you didn’t care, Adam… no, you misunderstood me.” she took in a deep breath, shook her head, closed her eyes and tried to reassemble her thoughts “I – I just feel so – so inadequate, so useless.  I can’t just stay here and do nothing…”

 

“You wont be doing ’nothing’ as you call it.   You’ll be making sure our son is safe, and well.  You can stay with Hester and Mary Ann, if you wish, if you prefer.  But you are not coming with me.  Livvy…” he pulled her closer again as she had stepped back as though no longer wanting to be near him “Livvy, I shall find them, I swear to you I shall.  I shall bring them home and -”

 

“But I -”   now the tears spilled over and she sobbed before leaning into him and resting her head upon his chest “Adam, they’re my babies, and – and I need to know they’re safe.   Don’t you see?”

 

“Of course I can see, I do understand how you feel, Livvy, but try and understand how it is … the weather is worsening out there, I need to find them soon, and God willing, I shall do.   But I can’t do it if you are with me too,  I can’t worry about your safety,  as well as look for our children.”  he gave her a gentle shake and forced her to look into his eyes “Livvy, I love you so much, and I love OUR children, I promise you I’ll bring them safely home but Nathaniel needs you here with him, and I need to know that you are both safe, here.   Try and understand, my love, that things can get very unpleasant out there, and I don’t want you to have to endure more than what you are already.   It is going to be hard for you waiting here, I know, I understand that,  but it will help me,  help me very much, if I can think of you both here, cared for and safe. Please… try and understand it from that point of view.   Will you?”

 

She bowed her head, her body relaxed and rested against his while she fought for words that now made no sense because she could see the logic in what he was saying.  She was tired, exhausted, yes, she knew that…  she knew all about that…  his arms were warm around her, she felt as though she could have fallen asleep and slept quite happily within that embrace it was so comforting, so reassuring.

 

“What if they’re …” she caught her breath, no, don’t even think it, don’t even dare whisper it to yourself, because it couldn’t be possible, it just couldn’t be.

 

“I’ll bring them home, Livvy.” he kissed her brow, her nose and then her lips.  “I will.”

 

Before he left the room Adam paused by the bed and looked down at his sleeping son, a gentle smile came to the previously anxious features, he glanced over at his wife, “He looks like Joe at that age.  I used to stand and watch him sleeping back along,  he was such a handsome little tyke.”

 

He closed the door upon her, and she heard his footsteps as he went down the stairs.   Once she had ensured that her little boy wouldn’t fall out of the bed and harm himself, Olivia left the room and followed her husband to the room below.

 

“Of course I’m coming with you” Hoss was saying, his hands on his hips and legs apart just in case his brother was about to oppose the idea and prepared to do battle in order to change his mind.

 

“So am I.”  Joe said as he squeezed Mary Ann’s fingers gently and then stepped forwards, “Pa’s given us the details of where the cabin is… Pete Riley’s cabin that is…

We’ll take it from there.”

 

Hoss nodded, “It’s already snowing, not heavy yet, perhaps just a passing shower, but we need to get on with it as soon as possible.”

 

“Sooner we start the sooner we get home.” Joe agreed, a nod of his tousled head and a grim smile.

 

Ben had the maps out, spread over the big table and he pointed to Riley’s cabin, the three brothers nodded “I never knew he had a cabin there.” Joe whistled, “That’s close to our borders but  a long way from here.”

 

“The lad, Fitz, was taken ill.” Ben explained patiently, “He had the best of intentions to bring them home, but the horse was half dead, and so was he…   poor lad, he was near collapse when the posse found him.”

 

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head “South east of here,  it could lead to anywhere … depending on which direction they took. “

 

“They aint’ walked far before now, either.” Hoss muttered, “Things look different when you’re walking and being so small an’ all, with the fog …”  he glanced over at Olivia, and then wished he hadn’t because he immediately turned back to look at the maps  “Right, we have the direction we need, we’ll get some fresh horses.  Hop Sing and Cheng are already sorting out food for the trip.  Not that we’ll need it as I doubt if we’ll be gone long.”

 

Joe nodded and smiled gently at Mary Ann, “Come along, sweetheart, I’ll get you settled back home and get into some dry warmer clothing.  I’ll see you two later.”

 

Ben immediately stepped forward “Two?  Don’t you mean … three?”

 

Adam said nothing to that but gave a slight shrug of his shoulders, looked at Hoss and then walked to his wife, kissed her gently on the cheek and then kissed her fingers “I’ll go and change my clothes, get something warmer…   are  you staying here?  I’d prefer that you did, so that I know you’re … safe.”

 

She nodded at that, and was about to lean forward to kiss him when the door burst open and Candy walked in with Reuben in his arms.  Covered in a scattering of snow he coughed, shook himself like a dog so that the snow went everywhere and then announced “Reuben … found him …  he’s safe.”

 

Olivia gave a muffled sob and then ran towards her son, grabbing him from Candy and lifting him into her arms, regardless of the snow that covered his clothes.   Ben came and took the boy from her and rushed him to the big chair near the fire,  while Mary Ann rushed into the kitchen to get something hot for Candy to drink and something for the boy.   By the time Reuben’s eyes fluttered open he found himself looking up into his mother’s face, her big green eyes moist with tears and a slight, hesitant smile on her lips.  He sighed contentedly “I told Sofee I would get her home.”

His eyes closed and he fell into a deep sleep with his mother holding one hand and stroking back the wet hair with the other.

 

Adam turned to Candy “Any sign of Sofia?”

 

Candy shook his head and indicated the maps which he had noted were on the table, together the men made their way over to look at them and where it was that Candy pointed to “We found Reuben here, he’d fallen between some rocks which protected him from the worst of the wind, but we didn’t find Sofia.”  he paused to drink some of the coffee generously laced with brandy “Before he passed out Reuben said something about someone taking Sofia, but when we asked him later he didn’t seem to know what we were talking about, just seemed to have blanked it out of his mind. We could see that she had been sleeping by a fire and we found signs of horsemen on the track…” he pointed to the boundaries of the Ponderosa, “they must have come from here, or were returning there … “

 

“East – southeast of the Ponderosa.” Adam murmured, and shook his head “Rough territory.”

 

Candy nodded “Roy thought he had seen footprints by the place Sofia had been sleeping, but I cant guarantee when they were made, or even if they were significant.  I’d have thought if anyone was going to take the child, they would have taken both of them.”

 

“Unless Reuben had already left for some reason….” Hoss murmured.

 

“Nothing else?” Ben asked in an undertone and an anxious glance at Olivia whom he knew may look as though she were paying attention to her son, but would be listening as closely as possible to what was being said at the table.

 

Candy shook his head “It was getting bad … and darkening by the minute.  We needed to get Reuben some part dry and warm, check him for injuries before we got him home.   We wanted him here more than anything, we know how much worry any extra time caused you all.”  he paused again and sipped the hot brew, “Roy went on to town, to get Paul Martin, but the snow is falling heavier now. “

 

“Reuben will be well looked after here, Candy”  Adam said quietly, “Now that he’s back with his mother he’ll do well, Hop Sing will know what to do.”

 

He walked over to Olivia and Reuben, placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned down to kiss her head, then gently he stroked the damp hair from Reuben’s brow, smiled “He’ll have quite a bump there in the morning.”

 

She smiled up at him and nodded, then rose to her feet for she had been kneeling beside her son,  “Adam,  be careful.”

 

“I will,  Livvy.  I’ll bring Sofia home, as long as it takes me, I will.”

 

She shivered, then kissed his cheek.  Joe had already left now with Mary Ann,  and Candy finished his drink and walked to the door slightly ahead of Adam.  He stopped and turned, smiled at Olivia then looked at Adam “I feel guilty that I didn’t do as much as I should have done, Adam.”

 

Adam clamped his mouth shut, Candy had echoed his own thoughts earlier, but how does a man show ingratitude to the person who had just brought his son home safely.  He nodded and put a hand on Candy’s shoulder and decided to say nothing at all.

 

Chapter 31

 

Hester looked at those left in the room, Ben hovering by the fire close to Olivia who was seated beside her son, gently rubbing his hands in hers as though  by doing so it would reassure the lad that he was home and safe.  Hannah and Hope were standing close together looking confusededly at the sight of their cousin who was lying so still upon the settee.   Hoss came now and put his arm around her shoulders “I gotta go,  honey.   Adam will need all the help he can get.”

 

“I know that, Hoss.”  she nodded, quite accepting of his decision after all these

brothers had a long history to doing things together and she wasn’t about to step in and change things now.  “Just go upstairs, change into dry warmer clothes …”

 

He dropped a kiss on the top of her hair and then stooped down to pinch the cheeks of his little girls.  How grateful he was that he had come home to find them safe and well, he couldn’t even bear to think about how he could handle his feelings if anything had  happened to them.   Ben stepped forward with a nod of the head and was about to speak when Hester approached him and put a hand on his arm

 

“Pa, please don’t go with them.”

 

He was startled at that request, his eyes widened and his face went blank from surprise, then he shook his head “What do you mean, Hester?  You can’t mean for me to stay home while my sons are out there looking for the child?”

 

“I do mean that, Pa.  I want you to stay here with us, please, Pa.”  her fingers tightened around his arm, he could feel them trembling through the material of his shirt and he shook his head again

 

“Hester, are you telling me that I’m too old to go with the boys?”   he said it quietly, slightly teasing but mostly not.  His vanity was piqued, his confidence in his abilities checked, “I’m not in my dotage yet, young lady.”

 

“I know that,” she replied and looked over to Olivia who was listening and paying attention, “But, Pa, you haven’t slept all night, you  were too-ing and fro-ing to town the previous night, and you had no sleep yesterday at all.   You can’t go on like that,  you have to take care of yourself.”

 

Seeing the stubborn set of his mouth Olivia now rose to her feet, “Pa, she’s right.  There’s no point in your going out there with the boys if half way through they have to turn back and bring you home.”

 

“Well, thank you, Olivia, for your support but let me tell you …” Ben snapped and his voice slightly raised so that Hope ran for cover behind her mother’s skirts and Hannah disappeared to find Hop Sing.

 

“Pa, it’s for your own good,” Hester wheedled as best as she could, “Please try and consider our feelings?”

 

“Your feelings!”!  Ben promptly snapped and shook his head in the way an old frazzled lion may have done when taunted by a whipper snapper cub.

 

“Yes, our feelings.” Hester repeated, “we’ve enough to worry about with our husbands going out there, and – and not knowing where Sofia is, besides which Reuben needs you here, he needs to know there’s a strong male presence here that he can turn to for help.”

 

Olivia nodded “Hester’s right, Pa.   Reuben will talk to you about things he may feel he needs to protect us from knowing.  Boys talk to their grandfathers, you know that they do, don’t you?”

 

He shook his head “Actually no I don’t – never had one myself -”  he scowled and then glanced up at the stairs as Hoss appeared wearing dry thicker clothing and pulling on a warm vest.  “Seems like I’m being sweet talked into staying here.”

 

“Good.   Glad you decided to stay, Pa.  I’ll feel a whole lot happier knowing you’re home right now keeping an eye out for the girls.  If this weather worsens I’d want to know you’re here and they’re safe.”

 

Somewhat mollified by his sons comment Ben nodded, sighed and shook his head, glared at the two women and then put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder “Don’t take unnecessary risks, son, make sure Adam keeps a cool head.”

 

“Sure, Pa.”   Hoss felt slightly embarrassed, the thought of trying to get his elder brother to keep a cool head when he may not have one or chose not to want one, was a hard undertaking.

 

Hop Sing came to tell them that everything was ready for  Hoss to take, and then he stood with his hands clasped together silently waiting for directions.  After kissing his wife good bye, giving  both girls a cuddle and then nodding over to Olivia he walked to the door,  followed by Ben who stood beside him and watched as the big man strode over to the stable.   From the kitchen door Cheng Ho Lee appeared with several saddle bags stuffed with provisions, which he passed over to Hoss before stepping back to watch him enter the stable.

 

Chubb was being rubbed down by Hank, and as he passed Hoss gave the big black horse a slap on the neck, a nod at Hank “Give him extra oats today, Hank.”

 

“Sure, Hoss.   What horse you taking now?”

 

Hoss sighed,  and looked at the stalls then nodded “I’ll take Sam, he’s a good animal.”

 

Hank nodded, and said nothing more but continued to attend to Chubb who looked rather surprised and resentful as Hoss saddled up Sam, and then, without a word, rode out of the stable,

 

He waited for barely ten minutes before he was joined by Joe who was mounted on Navejo.   “Adam with you?”  Joe asked

 

“Does it look like it?” Hoss growled and then apologised “Guess I’m hungry, and tired, and – and dad blamed worried about that little gel, Joe.”

 

Without another word the two men turned their horses in the direction of Adams house, their minds too full of the task ahead to think of anything to say.  Black clouds were gathering in the skies above them, blotting out what little sun happened to struggle through, and a little rain with snow began to gently fall

 

 

When Adam had changed his clothing and checked out his saddle bags he found Michaelsons book still folded among one of his shirts.  It took no time to pull it out and with a sigh he strode over to the study in order to put it on his desk.  As he stepped inside the room he paused a moment,  just for a moment and raised his head.  Something was wrong.   Something wasn’t right.  He could smell – what was it he could smell?   He took a deep breath and half closed his eyes, but the memory was too flitting, and the smell was too vague, too  thin and light to stay in his mind.  He half turned, expecting someone else to be in the room, but there was no one.  But yet …  he shook his head … but yet someone had been there.

 

He put the book on the desk and glanced around him, everything was as he could remember leaving it.   He rubbed his jaw, shook his head, what was the point of fretting over  nothing when there was so much more to worry about and without another thought on the matter he walked away, closed the door and left the house.

 

He chose to take a good strong animal who had proven himself in the past as sure footed and reliable, glared at Ezra who was busy seeing to Sport and was only too happy to saddle the other horse for Adam.   “I’m real sorry, Adam.”  he managed to say as the other man mounted into the saddle, but he only received a snarl of a grunt in reply as Adam rode his horse out of the stable and into the yard.

 

By the time he reached the road his brothers were already waiting for him.  Joe nodded “We should reach Riley’s cabin before nightfall,”

 

Adam raised his eyebrows, said not a word and turned his horse into the direction of town,  at the junction some miles before reaching Virginia City would be the turning that Fitz should have taken but had ignored as he sought the refuge of his uncles cabin miles from anywhere.

 

He wanted to talk, he wanted to be able to put into words all that he was feeling but there were too many feelings and too few words to express them.   He envied his brothers for the fact that they rode home to find wife and children safe, and he wished that he had found the same comfort.   He wanted to go back over the conversation he had had with Olivia before leaving,  and he wished that his leaving had been more conciliatory,  warmer, more loving.   He shook his head over some of the things he was thinking, knowing that he shouldn’t be thinking them, and wishing that he didn’t have to.

 

Beside him Joe and Hoss rode by his side, flanking him right and left.  They also were caught up iin their own thoughts.  This was no time for banter,  and niether of them felt that they could indulge in such frivolity anyway.   Hoss looked up at the sky and wrinkled his nose, his bunions hurt, his back was sore,  he’d ridden hard to get home earlier and the kinks were still there.  On top of that the snow was coming down heavier.

 

Joe  pulled his muffler closer around his neck and narrowed his eyes in order to view his brother, Adam, more closely.  He tried to imagine what the other man would be thinking, feeling,  and was grateful that he didn’t have to suffer the same agony, the same sense of loss and need to fill it as soon as possible.  Snow drifted down his neck and he knew without a doubt that the wretched stuff was going to make a hard task even harder.

 

Chapter 32

 

It was Ben who opened the door to the sharp rapping upon it, and was not surprised to find Paul, with Bridie by his side standing on the threshold with the snow gently falling upon them. He was soon ushering them in and helping them remove their outer clothing while Hester left her chair to encourage Bridie to draw closer to the fire.

 

“We didn’t think you would come in this weather,” Hester said as she rubbed Bridie’s hands between her own, “You look exhausted.”

 

“It’s been a busy time in town, Paul and I, and the others have been back and forth like headless chickens. So many babies being born, and there is an outbreak of influenza too. But we couldn’t just stay home after Roy came and told us what had happened.”

 

“Where is the patient?” Paul demanded to know and when Ben indicated the stairs he muttered that he knew the way and hurried across with Ben close at his heels.

 

“How is Reuben? How is Olivia? I’ve been so worried about them.” Bridie whispered, and Hester placed a gentle hand on her arm and said “I’ll tell you in a moment, let me go and get you a hot drink.”

 

For a moment Bridie was prepared to stop Hester from leaving her but then realised how desperate she was for that warmth, it had been a long ride from town and the snow had been falling steadily. She held her hands to the fire and closed her eyes as the heat slowly nibbled into her fingers and when Hester did return with a tray laden with coffee fixings she was nearly asleep.

 

“We met Candy on the way, ” she accepted the pink patterned cup and held it gently within her hands enjoying the rich aroma of the coffee “He’s very worried about the fact that Sofia wasn’t anywhere near where they found Reuben, and Roy told us that he thought someone had been by the fire, by where she had been sleeping apparently?”

 

Hester sat down opposite the other woman and nodded, “It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, Bridie, but Reuben is home, he may be able to tell us more of what happened.” she sipped her coffee and shook her head “This weather! It frightens me to think about what could be happening to Sofia, and how are the men going to find her? Then I think…” she put a hand to her face as tears spilled over “I can’t help but think how Olivia must be feeling right now. Oh Bridie, it’s all such a mess…”

……….

 

Olivia was sitting beside her son when Paul and Ben entered the room so she immediately left her seat to allow Paul closer access to the sleeping boy. Together she and Ben moved to where Nathaniel slept in the little cot close by.

 

For a long moment Paul just looked down at Reuben, he made no attempt to touch him but turned to Olivia “Has he woken up at all? Said anything?”

 

She couldn’t speak, only shook her head and blinked hard to stop tears falling. Now that Paul was there she felt frightened at what he would find, at what he would have to say about her boy, and whether or not she would be strong enough to bear it on her own if it were bad news.

 

Paul rubbed his hands together and then leaned over the bed to start his examination, despite cold hands touching his flesh the child made no move, no murmur. Paul took out his stethoscope, but there was no reaction to that cold instrument touching Reuben either, not even a flinch. He tested reflexes, eye movement, vital signs and then gently felt around the body with probing fingers, experienced wise fingers while he looked at the far wall and thought over what they were telling him. A final check on the lad’s skull and then a sigh as he drew the covers back over him.

 

Ben was the first to step over to him, Olivia would have been but her legs were shaking too much, she waited with fearful anticipation for the worst possible news.

 

“Well?” Ben’s voice was taut, tense, but Paul had heard that same question many times over and merely put his instruments away in the bag and clicked it shut. He nodded at Ben and then looked at Olivia before walking towards them both

 

“He has a concussion, I won’t know how serious that is until he wakes up. It’s very possible he won’t remember much about what has happened, the mind – well, quite often the mind blocks out the things that may be too upsetting to remember, it could well be that he may not know anything about Sofia’s whereabouts.” he nodded, seeing their blank expressions “Roy told us that he thought someone had been near where Sofia had been sleeping. He is assuming, and it is only an assumption, that whoever it was may have taken her. If that is so, we can only hope that she is safe and warm.”

 

He looked now at Olivia and shook his head while he put a kindly hand on her arm “My dear, you need to sleep. I’ll leave some sedatives to help you because you are going to need your rest for – well – for whatever happens in the morning.”

 

“I can’t sleep,” she replied honestly, and clasped her hands together tightly, “I don’t want to sleep. Reuben may wake up and need me, he may be taken ill … you are telling us everything, aren’t you, Paul?”

 

“About Reuben? Yes, I am. To be honest I’m amazed at how strong his pulse is, and there is no sign of congestion of the lungs, or anything that would lead me to think he could have a fever, or pneumonia … he’s sleeping, healing, and apart from the concussion … I don’t think you have anything to worry about regarding his health.”

 

She nodded and released her breath before walking back to the bedside and resuming her seat by Reuben.

 

Ben and Paul regarded her for a moment with some anxiety, before Ben said quietly “A change from seeing you at the bedside, Ben.”

 

Ben merely nodded and indicated that they should leave Olivia with her children, when the door closed behind them she didn’t even turn her head.

 

Hester and Bridie listened to what Paul had to say regarding Reuben with rapt attention, Hester poured out coffee and ventured to suggest that they stayed overnight, “It’s far too bad now for you to even think of travelling back to town.”

 

Bridie nodded, “That’s kind of you, Hester. Will your men think of seeing to the horses?”

 

“I’ll check them out for you, Bridie.” Ben said and smiled, “it’ll put Olivia’s mind at rest too, knowing that you are both here in the morning.”

 

He pulled on his jacket and hat as he left the house, the shock of the snow on his face as he stepped onto the porch took his breath away but he made it to the stable and got a nod from Hank, “I saw the doc’s buggy and animals out there, Ben. Didn’t think they would be travelling back in this weather.”

 

“Thanks, Hank. Don’t stay here too long, the snow’s thickening all the time.”

 

Hank gave a nod of the head and then, before Ben left the stable asked him if they had thought about Ezra “Feeling real bad about what happened, boss. You know how we feel about the children, he would never have left them alone had he thought for a moment he had been told a lie.”

 

“We know that, Hank. Ezra’s a good hearted man, we won’t be kicking him off the Ponderosa just yet.” he gave a slight grin, a shrug of the shoulders.

 

“Thanks, Boss. That’ll go a long way to reassuring him …”

 

Ben said nothing more, he knew Ezra well enough to conclude there had been no malice involved, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t his daughter still out there … he shook his head as he made his way back to the house. He couldn’t speak for Adam, nor for Olivia, and with that thought in mind he pushed open the door and was more than grateful to be greeted by the warmth within

………………..

 

At the time Ben stepped into the big room of the Ponderosa his three sons were dismounting outside Riley’s cabin and leading their horses into the stable. After dealing with them they made their way to the cabin door, heads bowed beneath the wind driven snow. Riley opened the door himself “Heard you coming, best get in right away, snow has a stubborn way about it of gitting inside a house when you least want it to.”

 

“Sorry to be so late…” Hoss mumbled, and rubbed his hands still in their gloves but not benefiting by them

 

“Or too early,” Riley muttered and went to the fire which he prodded back to life with a poker, while telling them to take a seat, “I got some food on the stove, git yourself something hot, nothing worse than a cold empty belly on a night like this.”

 

They didn’t speak, they removed their snow covered coats and tossed their hats along with them onto the floor by the door. It was Hoss who ladled the stew into the bowls and handed the food to his brothers, Riley looked over at them “Sorry about what’s happened. Fitz did his best for the kids, you know. He just didn’t realise he was so ill.”

 

“Yeah,” Hoss sighed and sat down, the bowl of stew in his hands, “We’re mighty grateful for what he tried to do, Pete.”

 

“He ain’t used to things out here, still raw from the big city you know.” Riley piled on some logs and stepped back, surveyed the fire a moment and then settled down into his chair, “Don’t know how he is now, can’t get into town to find out …”

 

“Well, we really appreciate all he did to help” Joe said and glanced over to Adam who was sitting beside him on the bed, stony faced and staring down at the stew as though he wasn’t sure what it was, but realising his brother was encouraging him to speak he nodded and mumbled a thanks.

 

The stew stuck in Adams throat and he found it hard to swallow even though it was tasty and nourishing. He knew he needed to eat, he knew that his brothers needed it as well and glanced over at Hoss who was spooning it into his mouth hungrily. Perhaps he should have told them to stay home, it was only hours ago that they were heading home with high expectations of comfort and family and now, here they were, stuck in a ricketty old shack eating stew for – well – practically breakfast … he could hear Joe chomping on the food, they were sitting so close to one another every sound seemed louder than usual.

 

Odd how emotions affected a person. When he thought back over the years to the things he had faced and yet his brain had never seemed so unable to function, or his stomach knot so tightly, as now, with the thought of his little girl out there in the snow. He raised a forkful of food to his mouth and forced himself to eat it, then caught Hoss looking over at him.

 

“Wal, at least we know Reuben’s safe, and well.” Hoss said in a soft voice, he even smiled “Olivia will be comforted by that thought, knowing he’s there with her.”

 

Adam nodded, forced more stew into his mouth, sighed and chewed it slowly. Reuben was home, Olivia was home, Nathaniel was home … he looked at Hoss, at Joe, they should be home too, not here like this. Sofia was his daughter, his responsibility – not theirs. He swallowed the food with a gulp “Look, in the morning, you both should go back home. You don’t need to be here.”

 

“True enough, ain’t that right, Hoss?”

 

“Yeah, guess so.” Hoss put his empty bowl down “’Ceptin’ you need us here with you, Adam. In a matter like this, we need one another.”

 

Adam frowned, firmed his lips, scowled over at Hoss but Joe plucked at his sleeve “Adam, before you start lecturing us, stop and think about it…if it were any one of our children, where would you be right now?”

 

Adam looked from one to the other of them, he wanted to snap out “Well, it isn’t one of your children is it?” but that would have been ungracious, selfish. He nodded, looked at the stew and nodded again.

 

“Guess we had better get some sleep now, while we can.” he mumbled

 

“Yeah, you finish eating that and then we can all get some sleep … can’t we?” Hoss lectured, and sounded so like Ben that Adam actually smiled.

 

Chapter 33

 

A gentle touch on her shoulder and immediately Olivia was awake, startled and then panic stricken at the thought that she had actually slept and that something had happened to her son.   She relaxed at the sight of Bridie who was looking down at her with a smile on her kindly face “I fell asleep?”

 

“Of course, you would have had to have been superhuman not to have done, Olivia.”  Bridie replied and put a tray down on the table containing food and drink, “Breakfast,  it’s morning, now eat up, you‘ll need your strength.”

 

“Reuben?”  she turned towards the bed but Reuben was still asleep, the rise and fall of his chest beneath the covers indicating how deep and peaceful that sleep actually was so that she closed her eyes in thanks before looking back at Bridie “Did you get any sleep, Bridie?”

 

“Some.  More than I would have done if I had been in town. “  Bridie smiled and sat down on the chair she had spent most of the night in,  a cup of tea in one hand “Paul will be up soon to check on Reuben.  Nathaniel is downstairs with his grandfather and cousins.”

 

“Is it still snowing?”

 

“No,  it’ stopped for now.” Bridie sipped her tea and nodded towards the tray in an effort to draw Olivia’s attention to the meal

 

“It worries me that Adam and the boys are out in this weather…”

 

“They’re big boys, they know what they’re doing.”  Bridie nodded and took another sip of tea “Eat while it’s hot, Olivia.”

 

“I can’t stop thinking of Sofia,  where could she be?  Bridie, do you think she could have wandered off and fallen into that river?”

 

“No, I don’t think so.”

 

“She could have done though…”

 

“She could have done a lot of things, dear.   We don’t know so there is no point in worrying yourself to death about what we don’t know.  It’s enough knowing she’s not home with us.  Now … eat up that food, please.”

 

“You are very bossy, Bridie.” Olivia said but with a slight smile on her face and took the tray of food onto her lap, “Reuben looks so peaceful, doesn’t he?”

 

“Yes, it’s a good sign.” Bridie replied and held her cup carefully between her fingers as she watched Olivia eating the food, “Do you ever wish you were still back in San Francisco, Olivia?”

 

She paused in her eating and looked at the other woman in surprise, then shook her head “No, why do you ask?”

 

“I just wondered, there has been so much happen since you came here… what with Hammond,  and poor Reuben getting shot by that Downing boy.  Now this …”

 

“I have all I want here, and things  happen … it’s life, isn’t it?  Are you unhappy being here, Bridie?”

 

“No, how could I be?  Paul is  wonderful, perhaps I wish I were not so busy but it can’t be helped, people need doctors and care, don’t they?”

 

Olivia nodded and set down the tray, she had eaten enough and was now quite happy to just drink the coffee, “I often think of how it was back in the city, how different life would have been had Robert not died.  But then that would have meant life without Adam,  without being here …   there’s little point in dwelling on the past when what I have right now is so much better.” she gulped then, blinked and shook her head, then in a whisper said “It will be alright, it will.    Adam said he’d bring Sofia home, and then everything will  be just how it was before…before this  happened.”

 

Bridie reached out her hand and rested it lightly upon Olivia’s arm “It will be,  dear.  Your husband is one stubborn man, and I know for sure he will go through hell and high water to find Sofia, I know he will….”  she smiled slightly, her pale blue eyes twinkled “Hoss is the best tracker this side of the Sierra’s and Joe is no fool.  They’ll  be home soon, with Sofia.”

 

Olivia nodded, of course they would be, of course they would be.

………………………..

 

The wind had scoured quite a large amount of the snow clear from the ground leaving a muddy boulder strewn track visible for them to follow quite easily.   They could just about discern the hoof prints of various animals, and once or twice Hoss had actually detected a small footprint the sight of which sent hope soaring in each of their hearts.

 

The futileness of their search had been foremost on their minds when they had started out from the cabin that morning, although not one of them ventured to say so much.  The hunt for a needle in a haystack would have been easier, something that Hoss and Joe would have mentioned had it not been for fear of Adam punching them had they done so, or worse, retreated further into the black hole he had sunk into.   Emotions were tricky things and Adam could prove very tricky when his were involved.

 

They located the first little camp site with no difficulty at all and Adams face had softened with a slight smile at the thought of his son having provided so well for them both.   Hoss even mentioned the fact himself which Adam had acknowledged by slapping him warmly on the back as though he had said something very profound indeed.

 

They toiled on, at times the track was obscured by the snow which was now icing over, but where it had been blown away some of the tracks were frozen into place and Hoss followed them as closely as a bloodhound.   No one spoke,  they didn’t really  know what to say that hadn’t been said already, several times over.

 

Finally they reached the area where the last fire had been burning and for a while the three of them wandered back and forth, squatting down to stare more closely at something,  until finally they gathered together at the sad remains of the rudimentary camp.  Hoss pushed his hat from his forehead and shook his head

 

“Seems to me they went right off the track way back there.   I guess the fog didn’t help but then they would have needed water,  I reckon as soon as they heard the sound of this stream they just went off the track altogether  and came here.”

 

Joe nodded and glanced up and down as though some sight or  sign of the children would magically appear from nowhere “They travelled quite a distance for two small children.  Sofia must have been exhausted by the time they got here.”

 

“Do you see any sign of anyone else being here, Hoss?”  Adam asked with his eyes slightly screwed up but Hoss shook his head which caused his brother to release a deep sigh “Roy  seemed quite sure that there were footprints near where Sofia had been sleeping.”

 

“Don’t see how he worked that out, no sign of …” he paused and squatted down on his haunches, brushed aside snow and ice to reveal a slight indentation of where a little body may have curled up close to the fire “Unless this is it.”

 

Adam felt his throat tighten at the sight, he could so clearly see the shape of his little girl curled up there, fast asleep, so cold.  He nodded “Anything else.”

 

Hoss brushed aside more snow and then shook his head “Nope, nothing.   I can see where Roy stood, recognise that patch on his boot … he must have stood here awhile trying to make out what he was seeing.”

 

Adam and Joe now imitated their brothers example in brushing away any snow from the area but only occasionally came across Roy’s boot marks and Candy’s, especially around the area where they had located Reuben.   They stood for a while, a small group close to the rocks and looked  up at the incline from where Reuben had fallen

 

“Some distance.” Hoss observed

 

“No one would have noticed him here.   If anyone had come, that is …” Joe pursed his lips and tugged at his chin “It was night time, dark…. Wonder why he walked over here.”

 

“He sleep walks.” Adam said quietly, “Perhaps that happened, or perhaps he came to relieve himself.”

 

Hoss nodded “Good thing Roy and Candy noticed his books and lunch pail… “ he pointed to a mark on one of the rocks “Blood … not much… must have been where he banged his head.”

 

It wasn’t much at all,  less keen eyes would not have noticed it, but eyes of those who love a lost one must rate as the most keen of all.   Adam bowed his head and thought of his son, the mark on the rock and then remaining among the boulders for who knew how long …    “He told Candy he saw someone take Sofia.   I don’t know how he could have done from here.”

 

Joe shook his head “No,  not from here.  No point in trying to guess what he saw or didn’t,  it doesn’t confirm what actually happened.  Doesn’t give us anything solid to work on.”

 

Adam nodded “Let’s see what else we can find on the track.  Roy said some horses must have been there, they dumped on the road … “

 

They followed him up the slope, edging past the boulders and getting back to level ground.    Hoss raised his head and frowned at the sight of blackening clouds, so far the day had  been reasonably bright, what sun existed bounced light from the snow that still remained, but now the shadows were lengthening again and the wind was blowing colder.

 

“Here it is…” Adam pointed to a pile of horse dung, then a little further on another pile “Seems like two horses…”

 

Hoss  observed the ground more closely, the dung was frozen indicating how cold the night had been and he released his breath a little in gratitude at the thought that Reuben had been home by then, and Sofia, if she had been taken … perhaps some good soul was keeping her warm.

 

Joe was looking at the stream, it was much fuller, swifter and angrier than the stream that Reuben and Sofia had found, he bit his bottom lip and placed a hand on Adams arm “You don’t think its possible that she may have -”  he paused and nodded towards the river.

 

“I thought of it, Joe.”  Adam replied with his words as taut as a bow string, “I don’t think so,  there’s been no indication of that having happened.”

 

“Roy and Candy were only assuming from what they found, Adam.  Just as we are …”  he turned away from the look on his brothers face and shook his head, “I’m  only  thinking aloud.”

 

“As I said, I already thought the same.” his brother intoned and looked away from the river and across to where the vague outline of the road could be seen “Whereabouts does that lead to, Hoss?  You ever been this way before?”

 

“Not for a very long time, Adam.”  Hoss replied, and squinted his eyes a little in order to observe the direction of the track “Never even knew Riley had a cabin so close to Ponderosa land before.”

 

“Hmm,” Adam sniffed and shrugged “Let’s see what’s over there …”

 

They followed the direction of his finger and nodded, fell into line and walked slowly back to where they had left the horses.   Keeping the horses on leading reins they walked to where the ground was flat, quite clear of boulders and rock, with clumps of wild grass shivering in the wind.  Snow lay in pools of white and it was beside one of these that Joe stopped and beckoned his brothers over “Horses have been here.”

 

His brothers nodded and with heads down followed what now appeared a very faint wheel track until it finally petered out beneath a blanket of snow.  “Seems someone has been using this as a cut through …” Hoss muttered

 

“This is Ponderosa land though,” Adam said slowly, and nodded as though to himself “Ponderosa land, right at the very borders with the salt flats to the east and, of course, if you follow along here …  where would it be a short cut to though? “

 

“Not to home, miles off …” Hoss snorted and rubbed his hands together “Look, I hate to mention it but it’s getting a tad cold around here. I reckon we need to make camp soon, before we git hit by something not too pleasant.”

 

Adam agreed, although he wished with all his heart for the search to be over and done with right here and now, he was pragmatic enough to know that wishing achieved nothing, but patience could work miracles.

 

They located an area close to some shrubs and high boulders, gathered up enough fuel to make a fire and hunched themselves close together to provide body heat.  It wasn’t long before they had something to drink and eat, and then the wind decided enough playing,  time to be really nasty.

………………..

 

The knocking on the door came late in the evening at the Ponderosa,  late enough for the darkness to fall and stars to be sharp pinpricks in black velvet.   Bridie and Paul had left the ranch house at mid day after Paul had examined Reuben and assured them all that there was nothing about which to be unduly concerned.

 

“I trust Hop Sing and Cheng well enough to know he will be well cared for, which is more than can be said for some other patients I have in town just now.” he had said as he left the boys room,  “When he wakes up, don’t frighten him by asking questions.  Let him tell you what he can remember in his own time. Concussion is a funny thing,  and fear can close the door to memory faster than anything.  I’m not talking about fear of any of you, but fear of what he has experienced.  He may be blaming himself for Sofia’s disappearance, anything …   on the other hand he may have a very clear recall of all that happened and want to talk about it,  he may talk about it a lot so don’t be impatient, just let him spill it all out.”

 

“But he is alright, apart from that?” Ben had asked, his arm around Olivia’s shoulders while Hester and Bridie hovered nearby.

 

“He has bruises, lumps and bumps, as would be expected from a bad fall.  The cut on his head will heal, didn’t even need stitching. He came out of this ordeal well.  Physically exhausted, a concussion …but not serious enough to warrant me staying here any longer.”  he had looked at Olivia then and taken hold of  both her hands in his, “But, if you feel there is anything about which to be concerned, let me know immediately.”

 

Now there was this persistent knocking and Ben muttered that it could be Candy, or Roy, come to see if there was any further news or perhaps to give them something that they had gleaned from town.    It was with some delight and surprise that he opened the door to Luke Dent who hurried inside holding hard to his coat with one hand and his hat with the other.

 

“I came as soon as I heard.”  he declared not bothering with any pleasantries, and looking around for his sister who had just put Nathaniel to bed and was half way down the stairs, “Livvy?  What’s been going on?”

 

“What do you know?” Ben asked, gesturing to a chair close to the fire upon which Luke sat immediately.

 

“Matt came back from town and told me that the children were missing, hadn’t been home for a few days.  He saw the newspaperman, deQuille, who told him that Reuben had been found though,  but Sofia is still missing.”   he drew in his breath and nodded his thanks when a glass of brandy was pushed into his hands “Thanks.   I’m sorry, Olivia, I should have been here for you, but as soon as I heard I saddled up and came.  What can I do?   How is Reuben? Have they found Sofia?”

 

Olivia took a seat close to her brother and gripped hold of his free hand in hers, never was she so pleased to see anyone, other than Adam of course, but her own brother.   She could have kissed him but Luke wasn’t an overly demonstrative man that way, so she just squeezed his hand in hers “Reuben woke up earlier.  He was hungry, had a little bit to eat and then went back to sleep.  He’s going to be alright.”

 

“And Sofia?”

 

“Adam, Hoss and Joe have gone looking for her.  They have some idea of the last place they were at, where Roy and Candy found Reuben … then they’ll take it from there.”

 

He nodded and looked at her, at the anxiety in her eyes, the way her voice was strained and wobbled a little in places.  He would have spoken more but Hop Sing appeared with a tray laden with something for him to eat and drink, ever mindful of his family’s guests needs, ever attentive, he placed the tray down beside Luke and hurried back to the kitchen.

 

“I was away for a few days myself ..bought fifty square acres of land, prime grazing land.  Only got back a few days ago.”

 

“Oh Luke, that’s good, very good.” she smiled, she meant well, she was pleased for him he knew that, but there was sadness behind the smile and he nodded after which she asked about Marcy

 

“She wanted to come, she’s that worried about the children, and yourself.  But the weather isn’t good,  I didn’t want her out in this.  She isn’t the most robust of persons as you know.”

 

“So who did you buy the land from?” Ben asked

 

“Jack Hills, from Colfax.”   Luke said with his mouth full of sandwich, “He used to live hereabouts.”

 

“Yes, I remember him well.   Colfax?  The name sounds familiar but blamed me if I can think whereabouts it is…” Ben muttered

 

“It’s one of the new towns up south east of the Ponderosa,  there’s several new settlements and towns sprung up thereabouts because of the railways.  There’s Brodie, Colfax and Monroe.  They’re all pretty close strung together.”

 

Ben frowned, he looked  thoughtfully at Luke and then stood up “Come and show me on the map.”

 

Luke finished his sandwich, stretched to get some kinks out of his back and followed Ben to where the maps were still spread out on the table, he picked up a pencil and marked the towns off   “Colfax is the nearest one to the Ponderosa borders, but still about 50 miiles away.  I cut across your land to get home quicker, hope you didn’t mind, sir.”

 

“Not at all, trying to avoid 1000 square miles of territory adds a lot to a mans journey.”  Ben muttered although his eyes were fixed to the map “See here -” he tapped a small cross that had been marked off “That’s where the children were taken by a  young man, a cabin owned by his uncle, Pete Riley.   From what Roy and Candy tell us the children left the cabin and took the wrong route, heading southeast … Reuben was found here by this river.” he tapped the map with the pencil and Luke stared at it and shook his head

 

“Had I been a day later I may have ridden into them,  I got home just the day before the fog came down.”

 

Olivia bowed her head, co-incidences…they either worked for or against one, and this time… definitely against.  She could have wept but she didn’t, instead she stared at the flames in the fire and thought of her little girl.

 

“Co-incidences,” Luke continued as he returned to the chair by the fire, and the word, being in Olivia’s thoughts rang loud in her head so that she turned to look at him, “I was delayed in Colfax,  what with all the legal things involved in buying land, and was in a hurry to get home.  Had I only delayed a little more…”  he shook his head and bit down on his bottom lip, “Oddly enough I met an old scouting friend of mine,  from when I had scouted for the army back along, after my wife had died? “

 

“You never mentioned that before, Luke…” Olivia looked at him with the kind of smile a sister would bestow upon a brother who was loved and had shown some initiative in his life, a hard life for sure, she had known that and now this information revealed just how little she had really known about that time when they were apart.

 

“ Well, I was hired by a unit in Indian Territory, the man in charge was a Colonel Royale.  He was a good officer, rather arrogant and full of himself, but fair enough to the men.  His wife and two daughters were with him. “

 

Hester and Olivia listened politely, their own lives were too full of horrors at that moment for them to be really that interested Ben had filled his pipe and was puffing as he was thinking, not about army units but about new towns,  and his grand daughter.

 

“Anyway, the co-incidence is that Mrs Royale and Katy, now called Katherine, live in Bodie.  Seems there was a bit of scandal, when Katy … The  youngest of his daughters, had a child out of wedlock, so afterwards the Colonel retired, with his family to Bodie. So …  had I been just a day or so longer at Colfax,  I may have met up with the children and been able to bring them safely home.”

 

Olivia smiled thinly “Co-incidences don’t always favour the brave.” she murmured and wondered why she had said such a thing herself, she stood up “I’ll just go and see how Reuben is now.  I am glad you came, Luke.  Thank you so much.”

 

Hester stood up too,  murmuring something about seeing to her daughters and leaving the two men together.   Ben frowned,  nodded and asked Luke to tell him again about Colonel Royale and his daughters …

 

Chapter 34

 

When Reuben opened his eyes sunlight was streaming in through the windows and the fire was burning cheerily.  He turned his head slightly in order to see the fire more clearly and the thought occurred to him that he needed to get more firewood otherwise it would die out and then they would be very cold again.   It was important to keep the fire alight or they would freeze, and Sofia was cold and wet already.  He closed his eyes and immediately drifted back to sleep.

……………..

 

It had been a miserable night but once the wind had dropped the three brothers were able to build up the fire and keep warm.  Through the hours one or other of them would wake, stumble over to the fire to heap on more fuel and fall back into some kind of slumber.  The fire was still burning bright when Adam roused his two brothers and suggested they made an early start.

 

Hoss rubbed his face and shivered,  scowled over at the fire and suggested that they had breakfast first which received a curt nod from Adam who pointed to the coffee pot already spitting onto the hot stones, and the bacon sizzling in the pan.

 

“What do we do once we’ve eaten?   Go back to Rileys?” Joe asked innocently.

 

“You can if you want to.”  Adam muttered as walked over to stand clear of the little camp, staring along the route they had already taken.

 

“What did I say wrong this time?” Joe muttered and Hoss shook his head and ate his bacon faster than usual before he walked over to his elder brother

 

“I can’t imagine how anyone going across Ponderosa land would keep Sofia, Adam.  They’d know to bring her home.”  he wiped his greasy hands on the back of his pants, and tried to get his brother to look at him but Adam just kept staring out across the land which now resembled a patchwork quilt of colours where the snow had melted and where it had frozen.

 

Joe came and pushed a mug of coffee into Adams hands, he nodded over at the vague indentations in the ground that indicated that this was obviously a route more often used than they had realised. “Could have come from over yonder -”  he swept the hand with which he was holding his mug in the direction directly opposite the one where the children had been, “Perhaps ridden down and onto the track where they would have seen the fire.”  he looked at Adam who was nodding and looking less uptight, “Well, if it were me I’d be curious as to why there was a fire burning in the middle of nowhere.”

 

His brother inclined his head slowly and swallowed down some of the coffee, he turned his body towards where the children would have settled down by their fire, he looked at Hoss “What do you think, Hoss.?   Do you read it that way at all?”

 

Hoss frowned, looking down at the ground and rubbed along his jaw line, “There’s been quite a bit of traffic along here, Adam.  Wouldn’t mind betting that folk use this as a short cut across to Genoa and such.”  he sniffed and wrinkled his nose “Most recent tracks seem to indicate that they followed along that away, and possibly seeing a fire … wal, could arouse curiosity, wouldn’t mean that they would stop though, after all, could be just about any kind of person camping out for all they’d know.”

 

“Whoever they are of course.” Joe chipped in with a shrug of the shoulders.

 

“We’re just assuming…” Hoss added quickly, “But sometimes assumptions can be right.”

 

“Sometimes.” Adam agreed and nodded again, “well, we have little else to work on, so lets go along with that idea.”

 

Both Joe and Hoss relaxed a little now, feeling a trifle more confident that answers would come, plucked from the air as easily as apples from trees.

………………

 

Reuben opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling.   He was in a room, and in a bed, a fire was burning in the grate and everything was so warm, so comfortable.  It was a dream, surely, a very bad dream.

 

Turning his head he saw his Ma dressing Nathaniel.  So, it was morning and soon Ma would be telling him to get up for school.   He sighed and closed his eyes.  It would be much nicer to stay in this comfortable warm bed.

 

“Reuben,  wake up, dear.”

 

There, he knew it,  time to get up for school.   He yawned and turned over, then frowned a little… the room was darker, the bright sunlight that had been shining earlier through the windows had gone.  There was the soft patter of rain upon windows now.  He opened his eyes and looked up to see Olivia smiling down at him, a tray in her hands.

 

“Do I have to go to school today, Ma?”  he whispered

 

“No, not to today, Reuben.”   she smiled at him then set the tray down and put her arms around him so that she could help him sit up, then she plumped up the pillows and watched as he settled back into them “Here’s your breakfast.   Eat it all up.”

 

“Where’s Pa?”

 

“He’s busy just now, Reuben.  He’ll come and see you as soon as he can.”  she sat down on a chair beside him and settled the tray across his lap “Come on now, ,eat up.”

 

“Ma?  Is something wrong?  Am I sick?”  he looked at her anxiously, he could remember when that Downing boy had shot him, he had been sick then and Ma would bring up a tray just like this, and sit beside the bed just as she was doing now.   “Am I, Ma?”

 

“You had a fall,  you’ve bumped your head.”  she looked at him intensely then, very seriously and it made him feel uncomfortable.

 

“How?”

 

“What do you mean,  Reuben?”

 

“How did I fall?”  he frowned “Did I fall off Max?”

 

“No,  you didn’t.   I don’t know how you fell, Reuben.   Candy and Roy found you and brought you  here.   You’re at Grandpa’s house.”

 

“Oh.”  he didn’t say anything else, just ’Oh’ and then looked at the food on the tray, and began to pick at it.  He wasn’t really hungry,  he looked around the room “I thought the room looked different to mine.  Where’s Sofia?  Is she at school?”

 

“No, not just now.”  Olivia said quietly and then smiled, an odd smile, one that Reuben thought wasn’t ’real’, not like her usual ones when her whole face seemed to light up and her eyes shone darker.

 

“Is she sick too?”  he chewed on some ham, slowly and methodically.  He was aware of a pain niggling away at the nape of his neck, and then behind his eyes.

 

“No,  she isn’t sick.   Come along, you can eat more than that, surely.  Hop Sing won’t be very happy if you don’t eat more.”

 

He pushed the tray away, and then shook his head “I can’t eat anymore, Ma.  I feel a bit sick.”

 

She nodded and stood up, removed the tray and gently helped him to lay back down again smoothing out the pillows as she did so.  “Try and sleep a bit more then, Reuben.  You may feel a lot better later.”

 

“Where’s Sofia?”  he yawned, and looked up into her face with a trusting smile, it was so warm, so reassuring to snuggle down in that bed and see Ma there looking down at him like she always did “Is she at school?”

 

“No,  not today.”

 

He sighed and closed his eyes.  Olivia stepped back from the bed and stood there in silence for a while, her hands clasped as she observed her son slipping now into sleep.  When there came a sound close by she turned to see Mary Ann stepping into the room

 

“We were wondering if he was alright?”  the younger girl whispered and came to stand beside Olivia, she slipped an arm around her friends waist “How is he?  Has he said anything?”

 

“No,  he’s confused, he feels unwell but doesn’t know why.   He thought he was going to school.”

 

“He never mentioned anything then?”

 

“No, nothing.”

 

The two women drew closer, as though their contact consolidated their mutual distress and sadness at the situation.   In the bed Reuben had slipped into a comforting sleep, his body eased into a healing and he had no nightmares to jolt him into the  sudden horror of what he had so recently experienced.

 

 

Ben scanned the map for the third time since breakfast, before looking over at Luke who had stayed overnight rather than take the long journey home in the dark and cold.

 

“So, these new towns, are they very large?”

 

“Not the same size as Virginia City or Carson City, but good enough.   I should say Monroe is the smallest, about 800 inhabitants, but most of them are employed by the railway and they don’t need to subsist on the surrounding area which is quite barren.  You couldn’t graze cattle there, that’s for sure.”

 

“No steaks available then?”  Ben grinned and Luke laughed a little before he nodded and said he hadn’t noticed, he couldn’t afford hotel prices.

 

“You got a good deal on the land though?”

 

“I did.   Can’t think why he moved on from there to go to Colfax, but he was always a restless kind of man.  Its good pasture land, Ben.”

 

“I’m glad you managed to get a bargain, Luke.”

 

“Ah well, as for that, I think Jack’s the one who got the bargain.  Thankfully my old scouting friend provided bed and board for me … “

 

“Luke,  do  you think it could be possible for someone to have come across the children, hereabouts.”  he pointed to the area he assumed Roy had found Reuben, “and taken them on to one of those towns?”

 

Luke became immediately serious, for a moment he said nothing at all but stared down at the map, then shook his head “I can’t see why anyone would do that, Ben.   If Sofia was taken by anyone she would tell them her name, right?   Well, everyone knows about the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa…   no one in their right minds would take her all the way to Colfax or wherever without thinking first of returning her to her family.”

 

“They may not know …  it’s possible Sofia couldn’t tell them.”

 

Luke shook his head, the thought Ben had put into his mind was that Sofia would have had to be dead if she couldn’ speak, “No, no, I can’t believe that…Sofia would have told them if …”  he paused and gulped, looked at Ben “She may not have been able to tell them if she were ill.”

 

“Exactly my point.”

 

Luke glanced over at the stairs and forced a smile at Olivia and Mary Ann as they came down them, Olivia bearing the tray.   “I don’t like to think that anyone would keep her against her will. “

 

“If she were ill, they may well think Colfax would be the best place to take her.  I presume there’s a doctor there?”

 

Luke frowned and tried to recall the layout of the main street.  He had met Jack Hills at the lawyers office, and then they had gone to the Land Registry, he tried to picture the sign of a doctor swaying from some building then shrugged “I don’t know, Ben.  I can’t recall seeing one.”

 

“What about Monroe … did you go to Monroe?”

 

“No, had no reason to go there, nor to Bodie.”  Luke sighed and wished now that he had gone to both towns and taken down the names and addresses of all the doctors there, plus riding back a few days later and meeting up with his nephew and niece.

 

“I recall Bodie …vaguely.   It was one of those settlements that got under way when there were rumours of gold there, but the Comstock drew folk to Virginia City …  so it’s still there?”

 

“It is, and still claiming to have the next bonanza waiting to  be found, I should think that there could be several thousand people there.” Luke frowned and after staring down at the map for a few moments asked Ben what exactly it was he was getting at.

 

“I can’t help but think that if Roy is right, and someone came along and found Sofia by that fire …”

 

Olivia came towards them, both men stopped talking when they heard the rustle of her skirts, but she was aware of some tension between them, and after a sharp look at their faces and then down at the map she asked them exactly what was going on.  “If you have any idea then you should share them, give – give me – us – something to think about instead of just sitting here hoping and wondering.”

 

Luke put a gentle hand on Olivia’s arm now, and gently led her back to the fire “We were just speculating on where anyone could have taken Sofia, if they had found her.”

 

“If?”  her voice quavered as she spoke the word, and she looked fearfully at Hester who was seated nearby with Hope on her lap, “what is the alternative, Luke?  If Sofia wasn’t found by someone … where would she be now?”

 

“Olivia…” Hester said softly, “Olivia, don’t ask questions like that, we have to hope that she’s alright, that someone did find her.”

 

“Then why haven’t they brought her home here?  Or taken her to town?”   Olivia pressed a hand against her heart and shook her head “I can’t bear to think that there could be any alternative,  someone knows where she is…”

 

“Then Adam and the boys will find her, Olivia.   They will.”  Mary Ann cried and looked helplessly over at Ben who was staring very fixedly at his daughter in law “won’t they, Pa?”

 

Ben could only nod, but he returned to looking at the map, his head lowered and his black brows furrowed over his dark eyes.  He turned slightly at realising that Luke was standing by his side again “What’s on your mind, Ben?”

 

“I don’t know … yet.”

 

Luke nodded and pursed his lips, “Look, I have to get back to Marcy and let her know what has happened here.   If you have plans -” he lowered his voice after a swift glance over his shoulder “about going for a ride, it won’t take you too far out of your road to skip past the Double D.   I’ll be there …”

 

Ben permitted a half smile to flit across his mouth, then slapped the man on the arm and nodded.  “I want to go into town tomorrow, check with Candy and see if there could be any news first…”

 

Satisfied with that Luke turned towards his sister, placed a hand upon her arm and leaned in to kiss her cheek.   They looked briefly into each others eyes and then he walked away, pulled on his coat and hat before leaving the house.

 

Chapter 35

 

Daniel deQuille took the cables from Eddy at the Telegraph Depot with a nod of the head before turning back to his offices.   As he did so Ben Cartwright rode past  and for a moment Daniel stopped to observe the other man noting as he did so the way the broad shoulders drooped, the generous mouth was clamped into a sullen line. There was misery stamped upon the mans features and Dan heaved in a sigh, knowing only too well  from personal experience how the loss of little ones, whether in death or in the manner of Ben’s grandchildren, could affect a person.

 

He closed his mind to the fact of his own losses, and hurried to the office, closing the door upon the winds and cold from outside, and retreating to the smoky security of his private domain.  Here he ripped open the cables and stood as though transfixed by what he read in each one.

 

“Could get no information Stop “

 

“No one willing to provide information Stop all contacts closed Stop”

 

“Contact re Baltimore refused to provide information Stop contact re names blocked Stop shall keep trying Stop”

 

“Told to halt any enquiries re Baltimore Stop  no information forthcoming from usual sources Stop”

 

“Have had warning to lay off from certain quarters Stop be careful how to proceed Stop”

 

He dropped the cables onto his desk and stared down at them as though hidden in the words were some clues that he had yet to decipher.   Then he re-read them, shook his head and with a growl of incomprehension slipped them into his desk drawer, locked it and quickly left his office.    His one thought was that he needed a drink, even though he had vowed to stay off the liquor, needs must…and he really had a need, a desperate one.

………………

 

Candy stood up so promptly the chair behind him rolled back against the wall “Ben?  Any news?”

 

Ben removed his hat and shook his head, upon which sight Candy’s shoulders sagged and he settled himself back into his chair “Nothing at all?”

 

“No.    Nothing.”  Ben grimaced “I had hoped, vaguely, that you would have had some news, or  –  or  some clue.”

 

“Ben.  I’m sorry.”  Candy shook his head,  sighed and shuffled some papers about on the desk, “Young Fitz died a few hours ago.”

 

“Fitz?”  Ben’s mind blanked, and then he recalled the young man who had tried to get the children home, it all seemed such a long time ago and now he felt ashamed that he had so promptly forgotten.

 

“He tried his best, Ben.”

 

Ben didn’t deny that fact, he just nodded and stared at the papers on Candy’s desk, and wished he were with his sons,  or, better still, that when he returned home he would find them there, with Sofia.   He sighed “What do you know about some towns south east of here … Monroe, Bodie…Colfax …”

 

“Colfax?”  Candy frowned, “I know of a Colfax*  north of here, not far from Sacremento.   Not one south east of you though.   Are they important?”

 

“I just had a feeling, nothing – well – nothing more than if people were travelling along the route the children were taking,  and they were not going to Virginia City or Carson City, it seemed only logical to assume that they would be going to those towns further south,  south-east of the Ponderosa.”

 

“You reckon someone has taken Sofia ?” Candy sighed “Well, to be honest with you, Ben, I was thinking much along the same lines myself.”   he straightened his shoulders and got to his feet, both men naturally migrated over to the map of the territory “See here, that’s where we found Reuben.  Now, you’re assuming that some one came along and took Sofia on up to that area, but isn’t it possible that they were actually coming down from there, and planning to cut across the Ponderosa at that point going eastwards?”

 

“One thing we do know, and that is that they didn’t bring her  hereabouts,  look, Candy, is it possible that if you contacted the law in …”

 

“I have … I’ve got the sheriffs alerted in every town within fifty miles of the Ponderosa.”  Candy nodded, “So far I’ve heard nothing back from any of them.”

 

“What about those towns I’ve mentioned … Monroe, Bodie and Colfax …” Ben muttered

 

“They’re beyond the 50 mile perimeter I’ve contacted but I shall get onto it right away, Ben.”  he paused “Ben, I was thinking of organising another posse.  I know some of the townsfolk are more than a little anxious about Sofia, so …” he looked at the rancher who had narrowed his eyes to survey the sheriff in a rather disconcerting manner “What if I check out this area ….” he tapped his pencil on the map, “It will take us on to Ponderosa land towards Genoa and several other towns hereabouts.  It’s possible that if Sofia was found, the people involved could have continued on their way to any of those.”

 

For a moment there was silence and then Ben sighed “It’s a lot of territory and the weather doesn’t promise to be improving, rather the reverse.   I still got a feeling that they were coming from that short cut across the Ponderosa and heading up southwards.   Can’t explain why, but I never ignore what instinct tells me, it hasn’t failed me yet, Candy.”

 

Candy pursed his lips, frowned and shook his head doubtfully, “I’d still like to give my idea a try, Ben.  Let’s face it, it could be either way, couldn’t it?  We know for sure they didn’t come down this away, and they wouldn’t be travelling to the salt flats … there’s only two ways they could have gone, and around about where we found Reuben seems to be some kind of turn off, a junction, for traffic going either way.”

 

Ben nodded “To  be honest I appreciate any help you give, and more than grateful for the posses’ help.  Thank you.”  he shook Candy’s hand and picked up his hat, “I’ll see you soon …”

 

“Hopefully with some good news, Ben.”

 

Ben said nothing to that, but inclined his head as he reached the door.  Clem came in and acknowledged Ben with a gruff greeting before the rancher had stepped onto the sidewalk and returned to where he had left his horse.

 

Several townsfolk stopped him as he walked towards Cinnamon, each one conveying his or her concerns for Sofia, for Olivia and the family.   At the same time they expressed their pleasure at the fact that Reuben had been found, David Walkers parents shook Bens hand until it ached, they were so glad that the little chap had survived the ordeal and was now back home with his family.

 

There was just one itch that needed to be scratched now…. Ben walked his horse to where the Becketts lived and dismounted outside the house.  It was a clean neat property and for a moment Ben was wondering if he had arrived at the wrong address for he had pigeon holed Charlotte’s home to reflect her personality…disorderly, chaotic, a dirty mess.  This attractive building seemed to shout “That’ll teach you…wrong again.”

 

A woman with sallow features and large anxious eyes came to the door,  and when Ben announced who he was, stepped aside to let him in.   After removing his hat, Ben glanced around the clean sparsely furnished room,  a baby slept in a crib by the fire,  and the woman cleared her throat “My – our – son, Patrick”

 

“Not very old…” Ben said with a quieter voice and the woman flushed a little and nodded “Is Charlotte home?”

 

“In her room.   She don’t go to school now.”

 

“You’re her mother?”

 

“No, thank goodness.”  she walked to a door and flung it open “Charlie, someone here to see you.”  a pause “Charlie, git out here right of this moment, you hear?”

 

There was a comment from the room,  and then the girl appeared and glared sullenly at her step mother before looking over at Ben “What do you want?  You one of them deputies?”

 

“No, I’m Ben Cartwright, I’m Sofia’s grand father.” Ben forced a smile in the words, an attempt to soften them and not sound in any way judgemental.   It was hard to do though, as he looked at this child, for that was who she was, just a child.   “I just wanted to -” his voice floundered and he shook his head, what had he wanted to do?  See who could have said what had been said, who could have done what had been done?  Just to see what kind of devil existed in a the shape of a child?

 

Charlotte shrugged “I told the deputies what happened.   Wasn’t my fault that stupid old man went drinking in the saloon instead of staying where he should have been.  I didn’t mean for it to end up like it did.”

 

“Then what did you mean to happen Charlie?  You must have thought something could happen?”

 

She sighed, rolled her eyes and shrugged again, “So?   Something could have happened and something might not …   if Miss Brandon hadn’t been mooning over her boyfriend and paying attention she would have made sure the kids were safe.  Sofia and Reuben would have been alright, it wasn’t my fault they went and got lost.”

 

“But you were the one who caused it, my dear.  You were the one who started the whole thing rolling..”

 

“Look, if you want to blame anyone why not blame that girl from the saloon.  She could have taken them to the sheriff, or to that Mrs Martin … but she didn’t, instead she got her friend to take them home, only …” she rolled her eyes dramatically again, tossed her unruly red hair over her shoulder “he goes and dies doesn’t he?  So she’s to blame for killing  him as well as taking the kids out of town.”

 

“Who else are you going to blame, Charlotte?  It still comes back to you.”  Ben’s deep voice seemed to resonate in the room and the girl lowered her head and said nothing.

 

The woman looked stone faced at the girl before turning to Ben, “That’s all you’ll get out of her, Mister, she won’t say no more. I know that way she has, all you’ll get from her, if she opens her mouth again, is something you’d expect out of the gutter.”

 

Ben didn’t deign to respond to that, he merely thanked the woman and turned away, back to the streets where the wind blew cold.   He stood on the sidewalk and looked around him, he knew the town so well, and yet, he realised, he knew so little about the people living in it.

 

Roy raised a hand to stop  him from passing his house, he was clad in his winter coat and screwed up his eyes to look up at Ben “You hear Candys got a posse organised to look for Sofia?”

 

“S’right, Roy, he told me just now.”

 

“You gitting yourself involved in it?”

 

“Nope,  I reckon they’ll be looking in the wrong direction.   Roy, I want to find my sons, and then head down south where I think Sofia will be.”

 

“South huh?” Roy narrowed his eyes and nodded “Bodie?  Monroe?”

 

“That’s the direction I’ll be taking.”

 

“Bodie ain;t the best place to live, kinda wild.   Monroe’s small, and there’s the other town, Colfax…”

 

“That’s the one I thought I’d aim for first.”

 

“Going alone?”

 

“No, young Luke Dents coming along with me.”

 

Roy rubbed his chin thoughtfully “Mind if I tag along with you both?”

 

“If  you’ve a mind to, Roy, be pleased to have your company.”

 

Roy looked up the street and then nodded “I’ll meet you at the junction in an hour.”

 

Ben nodded and turned Cinnamon back along the main road, before putting her into an easy lope.   Roy Coffee, he smiled, would no more settle down to being an old man anymore than he would, and why should they …what did years matter really when there was so much at stake now?

………………..

 

Tears streamed down Reuben’s face and sobs shook his body, soft moans and sighs, and a cry for his sister brought Olivia running to his bedside.   He was still asleep but even as she was about to take her chair he sat up, pushed aside the covers and began to walk away from the bed.

 

“Reuben,  where are you going, son?”

 

Her voice was soft,  downstairs Hester and Mary Ann were talking together the murmur of their voices floated upwards, she could hear Nathaniel squealing and Hope laughing… but Reuben just walked slowly across the room, paused and stopped.

 

“Reuben?”

 

He sighed and looked around him, his eyes were open but glassy, his face was very still, with no animation whatsoever.  “Sofia?   Sofia?”

 

His voice wavered across the room  and he turned calling his sister by name and stopping every so often as though he had to do so in order to hear her reply.  By the bed Olivia watched him,  her heart ached for him, but she didn’t dare to waken him having been told that sleep walkers should never be disturbed in their wanderings.  She wasn;t too  sure how true that was, but didn’t dare to risk anything at this stage just in case they were right.

 

Reuben walked to the window and stopped, he wasn’t looking out at the view, but was standing as though deep in thought.  He nodded to himself “Best get more wood.  The fire won’t go out if there’s more wood.  Sofia’s cold… “

 

Olivia watched as her little boy enacted the actions of picking up wood for a fire, and walking to a certain spot to place it down.   He held out his hands to the imaginary flames and then muttered “I need to go to the outhouse.”     he turned and walked away towards the wardrobe and then stopped again, turned and shouted “No, no,  come back, come back…Sofia, Sofia…”

 

Olivia caught him just as he collapsed into a heap in her arms and very gently led him back to the bed.   He allowed her to settle him down and he closed his eyes, a deep sigh and he was sleeping normally again.

…………………….

 

The two horsemen dismounted outside the Double D and were admitted into the  house by Marcy who stood on tiptoe to kiss Ben on the cheek.  “Luke said you would be along.   Hello, Sheriff Coffee.”

 

Roy nodded and smiled, he would have told her he was no longer sheriff but didn’t know how to do so easily so said nothing.   Luke was cleaning his rifle and acknowledged them both with a nod of the head “How soon do you want to leave, Ben?”

 

“Well,  anytime that suits yourself, Luke.   If we can cover the distance from here to where Roy and Candy found Reuben before nightfall,  that would possibly be the best idea.  We can start travelling further in the morning.”

 

“Very good.” Luke nodded “Marcy has food ready to eat now, best travel on a full stomach.”

 

Ben was in two minds about delaying further, but Roy had already started removing his outer clothes so he decided that perhaps it would be a good idea.  He pulled his chair up to the table and sat down to eat what Marcy served them, and after just the one mouthful realised how hungry he actually was, and that this was a  better idea than he had first thought.

 

Within the hour they were leaving, Marcy stood at the doorway with her shawl around her and waving them goodbye.  With their saddlebags stuffed with provisions, and feeling optimistic about their journey, they rode out of her sight and towards the track leading either back the way they had come, to town,  or to the less travelled route south.

 

Chapter 36

 

The room was not large,  but it was pink.  Roses and forget-me-nots with blue or pink ribbons  were painted delicately on the walls.  A pretty room, perfect for a little girl.  Dolls and soft rag toys, spinning tops and jack-in-the-boxes lined the shelves along one wall, a rocking horse in one corner and a quite magnificent doll’s house in the other, with little people living within it, even with a dog in the kennel.

 

Sofia opened her eyes and released a long sigh.   She looked around the room  and remembered that she had seen it several times now, before everything was hazy and strange but this time she could see with clarity and some degree of pleasure.

 

A fire crackled in the fireplace,  and pink velvet curtains covered the window.  She was warm, comfortable and sleepy.   Perhaps this was just a dream and what had happened before was the nightmare that she wanted to forget,  to pretend had never happened.

 

When the door opened she turned her head slowly in its direction and watched as a woman approached the bedside.    She had seen this lady before, a very pretty lady with golden blonde hair and blue eyes, and always smiling, always looking so happy to see her.   She was like a princess the way she would glide towards the bedside and take a chair by the bed.  Sofia could remember the times she had opened her eyes and the lady had been there holding her hand, or brushing away the hair from her face and always with the most happy smile on her face.   Whenever she spoke to Sofia she called her ‘dear’ or ‘my darling’, and once Sofia could recall her kissing her brow very gently.

 

There was one time she had opened her eyes and seen a fat man standing by the bed.  He had hold of her wrist with one hand and was staring at a watch with the other.   He was talking, but his voice sounded slurred and as though it was coming from far, far away.    His hands had touched her face, her brow, and neck.  She had shivered at his touch because his hands were cold, and because … he made her feel afraid.

 

There had been another lady with the fat man, and Sofia could tell that she had been listening very seriously to what he was saying, because every so often she had nodded, and looked anxious.   Later  when the pretty lady came this other lady was with her and they had talked together for a little while.   This other lady was older than the Princess, but she was pretty, even beautiful, with a sad smile, gentle eyes and a soft touch of her hand upon Sofia’s cheek.

 

Sofia was not afraid of either woman,  she felt safe and warm, even a little hungry.  She smiled when the young lady came and sat beside her “Are you feeling a little better, dear?”

 

“Yes, thank you.”  Sofia lisped, and she smiled up at the lady so that there would be a smile returned

 

“You must be hungry.   Phoebe will be up in a moment with something for you to eat.  Dr  Lovell said you would need to eat after having slept so long.”

 

“Have I been asleep a long time?”

 

“Yes, a long time.”  she leaned forwards and kissed Sofia on the cheek, “I am glad you are awake now though, darling, once you are well enough you will be able to play with all your toys.   Grandmother bought these for you a long time ago, but this is the first time you have had the chance to play with them.”

 

Sofia looked away from the lady and smiled, she wanted to play with that doll’s house, she had never had one before but had seen one in a shop window and oh, had so longed to own it.   “Are  you a Princess?”  she asked innocently “Only I can’t remember”

 

The lady laughed, a soft laugh and shook her head “No, there are no princesses in America.  Only in fairy stories or in Europe.  I’m your aunt, Alice.  I’m your aunt Katy.”

 

“Aunt Katy.”  Sofia echoed and nodded shyly, then smiled again “That’s a nice name.  I had another aunty once, her name was …”  she frowned, what was that name again?   It was something like Katy, but just a little bit different.  She looked at the woman and frowned “She was pretty but had a bad face.”

 

“Oh dear, that’s a shame.”  Katherine Royale shook her head and a slight frown furrowed her brow “Are you sure it isn’t part of that nightmare you have been having?   You were very ill you know and had such bad dreams.”

 

“I can’t remember.” Sofia sighed and settled back into the pillows.

 

The door opened again and a young woman came into the room with a tray upon which was some food and drink.  The tray had little legs on it which Phoebe the maid pulled down so that the whole thing could stand across Sofia’s lap without toppling over.  Sofia thought it looked very smart indeed and smiled over at Phoebe who bobbed  down in the parody of a curtsey, grinned  back at her, before leaving the room.   Katherine took a napkin from the tray, flicked it out and then tucked it under Sofia’s chin “Promise me that you’ll try to eat it all  up.”

 

“I promise.”

 

Katherine looked pleased at that and stood up to look around the room,  while Sofia ate a little of the scrambled eggs, and drank some of the milk she walked around the room and picked up a toy,  set it back down and then picked up another.  She found a book and glanced through it, then she selected another one and carried it over to the bedside “Have you read this story,  Alice?   It’s about two little children who got lost in a forest.”

 

“Hansel and Gretel.” Sofia said immediately and nodded “Yes, my mommy …”  she frowned and stared at the book,  something at the back of her mind like an itch that she couldn’t scratch “My mommy read it to me  once.”

 

“I’m sure she did, dear.”   Katherine sat down and opened the book,  “Emily always loved reading,  even more than I did.”

 

Sofia frowned, but she ate her scrambled eggs and toast,  drank her milk and listened as Katherine read the story.   She was a good reader, she knew how to make the children sound frightened and sad, the horrible old woman sounded just as cackling and horrible as a witch could be who liked eating up little children.   Then of course father came and rescued them both … Sofia leaned back against the pillows, and thought of a dark eyed, dark haired man with a grin and dimples … she looked at Katy, “Is my daddy here?”

 

“Why no, dear, he’s back home with your mother.”   she closed the book now and set it down  on the table by her side, “Don’t you remember how grandmother and I came to visit you all?   Your mother had just had the baby and she had been unwell, so your father asked us to bring you here to stay for a little while.   You would have come last year but there was fever in the town so we couldn’t bring you,  but it all worked out alright this time….except…”  she sighed and removed the tray, placed it on the table and then took hold of Sofia’s hands in hers “It was when it started to snow and we had to stop along the way.  You were really ill, sweetheart, and for a while we didn’t know if  you were going to even reach town.   Can’t you remember?”

 

Sofia shook her head and screwed up her eyes.   Perhaps if she tried she could remember something  “It was cold,  I was cold.  I was shivering all the time.”

 

“That’s right, so you were.   We couldn’t get you warm at all.”

 

“Was that why you made the fires?”

 

Katherine’s smile faltered, then she nodded “We had to do something, try anything.  We would never have forgiven ourselves if anything had happened to you, how could we have told Emily and James that their little girl … anyway, it didn’t happen, we got you home just in time.  Dr Lovell said had it been any longer and we could have lost you altogether.”

 

“I remember the fires, and the snow …”  Sofia said slowly

 

“Can you remember anything else?   You were having some terrible dreams.”

 

“Were they horrible and awful?”

 

“Yes,  I’m afraid so.   But -”  her face brightened up as though she had decided there was enough talk about sad things and her smile was as captivating as ever “ it’s alright now, Alice, you’re home now, safe with us.” she squeezed Sofia’s hands and leaned down to kiss Sofia on the brow “You’ll always be safe with us.”

 

“Mommy says that …” Sofia whispered

 

“I’m sure she does.  She’ll be so happy to know you’re alright and not sick any more.”

 

Sofia nodded and smiled up at her aunt Katy, “I didn’t know I was sick”

 

“Of course you didn’t … now,  do  you want to get up and play with the doll’s house?”

 

“Can I?  Can I really?”

 

Sofia was so excited that when her aunt Katy pulled back the covers she just wanted to jump right out of bed and run to that dolls house, but as soon as her feet touched the floor her legs went very strange.  She tried to stand up but her legs wouldn’t support her, she reached out for Katherine who grabbed at her hands and then helped her back into bed “I am sorry, Alice,  it seems you’re still too weak.  I shouldn’t have tempted you to play just yet, you need feeding up … I forgot you have been without any good food for some days… I am sorry, dear.”

 

Sofia didn’t speak, Katherine was smiling at her, although her eyes were sad, and she was stroking back some stray wisps of hair from Sofia’s brow.   Sofia smiled, it was alright, she told herself, it was alright, although it was a shame that Aunt Katy had forgotten that her real name was Sofia, and not Alice.

…………….

 

Rosemarie Royale was writing a letter when Katherine entered the room and quietly sat down  by the fire, picked  up her needlepoint and began to work on the pattern.  For a while they were quite silent until Rosemarie looked over at her daughter “How is she?”

 

“She’s weak, but she ate her food.”

 

“Poor little thing,  she must have been so hungry.” Rosemarie sighed and wrote a little more, then put down her pen “Did she speak at all?”

 

“Yes, a little.  She seemed very happy with things really, confused of course.   She’s such an adorable little girl.  I was thinking …”

 

“Don’t think, Katherine.   It doesn’t do to think, not about what happened…you were going to talk about that, weren’t you?”

 

“Yes.” Katherine nodded, and set down her sewing, “I can’t help but be reminded of it, that little girl reminds me so much of my …” she swallowed the words and straightened her back, stared at the far wall and remembered the baby she had held for just a brief moment or so, such a dear sweet little scrap she had been.

 

“There’s no point looking backwards, Katherine.   We  have the chance of saving that child, making her happy.   Heavens, Katherine, had we been any later she would have died.  What kind of parents leave a child like that to die in the kind of weather we’re  having … it makes my blood run cold, it really does.”

 

Katherine nodded and picked up her needlepoint, rethreaded the needle and stared at the pattern.  It had been hard to imagine her feelings when she found that child curled  up beside that dying fire, and Clifton had so gently picked the little girl up and carried her to the carriage.   She hadn’t known what to do,  they were miles from anywhere,  the only place to go was home.   Rosemarie had decided for them, the child would be brought home of course and if she died, then that was meant to be, but if she lived …   if she lived … that had worried Katherine but Rosemarie had said that there was no way she would even bother looking for any parent or family who had abandoned a child out in the wilds in such weather.

 

Of course, mother was right.   Mother was always right.

 

The little girl had been taken ill within the first few hours of the journey, and it had been a terrible time, really really terrible.   Clifton had forced the child to drink some  brandy and wrapped her in a fur lined shawl and told Katherine to hold her tight, just hold her and talk to her, softly.

 

And she had done just that, even sung to her until Sofia had stopped calling out for somebody called Boo, another person called Reuben, and Natty …   there were others she called for but eventually she fell into a deep unconsciousness, not exactly sleeping but something deeper than that.

 

Clifton had carried her into the house of course,  and Rosemarie had told the servant girl, Phoebe, to get Dr Lovell.   That was when the lies had began, although Katherine couldn’t think of them as lies otherwise she would never have been able to sleep with a bad conscience.   She told herself that it could have been just as mother had said, they had collected Alice, Emily’s daughter,  and brought her home for a winter holiday but she had been taken ill.  It had been that simple, and it could have been true!

 

Over the days of Sofia’s illness Katherine had hardly left the bedside,  she loved the child.  Such a pretty little girl, and just the age that Katherine’s very own child would have been … it was too much of a co-incidence.   Katherine prayed that God was giving her the chance of being a mother again,  only this time she would be a really really good one.   Alice would be her child, her little girl, and would want for nothing.

 

Chapter 37

 

The hotel in Monroe was of a decent size and looked as most hotels in that kind of town would look, even in the pouring rain.   Hoss remained in the saddle and took up the reins of the other horses having already agreed to take them  to the livery stable while his brothers booked rooms in the hotel.

 

The hotel clerk glanced up casually as the door opened and then visibly brightened when he saw the potential for some clients.  Business was obviously bad and the way he listened to their request for three single rooms was an indication of just how bad if the smiles and brisk efficiency with which they were attended to were anything to go by.

 

“Any bathroom ?” Adam asked he signed the register and the clerk immediately assured him that there were two, one on the floor to which they had been assigned rooms.

 

“Got a decent restaurant?” Joe shivered and rubbed his hands together,  he was so tired, cold and hungry that he longed for a really good hot meal to be placed in front of  him right there and then.

 

“Yes, sir …  the restaurant it right through that door to the right of you.”  he paused “Have you any luggage, Mr …oh … Mr Cartwright…Mr Cartwright.”

 

Joe indicated the saddle bags he and Adam had slung over their shoulders which received a nod of the head from the receptionist who was about to speak when the door opened and Hoss entered, removed his hat and shook it so that rain drops scattered everywhere around the hotel foyer.   “Got the horses settled.”

 

Adam nodded, took the keys from the clerk and then turned to the stairs.  Hoss glanced at Joe and grimaced, then shrugged and together they followed their brother up to the rooms where the keys were handed out and the bathroom located.  Joe scratched his head “Not sure which to do first, eat or bathe.”

 

“I’m eating.” Hoss growled, “I’m so hungry |could eat old Sheba if she were anywhere hereabouts.”

 

Adam chaffed his hands together and suppressed a shiver,  the warmth in the building was thawing out the chill in his bones and the thought of a hot bath,  a hot meal and a decent bed was certainly more than attractive.   He looked at Joe who appeared to be giving the matter of bath over food very serious consideration “Decided yet?”

 

“Well, I’m wet and cold,  I’d like to change clothes first.” Joe muttered

 

“Agreed, what about you Hoss?”

 

Their brother looked wistful and then nodded, “Eat first …after changing into something dry … shucks, I sure hope they cook a decent meal here, I’d sure be disappointed if’n they don’t.”

 

“Meet you out here in ten minutes.” Joe said as he slipped the key into the lock and promptly disappeared inside.

 

The three rooms were a similar size, anonymous in appearance but clean.  It took less than the allocated ten minutes to get changed and back to the landing where they met and then made the way downstairs.

 

They had arrived at a popular eating time for the restaurant was crowded with the townsfolk.  Young couples sat here or there, holding hands or gazing at one another as young couples did… but mostly the clientele comprised of men, and the hum of voices was subdued, a ripple of bass tones.

 

They were led to a table that was not in a very obvious position which pleased each one of them.   After their order was taken the three of the looked around them and took note of the people around them, Adam nodded “No miners …”

 

“Not many cowboys either.” Joe muttered

 

“From what the livery man said this is a railway town.   Most employed by the railways because they’re working on getting a branch to run up through these here parts.”

 

Adam gave his brother a brief smile of commendation and allowed his thoughts to wander, not that they wandered far from the concerns that involved them so much, and that was to find out anything to do with Sofia.  Any word, any sign, anything at all in fact that could indicate her presence in that town was an essential part of their being there now.

 

“It’s pretty small.” Joe murmured, “They can’t have all their main work force here yet.”

 

“Yeah, I thought that too…” Hoss sighed and glanced around him, looked over his shoulder and nodded at the couple seated behind him, he leaned forward towards his brothers “How’re we going to go about this?”

 

“Just listen as hard as you can, and notice as much as possible.” Joe hissed back and then had to stop talking as the waiter came to set down their meal.

 

“Shucks, I ain’t much good at hearing and seeing when I’m eating” Hoss sighed dramatically and looked down at his plate, he lowered his head to smell the rich sauces emanating from his plate “Smells good,  looks good.”

 

“What do you plan on doing, Adam?” Joe asked as they ate in relative silence, although they were watching their fellow diners with a care that was obviously making some of them uncomfortable.

 

“Well,  I noticed they got a church here …”  Adam murmured “I’ll go to the pastor tomorrow,  he’d know about his parishioners, if any have a sudden addition to the family so to speak.”

 

“Didn’t see any doctors surgery ..” Joe said  and was about to continue speaking when a man seated close to him leaned towards him to tell him there was no doctor.

 

“No doctor?” Hoss’ eyes widened “What happens when you’re ill?”

 

“What usually happens in a one horse town like this ‘un … we have to rely on folks who know something about healing, that’s what.  The barber knows how to pull teeth, and set bones, so does the livery man.   We got a man who trained to be a horse doc back east, he does well enough for us when we need anything whipped out like an appendix or some such.”

 

“What about women … I mean …” Joe shrugged and tried to look nonchalant “having babies and so forth?”

 

“We got several women in town know how to deliver them … and some men too.”  he turned right around to face them and looked them up and down “You just riding through?”

 

“Sort of.” Joe nodded, “I’m Joe Cartwright, these here are my brothers, Adam and Hoss.”

 

“Cartwright?”  the other man frowned and then extended his hand “Joshua Hurley.  I’m a surveyor for the railway.”

 

Hands were shaken all round before Hurley ventured to ask if they were the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa and after that was confirmed he nodded rather ponderously and after sticking two fat fingers in a pocket withdrew a piece of card upon which was printed his name and address “You got some good real estate there.  I rode through it from Genoa some time ago.  Anytime you want to do a deal and sell some to the railway, you just get in contact with me.

 

Joe slipped the card into his pocket and was about to resume eating when Hurley asked them what exactly it was that brought them to Monroe,  to which Joe gave Adam a quick glance before saying that they were looking for someone.  Hurley shrugged “This is a peaceful town, Mr Cartwright,  no one wants any trouble around here.”

 

Hoss grinned “We ain’t looking for that kind of person, mister, fact is we aint’ looking for no trouble at all.”

 

Hurley narrowed his eyes “Then who are you looking for?”

 

Adam sighed and then very slowly said “My daughter.”

 

“Really?”  Hurley frowned more deeply and hooked his thumbs into his vest pocket “Wal, we got some real pretty girls working in the saloons, guess one or two may have run away from home although I’d have thought no girl in her right senses would leave the Ponderosa to work in places like that….”

 

“She’s a child, she didn’t run away, she went missing from school …”  Adam said coldly,  and he looked at Hurley, “Too young to be working anywhere Mr Hurley although I thank you for the thought.”

 

Hurley ignored the sarcasm but frowned and looked concerned “A child?  That’s a mite different.   I’m truly sorry, Mr Cartwright.”   he paused, then shook his head “You say she’s missing from school?   I take it the school’s in Virginia City?  That’s a long way for a kid to come ain’t it?”

 

“You’re right, it is a long way. “ Adam sighed and it was Joe who said quite bluntly that they suspected that she was taken by someone from that locality.

 

“Wal,  that’s a strong accusation, Mr Cartwright.  You thinking of anyone here in this town stealing your kid, then you’re thinking is pure wrong.  This is a  small town, and we’re hard working and honest folk.   Like I said before, you go around causing trouble,  you might find  yourselves regretting it.”

 

He turned then and with a nod of the head at two other men who had shared the table along with him, he left the restaurant.  Joe sighed and looked down at his meal, then looked at his brothers “Well, that didn’t go quite as I thought it would…”

 

Adam said nothing but shrugged slightly while Hoss resumed his meal with an enthusiasm both his brothers singularly lacked.

………………

 

There were slight flakes of snow swirling in among the raindrops, and the wind was blowing hard against their backs when Ben, Luke and Roy came upon Riley’s cabin.  Darkness had fallen for they were heading towards the shortest day of the year now and the days were short.   Ben was happy enough to have made it to the cabin as detouring to Luke’s had added miles, and therefore, hours, to their journey.

 

The cabin was empty but Pete had left a note telling them the cabin was theirs for the duration… Ben wondered if the old man had anticipated their return, or whether he left that note for the sake of any wanderer making their way to or from Virginia City.

 

Roy pulled off his boots and tossed them aside “Sure hope it don’t snow, my bunions are playing havoc right now.”

 

Ben said nothing but stacked wood up onto the dead fire while Luke foraged around for some coffee and food.   Roy rubbed his chin with his fingers “I guess he had to get things arranged for his nephew, young Fitz.   Shame about that …”  he sighed “He was a well meaning boy,  but a whole lot sicker than he realised.  That young girl, Charlotte Beckett, she’s a bad one.   She’s going to cause her folk a whole lot of grief before she’s much older.”

 

“Already caused that for some,” Ben muttered and struck a match which he set against some paper and kindling “She didn’t seem to care about the harm she had done.  Just blamed the adults for everything.”

 

Roy rubbed his feet, before pulling off his coat and tossing them over to join his boots “Yeah, I went to see her too.   Blamed everybody but herself.  I guess young ‘uns are like that, ‘cept that she ain’t like most young ‘uns.  I seen a lot like her, and none of ‘em turned out good for anything.”

 

Luke shrugged and concentrated on his food preparation, not that he was much good at cooking but had survived long enough on his own to have some measure of confidence about it.   “Well, she is a kid, and she may well have thought that the adults around there would know what to do if things turned bad.   That’s what kids do, ain’t it?  Rely on adults?  In this case they all fell short of doing what they should have done…   Ezra went off to have a drink, Miss Brandon went off with her boyfriend instead of checking the grounds for waifs and strays…. Can’t put all the blame on the girl.”

 

“I’m not,  Luke.” Ben said quietly and looked at his young companion thoughtfully,  while his mind drifted back to a little girl called Katya Dent who had been very much like Charlotte Beckett all those years back.

 

“If the snow don’t lay we should be able to pick up your boy’s tracks, Ben.”  Roy pulled out the map he had folded up and tucked into a pocket.  He walked over to the table and spread it out before leaning over it to mark out where they were … he pointed to where they had found Reuben “You can see why Candy wants to check out the route across the Ponderosa, it’s as likely for anyone to go across there to Genoa and so forth …”

 

“That’s the route I took,  it’s become a regular roadway across your land, Ben.”

 

Ben nodded and thoughtfully passed a hand across his jaw “Adam and I discussed building a roadway, several in fact, to make travelling easier …. “ he stabbed his finger down at where the supposed junction would be “That’s the road to Monroe,  but it forks off towards Colfax …”

 

“Where do you think of going first, Ben?  That’s if we don’t meet up with Adam and the boys before then?”  Luke watched as Ben’s face fell into the familiar anxious lines that he had seen so often that day, then glanced over at Roy who was staring down at the map with an intensity that only an old sheriff like Roy would have, “At least we don’t need to worry about that track across the Ponderosa is Candy’s posse is going to check on it.”

 

Ben nodded, but still he said nothing.  Roy looked up as though to ask a question but Ben turned away, and returned to the fire as though that was more important than answering a lot of tom fool questions to which he had not answer.  He could recall to mind the sight of Reuben in that bed, the way Olivia held his hand and looked so scared, so worried.   He heaved a deep sigh, one that touched the hearts of his fellow companions, and then placed a log carefully upon the others.

 

Chapter 38

 

The church was obviously built on the spur of the moment, the kind of building someone thought should be built, just in case, but not essential to life so hardly worth bothering about too much.  That was the kind of town Monroe was and Adam had the feeling that once the railway had built its tracks along or through the place the town would die and blow away in the desert storms.

 

The Pastor was a rotound little man who shook Adams hand warmly as though he couldn’t believe that some stray sheep had actually wandered in through his doors for salvation.   As Adam removed his hat and followed the older man into the back room  which was both study and living quarters he wondered just how far gone the spiritual state had spiralled down the ladder of opportunity and progress.  He sat down and when the old man offered him coffee he declined with a smile.   “I wanted to ask you something, sir.”

 

“Yes?”  an eager response and Adam had a vague feeling that he was going to disappoint him by the question he was going to ask.  He glanced around the room “Is this your only place of worship in town?”

 

“It is.”  Pastor Evans nodded “Better than the saloon  and I’m grateful for it, as are my parishioners.  I get at least 25 to the service on Sundays you know?”

 

“I – er – No, I didn’t know.” Adam glanced around him again, he twitched his shoulders and frowned “Well, the reason I’m here is to ask for your help.”

 

“Anything, ask anything?  What denomination are you?  Catholic?  Baptist?  Perhaps Methodist?”

 

Adam raised a hand to halt the flow of words and shook his head “I am sorry, it isn’t a theological question I was going to ask,  it was about your parishioners…well, to be honest, it may not be …”  he paused, saw the confusion on the old mans face and cleared his throat “My daughter and son went missing a few days ago.   My son has been found and returned safely home, but my daughter …”   he bowed his head and struggled a moment to get the words together “She’s six years old, blonde haired and blue eyed.  She’s possibly been found and brought to someone’s home – maybe here –  and I was just wondering, as you’re the Pastor here – if any of your parishioners may have heard about her, or even found her themselves and taken her to safety.”

 

Pastor Evans frowned and shook his head, he looked down at the ground and concentrated for some moments and then shook his head again “That is quite a sad dilemma.   Just a little girl …what is her name?”

 

“Sofia Cartwright.”

 

“Cartwright?  You’re one of the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa?”

 

“Yes, I am but -”

 

“And you’ve lost your little girl?”  he spoke as though a wealthy man like Adam Cartwright had no more right to lose a child than the poorest man in town, he shook his head “Dear  me, dear me …”

 

“You’ve not noticed anyone in your – parish – who has suddenly got an additional member of the family?  A child you have not seen before?”  he frowned “It is possible she may be ill …  would your doctor … no, of course you don’t have a doctor here in this town I forgot … perhaps someone who cares for this kind of thing may have attended a family with a sick child?”

 

“To be honest Mr Cartwright, there are not that many families in this town, some young couples, plenty of single men and a few girls.   The town is mainly made up of railway workers, come the spring time this town will double in size with the number of men who will ride in to work on the railway.   Doubt if there will be many families though.”

 

“I see,”  Adam rose to his feet and twisted his hat round between his fingers while he looked thoughtfully at the Pastor, “If you hear of anyone, anything at all, would you let me know?”

 

“Yes of course I will, most certainly.”  the old man smiled and followed Adam to the door where he cast an oblique glance at a box with a wide opening in it before offering his hand to be shaken.  Taking the hint Adam placed some money in the box and then left, scratching the back of his neck as he did so.

 

He stood for a moment on the sidewalk watching the few people on the streets.  There was snow drifting about, it hadn’t settled the previous evening but was just lazily swirling down.   He replaced his hat and made his way back to the hotel.

 

As he stepped into the hotel the man who had been seated at the table and spoken to them the previous evening approached him.   Josh Hurley was a handsome looking man, well built and sandy haired, as he came towards Adam his face bore a smile and his eyes were candid and open, he extended his hand “Mr Cartwright, I bin waiting for ya.”

 

Adam looked at the proffered hand and then shook it, for a moment something akin to hope lurched in his heart and after greeting Joshua he waited for the man to speak his mind.

 

“Fact is I got to thinking about how I left you  and your brothers yesterday evening. It weren’t polite, and I’m right sorry about it.”

 

Adam nodded “I guess we were at fault some, Mr Hurley.  We’d travelled some distance in bad weather and our nerves were strung out.”

 

“I can imagine and rightly so.  I’ve two kids of my own back home.  I got to thinking about how I’d feel if anything happened to either of them.   Have you no idea where your little girl could be?”

 

“Not really.  Just a vague hope, a hunch … we’ll just follow it along until it peters out or we find her.”  he frowned and gave a slight shrug “Then we’ll start again in another direction.”

 

“I guess I’d do just about the exact same ….”  Hurley released a deep sigh as though the bottom of his world had just fallen through.  He looked around the hotel foyer and mentioned that Joe and Hoss were absent “Guess they’re looking around huh?”

 

“I reckon.”

 

“I wish you every success, Mr Cartwright.”  he nodded to add emphasis to his words “I’ll do everything I can to help.  What does she look like this little girl of yours ?”

 

Adam described her again and looked at the other man with a rather hopeless feeling welling up in his heart.  Sometimes the impossibility of the task seemed too much,  the importance and everything that hung upon its success weighed too heavy … he nodded as Hurley shook his hand again, promised that he would get his men to keep their ears to the ground, and then watched him leave the hotel.

 

The three brothers met together in the restaurant at noon,  ate a little and discussed what they had done, what if any success they had achieved.   The telling took less time than the eating, there was no news, no one had seen or heard of a lost little girl.

 

“This kind of place, folk would know.”Joe muttered quietly, and shook his head “They’re men who have left their families behind, they have some understanding of how it must be and were willing to do all they could to help.  But when there isn’t anything there isn’t really much they can do, is there?”

 

Adam nodded and emptied his cup of coffee, “We’ll keep trying here until tomorrow and then ride on … what’s the next town?”

 

Hoss shrugged “which direction you want to head ?”

 

“South?”   Adam suggested and glanced at Joe who nodded, it was all one and the same really, they had no idea where to go, it was like clutching at straws drifting down in the waters of a stream, which one was the one to reveal the secret …who knew?

…………….

 

The snow was blowing directly into the faces of the three men, Ben, Roy and Luke huddled further into their coats and lowered their hats.   They had passed the area where Candy would take the posse across the Ponderosa, travelling eastwards, it was also pass where Reuben had been found.   They couldn’t speak as the wind prevented them opening their mouths.

 

The day was closing in on them and the cold was fiercer as a result.   Ben was wondering how Roy was faring up and Roy was thinking much the same about Ben when Luke gave a  yell to draw their attention to an approaching wagon.  The light from the shutter lamp glowed dim but it was still light enough to see the shape of the covered wagon pulled by two mules drawing closer to them.

 

“Tarnation…” the driver hauled on his reins and drew up the mules “Who ’xactly is that thar?  You try robbing me and I’ll blast your heads off, see if I don’t.”

 

Another voice from behind yelled “Who is it, Pa?  You tell ‘em I got a rifle pointing right at ‘em.”

 

Roy  walked his horse forwards and raised a hand “Roy Coffee from Virginia City, Mister.   These here are Ben Cartwright and Luke Dent.”

 

The other man shook his head sending snow from the brim of his hat skittering in all directions “Lan’sakes, what you doin’ hereabouts?”

 

“We could ask the same of you.” Roy replied with a smile in his voice in order not to provoke the traveller who grinned and looped the reins of the mules around the brake of his vehicle in order to clamber down to the ground

 

“I’m  Obadiah Ross, my daughter Millie -” he jerked his thumb in the direction of the wagon.  “I’m heading up to Virginia City, got family there.  Had enough of life hereabouts, thought it was time to try something new. My brother kept on telling me it was a good life where he was, so …” he shrugged and looked at them and then up at the sky “Reckon on night fall anytime now,  best get camped up and a fire going before it gits too wet and cold.”

 

“Where do you hail from, Obadiah?” Luke asked as the other man  began to organise things for a camp

 

“Oh all over I guess.   Been living in Mono County for a while.   They’re talking about the next big bonanza strike there but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.   I was at Sutters Creek when that all happened, had my chance of the big one then … but decided it wasn’t the life for me.”

 

Millie Ross came down from the wagon and pulled her big overcoat closer around her “Lawksamassy, Pa, it’s freezing out here.”

 

“Then stop gawping, girl and get the fire lit up… then we can eat.”   Obadiah blew on his hands “You’re welcome to stop over and join us.  We got plenty enough to share out.”

 

“It always seems warmer when there’s company as well.” Luke smiled and Millie softened and fluttered her eyelashes a little before collecting wood for the fire.

 

Between the five of them the fire was soon roaring, a good high fire that warmed them despite the persistent snow drifting down and the wind at their backs.   The thick beef stew that Millie had prepared in the wagon was cooked over the fire, while they shared whiskey laced coffee and talked nonsense about their lives.

 

It took them half way through the beef stew before Obadiah drew breath and actually asked them why they were travelling on such an unpleasant night.  This gave Ben the opportunity to tell him and Millie about Sofia, and how his sons were out looking for her.

 

“Why are you out looking then?  Ain’t you got enough confidence in them to find her?”  Obediah muttered and narrowed his eyes as though now doubting the veracity of this story

 

“We have,  but the more men on the ground searching the sooner we will get to find her.” Luke said, “She’s my niece, I have to be part of the search to find her or I’ll never be able to look my sister in the face again.”

 

Obediah nodded and looked at Ben and Roy, then shrugged “Well, the needle in a haystack comes to mind.   Easy enough to hide a child in any town if you ask me.”

 

Ben nodded, he remembered times past when he had lost Hoss who had had amnesia and the difficulty that had involved,  and the other times, with Adam and that Kane, Joe … he sighed and shook his head,  but they had been found, dogged determination had won through, that and the faith they had in someone who had guided their way.  He was quite sure that that Someone would do likewise this time, and he stared down at his stew and sighed his prayer but said nothing.

 

Obadiah wiped stew from his whiskers and leaned over to pick up the coffee pot, then paused to look up and over to his guests “What do you know about those towns you’re heading for?”

 

Luke nodded “I was in Colfax a few days back, seemed a decent enough town.”

Obadiah nodded “Yeah, it’s much like most others I guess.  Monroe is a mushroom town,  it’ll expand while they build the railway, if  they ever do.  Not too big but growing,  wal,  you know what them kind of towns are like …not many women there, nor families.”

 

“Not the type of place anyone would take a child?” Ben murmured

 

“Wouldn’t have thought so, a strange child would stand out like a sore thumb.   Colfax..that could be possible. Nice families, you know the kind, decent and law abiding, the backbone of most towns.  Can’t say the same for Bodie. Lots of not very pleasant folk there.”. He glanced over at his daughter who nodded but said nothing

 

“You lived there?” Luke asked as he held out his cup to be refilled with coffee

 

“I lived in all of ’em, from time to time.  An army man moved into Bodie some years back.  He got things organised for a while, but when he died things fell apart.   His wife’s still there …”

 

“I heard.” Luke agreed “I served in his unit as a scout for a while some years back.”

Obadiah grinned “then you’ll know how the Missus likes to be Queen Bee wherever she is”

 

“I know all about Mrs Royale” Luke smiled, “”But do you think she’s capable of taking and keeping someone else’s child?”

 

Obadiah gave that question some thought for a moment then shrugged “I doubt it, not unless there was something in it for her?”

 

“Such as?   Blackmail?” Roy asked as he removed his glasses to remove the snow spots

 

“No, well, perhaps.” Again Obadiah paused as though to think it over then shook his head again “No, can’t think she would.  Sides, where’d she hide a child?”

 

Millie pulled a shawl closer “Pa, we don’t know nothing about her, so don’t go putting ideas into their heads.”

 

Luke smiled “I know someone in Colfax, we’ll head there first.”

 

“Probably the best idea, it isn’t as big as Bodie…”  Obadiah stood up, stretched “Time to sleep.  Goodnight, gentlemen”

 

Chapter 39

 

Snow drifted lazily down the glass of the window of the pink room and for a while Sofia watched it’s slow progress.  She traced several snow flakes with her finger until she became bored and for a while watched the people in the street.   A woman hurried along with a little boy holding her hand, she watched as he slid on the snow, righted himself and then after a few more paces slipped over and fell.  The woman hauled him up and brushed down his clothes before taking his hand and continuing on to her destination.   Sofia followed her with her eyes until she disappeared through the door of a  large clothes store.

 

Katherine came up from behind her and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder, she gave the child an impromptu hug and asked her what she was doing, what was she thinking about which brought a moment’s silence as Sofia thought over her reply.

 

“I was watching the people and a little boy fell over.”

 

“Oh, I hope he wasn’t hurt.”  Katherine sat down on the wide ledge of the window, too big to be called a window cill, pleasant to sit on and watch what was going on outside.

 

For a moment Sofia continued to look out of the window and Katherine reached out and took hold of her hand so that she turned and looked at the woman, before saying how she could remember living in a big house in a big town.  “ We used to play in the park.  Reuben fell over in the snow once and so did Marcy.”

 

Katherine gently squeezed Sofia’s hand in her own while a  kindly but concerned look settled over her face as she smiled up at the child “Is this one of your dreams, dear?”

 

“No,  I didn’t dream it, it’s real.”  Sofia answered with a slight frown  and a petulant pout of her lips, “Reuben didn’t like Uncle Booth …  and Aunty Morgan was nasty, she didn’t like Mommy.”

 

“I think it was a dream, Alice.   Perhaps the medicine you have been given is making them too real.   Perhaps you’ve read about these people in a book  and they’ve stuck in your mind.”

 

Sofia shook her head, she thought of Olivia and exclaimed   “My mommy’s really pretty.”

 

“Yes, she is… she was always the prettier one of the two of us.” Katherine put a hand around the childs waist and drew her closer,  “Come and sit here beside me.”  without hesitation Sofia did as she was asked and sat by Katherine, so close in fact that she was leaning against her with her head resting upon the woman’s shoulder, “Do you like it here?”

 

“Yes,  it’s a nice house.  I like this room.”  Sofia replied honestly,  “But my room back home is bigger, and the windows let me see the mountains, and there is a river …”

 

Katherine shook her head, that concerned anxious furrow appeared once again upon  her brow and she put a finger to the child’s lips “I think you are dreaming still,  that sickness hasn’t gone yet.   Perhaps you’ve got up too soon and are weaker than I realised.  Oh dear, Alice,  I wish you could remember Emily and James, your mother and father.  They would be in despair if they thought you had forgotten them.  Don’t you remember the baby?  Your little brother?”

 

“Ye – e – es” Sofia nodded but she wasn’t sure now which baby she should be remembering, was it Nathaniel or was it Abel?   She didn’t like it when she couldn’t remember, when what she knew so clearly suddenly became muddled up with other names of people she could not recall at all.

 

“And do you remember why we had to bring you here?”

 

“Mother was ill.   Grandmother said I should come back with  you both because I was going to come back anyway in the summer time.”  Sofia spoke slowly, saying the words as though she had learned them from a book,  words she was couched to say, but still she couldn’t see faces, couldn’t remember this Emily and James.  “My Grandmother …   is her name Abigail?”

 

Katherine shook her head, it occurred to her that this was becoming more and more difficult each day;  as the child’s memory returned there were a mountain of facts, people, faces and names she had to climb over and eradicate.   She dropped a kiss upon Sofia’s brow “Let’s play, what would you like to do now?”

 

“Oh the doll’s house … “  Sofia clapped her hands, she loved this doll’s house,  and ran over to where it stood.

 

A rustle of silks as Katherine settled down beside her, the full skirts of her gown crumpled around her feet and gathered about her knees,  and slowly she took the people out of the little house and placed them on the floor  “Here’s Papa,  his name is James … and here is Momma, and her name is …”  she looked at Sofia who stared at the little figure blankly “What is Momma’s name, Alice?”

 

Sofia blinked, the little wooden figure had an angry face,  not the smiling features of her own Momma, and it had black hair too “Emily.” she replied and nodded “Her name is Emily.”

…………….

 

Reuben stood at the window and watched as the snow slipped down the glass,  he could see it mantling the roof of the stables and coating the ground.  Mary Ann was driving her buggy into the yard, glanced up to the boy then waved and smiled.  Reuben raised a hand before he turned to wards Olivia “Aunty Mary Ann is here.”

 

Olivia left her seat and with Nathaniel in her arms joined her son at the window where they both looked down to watch as Mary Ann clambered down and first lifted Daniel down, and then reached inside the buggy for little Charlotte.   “Ma, when is Pa coming home?”

 

“I don’t know,  Reuben.”  she clenched her teeth together, sometimes questions like that from her little boy brought too many emotions to the surface and she wanted to weep from frustration and worry.   It seemed as though her heart was being wrung so tightly that there was hardly any possibility to breathe.  Each day that passed started with hope, and as the day wore on that hope just would somehow, drift away.

 

“Ma, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I didn’t bring Sofee back home.  I did try, truly I did.”

 

Nathaniel looked at his big brother and saw the sad face, the tears welling up in the boys eyes, he didn’t like seeing tears for he knew that meant the boy was unhappy.  He reached out his arms and wiggled his fingers for Reuben to give him attention, it was as though he wanted to say Look, come and play, come and be happy with me.

 

“I know you tried, Reuben.  I know,  we all know how hard you tried to come home.”  she touched his face, gently, and dropped a kiss on his brow.  “Your Pa promised to bring her home, and he will.   Even if it takes a very long time,  so we have to be patient and believe in him.   Granpa and your uncles are helping as well.  It won’t be long before they are all home.”

 

“With Sofia?”

 

Nathaniel clapped his hands “So-fee     So-fee”

 

“Yes, he’ll bring her home.  It’s different from when he was away at sea, when we never knew where he was or what kind of dangers he was encountering.   And he didn’t have your uncles and Granpa with him either, did he?”

 

Reuben reached out and took her hand, holding it tightly within his own, “Ma, you aren’t angry with me, are you?”

 

Her heart missed a beat, several in fact, as she looked at the earnest little face looking up at her.  He was just a little boy,  one forgot that so easily at times.  He had that same earnest look about him that Robert would get at times, she could remember so well how her first husband would get that same tight look in his eyes, the same pinched mouth.  She hugged him closer and Nathaniel, nearly tipped out of her arms, wiggled and clung to her in order not to fall.   “Oh-oh” he cried in such a comic manner that Reuben relaxed, stepped back and regarded him with a grin which Nathaniel responded to with a grin of his own.

 

“Ma, I did kill a rabbit.”

 

“I know.”  she took his hand and led him over to the fire, the bedroom was large and comfortable but needed the warmth of the fire, a luxury she knew some couldn’t afford.   “It was a clue that helped us locate you…or rather one of them that Candy and Roy found.  You did so well, Reuben.”

 

She wanted to ask him so many questions, but the little they had found out came one by one,  dropped into conversation just as he remembered them.  Paul had been the previous day and commented on his progress as being very good, a testament to love and good care but that emotionally, mentally, they still had to be very careful how they talked about Sofia and what happened.

 

“Did you know they squeal?  I didn’t tell Sofia because she would have been upset.  I didn’t know they squealed like that but Uncle Hoss didn’t tell me.”

 

“Sometimes we have to learn the hard way, by our own experiences.”

 

“I used my boot laces.”  he sighed and shook his head as he remembered the time it took to get them fixed into a good little noose

 

“That’s why your boots kept falling off I suppose…” she smiled and decided now to put Nathaniel down on the floor rather than have him wriggling around on her lap.

 

“Yes, they kept falling off.  I forgot about that …”  he frowned,  there were other things he had forgotten but they were behind a black door,  curtained off in his mind. “Ma, why didn’t they find Sofia?”

 

“They will find her, darling … they will ….”

…………………

 

Colfax was indeed a good sized town, and as the three horsemen rode down its main street Ben was reminded of so many towns like it.   They seemed to fit a pattern which never deviated,  and in some ways it was like being caught on a treadmill, going round and round and seeing the same things over and over again, until in the end one never would have known where one was except for the sign that told a person upon entry.

 

The snow was thicker here, they had climbed higher as they followed the tracks to the town,  the snow had even obscured the sign that welcomed them to Colfax built in 1867.  Luke glanced over at his companions and knew that they were cold, hungry and weary.  He knew that because he was, and being that he was a good few decades younger he dreaded to think how much worse they were feeling.

 

“Hotel first?”  he said and indicated the grand edifice ahead of them “And something hot to eat.”

 

Ben and Roy were so stiff they couldn’t even nod agreement, just steered their horses to the livery stable and dismounted.   Roy had removed his spectacles the previous day,  the snow had covered them so often  as to make it impossible to see out of them.  At least he could see better without them, even if everything was hazy.  It was hard to unbuckle the straps and harnesses, their fingers were so stiff, and both men were puffing a bit as they slung their saddles over the bars of the stalls.

 

“How long for?” the livery keeper asked and they looked at one another and shrugged “I’ll charge you for a week.   If you leave sooner I’ll give you refund.”

 

“That’s fine by us.” Luke muttered,  and pulled out his note book in order to put down the money

 

“Come far?”  was the next question and Luke replied that they were from Virginia City, to which the other man nodded “Thought I recognised this horse.  You were here a week or so back, weren’t you?”

 

“I was…” Luke nodded and smiled “You’ve a good memory for faces, mister.”

 

“For horses and brands.”  came the reply as he led Cinnamon into a stall and looked at the brand “Ah,  this is a new one… a  pine tree.”

 

“A ponderosa pine.   I’m Ben Cartwright, from the Ponderosa.”  Ben offered his hand which the livery shook and  muttered “Chet Worsop”

 

“So you’ve not seen any other horses with this brand recently?” Ben asked tucking his gloved hands beneath his arm pits in the hope of thawing out his fingers enough to get some feeling back into them.

 

“Nope, but I ain’t the only stables here in town.  Just the closest to the hotel”

 

“So you wouldn’t know if there were any others from the Ponderosa here?  I was hoping my three sons would be …” Ben sighed and shrugged “Guess not, huh?”

 

Chet took Roys horse now and led it into a stall, unfastened a hay bag and put it on a hook for it to reach “Nope, but as I said there are others in town.  We got several hotels too,  if they did get here, they could be in any one of them.”

 

Luke ran a hand across his jaw, a few days growth of stubble rough to his fingers reminded him of how good it would be to have a bath, a shave… a comfortable bed.  He patted the rump of his horse as it lumbered into the stall provided “Is Jack Hills still in town?”

 

“Just about,” came the laconic reply “He came into some money from selling some land and near drunk himself to death.   The doc thought for sure he was a goner but seems nothing will kill him off.  He’s still in the surgery being took care of …”  Chet grinned and winked

 

“What about Shaun Hunnicutt, is he still in town?”

 

Chet shrugged “Could be, ain’t no telling with Shaun,  he just ups and disappears for months at a time.   He was a scout in the army some years back you know.”

 

“Yeah, I know, I scouted with him.”  Luke turned to follow Roy and Ben from the stables and once standing on the sidewalk realised just how warm it had been inside from the shelter of the wind.

 

Heads bowed the three men braced themselves to reach the hotel into which they practically fell as the doors were opened and they were embraced into its warmth.  The bright colours quite dazzled their eyes for a while as they blinked like owls and shook snow from their clothes.

 

It was a good quality hotel,  there was no doubt about that and tantalizing smells came from the restaurant that adjoined the foyer.   The clerk came and pushed the register towards them “Three singles?”  he suggested in a tone of some disdain

 

“With a bathroom?” Ben asked and was promptly handed a key,  he blew on his fingers for a moment before writing down his name

 

“Ben Cartwright from the Ponderosa?” the clerk read it out and looked at Ben with more respect that he had earlier “Hey, I know a Hoss Cartwright, and Little Joe Cartwright.  You their Pa?”

 

“I am.” Ben said proudly

 

“Sure am mighty glad to meet you at last, sir.  I rode on a cattle drive to Tucson with your sons some years back.  Saved my life when I got unhorsed by a mad old mother cow …  broke my leg though.  How’re they getting along?”

 

“Very well, thank you. This is Roy Coffee …”

 

“I know, Sheriff Coffee, I met you once or twice as well, though doubt if you would recall me… Timothy Sutcliffe.”

 

Roy mumbled that he didn’t know and be danged if he didn’t get the keys to his room soon he’d die from exhaustion right there and then in the foyer.  Luke was then introduced and after that (thankfully he had never met Luke before in his life) keys were passed over and the three men made their ways to their rooms.

 

Outside the wind blew harder and snow hit the windows with greater ferocity, or so it seemed, than moments earlier.    Luke wondered if they would be leaving Colfax by the end of the week or forced to stay longer while Ben worried about his sons and where they could be… Roy just thought he was caught up in a nightmare and wished he were back home.

…………………………..

 

Ann Canaday had just put Samuel down for his sleep when the door opened and her husband stepped inside, put a finger to his lips and tiptoed over to the crib.  He had reached home earlier and been only too glad to remove his outer clothing, pull off his boots and make his way on stockinged feet to where he knew Ann would  be.

 

“Candy, thank goodness you’re home, I thought  – I was so worried -” she seized hold of his hands and then pulled him towards her to hug him close “Its bitter out there now.   Did you – did you find her?”

 

He shook his head, dragged a hand over his face, over the growth of beard and turned away from her “No,  not a sign of her.  I couldn’t keep the men away any longer, it was quite a ride, and the weather being as it is, they just wanted to get home to their own families.  We couldn’t see clearly anyway with the snows coming down so heavy at times.”

 

“Do you think Ben was right then?   That someone came and took her?”  she slipped her arm through his and together they left the sleeping baby and took the stairs to descend to the bigger room.

 

“I hope so, Ann, because if she wandered off, well, we won’t know until we find her remains in the thaw.   If someone has taken her,  then I can only pray to God that they are keeping her warm and safe.   It goes some way to mitigating what they have done.”

 

“They may be intending to bring her home once the weather clears, Candy.”

 

He didn’t reply to that,  somehow he felt that was not the case,  there had been opportunity enough for them to have ridden along to the ranch house, there were three houses after all, anyone of them would have been more than happy ..oh yes, more than happy to have had them bring the girl home.   He stared at the fire, he was exhausted,  as the cold chills left his body he felt wearier than ever “The men did good,  they wanted to stay for as long as it was possible but …” he shook his head, there was only so much one could ask of a body, especially when one and all of them felt that their journey was a waste of everyone’s time.

……………

 

Sofia lay in her bed and listened to the wind in the chimney.  As she closed her eyes she knew that in her ‘other’ house she could have ran into her brother’s bedroom and snuggled in beside him.  They would have whispered and giggled for a little while, before falling asleep.

 

But was that all part of the dream?  Was it some story she had read and that had seemed so real that she liked it enough to create a world all of her own?   She had to remember …  had to remember …

 

Chapter 40

 

It was -0* but the snow had ceased falling and the wind had dropped.  The three horsemen walked their horses through the snow  which blanketed the animals as liberally as it coated each one of them.  They didn’t speak, they were too cold and numb to utter a word.  Their fingers felt as though frozen around the reins despite the number of times they removed the gloves to blow upon them or rub them together to keep the blood flow moving before pulling the gloves back on.

 

Adam was more than grateful that the snow and wind were not aggravating the matter more than it had done already.  At least there was no wind chill to take into consideration that would cause the temperatures to plummet even lower than they already were.   He knew that exhaustion was taking its toll, his head was spinning as though he were drunk, he struggled to think coherently and forced himself to recite poetry as best he could, he didn’t dare to think about Sofia, or his wife and children back home.

 

Every so often he would glance sideways to the right where Hoss was riding onwards with bowed head, his breath pluming out into the cold air from beneath his hat.  His brother resembled an ice covered bear with the snow clinging as it did to his old brown coat.  The grip on the reins indicated Hoss’ determination to keep going and even though he didn’t look up or across to Adam , his brother was more than aware that Hoss knew his concerns for him.

 

Hoss just kept his head down,  he relied on his horse to follow Adams and he knew the animal well enough to trust it to obey the least twitch of the reins, although he couldn’t rightly recall when he last ‘twitched’ as his hands were so cold they ached.  He sighed deeply sending another plume of warm breath to cloud out into the cold air around him.    He wondered how Hester was,  whether or not Pa had stayed home and was safe and warm.   The thought of his father being out in this weather gave Hoss palpitations.

 

Joe was the same, riding alongside Adams left, his thoughts constantly see=sawed between concerns for his wife and children, and for his father.   Whenever Joe thought they were on a fool’s errand he felt such guilt well over him that he could have wept from frustration.   He had wanted to say several times that the wise course of action was to return home,  then the weather got really bad and it was pointless to say that because the difficulties of returning were as great as continuing onwards.

 

He tormented himself daily with doubts and miseries.  His main fear, one he didn’t express to his brother, was that Sofia was already dead, buried somewhere under the snow, or perhaps, frozen in the river.   He had thought how one day in the spring during the thaw, someone would find her, and bring her home.  Then he remembered his own daughter, would he have been satisfied by being given that information by one of his brothers?  No, he knew he would have gone at them fists flying, because while he had breath in his body he would have kept searching for his little girl no matter what.   And he knew that was what Adam was doing …

 

He was about to speak when Adam stopped his horse and raised a gloved hand.  Both his brothers followed the direction Adams hand pointed to and felt a surge of relief at seeing what was ahead of them.   Some homesteader so far from Monroe and in the middle of where exactly?   Snow surrounded the building, piled up to the cills in the last storm.   More importantly smoke drifted skywards into the blue sky.

 

Hoss could have yelled a whoop had his mouth not been so frozen stiff, and Joe just bowed his head and muttered a ’thank you’ while Adam merely nudged his horse to move on,  to wade through the snow towards this haven.

 

They had been aware that they were climbing upwards, the elevation was indicated by the colder and thinner air, and the going had been more difficult too.   There had been a track at one time leading who knew where , but none of them were too sure as to whether or not they were still following it.  Nor were they sure as to where it led to, apart from taking them from Monroe what lay ahead … who knew?

 

Once Joe had stopped and shouted over to Adam “Don’t you think we should find out where we are?”

 

His brother had only replied “Who are you going to ask?”

 

He was right, there was no one to ask.   They had been given general directions by Hurley and taken his word for it, and now … no one,  no human being on horseback, in a wagon,  or even struggling along on snow shoes.   No sign of human habitation either until now… thankfully.

 

Adam had paused to check his compass once but Hoss had thought he had stopped for some other reason and went up to him, reached out to wards him and Adam had tilted sideways out of the saddle which prompted Hoss to think his brother had fallen asleep .   He  had muttered something about his leg and the cold,  and snapped the compass shut before urging the horse on again.

 

Now here they were heading for the house of someone whom, Hoss hoped, would provide a good meal and even a bed for the night.  Joe was thinking much the same, so much so that his mouth was watering at the thought of something hot to eat.

 

They dismounted stiffly, and equally as stiffly walked to the door which opened before they had reached it.   A tall dark man stood in the opening with a rifle in the crook of his arm, the fact that he was in shirt and pants only indicated the warmth within the building,  but the way his eyes glinted didn’t show much warmth coming from him.   He looked from one to the other “Saw you coming some distance away.   What do you want?”

 

It was Hoss who answered, somewhat surprised at the man’s tone of voice, after all no one would  be turned away from the Ponderosa in such conditions “I’m Hoss Cartwright, my brothers … Adam and Joe.  We’ve been riding some distance, mister, sure would be grateful if you could provide something warm or a hour or two to thaw out by  your fire.”

 

There was the sound of laughter from inside the house, children’s laughter, high pitched and happy, it smote each man’s heart standing there as they were reminded of their own.   A woman came to the door and put a hand upon her man’s arm, she smiled up at him and nodded upon which he stepped aside and gruffly, with a jerk of the head, told them to step inside.

 

“Our horses …” Joe muttered but the man shrugged and once they were inside the building he was pulling on boots and a coat before going outside to attend to the beasts.

 

The woman smiled and the two children crowded close around her skirts to look at the visitors “Well, don’t just stand there, best take those coats off and come closer to the fire.   Coffee’s already brewing,  as soon as Cole saw you coming  we expected you here.”

 

Coats, hats and everything else besides was cast onto the floor where the snow melted away to form puddles which a dog lapped at for a while before sloping back to where it had come from under the stairs.   “So, you’re the Cartwrights…from the Ponderosa?”

 

“That’s right, ma’am” Hoss nodded and cradled his hands around the mug, inhaling the hot brew gratefully while his body shivered as the warmth travelled through his flesh and into his bones.

 

Adam and Joe were experiencing the same,  numbed fingers coming back to life could be painful and wet clothing had a tendency to steam as they dried out by the fire that was roaring up the chimney.   Joe grimaced “Sorry about this …” he mumbled as his mouth began to thaw and his words came out reasonably clearly

 

“You’ve travelled some distance to have come this far, and in this weather.”  she turned to stir some food in a large pot on the stove, “My name’s  Henrietta,  my husband calls me Hetty.   He’s Cole and …” she beckoned the children over “Our twins, Andy and Cassie.”

 

The children came, smiled and then ran back to their play.  Handsome children, boy and girl, both looking so alike that had they swopped clothes no one would have known which was the boy or which the girll

 

The door opened and Cole stepped inside the room bringing cold air along with him, he pulled off his coat and boots and joined them around the fire “Your horses are tired, they’ll be alright now … the stables warm and dry.”

 

“You’re a long way from Monroe, arn’t you?”   Joe observed glancing from one to the other of them “It must be pretty isolated for you here.”

 

Cole grinned “No more so than it must have been for you when your Pa chose to build where he is ….”  he leaned forward and poured more coffee into his mug “I remember passing through this territory when I was a kid, with my own folk.  They didn’t want to settle at Eagle Station so drove on, it was sparse thereabouts,  not many folk living  there not like now.   We stayed over at your place, there was a woman there then, pretty girl she was …”

 

“That must have been my mother.” Joe said quietly, his brow then crinkled “How come you remembered that?”

 

“I often thought of her, she didn’t fit in somehow, too pretty, too elegant.  But you were there despite the loneliness of the place … and you’re still there now.  Hey,  you need some blankets.  Hetty, go get some dry blankets for these men.  Don’t want them gitting new-mone- ia”

 

Joe nodded as did Hoss, “You must have passed through some time ago, Mister.  My Ma died when I was five … hasn’t been a woman there until we got wives of our own.”

 

“Well, as I said, I was a kid at the time.” Cole nodded to his wife who was passing them warm blankets to wrap around themselves,  “Best take off them thar pants and boots as well.  Hetty, how much longer before that foods ready?”

 

His wife assured him that there was enough food for everyone and it wouldn’t be long before being served “Andy.  Cassie.  Come along,  set out the table now.  Remember your manners, and don’t forget to set out for three extra.”

 

The children did as told with a great deal of clatter and giggling,  and by the time they had finished, the cups had been emptied Hetty said she was going to serve up.   The four men removed themselves to the big table where the children watched them with big eyes and equally big grins on their faces.  Cole watched them for some moments as they ate the food, broke the bread and gulped down hot coffee, then he nodded over at Adam “I remember you, you were the quiet one even then … “

 

Adam frowned, looked over at the other man “You have a very good memory for something that happened so long ago, Mister -?”

 

“Cameron.   But just call me Cole.”  he grinned and nodded “Well, I have a good memory of what happened because it stayed in our minds for a long time as we travelled through that territory.  Ma couldn’t get over that such a lady would live in so isolated a place and it did her a whole lot of good.  See,  she’d been bitter at leaving her home behind and things weren’t so good between her and Pa, but after seeing your Ma and how kind she was giving us something to eat, and decent clothes for me and my brother…she just couldn’t get over it, and it changed her, for the better.  She never complained one single jot after meeting your ma.”

 

Hoss grinned over at Joe, who bowed his head, heaved a sigh and caught a whiff of memory to cherish for the moment.   Cole was a talker,  when Hoss was being served another helping Cole was still only  half way through his first plateful, as he told them about how he set his heart on having a place of his own, just like the Ponderosa.  “It became like my goal,  my focus in life.   I nearly had it too,  when we were in Kansas.  But then the war came and I couldn’t settle on the land that  had been a battlefield, all those dead and dying, all the blood  on that land…so sold up and came here.”

 

“Been here ever since.” Hetty smiled fondly over at her husband who smiled affectionately back at her.

 

Cole looked again at Adam with something like a frown on his face “You’re the one they call the Captain , ain’t’cha?  Read a whole lot about you in the news tabloids.”

 

“Oh, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.” Adam muttered and shrugged slightly, “I’ve retired, I’m just Mr Cartwright now.”

 

Cole nodded as though that would satisfy him for the time being,  he poured out more coffee then looked again at the three brothers “You know where exactly you are?”

 

“According to the compass we’re close to the border with California.” Adam replied “we left Monroe over a day ago,  wondering which town we would hit upon next.”

 

“Wal,  you’ll have to go back on yourself some distance to get on the main track.  You’ve been on  my land for most of the afternoon.” Cole grinned, “Bodie will be the next town if you keep a straight course.  You’ll  be moving up higher too …  it won’t be getting any warmer up there.”

 

“How far is it?” Hoss asked now as he pushed aside the empty plate and smiled his thanks to Hetty.

 

“In this weather … another 36 hours at least.   So -”  he leaned forwards, elbows on table and eyes narrowed “What brings you this far from the Ponderosa, especially with all this here snow?“

 

“We’re looking for someone.” Joe said quietly and glanced sideways on to his brother who was chewing some bread as though it would take a month of Sundays to swallow

 

“Who exactly?   I need to know so’s I can keep my place safe…if there’s any person out there …”

 

Adam raised a hand and shook his head “No,  it’s no one like that, we’re looking for my daughter.”

 

Hetty sighed and her shoulders slumped, as a mother she felt the weight of sorrow for another mother who was missing her child, she shook her head “Did she run away?”

 

“No, ma’am, she didn’t, she’s only six years old …” Adam  gulped, his throat was dry and he needed to drink the coffee again after which he was able to tell what little they knew,  and afterwards a profound silence settled upon them.

 

It was broken by Hoss who said he would check the horses, there was a lot of travelling still to do and he wanted to make sure they were up to the task.  Cole  nodded and watched him as he left the table and pulled on his clothes, then his coat, boots and hat.   Snow blew into the room as the door opened and the smoke from the fire billowed like a dark cloud across the hearth.

 

“So, you reckon someone stole her?”  Cole said quietly and then looked at his children “Alright you two, get yourselves off and play awhile.  Off you go now….”

 

Hetty busied herself by clearing away the plates and then preparing more coffee, outside it had become dark as snow covered the glass windows.   Joe knew that there was no way they were going to leave the Camerons any time soon.

 

“No, I don’t think anyone stole her.” Adam said evenly and glanced over at Hetty, who was standing by the stove with her hands clasped as though she were in pain, “I think someone found her and with this weather brewing decided it was better to take her to their home.  I believe she’s well, and safe,  but my wife and I …  we need to be sure of that, and bring her home.”

 

Cole  shrugged, shook his head “I reckon you’re being mighty magnam .. Er…mighty kindly towards them.   Would have done them no harm to have brought her back even if only to Virginia City.”

 

Joe  shook his head “We don’t know nothing for sure, Cole.   The signs we saw and what our friends mentioned,  would indicate that they may not have been able to take her home. Perhaps Virginia City was just that bit too far, or they feared the weather turning.  We don’t know, until we do, we don’t feel we can judge.”

 

Hetty nodded “You’re right of course, that’s the best way of looking at the whole matter.  Of course she’s safe and warm, no one would want to hurt a little girl.”

 

Cole  sighed and leaned back in his chair, he shook his head “Could be all manner of things happen, best to dwell on the more positive I suppose.  If it were my girl, I’d tear a town apart to get to her again.   Even in weather like this …”

 

On cue the door opened and Hoss stepped inside mantled with snow, he shook his body so that it cascaded outside and then came further into the room “Sorry, mam’, making a mess an’all.   Snowing fit to bust out thar now.”

 

“What about the horses?” Adam asked and Hoss nodded “They’re alright, no harm done to any of them.  Eating their heads off though.”  he looked apologetically at Cole, “We’ll pay for the feed, Mr … Cole.”

 

“Don’t worry about that,” Cole waved the offer to one side, then his face creased into one of his familiar warm smiles “Your hospitality that time saved our lives, we were really on our uppers when we hit  your place.   Least we can do is repay what I owe you back then.”

 

Hetty came with the fresh coffee “You’ll have to sleep over, you can’t possibly think of riding out there in this.”

 

All three brothers murmured their appreciation and watched as the coffee was poured, hot and steaming into their mugs, Joe, from being so cold was now really warm and as a result his eyes were closing, he was finding it a struggle to stay awake.  The hum of voices slowly faded around him and within minutes his head was cradled in his arms upon the table.

 

Cole sipped his coffee “Bodie’s a big town,  and not exactly law abding if you know what I mean. Just about every no good that gets to know it exists drifts there eventually.  You’ll have to take care how you go about looking for your little girl.”

 

“Don’t they have a sheriff?   Any one trying to keep order?” Adam asked and Cole grinned, shrugged

 

“An army man, by the name of Royale, he tried and for some years it worked.  He was quite a disciplinarian they say,  ran the town like an army fort.   His wife and daughter live there now.   Well respected too,  no one would do any harm to them,  they’re good folk.”  Cole nodded and looked over at Adam “May be best if you went to them and asked for some help.  If your  little girl is in Bodie, then they’ll help you find her.”

 

Chapter 41

 

Reubens sleep was restless and disturbed by nightmares from which he would wake calling for his Pa and Ma. Olivia slept on a truckle bed in his room and never left his side but even that did little to calm him.  She would hold his hands and smooth him as best she could until he drifted back to sleep.

 

Hester had suggested that Nathaniel slept in the same room as her girls and they,  ignorant and innocent as they were thought it all great fun to have their little cousin in with them.  Hannah treated him as though he were a doll, wrapped him in blankets and carried him about despite his protests while Hope ran around them giggling with mischief. Of course it led to some discipline being meted which created tears from them all, poor Nathaniel cried along with them because he hated to see them upset.

 

Paul had warned Olivia that as memories came back into Reubens mind there would be some nightmares as the mind struggled to make sense of the things he was remembering. Paul was becoming quite a student of the modern medical views about the effect of the mind upon the body.  But being forearmed by his advice helped Olivia to keep calm and not become unnecessarily anxious as she sat beside her little boy hoping that what he would remember would be helpful.

……..

Joe woke up during the night with the terrible realisation that it would be impossible to continue on the journey.   He could only croak hoarsely from a throat as dry as the desert, and his head aching so much his teeth hurt and his eyes felt as though someone was sticking needles in them.   He lay on the makeshift bed Hetty had provided and shivered with fever.

 

Through the window a shaft of silver light gleamed into the room as the moon slid across a cloudless sky and the snow lit up the world around them.  For a moment he stared at it before closing his eyes hoping that the snow would be so deep that even Adam would realise the futility of travelling on.

……..

In Colfax Roy, Ben and Luke snored through the hours in warm comfortable beds.  They had eaten well,  thawed out slowly and agreed that Luke would contact the two men he knew in town and find out what they could tell him. It was just possible, by a miracle, that the matter could be resolved that very next day.

 

Luke had forced both men to promise to remain in their rooms until he returned. His concerns for their well being weighed heavily upon his shoulders and he wished at least twice every hour that they had not made the journey.  Their stubborn refusal to accept that age did bring some limitations caused Luke more headaches than the weather.

Having gained their assurance that they would wait to hear from him they then parted to their rooms and fell gratefully into bed.

…….

At 2 in the morning Adam woke up and rolled out of his blanket.  The fire was dying down and the room colder as a result although the snow outside acted as a perfect insulator from the worst.  He dressed quietly and then built the fire up from the logs piled along one side of the hearth. Prior to going to sleep he and Cole had spent a while checking the maps which the homesteader had kept meticulously up to date by his own notations of any additional detail of new homesteads or towns in the local area.  By using his compass Adam was able to get a fixed bearing for Bodie and felt confident that not even the weather could prevent him reaching the town.

 

At this hour in times past he would have taken a turnabout on deck, talked to members of his crew who were on watch duty and spent a while thinking of those whom he loved back home. It was a habit he found difficult to shake off particularly now.

For a while he watched the logs as the slowly settled upon the red hot embers and ignited into flame.   Having decided in his mind that it was safe to leave as it was he gave his hands a final rubbing and walked very quietly back to where his brothers slept. Joe’s coughing was an immediate indication of a brewing problem and putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder Adam shook him very gently

 

“Joe? Joe?”

 

Joe managed to unglue his eyes to focus on Adam, despite the hour the moon light through the window was sufficiently bright for him to see Adam quite clearly and was able to register the fact that his brother was looking down at him with some concern

 

“What ..what’s wrong?” His voice was a harsh croak, the words ended in a harsh cough.  He screwed up his face “I don’t feel so good.”

 

“You don’t sound it either.”. Adam agreed

 

“I’ll be alright later on.” Joe whispered which caused more coughing.

 

“Go back to sleep, Joe.  We’ll see how you are in the morning.”

 

Even as he said the words Adam knew there was no way that Joe would be well enough to leave the Cameron’s home.  He remained beside Joe until sure of his brothers  return to sleep and then rose to his feet, and walked to where Hoss was snoring.   A moments observation assured him that his brother was in rude good health so he left him where he was before opening the door and stepping out side.

 

In the glow of the moonlight it all looked beautiful. The snow glistened, undulated over lumps and bumps in the ground, covered the trees thickly like thick blankets.   He appreciated its beauty but the cold was intense and he quickly closed the door again and returned to the fire s warmth.

..……..

Reuben rubbed his eyes and smiled at the sight of  his mother looking down at him. “Hello sleepy head, how are you feeling today?” she whispered as she leaned forward to kiss him

 

“I remembered something, mom.  I remembered why I couldn’t bring Sofia home.”

He put his arms around her neck and held her closely to him “oh mom,I needed to go, mom, you know?  And I went to some rocks.   I was behind them and heard voices and there was a man and a lady by the fire … The man picked Sofia  up in his arms like this…. And the lady said something like poor thing.  I ran out then and shouted but they  kept on walking and then I fell down …”

 

She enfolded him in her arms closer now, kissed the top of his head “you did well, son.” She whispered, “Well done, I’m so proud of you.”

 

Reuben couldn’t speak another word, but buried his face into her shoulder while the circle of her arms assured him that he had indeed ‘done well’.

 

She held him close to her until he finally fell back to sleep, upon which she placed him back into the bed and covered him over.  For a while she watched over him and feeling it safe to leave him quietly left the room.

 

Hester and Hop Sing were in the kitchen preparing the morning meal and glanced up as she entered, the look on her face must have registered with them that something had happened so they both stopped in their work and waited for her to speak…after clearing her throat she said quietly “Reuben’s remembered something,  something important.”  taking a deep breath she continued “A man and woman came and found Sofia, they picked her up and carried her away with them.”

 

Hearing herself say the words brought home the reality of what had taken place, the look on Hester and Hop Sings faces reflected how she had felt when hearing it for the first time and then Hester said  “Didn’t Reuben call out, didn’t he try to stop them?”

 

“He tried …but he fell, that was when he hit his head on the rocks.”  she looked at them,  helpless, forlorn, lost.   Then with a sob she said “His boots … he had no boot laces ..they kept coming  off.”

 

Now she wept, hard and bitterly as she imagined her little boy trying to stop the couple from taking his sister,  slipping in his boots, falling and hurting himself while Sofia was being driven away to who knew where?  Hester hurried to put her arms around her and started crying as well, while all the time rubbing her back and saying in a rather wobbly voice  “There, there,  it’s alright, Adam will find her, he will, he’ll bring her back home.”

………………………….

 

In the Camerons home Hoss woke to the sound of food being prepared and coffee brewing. He sniffed and smiled, nodded his head, his stomach rumbled with the anticipation of food and after stretching and saying to no one in particular “Good morning”  he rolled out of his blanket.

 

Hetty looked and smiled over at him “Good morning, Hoss.   Hungry?”

 

“As a bear…” and when the two children giggled at that he growled and raised his arms and pretended to be a hungry bear chasing them around the table so that they squealed and laughed at this big man with the tousled hair and cheery red face.

 

“That’s enough now, calm down before there’s an accident.” Hetty scolded. “Cassie, set the table, Andy, get the bread.”

 

The door opened as she was speaking and Cole came indoors with his arms loaded up with logs.  Hoss frowned and shook his head “Hey, Cole, you bin up already?  Why’d you leave me sleeping fer so long?”

 

Cole glanced at his wife who shook her head to indicate that she had said nothing, so he unloaded the logs and then glanced over at where Joe was sleeping in the corner of the room “Your brothers ill.”

 

“Wh-a-a-t?”  Alarm immediately hit Hoss, and he looked from Cole to Hetty, and then around the room “Where’s Adam?”

 

Cole cleared his throat and then walked to the dresser where he picked up a piece of paper and handed it to the big man who took it doubtfully, as though it might blow up in his face or burst into flames.

 

It might as well have done for the shock it gave him… he had to re-read it twice before it made any sense to him, then he looked up at Cole “Did you see him leave?”

 

“He left about 3 o’clock this morning.   Ordered me not to say a word to you until he was well clear of the place.  I reckoned…”

 

“Wait a while thar,” Hoss put up a hand “You mean, you spoke to him?  You didn’t wake me up?  He left without speaking to me about it?”

 

“Hoss,  he told me not to,  you’ve read what he wrote to you both?  Sides which, your younger brother needs you here.   We’ll do all we can to help him get better but he needs you more’n a couple of strangers.”

 

Hoss sunk down upon a chair and stared again at the letter, shook his head in disbelief “He went on without us.”

 

His voice was a whisper,  after staring again at the paper, and then looking over at Joe who was coughing and retching  he got to his feet and walked to the door,  pulled it open and stared at the vast expanse of whiteness that spread out before him.

 

There was no sign of foot prints bar Cole’s from collecting the wood,  no sign of horse prints,  everything already covered by the snow.  He looked up at the sky,  it was blue, a pale wintry sun beamed down and there was no sign for any new snow fall.  He bowed his head and looked again at the paper in his hand, closed his eyes and struggled to get something said … a request for help, to protect the lone traveller now.

 

He turned back and closed the door, then went to where Joe lay and pulled the blanket higher over the younger mans shoulders “You alright, Joe?”

 

“No,  I feel ….feel real bad, Hoss.”

 

“Reckon you got a fever.”

 

“Sure … guess ….so.”  a harsh bout of coughing seized Joe and he sat up, clung to Hoss’ shirt “I saw ….saw …Adam ….   Did he … come …back?”

 

“Back?  You saw him go?”

 

“Go?  Go where?”

 

“To find Sofia?  Where else would he go?”  Hoss growled and pushed the note into Joe’s hand, but there was little point in doing so as a fresh paroxysm of coughing seized him, leaving him breathless, head hanging and heaving to get his lungs inflated again.

 

Hetty came and put a gentle hand on Hoss’ shoulder “Go and get something to eat, Hoss,  I’ll deal with this for now.”

 

Hoss stepped back and looked at her, nodded even though his head was in a spin with so many different thoughts chasing around and around within it.  He put the note in his pocket and looked over at Cole who shook his head

 

“He was determined to go, Hoss.   Felt guilty at bringing you both on a trip that he feels is his responsibility.”

 

“Yeah, guess he would too,”  Hoss muttered and shook his head “Wish he’d remember we ain’t kids no more, we made the decision ourselves to come with him.  We knew what we were heading into.”

 

“Did you?” Cole sighed and shook his head “Your brother over there didn’t think he’d get ill like this, did he?”

 

Hoss glared at the other man and then realised the intent behind the words, Cole was right, Adam was right, Joe was ill, there was no other way around it.   He shook his head “You’re right, no point in saying more about it.”

 

Cole nodded and poured out steaming hot coffee “Adam said you’d be happy to help with some chores around here, to keep you busy and stop you from fretting you understand?”

 

“Sure, anything … “ Hoss sighed again and looked at the food on his plate, Cassie put some bread down beside him and he gave her one of his wide smiles to which she giggled.  It calmed him down a little, a little girl’s laughter was the best medicine of the day for him

 

Hetty ladled something sweet and syrupy down Joe’s throat and waited for him to fall asleep.  Through the window the sun shone, bright and cheerful, but with no warmth at all.

……………………

 

Adam had reached the main road at last, when he looked back he could see his horse prints going back as far as the eye could see before the last snow shower had covered it over.   Cameron’s land, and he mentally registered it in his mind before turning his horse towards the track that was barely visible above the snow line that which would lead him to Brodie.

 

He checked his compass and the notes he had taken from Cole’s maps, and walked the horse south east and always edging higher.   Cole had warned him that it would feel colder, but there were places to shelter in and that had been noted carefully by him before he had left the building.

 

It had not been an easy decision to leave his brothers behind.   Joe he knew would not want nor be able to leave the comfort of the house, but Hoss … well, he knew that Hoss would be annoyed until he realised the fact that Joe needed him there.  As it was, Adam felt a relief at leaving them behind, he felt freed from the obligation of responsibility for them both on an errand that he believed to be his own  duty.  Sofia was his daughter, and he had promised his wife that he would bring her home.  As he pulled his muffler tighter around his neck and to cover his nose and mouth he remembered the way his wife had looked at him, that conviction on her face, the trust in her eyes.

 

He couldn’t fail her.  He wouldn’t fail her.  He’d find Sofia and he would bring her home.

 

Chapter 42

 

The sidewalks were lethal for walking on, piled with snow that was being blasted by the wind into ice laden mounds that caused the unwary to lose their footing and slip.  The youngsters found it amusing to see people slipping and sliding, but for the older ones they remained behind closed doors,  piling fuel onto their fires and praying for the snows to clear.

 

Colfax provided well for their townsfolk and did what they could to ensure their safety  although Ben was of the opinion that they could do better and do more.  He had slid and skidded about several times to reach the Telegraph Office in order to send a cable to Virginia City to report their progress to the sheriff, and to the family only to have the clerk there inform him that there was no guarantee when the cables would be sent as there was nothing getting through.  “Snow on the lines.”

“Snow on the lines?” Ben expostulated, his dark eyes bulged and the clerk stepped back warily in case this customer was going to prove difficult.

 

“Happens every year when the snows come, especially with this wind.  Takes a while to get them repaired because the engineers can’t get out there too quickly because of the …the snow.”   he frowned and looked less smug, “I’m sorry, Mister, it ain’t my fault, it’s just how it is.”

 

Ben nodded and sighed, “Will you send them as soon as you can though?”

 

“Yes, sir, certainly I shall.”  he paused when Ben passed over a coin, “Can’t take tips, sir.  Some folk may accuse me of taking a bribe.”

 

“Really?”  Ben shrugged and slipped the coin back into his pocket, much to the clerk’s regret after all it was up to the customer to deal with company policy once the rules had been trotted out.

 

Once he was back in his hotel room  Ben walked over to the window and stared out across to the mountains that closed round the town.   He was deep in thought, thinking of Virginia City and how Sun Mountain reared up as a backdrop when one rode into it from the Ponderosa.  When there was a knock on the door his response was an abrupt  “Who is it?”  in answer to which both Roy and Luke stepped inside.

 

“Did you get the cables sent off alright?” Roy asked as he settled into a chair that was positioned close to the bed.

 

“No,  there’s problems with the lines.”  Ben muttered  and returned to look out of the window as though that was more interesting than answering a lot of tom fool questions.

 

“Snow on the lines I expect.” Roy muttered, “Happens every year …”

 

Ben rolled his eyes and shook his head, clasped his hands behind his back and refused to turn round to observe the other two men.  Luke was staring thoughtfully at the fire that was burning in the small hearth, before getting to his feet “Hills died, I found the doctor who was taking care of him.   He had a bad liver condition for years apparently.  The doctor congratulated me on getting that land before Jack died, said it was touch and go for months.”

 

No one said anything to that, silence weighed heavy as Roy continued to stare into the fire and tug his moustache and Ben glared out of the window.  Luke stroked his chin and then scratched the back of his neck “Anyway, I know where Hunicutt is so I’m going to go and have a talk with him,  just in case he has heard anything of interest that could help.”

 

“In which case I’ll come too.” Ben said and turned immediately from surveying the world beyond the glass and strode to where he had left his coat.

 

“Same here…” Roy got to his feet, struggled a bit as he’d stiffened some due to the cold.

 

“I don‘t think so, gentlemen”  Luke put up a restraining hand and shook his head “No, I go alone.”

 

“You will not, young man.  I’m coming with you.” Ben growled

 

“I’d rather you didn’t, Ben. “

 

“And I’d rather I did.” Ben rolled his eyes in disbelief that this whipper snapper would have the effrontery to prevent him doing what he wanted, unheard of, he picked up his coat in order to pull it on when Luke sat down again and folded his arms across his chest.  “What are you doing? I thought you said you knew where this scout of yours was?”

 

“I did, and I do.  But I also said I’m going alone.”  Luke frowned and sighed, looked up at Ben and shook his head “I respect you very much, Ben, but I would prefer it if you would trust me to do this on my own.  Hunnicutt can be a little testy at times and … and it needs a calm head to handle him.”

 

“You saying I’m not calm enough to talk to this fellow?”

 

“I’m saying that I know how to handle him, and you don’t.”

 

“May I remind you that this involves my grand daughter?” Ben straightened his shoulders, “I have every right to ask anyone I choose anything I like in order to find her.”

 

“I agree, but may I remind you, Ben, that Sofia is my niece.  In fact, if I may push the point harder, she is more my niece than she is your grand daughter.”

 

Ben spluttered, veins stood out in his neck and he went slightly purple, Roy got up out of his chair in case Ben needed it to collapse into,  and he gave Luke a dark glare for causing Ben’s acute reaction.  But Luke was resolute and remained where he was, very calm and very determined.

 

Ben threw his coat onto the bed, and growled something beneath his breath, turned on his heel and back to the window where he glared down onto the street his  hands on his hips and shoulders rounded.   His sons would have scurried for cover by this time, but Luke remained calm.

 

Roy cleared his throat, and rubbed his chin “I reckon I’ll  just go and see what they’re serving by way of lunch …”

 

When the door closed behind the old man Ben turned round, “Oh still here then?” he muttered seeing Luke still seated by the fire.

 

“Ben,  try and see it my way…   I can handle Hunnicutt,  if he knows anything he’ll tell me eventually.  But if you go charging in like a bull in a china shop, then whatever he knows he’ll promptly forget.   Just trust me on this, will you?   I need to find Sofia, for my sister’s sake.  I want her to feel that she and the children are important to me as well as to the Cartwrights.”  he paused “They are Dents,  they are my blood line.”

 

“Meaning …”  Ben paused, stopped and stared at Luke as though only now did he realise exactly what the younger man meant.  He saw in Luke a resemblance to Olivia with that same stubborn chin,  the shape of the eyes and clear high brow.  With a release of breath he nodded “I see.   Well, I certainly won’t go charging into your conversation with your old friend like a bull in a china shop as you so tactfully put it.” he shrugged, grimaced and then nodded “Alright Luke, you go ahead.  I’ll go and join Roy in the restaurant and have something to eat.  Be careful…”

 

Luke said nothing to that, as far as he was concerned the most dangerous thing he had to face that day was an enraged Ben Cartwright.  He stood up and shook Ben’s hand “Thank you, Ben.  I appreciate that…”

 

The older man shrugged and without another word left Luke in the room, alone.   As he made his way to the restaurant he fretted over the cables he had sent,  over the fact that it would take time to reach those worrying and anxious back home.   He also worried about not having met his sons,  the possibility that they had headed in an entirely different direction to him gnawed at his nerves and he tried to shake off the fear that something could have happened to them just as easily as it could have to himself, Roy and Luke.

 

Roy was loitering in the foyer and glanced over at Ben, raised his eyebrows “Well?  Peace and accord between  you two is there?”

 

“He made sense,” Ben replied grimly, and then shrugged “I didn’t.”

 

Roy slapped his friend casually on the shoulder “Come on, let’s go and get something to eat, young Luke can grab something when he’s out.”

………………….

 

Annie Sutler kneaded the dough with a determination that always brought about a lovely loaf of bread.  She was smiling to  herself as she did so while she listened to young Phoebe talking, so excited was the girl.  When she finally drew breath Annie said kindly “I hope they’re going to give you something extra in your pay for this, young Phoebe.”

 

“Oh I don’t know.” Phoebe shrugged, “I was just so happy.  Can you imagine it, Annie?”

 

“Are you sure the little girl is up to walking out, Phoebe?  It ain’t been that long ago she was so mighty sick and it is cold out there with all this snow.”

 

“Oh Annie, it isn’t so far to my place.  Stone me, you could have knocked me down with a feather when Mrs Royale asked me to take Alice to visit and play with my little sister.  She said that it was time Alice made new friends while she was here,  that perhaps having Ella to play with would stop her having those nasty nightmares.”

 

“Is she still having them?  Still  talking about being called Sofia and having another family somewhere?”  Annie frowned, her plump features looked much like her dough, her small eyes like two currants in a lovely plump bun.

 

“She hasn’t this morning.  She just looked so sweet sitting there in bed looking at her aunt Katherine.  She does love Miss Katherine you know, you can see that the way she looks at her.  And Miss Katherine had that dress all finished for her, you know.”

 

“Oh, Mrs Simpkins managed to finish it then?”

 

“It’s all pink and such soft material, Annie.  I guess it would have cost me a months wages.”  Phoebe  smiled as her face became dreamy and her eyes went a little misty, “Oh she is a pretty little girl, no mistake.  She just looked so adorable in that new dress.”

 

“Got quite an imagination on her though,  came and sat with me the other day and kept on about a cook she used to call Flannel, used to cook marvellous chocolate cakes. I said to her “Well, don’t I cook chocolate cakes good enough for you, Miss Alice” and she sighed … just like an actress on a stage she was ..”Oh please, remember my name is Sofia, not Alice.”  so I says to her “While you’re in this house, young lady, you’ll be called Alice and nothing else but,  and I thought she was going to cry, bless her heart.  I gave her a cookie and said “Cheer up, it ain;t all bad y’know.” and she seemed to perk up a bit then.”

 

“She was really ill during that journey.  Miss Katherine admitted to me that they should have stayed at her sisters and just waited until the spring but they were worried about Alice, she didn’t take too well having a new baby brother you know.”

 

Annie nodded and slammed her plump fists into the dough “Seen it before, my dear, young children can get very jealous of new ones coming into the family.  It upsets them, and I suppose, when you think about it,  that was quite a long journey they were on.”

 

They paused in their talking when the bell tinkled overhead to summon Phoebe to the drawing room upstairs, they looked at one another, smiled and parted.  Annie put the dough into the loaf tin while Phoebe ran lightly up the stairs to present herself to the mistress of the house.

 

Rosemarie Royale was seated with Sofia by her side, her arm wrapped loosely around the child’s waist.  Phoebe stepped inside and looked at Miss Katherine who was sitting on a chair further away, doing some needlepoint and smiling at something her mother had just said.   It seemed to Phoebe to be such a happy little trio, and Sofia/Alice looked especially pretty in the new pink dress with pink ribbons in her curls.

 

Noticing Phoebe now Mrs Royale stood up “Well, Phoebe, are you ready?”

 

“Oh yes, M’am”

 

“Make sure Miss Alice is well wrapped  up from the cold, and keep her close to you.  Don’t let anyone talk to her but just take her right away to your mother’s house. You know what time to bring her home, don’t you?”

 

“Oh yes, M’am”

 

Rosemarie smiled indulgently and looked at the child, a look of affection and fondness softened her sharp features and she brushed back an errant curl from the little girls face “Now, then, Alice, this is a nice surprise for you.   You have the chance to play with Ella, Phoebe’s sister.  Did you want to take any of your dolls with you? If you do best say so now,  so that Phoebe can run upstairs and collect it for you.”

 

Sofia shook her head and smiled “No, its alright.   Thank you.”

 

“Good girl.  Now, ask cook to let you have some cookies to take with you.”  Rosemarie glanced over at Phoebe “Have you her coat and galoshes?”

 

“Yes, m’am”

 

Katherine came now and slipped her hand into Sofia’s “Come along, sweetheart, I’ll take you to the door.”

 

Rosemarie leaned forward and planted a kiss on Sofia’s brow, “Enjoy your play, child.”

 

Holding Katherine’s hand Sofia was led to the front door where Phoebe helped her into the very smart new coat and bonnet, then into the boots, she had a little fur muff to keep her hands warm even though she was wearing gloves.  She gave Katherine a hug, when the woman leaned down to kiss her and then followed Phoebe, taking her hand as they went down the steps into the snow laden streets.

 

“Ella will be so excited to see  you, Miss.  She don’t get to play with many children her age.”

 

Sofia said nothing, she looked around her and up at the tall buildings, snow covered, ice shining like diamonds as the sun gleamed upon it.   The sky was blue, there were a few lazy clouds but nothing that indicated any further snow.   She sighed, it was a lovely day.  Quite lovely.

………………..

 

Adam Cartwright squatted down beside the fire and warmed his hands by the small flames.   He slowly pulled the food he possessed into small pieces and ate them, chewing methodically, swallowing and tasting nothing.  Cole had provided him with enough food for the expected length of time they had estimated it would take him to reach Bodie.   During the journey he had checked and re-checked his compass and knew that in another 24 hours and he would reach the town.  In the meantime he located the small caves that Cole had drawn on his sketched map, and took shelter in them.

 

Having been a captain of a ship and with the responsibility of so many men under his command he found a form of relief being on his own now.   Even being without Hoss or Joe brought a measure of freedom from the stress such concerns placed upon him.

 

As he chewed on the food he wondered how his brothers had reacted upon knowing he had left them at the Camerons.   He worried about Joe,  it was obvious that the younger man would not have been up to the journey for some days, that would have meant losing time in this search for Sofia.  Time.  Precious commodity though it was, seemed to be slipping through his fingers.

………………………

 

Chapter 43

 

The house was comfortable and warm. It was not in the least ostentacious  but contained an abundance of books that seemed to be just about everywhere,  tumbling off shelves, piled on chairs.  Sofia liked it and stood perfectly still gazing around her and enjoying all the different colours the walls were coloured although it was hard to see much from all the shelves of books

 

“Do you live in a library, Phoebe?” She asked in a breathless voice as Phoebe helped her struggle from her coat and boots.

 

“Goodness me, Miss Alice, of course not.”  Phoebe laughed “what notions you get in your head”

 

Sofia said nothing to that but let the young woman remove the boots and slip little slippers on her feet. By the time that was over Phoebe’s mother was in the room looking so pleased to see them. She kissed her daughters cheek, exclaimed in delight at the cookies and then smiled over at Sofia

 

“Ella is so excited to have you come to play.”  She smiled, gentle and kindly, then turned to lead the way into another room

 

A girl the same age as Sofia was seated by the fire reading a book.  She looked up as her mother entered the room and craned her head a little to try and see more clearly the child following along with Phoebe “well, here she is, Ella. Here is Alice come to keep you company.” The mother said and stepped aside for the girls to see each other more clearly.

 

Ella was a pretty girl with the same gentle appearance as her mother and sister.  Her blonde hair was braided around her head so that she looked like a little Swiss doll Sofia had once seen  in a shop window.  She had big blue eyes that looked intently at the newcomer “Hello Alice, I”m Ella,”

 

Sofia was a little shy, she felt unsure of what to say or do. There was no Reuben there to tell her and she glanced around to find Phoebe but the girl had disappeared.

 

“Hello, Ella.” She said and swallowed a big lump in her throat as she stepped further into the room.

 

“Come on closer, Alice, by the fire. Phoebe told me you had been sick …are you all better now?”

 

Sofia nodded and stepped closer.  It seemed very strange to her that the girl just sat there, the book still on her lap, and she was about to say something about it when Ella’s mother reappeared with a tray laden with glasses of something to drink, and Annie”s cookies.

 

She set them close to Ella on a small table “Come along, Miss Alice. Don’t just stand there.”

 

Ella sighed and put the book down “I was sick once, and my legs got bad, didn’t they, Ma?”

 

“They did, dear,” Mrs Soames replied with a rather sad expression on her face, she glanced anxiously at Sofia “That’s why Ella isn’t at school.”

 

Sofia recalled the time when Reuben was in a chair, unable to do what he wanted, a prisoner to his fears and that wheelchair. She approached Ella who had set the book to one side “Hasn’t your chair any wheels?”

 

Mrs  Soames sighed and shook her head, she clasped her hands in her lap “We can’t afford that kind of chair, dear.  Far too expensive.”

 

“Don’t your legs work then?”  Sofia frowned as she asked for she remembered Reuben’s constant complaints that his legs just wouldn’t do what his brain told them to do, but just collapsed under him, “Are they wobbly?”

 

Ella laughed, Sofia’s innocent enquiries coupled with the look of concern on her face, touched the little girls sense of humour “My legs just don’t work.  I have got two, but …” she shrugged and looked at her mother who was biting her bottom lip anxiously as though she didn’t like this conversation but didn’t know how to end it.

 

Sofia sat down on a small chair opposite her new friend and looked at her thoughtfully,  but the smile on Ella’s face was friendly and innocent of any malice, her eyes were bright and clear “You’ve a lot of books.”

 

“My father was a school teacher.  He got sick and died.” a touch of sadness touched her words and her mouth drooped,  she sighed “It was when I got the sickness as well, and my legs stopped working.”

 

Mrs Soames cleared her throat, obviously the conversation was straying into area’s she wished not to hear so she clapped her hands and said quite brightly that the cookies should be eaten or they would only be fit for the birds.   Ella nibbled on one and smiled “Annie makes nice cookies,  she gives Phoebe some for us but these are my favourites.”

 

“Flannel cooked chocolate cake, you would like her chocolate cake.”  Sofia grinned and nibbled around the pink icing on the little cookie in her hand

 

“Whose Flannel?”

 

“She’s our friend, she used to cook for us when we lived in the big house in San Francisco.   That’s a big city you know.”

 

“I know.  I saw it once when we first came here .. Before we came here..” Ella frowned “I sometimes forget things.”

 

Sofia nodded “So do I.”

 

“Is your daddy a school teacher too?”

 

“No, my daddy was a Captain on a big ship, and he went to lots of different places everywhere…and he rode on a camel once.”

 

Ella laughed, she looked at her new friend and thought she was the most comical little thing and because of her daughters laughter Mrs Soames didn’t correct Sofia and tell her that her father was actually a bankers clerk in Warsop but allowed her to chatter on.

 

After a while Mrs Soames left the two girls to enjoy each others company.  At first Sofia didn’t leave her seat,  and told Ella about her two brothers, Reuben and Nathaniel, and how her mother was so pretty with her green eyes while  her Pa was the most handsome man in the world.  Ella loved it, the stories were better than the ones that she had read to her, and she asked questions that prompted Sofia to remember the things that had slowly been slipping away from her memory.

………………….

 

Luke found Hunnicutt sitting alone by the big pot bellied stove in the saloon,  his booted feet propped up close to the main source of heat and a tankard of beer in one hand.   He watched the other man carefully for a  moment then ordered two fresh beers before approaching the scout who looked at him with a scowl knowing that he would now have to share the heat of the fire with someone else.

 

“Warm enough for you, Shaun?”  Luke said and sat down on a chair that looked as though it had seen  better days.

 

“Was..”  came the taciturn response and Shaun drained his tankard dry before setting it down on a nearby table.  He was more than amused at the sight of another being placed immediately at his elbow and nodded his thanks to Luke before picking it  up.

 

“Seems quite a while since we last met up like this…”

 

“If’n I recall rightly it were only a few days back.   You bought some land from Jack Hills, hastened his demise as a result.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that…”

 

“Shouldn’t be, he was an ornery old cuss.”

 

Luke didn’t reply but drank some of the beer before looking over at the scout, “You still scouting for the army?”

 

“Nooo,  I’m employed by the railway now.  They’re planning on getting a railway line fixed up across from Monroe …   but, that’s not what you came back to talk to me for, is it?”

 

“Our last meeting wasn’t exactly in the way of a conversation, Shaun.”  Luke grinned, and looked at the flames in the fire as though they were the main topic for conversation right then, “Shaun,  you been here long?”

 

“A few weeks.  Why?”

 

“I’ll tell you the truth, Shaun … I’m looking for my niece.”

 

Shaun scowled and fidgeted, “ What’s that to do with me?  You reckon she’s run away from home and got a job in a saloon hereabouts?”

 

“No no, she’s only a child, a little girl.  She – well – she’s lost, you see.” he paused and then plunged into the telling of the events leading up to Sofia’s disappearance “My nephew is sure that some couple came by, or some body,  and they took her …”

 

Shaun frowned more deeply and sighed, he hugged his half full/half empty glass to his chest “And you aint found her?”

 

“No, we thought perhaps she was here, in Colfax.   Would you know of anyone who would have been travelling across Ponderosa land that particular day?”

 

Shaun shook his head and pouted, his protruding bottom lip gleamed wet in the light of the fire, then he closed his eyes and for a moment Luke thought he had fallen asleep but he hadn’t for he said “Millers … they took their wagon over.   But they came back agin yesterday.   Elderly couple.  No children.”

 

Luke waited, there was surely some more information to come and after a moment, during which time Shaun had emptied his glass, “They left about ten days ago though.   Then there were the Jacksons,  but they were going in the opposite direction… no, not them …let me see… Milano family… they went down to Virginia City, so if they had found your little girl they would have taken her there I’m reckoning.”  he paused and pouted “You are sure she is alive, ain’t’cha?  I don’t want to be the one to bring this fact to your notice but children left in the cold for so long do usually die.”

 

“My nephew hadn’t, and he was quite sure she hadn’t either ..”

 

“He could have been mistaken, I mean, about someone finding her.  She could have wandered off,  maybe into the river?”

 

Luke shuddered, shook his head, such things happened, he wasn’t a complete fool to think differently, but not to Sofia.  He raised a hand for two more glasses of beer.

 

“I saw Clifton Reid a while back.  Do you remember Clifton?” Shaun asked and when Luke nodded a rather sly grin spread over the other mans’ face “Clifton was devoted to the Royales, or should I say, to the C.O’s wife.   Quite a beauty she was in her day, and Clifton had been with them for a long time. “

 

The glasses arrived and were set down on the table.  Shaun picked one up without any hesitation and gulped it greedily, Luke had still to finish his first.   Shaun frowned and looked thoughtful “Clifton told me they were going to a town called Warsop.  Do you know it?”

 

Luke nodded, it was a good distance from the Double D but from Colfax and this area so far south one would need to go onto Ponderosa land to get there because taking the whole way round would have added days upon days.

 

“Apparently Emily Royale, now Emily Kincaid, had just had a baby, and was ill, Clifton was mighty concerned about it, you’d have thought he was their Pa, but then …” he shrugged and grimaced “Mrs Royale was insisting that they went to see her daughter and the new grandchild.  I remember Clifton saying that he had warned her that the weather was turning,  but …”   he emptied the glass, Luke watched his adam’s apple jerking up and down as he gulped the beer down  “Anyway they left some time back.   Not sure if they came back before the weather came down bad,  or if they decided to stay there longer, in which case they’ll still be in Warsop.”

 

There was a lull in the conversation again,  and Luke drank more of his beer and Shaun fidgeted so that Luke felt obliged to order another glassful for him.   After a while Shaun leaned forward and tapped Luke on the knee “See here, you think about this… say you were driving along knowing there was bad weather, and you had been on a long journey already.   You find a child, lost, perhaps abandoned,  what would you do?”

 

Luke sunk a little lower in his chair and glared at the fire, he knew what he would have done,  he just didn’t want to say it “I’d have tried to get her to her home.”

 

“But what if she can’t talk?   Or she’s so ill she don’t remember.   Fact is, Luke boy, we found kids like that ourselves at times if you recall, when out on manoeuvres.”

 

Luke inclined his head, perhaps that was another reason why he wanted to find Sofia  because of all those children they had found, lost, abandoned, dead, dying … found and taken to the Fort, left without knowing if they ever found kith or kin again.  He sighed, “Go on…”

 

Shaun picked up the fresh glass and nodded “Right,  so think on it … the nearest town is miles away, further than your own home town.  If you go in that direction you add time and miles to your journey.  Aint I right?”

 

Luke nodded, of course he was right, so he nodded again.  Shaun swallowed and licked his lips “So the best thing to do is take the child to your own home, you know where you’re going, you know how long it’s going to take you.  You look after her, if she’s ill, you get a doctor.  In the better weather you get her to her own home.”

 

“But wouldn’t you have sent a cable to let the parents know she was safe?”

 

“If the child can talk and tell you who her parents are …   or if the telegraph wires are working,  because hereabouts in  bad weather they don’t.”

 

He gulped down more beer and then took it upon himself to call out to the bar keep if he knew anyone who had left and returned from town recently.   The barkeep thought over the question and then shook his head “Maynards left some weeks ago, came back a few days since.  And then the Millers…”

 

Shaun shrugged and shook his head, but Luke got up and asked the bar keep for the Maynards address.  Upon getting it he slipped it into his pocket and bade Shaun goodbye,  as he turned to leave the old scout yelled “Don’t you be leaving town yet, there’s more bad weather on the way.  Leave now and we’ll be finding your body in the spring.”

 

On that cheerful note Luke let the doors swing shut behind him and made his way to the Maynards.

 

They were an elderly couple and nervous as they stood together in the doorway of their home.  They listened to Luke and shook their heads,  looked at one another in the way people do when about to relate the same information, a kind of collaboration for words that were as yet unspoken

 

“We didn’t go across the Ponderosa.” Mr Maynard said, “We only went as far as Bodie, then we came back again.”

 

“Our daughter lives there.” Mrs Maynard added,  catching at a strand of wispy grey hair and tucking it into her snood “I wanted to see her before the bad weather came.”

 

“We didn’t see anyone either.” Mr Maynard concluded by saying and before Luke could ask anything more he said “It’s cold, if you don’t mind, I need to get inside.”

 

“He has a weak chest,” Mrs Maynard added as the door finally shut on the younger man.

……..

 

Sofia found that making this pale little girl laugh was sheer joy.  Sometimes she had felt that pleasure when playing with her baby brother, but hearing Ella’s giggles made Sofia happier than she had been for some days.   The confusion in her head was lifted, she knew who she was again, and telling Ella about her family consolidated that clarity.

She wasn’t sure why Ella found it all so amusing though and was too young, too naive, to realise that Ella believed what she had been told by Phoebe and her mother that her new friend was Alice, Mrs Royales grand daughter. None of them doubted for a moment that the little girl was someone else entirely.

 

Ella laughed because it seemed to her that Alice had a brilliant imagination, and the adventures of her family were just too fantastical to be believed.

 

After a while Mrs Soames came in with something to eat, the noon day meal.  She carried Ella to another chair so that the child could reach the food. No one would know that Ella was unable to walk as she sat between her mother and Sofia.

 

The meal was nourishing. Simple and plain, enjoyable.  Afterwards Mrs Soames carried Ella back to the other chair put more fuel on the fire and asked them if there was anything they needed…a book?  A doll?  Ella smiled over at Sofia “We’re going to play ‘ Hunt the thimble’ so, Mommy, we need one of your thimbles.”

 

It was a good game, Sofia enjoyed hiding it and then running around the room to where Ella suggested it would be while knowing all the time where it was… And when it was Ella’s turn to hide the thimble she was very clever in concealing it on her person, or close by her…Sofia even found it  hidden once among her little friends braids!

 

Mrs Soames worked in an adjoining room and stopped occasionally to listen to the children’s voices, their laughter and chatter wrung her heart,  times for such happiness were not often to be heard within the confines of Ella’s home.

 

After an  hour of play Phoebe came and sat down with them, they played Cat’s Cradle for a while and then Phoebe read to them from  red covered book with the title Alice’s Adventures  in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll published in 1865.   “I thought to read it to you both because it’s all about a little girl called Alice.” And she beamed a bright smile at Sofia.

 

“That’s you, Alice” Ella said with her eyes big and bright, her smile so happy that Sofia’s desire to deny any such name died on her lips.

 

“You will like it, Miss Alice …” Phoebe insisted and got herself  comfortable so that she could read the first chapter.

 

Time passed and suddenly Phoebe put the book down and said it was time to go. Ella’s face dropped in disappointment and she grabbed for Sofia’s hand ‘ You will come again, won’t you?”

 

“I will, if …”  Sofia paused, for a few hours she had left this new world behind, she had been Sofia again, but now?  She looked at Ella and smiled, nodded

 

“Oh please do,  I so like your stories, Alice. I want to hear more about Reuben and the sea captain…”

 

Sofia put a finger to her lips and leaned closer to Ella “Don’t forget it’s our secret.” She whispered.

 

She took hold of Phoebe’s hand in order to leave, smart in her new coat and fur bonnet that matched her muff, at the door she turned and waved, the happy smile on Ella’s face reflected by one of her own.

 

 

Chapter 44

 

Hop Sing opened the door  to find Ezra holding his hat with one hand and his coat secure with the other.  There was no doubting the fact that the man had been riding through the bad weather for some time as he stumbled into the house looking frozen to the core.

Hester and Olivia were both surprised to see him, even more so when he produced some mail and with shaking hand held the letters out to them.

 

“I got through to town, took twice as long as usual but I ..I thought you would be wanting to know if there was news.”. He shivered as the heat began to thaw his extremities, and rubbed his bristly chin with a damp gloved hand “There’s some cables too”.

 

Olivia stood up to take the mail from him with a grateful smile. “That was very thoughtful of you, Ezra… we didn’t expect you or anyone to go into town in this weather.”

 

Hester smiled and nodded.    They knew why he had gone, of course they did, he had kept out if everyone’s way since the children had gone from school. Like some old lion that had gone into hiding to lick his wounds, waiting a chance to redeem himself.  He had seen this as his opportunity and now waited for his reward.

 

“We thought, if there was any news that Candy would have told us, somehow.”  Hester said, and glanced over at Olivia who was checking through the envelopes for a familiar and much loved handwriting.

 

“Oh no, there won’t be a chance if that happening now, Miss Hester, the pass closed just after I’d got through. Snow fall is heavy just now.”

 

He saw the way they looked at one another, that bleak despair that filled their eyes.  He cleared his throat “I did see the sheriff, he wanted to know how you were, and Reuben.  He said he’d heard nothing, received no word.  The posse returned only when it became obvious that it would be dangerous to proceed, they didn’t find anything helpful.” He paused “Miss Brandon asked after the boy, she said to tell you that she had resigned her post as the school teacher, going to get married and move back East.”

 

Hester nodded “I was worried that she would do something like that, she was so upset at what has happened.” She sighed and approached Ezra with a kindly smile “thank you, Ezra, for being so thoughtful.”

 

“Least I could do Miss Hester …best go now and take Miss MaryAnn the mail I got for her.”. He fumbled with his hat and after nodding over to Olivia,backed away and left the house. Hop Sing closed the door behind him and after a quick glance over at the two women returned to the kitchen.

 

“A cable..” Hester said and ripped open the envelope  “From Hoss ..”

 

“What does it say?” Olivia asked almost forgetting the one clutched in her hand

 

“IN MONROE stop HEAVY. SNOW stop LEAVING TOWN TODAY stop ALL. IS  GOING WELL stop”

 

They looked blankly at one another, a frown on both their faces”What does that mean?”.

Olivia asked but Hester just shook her head and looked at the date which indicated it was sent several days previously.

 

“What does your cable say?”. She now asked pointing to the scrunched up correspondence in Olivia’s hand

 

SHE. IS. NOT  HERE stop. HAVE. FAITH stop SHALL BRING HER HOME stop

 

The two woman were silent for a while and then Olivia looked at the other envelopes ..letters for Ben, for Reuben and obviously from his friend Billy Webb, and one addressed from Ben to his three daughters in law which they tore open

 

“My dear girls

Luke and I have decided to join forces with Roy and look for Sofia. You no doubt realised that anyway .  we shall try to meet up with your husbands and spread out. Hopefully weather  will not be too bad.   See you soon, don’t worry..”

 

Olivia frowned “I thought he’d just decided to stay in town because of  the weather.”

 

“So did I.”. Hester sunk back down into a chair and buried her face into her hands “What does he think he’s doing?  He and Roy … Luke should not  have encouraged them to go with him”

 

Olivia said nothing, but slowly wiped the tears from her face. She seemed to cry easily these days, they came unheeded at the most inconvenient times.

 

Joe’s message to his wife was welcomed for the young woman tore open the envelope to read

 

“NOTHING YET stop LEAVE THIS TOWN TOMORROW stop

LOVE YOU ALWAYS stop”

 

……………

 

Ben beat the snow from his hat as he stepped into the foyer of the hotel, he was cold and somewhat dispirited.  A youth approached dressed in the hotels uniform and murmured something in his ear upon which he turned to a door and made his way to a large room where hotel clientele could ‘lounge’ and take their ease should they be so inclined.

 

Roy was already seated in a large chair by a roaring fire, his hands clasped and dangled between his parted knees.  Luke was standing with a glass of whiskey in one hand, his other toying with some ornament on the mantelpiece.

 

There were several other people in the room but it was large enough to accommodate far more  without anyone fearing loss of privacy.   Seeing Ben enter Luke straightened up and turned to face him “How did you get on?”

 

Ben shook his head and was about to take a seat when another member of staff approached him to ask if he would care to order a drink before the evening meal. Ordering himself a brandy the rancher sat down and passed a hand over his face he was tired, the cold was wearing him down.

 

“I went to every doctor in town,  every clinic and every hospital.  Did you know they have two hospitals here? Granted one is a small affair …” He paused when the youth arrived bearing his glass of brandy on a salver and again he waited until the lad had set it down on the side table and then disappeared.”No one knows anything.  No doctor had any reason to leave town during that time, nor have any patients that far from town.  No one has been summoned to attend to a child suffering from the results of extreme cold. Nothing..!’   He glanced at them both “From the way you look I’d say you’ve come against the same problem.”

 

Roy nodded “The  sheriff I first approached told me the town was split into two circuits, and each sheriff has eight deputies.  I spoke to them all …”  He shook his head and shrugged “They are going to conduct a house to house ..starting in the morning.”

 

“How long will that take?” Ben demanded to know and gulped down some brandy.

 

“Depends on what results they get.  Could be anytime…at most two days.”

 

Luke nodded and emptied his glass “I visited all the saloons, talked to quite a few interesting characters .. Also went to the newspaper offices, they couldn’t give any information but agreed to run an advertisement asking that anyone who may have seen or heard about Sofia contact you immediately, here at the hotel,”

 

Ben sighed and shook his head “I didn’t realise this town was so big…”

 

Luke was quiet for a few moments, the room began to empty as people left for the dining room.  “We will need to consider what to do next” he eventually said “we’ve set things in motion here that requires our staying until the  end of the week at least, unless you both stay here and I go on ahead of you.”  He glanced from one to the other of them his eyes dark with concern “What do you think?”

 

Roy sighed as he struggled to his feet, “Personally I don’t feel that she’s here, but we’ve set the ball rolling as you say…I reckon we need to see what the weather is like before we decide who stays and who goes. Could be the weather will decide for us.”

 

Ben said nothing to that, he trusted Roy’s instincts, but there had been times when he had been proven wrong.  However, he knew Roy was right about one thing, it would depend on the weather.

 

He walked slowly behind his companions, deep in thought “Where do we go from here if we get no results?”

 

Luke frowned “Next nearest town is Monroe, although I hear tell its only a settlement as yet.  Going further along we hit the California state line, but Bodie would be next.”

 

“Or we backtrack…” Roy suggested, “The sheriff told me about some homesteaders and small ranchers off the beaten track we likely missed.”

 

Ben nodded thoughtfully as they sat down to eat, there were still several things that could be done, were going to be done. His thoughts turned to his sons, their searches had so far not revealed his sons whereabouts  and anxiety for them weighed heavily upon his heart.

 

………..

 

Katherine Royale folded the covers over the little girl and then sat on the side of the bed and held Sofia’s hand in her own.  She had helped the child undress and wash, slipped the pretty floral night dress over her head and brushed out the tangles from the long blonde hair.   Throughout that time Sofia had chattered about her day, about Ella and the room full of books.

 

She leaned down to kiss the child “I’m so glad you had such a happy time with Ella, she’s a dear child isn’t she?”

 

“Yes, but I wish she had wheels on her chair like Reuben had when his legs were poorly.”

 

Katherine frowned, and put a finger to the child’s lips   “Now you know we don’t mention that name here, don’t you? There is no one by that name here, is there?”  She smiled down at Sofia who looked blankly up at her, “Now, what were you saying about a chair with wheels?”

 

Sofia wasn’t too sure what she was going to say now,she sighed “_I just wish she could have one is all … She just sits in one chair all the time.”

 

Katherine nodded and looked thoughtful as though the matter worried her too.  Then she tapped Sofia playfully on the nose and smiled “well, Alice, time to sleep. Perhaps tomorrow you can go and play with Ella again”

 

Sofia’s eyes lit up, a pleasurable feeling crept over her. It was so good being with Ella, so much better than school, or being in this big house with just the two women and servants. She wrapped her arms around Katherine’s neck in an impromptu gesture of thankful appreciation, an act that brought tears to Katherine’s eyes and a tightness to her chest as she held the little body close to her own

 

“Aunt Katy, did I fall down a rabbit hole?”

 

Katherine nearly laughed but she shook her head and smiled as she settled the child back down upon the bed “Why no, whatever gave you that idea?”

 

“Well, the other Alice did, she saw a big rabbit and she chased him and fell down a hole.  Then she got big, then she got small…”. She yawned, her eyes were sleepy it had been a long day, “I thought maybe that happened to me cos I can’t ‘member some things …” Her voice drifted away and she whispered about how the rabbit had a watch and wore a waistcoat,  her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

 

Katherine didn’t move for a while but sat there looking down at the child.  If anyone had told her she could have felt so much love, such a deep emotion for another child after losing her own, she would never have believed them.  But , fate had provided this blessing, this second chance of joy  and happiness through this dear little girl.

 

As she removed the lamp and left the room Katherine thought only of her own pleasure, the fact that somewhere a woman was on her knees praying for the return of her daughter never even crossed her mind.  Someone else’s tears meant nothing at all.

………………

 

The cleft in the rock provided enough shelter although a cave would have been better but Adam realised he was blessed to have found it considering how quickly darkness had fallen.

.

There was room enough for the horse and himself with space to spare so he quickly unclipped the martingale, and after slinging it across the saddle pulled it from the animals back.  The low growl of winds hit what was basically a wide crack in the rock face and bounced off an an angle creating a whistle effect each time it was struck.

“Have to get used to that, boy.” He murmured to the animal and ran his hand down its neck, “good boy, you deserve your rest.”

 

He stretched a little and then looked about him, striking several matches in order to see better.   He was relieved to see that over time the wind had blown enough debris in the easy of dry leaves, twigs to provide a small fire so his next action was to get one burning in order to thaw his hands and boil up some coffee.    It took no time to collect snow in the pot, the fire to burn “Seems God looks after more than drunken sailors” he mused to himself, and after seeing to his horse he found the coffee ready.

 

He sat cross legged with the mug held between his hands while he listened to the wind.   The cleft in which he sheltered was similar to a chimney, and the wind blowing from the north actually bounced off the protruding rock and didn’t disturb those sheltering within.

It reminded him of the days when the Ainola was beleaguered at sea, sometimes lying awake wondering if the wind would ever stop blowing after being buffeted for days.  The rigging would whistle, the sails snap and crackle and that would be the last sound  one heard as sleep finally came, and the first thing one would hear as wakefulness came.   So often surprised to have fallen asleep at all, whether for a few moments, or hours.

He didn’t want to think of Sofia, that part of his thinking processes left him feeling too bereft, then a sick feeling would creep into his stomach and lurch up into his chest until he could barely breathe.  Better to indulge in past memories of old friends, rather than torment himself with worry.

 

What was Olivia doing now?   Would she have got the cable he’d sent?  Pa would take care of her, sure he would ..and the rest of the family would but what about Reuben?  Reuben, poor lad, poor boy …

 

For a moment Adam rubbed his face, ran his fingers through his hair as he thought about his son.  What would the child be thinking?  Hadn’t  the boy suffered enough already with what had happened earlier with that shooting in the school?  Would he, as the father, ever be able to help the lad eradicate those memories and face his future without the fear of these things always haunting him?

 

Questions and doubts chased through his mind like a dog chases a rabbit.  He finally had to get up and pace what ground was available until in no time at all doubts crept in about finding Sofia.  What if she were not in Bodie?   What if the search went on for weeks or months?

 

He pulled his bedroll close to the fire feeble though it was, but better than nothing.

He thought of snow storms in Alaska as he drifted into sleep, and of O’Brien and himself quoting poetry in order to stay wake.   He thought of some now, brief snatches that floated through his brain and slipped away as sleep finally captured him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 45

 

Hetty Cameron stepped back from the bed with a bottle in one hand and a spoon in the other.  Her comely face bore a look of concern as it had for some time since Joe became ill,  but it was touched by another expression now that indicated that there was hope that the young man had turned the corner.

 

She nodded as though to herself and poured more of the syrup into the spoon and poured it into Joe’s mouth, despite his attempts to avoid it.  Hoss  held his brothers head steady until the medicine had been taken,  before releasing him while telling him it was for his own good and all those other things mothers said to their children when attempting to force some foul liquid down their throats.

 

“It already feel like the fevers gone,” Hoss  assured Joe as he leaned forward to peer into his brothers eyes “You’ll be feeling really well soon.”

 

“Are you sure?   I feel …real bad, Hoss” Joe croaked

 

“Course ya do, that’s because you been sick.  Miss Hetty done take good care of you, Joe.”

 

Hetty stepped closer to her patient and out a cool hand on his brow which created shivers all down Joe’s spine “Best you sleep some more, Joe, then soon as you wake you can have some broth.  You need something to line your stomach now you been vomiting that much.”

 

Joe’s head rolled and his eyes closed “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, Ma’am.”  and then promptly fell asleep.

 

Hoss looked anxiously down at Joe and shook his head before turning to Hetty “Thanks, Miss Hetty.  Not sure how we would have handled this if’n we’d been caught out travelling and he’d took ill then.”

 

Hetty smiled and patted his arm, “Well, the main thing is that you got here in time.  Now come and have your supper.”

 

Cole was already seated at the table along with the children who had been as quiet as possible once Hetty had told them about the sick man.  It had been hard for two boisterous and healthy youngsters but they had done their best and been duly commended by their parents.  Now they sat and looked with big eyes at their guest “Is that right you got children, Mr Hoss?”

 

“I sure have,”. Hoss replied “two little girls.”

 

“Are they good girls?”.  Cassie asked

 

“Most times.”. Came the answer.

 

Cole bade them to be quiet now and settle down for the meal, he looked affectionately over at his wife who was putting a finger to her  lips and frowning at them, then he looked at Hoss who was looking rather concerned “Joe will be alright, Hoss, my Hetty knows what she is doing.”

 

“I know that, Cole, and Joe’s already a whole heap better than he was, I was thinking more about my other brother. It got dark mighty quick this afternoon and …”

 

“He can read the signs, Hoss, he knows what he’s doing.  Sides which I drew him a map showing every place I could think of where he could hole up.  I know the track from here to Bodie  like the inside of my hat I’ve travelled it so often.” he dipped bread into the broth and chewed on it for awhile “He’ll be alright, once he gets through tonight he’ll be all set to reach the Palmers … They’re our closest neighbour and good folk. I told him to stop by there especially if the weather cuts up rough again.”

 

“There ain’t no short cuts are there?   He’s an impatient man and its been on my mind all day that he’ll go off the main track to find a quicker way.”

 

Cole chuckled ‘That just ain’t possible, Hoss. For a start it’s nigh impossible to see where the main track is with all this here snow, and he knows for a fact that if he tries anything stupid like you’re thinking it takes him away from shelter should more snow come by.  He needs to stick to the route or he’ll never reach Bodie ,,,alive anyway.”

 

Hoss wasn’t sure what to make of that speech from Cole, and decided to concentrate on eating.  Eventually he ventured to ask Hetty when she thought Joe would be well enough to travel again to which she replied they would have to take it from day to day, and see how he improved.

 

Cole then assured Hoss about the extra rations he had given Adam, but all their assurances fell on deaf ears for he could hear the wind moaning about the chimney.  Cole heard it too and nodded “Good thing we checked the shingles today“  he rubbed his hands and grinned again “I sure appreciate all your help, Hoss.”

 

They strolled over to two chairs set close to the fire while Hetty saw to the children . Here  Cole shared his plans for the future with Hoss, and here Hoss shared with Cole some of the hardships they had experienced in building the Ponderosa.  Their voices provided a pleasant backdrop for Joe who drifted in and out of sleep, lulled by the medicine, and the weariness in his bones the youngest Cartwright fell in and out of dreams, until finally he woke up to darkness apart from the glow of the fire, and to silence broken only by the familiar sound of snoring.

 

………..

 

Sleep eluded him after all as the wind growled and howled around the cliff tops to send ice laden snow drifting upon him.  On the peripheral of his mind he was back with Rostov and Lawson,  lying prone upon the frozen tundra of Alaska and there was no ship there to rescue them.  They lay together with their eyes staring up at the sky and snow falling upon their frozen orbs with no hope for salvation left to them.

 

Adam Cartwright scrambled onto his feet as though by doing so he could prove to himself that he was alive and that frozen vast whiteness was long behind him.   He glanced upwards to where his covert was open to the skies and turned round in a semi circle until he had seen all that was needed.

 

Stars shone pin prick bright and the moon was full, there was no fresh snow fall only that which was being blown by the wind down the chimney.  Somewhere a coyote warbled just pitched highly enough to be heard over the winds.

 

He began to gather his things together with an urgent determination, time was marching on and while there was this God given light he should be using it to its fullest advantage .

The fire was already dead, leaving grey ash scattered by the wilful breezes as he roused the horse and saddled it, and after mounting up he walked it out from the cleft and back onto the track.

 

The moon was a silver disc in the purple sky with grey clouds  scudding southwards.  The darkness that had driven him to find shelter had fled away as the moon had fattened during the evening hours.  Now it shed a path way ahead of him as shining and clear upon the glistening snow that it bouyed him full of hope that he would soon be at his destination..

 

……

 

Sofia had fallen asleep as soon as the door closed upon her.  Her room was always so cosy and warm, her bed soft and the fire  glowing warm in the grate.

 

The shadows were familiar to her now and held no fears.  She closed her eyes and her lips smiled as sleep and dreams claimed her.

 

She was falling, down, down, down and then landed on the ground with a bump.

 

“You’re late.” A cross sounding voice came close to her ear and a boy was staring at a watch in his hand which he put into his pocket “now that you’re here you had better take my hand and come with me.”

 

“Where?  Where are you taking me?”

 

“Home of course, where else would I take you.  Why don’t you girls think….and don’t let go of my hand this time.”

 

She grabbed at his hand and he gripped hold of hers tightly and told her to run, which she did until he stopped and declared they had run far enough.

 

“Where are we?” She asked looking around her “Are we home?”

 

“Of course” he tossed his head in a boyish manner, and looked at her with a grin so that she couldn’t help but smile back

 

“Reuben?   Is it you?”

 

“Of course, who else would bring you home.” And then he pulled out the watch “I’m late .Mom will be so angry with me..”  And promptly disappeared

 

An old lady was sitting on a settee staring out of the window  and then sighed “I can see you looking at me, you know.”

 

The little girl jumped startled at the voice, familiar and yet from so long ago,  the old Lady turned and looked at her, smiled “Do you know who you are yet?”

 

“Who are you?” She asked “Are you grandmother?”

 

“Abigail Phillips.  Of course I’m your grandmother, who else would I be?”

 

The little girl knew  where she was now and went to sit beside the old woman who looked rather unreal but it didn’t seem to matter because she knew  down the corridor she would find Flannel, making cakes.

 

“Is daddy here?” She whispered and Abigail frowned, looked at her seriously “is he?”

 

“Well now, there’s a question …which daddy do you mean?

 

Of course your real daddy is here …my son, Robert.  He’s here …”

 

And so he was, smiling at her and holding her mothers hand, just the same face as the one she had seen in a photograph so often. Her ma looked so happy as she beckoned to her to draw closer. “Robert, this is your little girl …”

 

Robert smiled, “You’re late” he said softly

 

“I’m not … I’m not …” She protested

 

Sofia woke up with a jerk, and for a moment couldn’t remember where she was at all.   Some coal in the fire slithered into place and the night light shivered in a breeze. She sighed and closed her eyes, it was alright, she was home in her own bed….everything was alright.

…………

 

A light glimmered within the night time gloom and Adam checked the horse, got his bearings and turned in the direction even though it took him from the main track.  It was a mere dot beckoning him onwards but one he felt wise to take.

 

He was too cold to ignore it, and he could sense the power in his horse failing.  There were times a delay was necessary no matter how urgent the assignment.   The light grew larger until it revealed the outline of a cabin, the light itself shone from a window.  Perhaps it was to serve as a beacon to weary travellers such as himself, for that he was grateful

 

The horse slithered, readied itself, plunged downwards into the snow which reached its chest, it continued on, one plunging leap after another until they were on a level again and the way was easier.  The rider tightened his grip upon the reins and headed on to the cabin.

 

He had wrapped his scarf tightly across his nose and mouth to make breathing that much easier and now, as he dismounted, he pulled it free and sent a smattering of snow drifting about him.

 

He had to knock several times before the door opened, and an elderly man peered at him, frowned and attempted to see  over Adams shoulder in case there were actually more than one man at his threshold

 

“Mr Palmer?   Cole told me ..”

 

“Come on in, don’t stand there in the cold.”. He pulled the door wider, allowing Adam the chance to step inside “Take a seat by the fire, throw some more logs on it while I see to your horse.”

 

Adam removed his hat and approached the fire.  He had not felt so weary for a long time as he sunk gratefully into a chair. He pulled off his gloves, stretched out his weaker leg that ached more than he would ever admit, leaned back and closed his eyes.

 

 

Someone was plucking at his sleeve, he yawned and nodded in an attempt to rouse himself. “Mr Palmer?”

 

“You looked exhausted, Mr …” The old man smiled, nodded “I left you to sleep on.   There’s coffee and food, should you require it.”

 

Adam gave a hurried glance to the window, saw the sun light shining now upon the snow but hunger gnawed at his stomach, and his bones ached.  He struggled to muster up a smile “Thank you, Mr Palmer.   I’m Adam Cartwright from the Ponderosa.”

 

“Its good to meet you,  Mr Cartwright.  I’ve heard of the great Ponderosa, of course.”. He turned towards an inner door from where someone was calling him, he smiled apologetically “My wife.  If you will excuse me ..please do help yourself …”   He beckoned to the table and then quickly made his way to the other room.

 

Chapter 46

 

Ben Cartwright looked up from his study of the map, his dark eyes were contemplative and rather sombre as he now turned his attention to his companions “”We still have a distance to go if you really think we get some more definite answers from Bodie, and these people you used to know, Luke.”

 

Roy was standing close to the window and was watching the coming and going of the few townsfolk who were risking an early venture out to the stores he folded his arms across his chest and frowned “We need to move out of here soon then, before the snow returns. At present we have some respite, we need to take advantage of it.”

 

“I agree with Roy,” Luke glanced sideways long at Ben, “There’s no point in hanging around here any longer, if there was anything anyone knew we would have been told by now.”

 

“Yep,  folk talk among ’emselves, if’n anyone knew anything at all they would have bin an’ told us.”  Roy turned from the window and came to look over Ben’s shoulder at the maps spread out on the desk at the local Land Registry.”Seems quite rugged terrain, and rising up a higher elevation.  Gonna be a cold trip.”

 

“Roy, if you’d rather stay behind here, we can always come back along on the way home.” Ben rubbed his jaw, smooth again for the time being.

 

“I did say we should git movin’, Ben.  No point standing around here and wasting any more dadburned time…and ..I may be retired as sheriff  but I ain’t retired from life yet, y’ know.”

 

Ben grinned and nodded “Point taken, Roy.  So, come on, let’s move before it starts snowing again.”

 

Shaun Hunnicutt watched the three men as they made their way to the livery. He was leaning against the doorframe of his favoured saloon who provided him with breakfast when he was in town.  After a while he pushed himself through the door and called over to Luke who stopped to let the other man catch up with him

 

“You leaving?” He asked and moved the piece of tobacco around to the other side of his mouth, exposing the yellowed stumps of his teeth as he did so.

 

“Don’t think we’ll get to find Sofia  here, wasting time sticking around.”

 

“Hmm, you’re no doubt right, this kind of town ain’t good at keeping secrets. Anyone have a kid no one ever see before there’d be a whole line up of folk wanting to know every detail about her.  You going on to Bodie?”

 

“We are.”. Luke glanced around him, no one was taking any particular notice of them,  he shrugged”Thanks anyway, Shaun.  It was good meeting up with you again.”

 

Hunnicutt nodded and shook Luke’s hand, ‘Don’t forget to give my regards to Clifton Reid.”

 

Luke raised a hand and walked on, he found Roy and Ben seeing to their horses and went to saddle up his own.  Hunnicutt was still standing in the same place as they rode by, his hands in his pockets and his jaw moving up and down  as he moved the quid of tobacco round his mouth. Once the three horsemen had disappeared from sight he spat into a pile of snow and turned back to the saloon.

…..

 

Adam Cartwright scratched his jaw through the beard that was steadily growing and which he felt would be better on than off.  It was a mans natural protection against the elements and he had learned the hard way just how effective it could be.

 

He was nursing a mug of excellent coffee while bent over in order to observe the sky, after a moment or two he straightened up and joined Mr and Mrs Palmer at the table.

 

“It doesn’t look too bad. Suns shining and seems the temperature has risen.” He smiled at Mrs Palmer, a frail old lady who had insisted that he had a good sleep and a meal ‘ under his belt ‘ before going any further.

 

“Just be careful’ Henry Palmer cautioned, “The snow can be treacherous as it melts. ”

 

Adam nodded, and emptied the mug, “I wish I knew how to repay you for your hospitality, Mr Palmer, M’am.  It worries me that you’re on your own here, and the town being as rough and wild as you say …”

 

Mrs Palmer smiled and shook her head “Don’t you spend your time worrying about us. You just go and find that girl if yours.”

 

He grinned and picked up his heavy winter coat which he began to button up slowly as he watched the couple “Haven’t you thought of moving away?  You’d get a good price for this place.”

 

“We did once, perhaps twice …” Mr Palmer smiled at Adam before turning to his wife and the smile gentled  “When our daughter died we buried her here, and have stayed ever since.”

 

“Safe journey, Adam.” Margaret Palmer said “God speed”

 

She took his hand between both of her hard worn arthritic swollen hands and smiled up at him

 

He left, closing the door quickly behind him in order that  the cold air didn’t rob them of the warmth in the room.  He glanced back over his shoulder as he rode away, sometimes the kindness of strangers touched him and left him feeling rather sentimental about them.  But there was no time for too much sentimentality, and so he set the horse forwards to mount up through the snow and back to the main track to the town.

 

..……….

 

Sofia waited patiently as Phoebe removed her outer clothing and pulled off the boots to put on the little slippers.  As she balanced on one foot and then the other she remembered parts of her dream, puzzled over some for a second before telling Phoebe she didn’t like the story about Alice

 

“Why ever not, Miss Alice?  It’s Ella’s favourite.”

 

“But it gave me a bad dream, Phoebe.  I don’t like it …”

 

“What kind of bad dream?”. Phoebe smoothed down the blonde curls and looked anxiously at the pale face, “You are feeling aright, arnt you, Miss Alice?   If you don’t then maybe I should take you home.”

 

“I’m alright, Phoebe, it was just that dream, I was falling down a hole and my real daddy was there…. Robert.”

 

Phoebe sighed, shook her head slightly at the child’s vagaries and then took hold of her hand “Come along now, and stop this talk about your daddies … That’s three you’ve got already!”

 

Sofia felt duly scolded and yet felt rather indignant at the implication that she had lied.  Her sullen features soon bloomed into smiles at the sight of Ella who was seated by a table. “Look, Alice, look at what your Aunt sent round for us?    Do you know how to make paper roses, Alice?  We can make paper dollies too?”

 

Such a lot of things to do …and so many different colours  of soft tissue paper, pots of glue, stiff hard paper, crayons and best of all, special little scissors.   There was so much that Sofia couldn’t wait to get started. Phoebe brought up a chair and smiled at the chatter between the two children. If she hadn’t had to go back to do her work she would have  loved to have had the chance to play alongside them.

 

Mrs Soames  arrived and brought them a drink before leaving them to do her own work in the other room.  She kissed Phoebe good bye and confirmed the time when Alice would be collected back.

 

The girls made some paper roses and fastened them into.  their hair like crowns “I shall wear mine forever and ever” Ella declared looking really pretty as she beamed a big smile at Sofia.

 

They then made some flowers with stalks that could be put into a pot, Sofia said Ella could keep them all as Aunt Katy and Grandmother had lots of flowers anyway.

 

“But they arn’t my real Aunt and Grandmother, remember, and anyway I dreamt of my real daddy last night.”

 

“The captain?  Was he on his boat?’ Ella asked with big round eyes and quite captivated once again by her friends story

 

“No, not that daddy, my real daddy.  I never saw him except in a picture mommy has got.”

 

“Is he handsome?”

 

Sofia crinkled her brow. “What does handsome mean?”

 

Ella shrugged “I don’t know, Phoebe thinks Tommy Jeffries is handsome even if he does have lots of spots  on his face.”

 

For a little while the merits and demerits of having or not having spots was discussed very seriously which led to a discussion about freckles.  “My daddy counts my freckles, he knows whenever some are missing” Sofia informed Ella with a gravity that was very impressive

 

“Which daddy is that?” Ella asked “is it the Captain?”

 

“Yes. Of course”

 

“Does he have spots?”

 

Sofia concentrated for a moment as she conjured up a picture of Adams face “No, he doesn’t have no spots at all.”

 

Ella nodded, she didn’t think the Captain would have had a single  one.  “What about the other daddy? The one you dreamed about?”

 

Sofia shook her head and shrugged “I don’t know, he was dead before I was borned.”

 

“Was he sick?”

 

“I don’t know.   I can’t remember.  Your daddy was sick though, wasn’t he?”

 

Ella nodded and looked over at a picture of a couple with several children “Yes, ma said he died of lead poisoning.”

 

“Did it hurt?”

 

“Yes, it did.”. Ella nodded, and sighed.

 

Sofia didn’t ask any further questions, for a while they sat making the dollies in silence.  Sofia remembered Ella telling her she had been sick the same as her father but she could also remember her Uncle Hoss and Uncle Joe talking about  someone dying from lead poisoning, and she knew for a fact  the man had been killed when someone shot him in a saloon.

 

“Ella, did you get sick with lead poison too?”

 

The other child shivered and put the scissors down upon the table “Mama doesn’t like me talking about it.  She gets sad.”   She then sighed and took hold of Sofia’s hand “It’s a secret.”

 

Sofia shared her friends shiver, “I won’t tell no.body.”

 

Ella leaned closer “A bad man was riding his horse and he was …he had been drinking a lot …”

 

“He was drunk?” Sofia whispered and Ella nodded.

 

“He was shooting his gun and I was with Papa, he just fell down and then something hit me hard in my back …”. She frowned “That was when my daddy died and I stopped walking.”

 

Sofia didn’t know what to say, she stared down at the paper and crayons, and picked up the scissors.   Ella whispered “Don’t tell anyone ..will you?”

 

“No, I won’t tell anyone at all, not if you don’t want me to.“ she whispered back, and then turned back to the pretty coloured paper on the table… it seemed that everyone she knew  had secrets.  Everyone.

……..

 

Beneath the surface of the snow it was melting, leaving a treacherous path by which to pick out a safe passage, as he urged the horse forwards Adam wondered yet again just how much longer it was going to take before he reached Bodie.   The sun was setting, such as it was, and shadows were growing longer.  Were it to be a cold night the snow melt would freeze making the journey even more hazardous in the morning.  He looked up and then behind him, and that was when his horse missed his footing, slid and in struggling to right himself fell into the snow.

 

Adam had his feet free as soon as he realised something was about to go wrong.  He could feel himself falling, his body twisting from the saddle and then falling heavily upon the ground.   Even though the thickness of the snow cushioned the fall it still  knocked the breath from him.  As he rolled downwards he ploughed a furrow as he went, and  behind him the horse struggled to regain its feet, snorting as it fought gravity to get upright.

 

As the moon crested the hills it beamed down upon the crushed and trampled snow, the stamping horse shaking its mane and the man lying prone face down in the icy whiteness.

 

Chapter 47

 

Despite Sofia’s prior request for the adventures of Alice not to be read, Phoebe produced the book and looked so determined to continue on with the story that Sofia had no choice but to sit and listen.

 

She sat in her chair next to Ella, both little girls with paper roses wreathed upon their heads and the fire casting dappled shadows over their faces.  Phoebe stopped once or twice to look at them in admiration for they struck such a pretty picture together.

 

“Phoebe,” Ella leaned forward a little “there aren’t cats like that really, are there?”

 

Phoebe considered the case of the Cheshire cat and shook her head “Of course not.”. She glanced rather nervously at Sofia “You don’t really believe in vanishing cats, do you, Miss Alice?”

 

Sofia nodded her head “Cats always vanish, that means they disappear doesn’t it?  Mamma says they go away when they like and then they always come back for something to eat.   But that cat is a whole lot different from any cat I ever saw .”

Phoebe released her breath, the last thing she wanted was for the child to be scared and claim to have another bad dream.

 

“I don’t like it,”. Ella declared before Phoebe had had time to catch her breath and get restarted.

 

“”But Ella, I thought it was your favourite?” The older girl cried in dismay but Ella shook her head and the paper roses rustled and nearly fell off.

 

“I like stories about princesses and nice things , I don’t want stories with horrible people and funny animals in it.” Ella protested

 

“Or mermaids.” Sofia added “”My daddy tells me stories about mermaids when he’s at home.”

 

Phoebe put the little red book down with a sigh it had been a favourite of hers ever since her father had placed it in her hands and told her to enjoy such a magical feast for the imagination.  She slipped it into her pocket and stood up, “Well time to go anyway, come along Miss Alice.”

 

Sofia slid from the chair and removed her garland of paper flowers. She and Ella shared a smile, and then she was following Phoebe from the room to put on her coat boots and bonnet.   The paper flowers were left, abandoned, on a chair atop a pile of books to await her return the  next day.

………

 

Sofia only saw Rosemarie in the mornings when they had breakfast together or upon those occasions when the older woman chose to see her, so it was rather nerve wracking for the little girl to be told that ‘her grand mother’ wished to see her before she had had supper.

 

Rosemarie had been beautiful when younger but as events in her life took place that beauty hardened, as though frozen into place.  She had been loved by many, respected and admired by both men and women, but none of it had seemed to have thawed the hard steel that surrounded her heart and, she thought, protected her from hurt.

 

But she was wrong for the damage had been done many years previously, the hurt had twisted her strengths into a vice that prevented her realising that  the pains in life often moulded one into a human being that could understand and have empathy for others.

The child entered the room unsure of what to say or do.  She looked for Katherine and relaxed a little upon seeing the other woman there, a gentle fond expression on her face as she stood up when Sofia entered the room

 

“Alice, come here.”

 

Rosemarie’s voice seemed to bounce about in Sofia’s head but she approached the woman, glanced anxiously at Katherine before standing in front of the more formidable woman

 

“Do you like it here?” Rosemarie asked and when Sofia nodded, she frowned and said sharply “You have a tongue in your head, child,  use it!”

 

“Yes, m’am.  Yes, I like it here.  Thank you.” And she bobbed a curtsey to make sure she was doing things right.

 

“And you like visiting the child, Ella?”

 

“Oh yes, m’am, yes, I do.”

 

Sofia could hear the rustle of Katherine’s skirts as the woman began to walk over to her but a piercing glare from her mother stopped her in her tracks “Stay there, Katherine”

 

Katherine immediately froze, her hands clasped together in the front of her skirts.   Sofia felt her little heart pounding faster as she blinked up at Rosemarie

 

“Now, Alice … I want you to stop this nonsense about having another family  somewhere, your family is here and in Warsop,  Emily is your mother and James is your Father.  I hear that you have now conjured up yet another parent … ”  she shook her head, and picked up a framed photograph of a young couple which she thrust in front of  Sofia “This is your mother and this is your father.”. She stabbed her finger at the picture “look at it and remember.”

 

Sofia duly stared at the couple, pleasant enough to be sure, and she nodded, after all she had been shown it before and there was a similar picture in her own room.  She looked up at Rosemarie and wished she could say the things that were going round and round in her head, but knew it would be wiser to say nothing.

 

“Alice,” Rosemarie attempted to modulate her voice  “It isn’t right for little children to tell lies, it isn’t kind and shows very little gratitude for everything that you have been given.   If I hear any mention of any other persons again, you will have to be punished.  You do understand me, don’t you?”

 

Sofia nodded,  and wished she could run out of the room and find her mother waiting for her on the other side of the door.   She wished she could have explained to this woman that she knew she wasn’t Alice, she knew her name was Sofia Phillips Cartwright, but the words stayed stuck in her head as she stood, frozen to the spot, in front of this stern unbending figure.

 

“Katherine, take the child to her room.  Straight to her bed.  There will be no supper or play this evening.”

 

Sofia’s stomach immediately rumbled, she felt Katherine’s hand reaching for her own and wondered just briefly what would happen if she kicked the old woman  in the shins and told her how much she hated her … But it wasn’t worth it, she knew that, child though she was, and she also knew she had got away with it lightly this time.

 

She allowed herself to be led away by Katherine who didn’t speak a word but left her in Phoebe’s care to be undressed and put to bed.

……

She lay passively still in the bed and let her eyes rove from right to left, taking in the flickering shadows the fire created, shadows that drifted over the ceiling  and down the walls.  They were becoming familiar to her now, and the little night light glowed like a friendly beam close by.

 

She tried to remember her other bedroom where the beams curved protectively in the ceiling and the window looked out upon the mountains where the ponderosa grew and  the moon beams danced over her bed covers,

.

The memories were fading and it was getting harder to recall every detail now.  Tears filled her eyes and one trickled down which she rubbed away with her fingers.  She didn’t want to give in to blubbering, she wasn’t a baby, but she just felt so full of misery, it was like a tight fisted ball caught in the centre of her chest

 

The door opened slowly, as though whoever was behind it was doing their best to be as silent and careful as possible.

 

“Alice?  It’s me.. Phoebe.”.

 

The young woman hurried to the bedside and knelt down so that she was level with the child in the bed “They said you had no supper…so Annie made this, just for you.” She opened a napkin that she had been holding in her cupped hands “Eat it while it’s still warm, and here’s some milk.”

 

Sofia rubbed her face free of her tears and sat up “Thank you, Phoebe. Will you tell Annie thank you for me …”

 

Phoebe nodded and then stood up, “Ella’s so fond of you, Miss Alice … If they stop you from going over to see her I don’t know what she’ll do.”.

 

“They won’t do that, will they?” Sofia stopped eating and looked wide eyed at the girl,  seeing Ella had become such an important part of her life that the thought of it being taken from her made that tightness in her chest come back. It was hard to swallow the sweet pastry that Annie had made her.

 

“Mrs Royale can do anything she has a mind to doing here, dear.   Now, eat up, make sure there’s no crumbs left behind .,.here, drink your milk,”

She did as told and then returned the napkin and empty glass to Phoebe “You won’t get into trouble. Will you, Phoebe.”

 

Phoebe shook her  head and after dropping a quick kiss on Sofia’s cheek quickly and silently,  left the room.

…….

 

The saloon was smoke laden and the smell of nicotine, sweat and stale beer was the first impression the new comer had as he pushed open the doors.   No one took any notice as there were always strangers coming into the saloons and brothels, gambling joints and opium dens in this town.  A stranger was just another stranger, and if he had money to pay his way then he would quickly become a friend.

 

He was tall,  broad shouldered and dressed to suit a man who had been travelling in the cold extremes of their climate.  When he pulled off his gloves his fingers were stiff, and his face had the pinched look of one who had endured the cold snow laden winds for just too long.  Snow was melting in the growth of his recent beard and from his clothing, and his eyes had the weary appearance of a traveller who had come a long way to reach his destination.

 

He ordered a whiskey, and kept both his hands upon the counter.  The safest way when entering saloons in a town he had heard to be lawless, where there was no respect for life and offence could be taken at the least thing, like letting a hand rest upon the handle of a gun for too long.

 

The bar keep poured out the whiskey and pushed the glass towards him, and as he raised it to his lips there came the sound of a crash as a table was overturned, glasses smashed as they fell upon the saw dust strewn floor, there was the tinkling of coins and some laughter, some cursing .

 

He kept his eyes ahead of him and watched the fight as it was reflected in the mirror.  The fight was none of his business and he had no intention of making it so.  When the men, locked together as they fought, fell against him he just rolled  his body away with his glass raised high to prevent  spillage and let them continue as they punched and kicked to the accompaniment of cheers and crude comments from the saloons clientele.

Adam put the glass down and signaled for a refill, ignoring the fight, the resultant scenes of chaotic disorder around him.  Someone jogged his arm, but he ignored that too, even though this time some of his drink did spill over his fingers.  The bar keep froze, waiting for the strangers reaction after all he could see the gun belt and the gun snug in its holster.

 

A man yelled out a foul expletive and fired a gun however, taking the attention of the bar keep away from Adam and to what had just occurred.  One of the combatants was lying prone on the floor, blood oozing from a wound in his thigh, while the other pushed himself to his feet and turned to face the gun man

 

“Why’d you go do that for?” He yelled  “I had him just about beat!”

 

“You spilled my drink and my cards that’s why.”

 

The shouting lasted a few moments but died out, after all there’s little point in trying to out talk a man with a gun still smoking in his hand.  Tables were set to rights, and a sallow faced youth appeared with a broom to clear up the broken glass.

 

Adam leaned against the counter “Anyone going to get him to a doctor?”

 

“His brother ..” The bar keep jerked a thumb over to a man who was now coming down the stairs from the upper rooms.

 

“No sheriff to deal with it?”

 

“Here?   In Bodie?” There was a short mirthless laugh, more like a bark, “the last lawman we had here died from lead poisoning.”

 

Adam shrugged “A common ailment around here, I imagine.”

 

He tossed several coins onto the counter and  turned slowly, he had been there long enough to get some attention now, eyes followed him as he made his way through the debris caused by the fight.  He paused when he reached the injured man whose brother was in the process of hauling him up,  causing groans as a result.

 

“Need a hand there?”

 

The man struggling to get his brother off the floor paused and glared at the stranger

 

“Who’s offering?”

 

“Do you want help or not?”

 

The unruffled tones of the stranger indicated that the offer wouldn’t  be repeated, so he gave a curt nod and stepped aside for Adam to assist.

 

There was no difficulty in hauling the injured man up and over one shoulder years of doing just the same with his brother and sundry others made him an experienced old hand at doing so.   Without more ado he followed the other man out of the building

 

“Who is he?”. Clifton Reid asked the bar keep who shrugged and shook his  head

 

“Just a stranger in town.”

 

Reid frowned and stroked his moustache, just recently he had begun to get a little wary of strangers in Bodie.

 

Chapter 48

 

Dr Armstrong was none too happy at being roused from his bed so late to be confronted by a man who required surgery.   He glared with ill disguised annoyance as Adam let the injured man drop onto the operating table.

 

“You could have taken him to Lovell,” he whined “It’s not as if he lives that far from the saloon.”

 

Adam stepped back a pace and gave Armstrong a black scowl as the faint odour of stale  liquor reached his nostrils. He shook his head slightly and turned to leave, to return to the hotel into which he had booked a room earlier before he had made his way to the saloon.

“Hey, Mister..”

 

A hand pulled at his sleeve and he turned, perhaps his eyes signalled that he resented the action for the other man immediately backed off “I just wanted to thank you for your help is all.   Doug could have bled to death for all anyone there cared.”

 

Adam gave a slight shrug, a nod of the head but the other man was persistent and stepped in line with him “I’m Jethro Hardy, that’s my brother Douglas.  He’s the hot headed one of the family.”

 

A rather dirty hand reached out which Adam took, shook and gave his name.  Jethro nodded “The Ponderosa?  You’re some distance from home ain’tcha?”

 

“I guess I am at that” Adam nodded “Anyway, best you get to see to your brother, Mr Hardy.”

 

Jethro nodded but remained watching as Adam Cartwright left the doctors and faded into the dark shadows beyond.

 

As Adam pushed open the hotel doors the sound of gun shots from another area of the town were to be heard over the cacophony of the towns night noises.   He had heard them so many times before, ridden into so many towns just like this, and wondered if a time would come when peace would prevail.

 

He nodded over to the clerk at Reception who appeared half asleep but managed a half hearted nod in return.

 

Once in his room Adam locked his door and placed a chair angled beneath the door handle before pulling drapes across the windows.  The bed was more than welcome and after removing his outer clothing, and his gun belt, he settled himself down for some serious sleeping,  although his gun remained easily accessible.

 

His body ached everywhere, young Douglas Hardy hadn’t been any lightweight either.  As he closed his eyes he thought back over the journey, that tumble in the snow and the fear that the horse had been harmed.  He had been amazed at the distance he had fallen, only realising by how far upon recovering his wind and getting back on his feet to clamber back to where the horse stood.   How he had avoided  cracking his skull on numerous rocks and boulders along the way down had been nothing short of a miracle.  Not that he had come out of it unscathed, the aches and bruises to his body were testimony to that fact.

 

He was drifting into sleep and recalling Cole telling him to contact a family called Royale, he wondered briefly how Joe was faring.

 

……….

 

The loud knocking on the door disturbed everyone in the house, the dog began to bark, Cassie woke out of a dream and started crying.   Joe forced open bleary eyes while Hoss got to his feet and reached for his gun.

 

Cole opened the door warily while Hetty stood behind him holding a lamp high enough to shine on anyone who would be in the other side of the door.

 

“Who is it?”. Cole demanded and then there was a pause before he stepped back ” Best you come right on in outa the cold.”

 

The three men, bundled up well against the weather were more than grateful to step into the warm building although they brought a draught of cold air along with them. Cole nodded to his wife, clear indication that coffee needed to be prepared.

 

“Thanks, Mister, one of our horses took a fall further up, couldn’t have gone on much further.”

 

“How is the beast?” Cole asked as he fed fuel into the stove and then turned as Hoss stepped into the room gun in hand “got more visitors, Hoss.  We”re becoming a regular boarding house for waifs and strays”

 

But he got no further as his speech was interrupted by Hoss’ exclamation of “Pa!  Dang it, Pa, what are you doing here ?”

.……..

 

In her room Sofia had fallen into a troubled sleep, dreams disturbed her, dreams of disembodied cats with faces like Rosemarie Royale, and now Emily and James Kincaid were floating about in them as well.

 

She woke up once and listened to the sounds of the house as it settled for the night, she waited for the sound of a baby crying …Nathaniel?   Or Abel? … And for the murmur of a deep voice drifting through floorboards but there was nothing except the sounds from outside, of music that was jangling out some tune, men’s loud voices shouting, laughing, some singing that was shrill and discordant.

 

She drifted back to sleep telling herself over and over again that her name was Sofia , Sofia Cartwright.

……….

 

Hetty bustled about to get hot drinks for the three newcomers and in the way women handled things so well had the children back in bed and food on the table by the time Ben,  Luke and Roy had removed their wet clothing and boots.  Cassie was calmed and returned to her bed and sleep while Joe sat at the table, his blanket wrapped around him, and grinning from ear to ear at the fact that his father was within reach of him.

 

Hoss had gone to see to the horses and spent a little time checking on the injuries that Roy’s horse had sustained.  By the time he had got back inside Hetty had coffee ready for him steaming on the table.  Ben, Luke and Roy were eating and listening to what Joe was telling them about their own adventures and how Adam had gone ahead upon realising how ill his brother had become.

 

Hoss sat down and pulled the cup closer, “So how come you came to be here, Pa?  We thought you were back home with the women.”

 

Luke answered up on that point, with Roy nodding and tugging at his moustache throughout.  “Sofia’s my niece, I couldn’t just sit on my hands while the rest of you were scouring the country for her.”

 

Joe had a bout of coughing which caused Hetty to scold him for being out of bed “I,m alright, Hetty, I just want to know how they came to be here…”

 

Ben shrugged and gave a slightly wry smile “We noticed there were ranches and homesteads between the towns we were concentrating on. There was as much possibility of someone from one of them having found Sofia as someone in a town.  We decided to call on them all as we made our way to Bodie”

 

“Had no idea where you were,” Luke said while he smiled a thank you at Hetty for the bowl of hot food she had put in the table

 

“We soon realised you hadn’t been in  Colfax …” Roy mumbled as he chewed on the food “This is real good, m’am …and for sure little Sofie weren’t there.  So we reckoned on making our way to Bodie  and keeping on going til we found her.”

 

“When Roy’s horse took a tumble further back we knew we needed to get decent shelter, we’d lost our bearings somewhat despite there being a full moon.”

 

Cole shook his head “It don’t do to be travelling at night in these hills, not with the weather as it is now.”

 

Ben nodded, and for a while no one spoke until finally he asked for more details about Adam  ..when did he leave, how was he feeling physically, upon which Cole rose to his feet, yawned and stretched “By my reckoning, Mr Cartwright  Adam should be in Bodie now.  He knows what he’s doing,and, if you want my advice, I reckon you should all bed down and get some sleep.”

 

“Yeah Cole’s right,  Pa, no point jest sitting talking when we all need our sleep.  Joe, got yourself to bed before Hetty comes at ya with more medicine.”

 

Joe grinned, pulled a dramatic face but left the table, standing by the door wrapped in the blanket he turned and caught his father’s eye, nodded, and reassured that it really was his Pa seated there, made his way to where he slept.

 

Luke stood up and caught Hoss’ eye, before turning to thank their host. Tomorrow was another day and he already knew what he was going to do, and from the expression on Hoss’ face, so did he.

…………

 

It was still dark with only the glowing of a fading moon reflected upon the snow when the two men pulled on their coats and boots.   The room seemed crowded now with so many bodies in it for Hetty had woken to prepare breakfast and pack up food for their journey while Cole had sketched another copy of the map he had given Adam.

 

Roy had complained about being left behind although inwardly he was too tired to continue the journey and knew it.  Hoss reminded him that it was his horse that couldn’t continue on and somewhat mollified the old man shook their hands and then returned to his bed.

 

Ben had said nothing upon rising at the sound of voices and movement as Hoss and Luke had risen and left the room. He had simply followed them and waited for Hoss  to realise he was there and for him to explain what it was they were planning to do.  The two younger men had explained that they had intended to locate Adam and join in the search for the child together.

 

“You do understand, don’t you, Pa?”

 

“You plan to go to Bodie?” Ben said in reply and his face had fallen into dark brooding which caused Hoss to stop what he was doing for a moment leaving Luke to speak for them both.

 

“Ben, you have a son here who needs attention.  Roy can’t continue with his horse as it is,  and, let’s be honest, he’s tired.   Bodie is further up, the airs thinner, colder, and we’re both stronger and younger.”

 

“He’s right, Pa.  Adam may well need our help and …I think Joe needs you here with him.”

 

Ben nodded “I’m not arguing with either of you, son.  I just want to know for sure you’re well prepared for what you may be riding into…”

 

“We know, Pa.” Hoss muttered as he pulled on another sock over the one he already wore.

 

“Both of you … Be very careful.” Ben stepped towards each and shook their hands, then moved away to give them the room to get ready…that was when Cole and Hetty bustled out and made him feel as though he were contributing nothing.

 

He did, however, manage to place a firm hand on Hoss’ shoulder and repeat the admonition to his son to take care just as Hoss opened the door and stepped out into the cold winters evening, followed by Luke.

 

Cole closed the door and Hetty put her hand on Bens arm “Would you care for a drink, Mr Cartwright?”

 

“Thank you, but ..”

 

Cole raised his eyebrows “We’re not meaning coffee, sir..”

 

Ben smiled “Well, in that case …”

 

He knew they were distracting him from the thought of his son and Luke riding out without him by their side; that they  understood to some extent what he was feeling.  As he sat down at the table and watched Cole pour the amber liquid into the glasses, and heard the sound of Joes coughing from the other room, he was reminded of something Adam had once  said ….no one can be in two places at the same time.  Joe needed him, and to some extent at that precise moment in time more urgently than either Adam or Hoss.

 

Chapter 49

 

After breakfast Rosemarie told Sofia that she could visit Ella and as a special concession she could ask Annie to provide one of her cakes to give to Mrs Soames as appreciation for having the care of her for the past few days.   This kindness for her friends confused Sofia who had cast the old woman into the role as the Red Queen who was always wanting to chop off people’s heads.   Noticing Katherine’s gaze upon her however she remembered to thank Rosemarie and then to thank Katherine for the paper and crayons she had provided the previous day “We made paper roses and dolls.”  she said with an enthusiasm that brought a glow to delight to Katherine’s heart.

 

As she sat eating her meal and observing this little girl Katherine thought back to the evening that they had found her.   It puzzled her that a child of such a  young age could have been left like that, abandoned by a fire with such bad weather conditions.  There were times when she was alone that she thought over the occurrence and wondered if there had been anyone else in the area, someone who had been responsible for the little girl.  She would re-trace her footsteps time and again to confirm in her own mind that everything they had done had been for the safety and protection of the little girl,  how hard it had been to see or hear anyone else and apart from that, Clifton had heard and seen no-one,  and if anyone would have noticed, he would have done.

 

“Draw me a picture today, Alice.” she said as she leaned forward to tweak the ribbon in Sofia’s hair, “Something that you particularly like…”

 

“I like Annie’s cakes although …” Sofia paused, her tongue had nearly run away with her again and she knew that would lead to problems,  “I suppose I could always think of something else.”

 

Rosemarie nodded as though in approval and then looked over at the clock, she stood up and pushed her chair away from the table, then looked at Sofia “And no talking nonsense to the servants, Alice.”

 

Sofia nodded, asked very politely to be excused and upon getting her grandmother’s nod of approval quickly left the room.   For a moment the two women seemed lost in thought, before Rosemarie turned to her daughter “Do you think she is forgetting her past now?”

 

“She seems quite happy enough, doesn’t she?”

 

They both noticed the slight note of anxiety in the others voice but preferred not to mention it.  Phoebe came in to clear away the table and was told to prepare Miss Alice for her visit to Ella “And don’t forget to collect the cake from Annie.”

 

Phoebe was delighted, a treat from Annie, what a delight.   She hurried up to the child’s room and took up the coat, bonnet, muff and boots “Hurry Miss Alice, we have to get ready and we can take a cake from the kitchen.  Annie’s cooked such a lovely one for today.”

 

Chattering away she got Sofia dressed and then stepped back to nod in approval of her handiwork “She look a real picture.”

 

Sofia  said nothing but tucked her hands into her muff, in each fist she held a little doll from the dolls house, ‘Emily’ and ‘James’ were about to go for a walk, and they weren’t going to come back!

 

The snow was deeper due to the fresh snow fall during the night, and the young woman and little girl had to tread their way carefully in order not to slip.   Along the way ’Emily’ disappeared in a heaped pile of snow, horse dung and refuse from the street while ’James’  was deposited through the open window of someone’s house,  a great find for some child who would seize upon it later in the day and wonder for the rest of her life how it came to be there.

 

In his hotel room Adam carefully shaved away the beard, the scrape of the razor passing over his skin reminded him of past times, when he entrusted such tasks to his stewards  … Abbott’s,  Ames … As he rinsed his face in the warm water and slowly towelled it dry he felt that those days,  years, had happened to someone else, another life time away.

An hour later he was treading down the snow laden streets, adding his footsteps to all those others and slowly transforming them into ice upon which the children slid with shouts of delight and laughter whenever someone fell a victim into the snow that was heaped along the sidewalks.

 

He pushed open the door of the Telegraph Depot and waited until the clerk was available to take his messages only to see the man shake his head and shrug “All the lines are down,  sir,” there was a grimace, one meant to be of sympathy and of some consolation to his customer “They went down a few days ago.   No telling when they’ll be operating again.”

 

Adam said nothing although he raised one dark eyebrow and his mouth tightened.  The irony of it, no longer all those miles away at sea but just a paltry 150 and still unable to send a cable.  He glanced down at the counter as though doubtful as to what to do next.

 

The clerk cleared his throat ” If you want to write your messages here, sir,  I’ll send them off as soon as the lines are free.   Sometimes its just the weight of the snow and if it blows free, then I can send the messages through.”

 

It made sense, he nodded and took the note pad and pencil wrote down what needed to be said and handed them over. The clerk checked through them, counting the words before telling him the cost.

 

As he pulled out his wallet Adam looked around the building and then out of the window, he put the money down in the counter. “Its a bigger town than I expected.”

 

“Growing all the time sir.  They reckon there’s gonna be another Comstock out those mountains”

 

“I guess any things possible ..” He murmured thoughtfully “Do you have a sheriff here?”

 

“A sheriff?” The clerk looked surprised “Well, not at present, they kind of come and go, if you get my meaning.   You looking for anyone in particular?”.   He leaned on the counter, arms folded, prepared for some man to man confidences.

 

“The Royales… Could you tell me where they live?”

 

“Yes, sir .. I’ll write the address down for you.”

 

Adam slipped the address into the inner pocket of his coat, thanked the clerk and left the building.

 

The customer who had been standing next in line looked back over his shoulder as Adam walked out into the street, then turned to the clerk. “Who were the cables for, Seb? ”

 

The younger man looked awkward, hesitated for a moment before handing them to Clifton who noted that they were  addressed  to Mrs Olivia Cartwright, Mr Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Canaday … Clifton stared at them for some while before handling them over, “Did he speak much?   Say anything of any significance?”

 

“I don’t know, Mr Reid.  Significant as to what exactly?”

 

“Did he say why he was here? ”

 

“No, just asked if there was a sheriff here and for the address of Mrs Royale.”

 

Seb watched as Reid strode out off the building, he stood in the same spot as Adam had only moments earlier and then turned and hurried to the home of the two women who mattered so much to him.

 

Dr. Armstrong was not exactly overjoyed when he saw the stranger walking into his surgery but when Adam asked about Douglas’ condition he recognised the voice, apologised for his lack of manners and informed Adam that the young man had survived surgery and was sleeping.

 

Adam folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the door.  “It was unnecessary…the shooting I mean.   He could have been killed there, or here during the operation”

 

“My dear sir, haven’t you realised yet that in towns like these, life is cheap?”. He paused,

 

“I got the impression last night that you would not be capable of performing any kind of operation …” He gave Armstrong a glare which made the doctor colour up,  the red flush crept over his collar as he returned Adams glare with one equally baleful

 

“You don’t know under what kind of conditions we work  here.”

 

“Then if the conditions are that bad why don’t you leave and start a practice in a more law abiding town?”

 

“Because sir, despite the impression you have of the place there are quite a number of decent good people here who …” He stopped and shook his head, then turned away as though in despair “you’re right, quite right.  For the sake of those decent folk I should at least try to stay sober, it’s just very hard to do so when its the decent ones that are brought in and there’s nothing, just nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

 

Adam shrugged and gave a slightly embarrassed grimace “A good sheriff…”

“They don’t stay long ..they either ride out or get buried.”  Armstrong shrugged and then frowned as he surveyed the other man”You aiming on applying as sheriff here?  If you are, let me warn you now, you won’t be alive for long! ”

 

Adam shrugged “No, I’m not aiming to stay long.   Just making enquiries …”

 

“Oh about whom?”. Armstrong looked wary, “Are you a bounty hunter?”

 

“No, not that either .  I’m looking for a child … My daughter.”he stepped further into the room now and approached the stove by which he stood in the hope of it thawing the chill from his bones    “Dr Armstrong, my daughter went missing from her school   in Virginia City …”

 

“Virginia City, but heavens alive, man, that’s miles away.   What makes you think she would be here?”

 

“She was with her brother, they wandered off and got caught in the bad weather, lost their bearings …” He had to stop there for a moment before he could continue, Reubens face had appeared in his memory so clearly that he felt guilty for  not having done more. “They were separated but he saw her being taken away from where she had been sleeping.”

 

“But what has that to do with me?”

 

The man was clearly on the defensive and Adam felt a surge of anger at the fact that he could appear so obtuse he turned away and stared at the hot coals settling in the stove “She would have needed a doctor, whoever found her would have needed your services to help her.”

 

“For what reason, sir? “. Armstrong scowled and removed his glasses as though by doing so he could see this stranger more clearly

 

“Because she would have been ill.  Perhaps quite severely… Have you been asked to treat a child like that,  a child  new to the area perhaps new to a particular family?”

 

“There are always new families moving in,  some can barely speak the language”. He sat down and twiddled with the spectacles, turning them over and over between his fingers “What is the child’s name?”

 

Adam was more than wiling to give the other man Sofia’s details, and then watched with increasing frustration as Armstrong opened a book and checked his records.  He shook his head “no, I haven’t been called out to treat any child of that name.”. He closed the book which made a dull thud as it shut. “There are other Doctors practising in town.  I shall ask them.  A strange situation, Mr ….  I didn’t catch your name?”

 

“Adam Cartwright from the Ponderosa.”

 

The doctor nodded and was about to speak when the door opened to admit a woman pulling a young child behind her, Armstrong sighed and raised his eyes ceiling wards “A regular patient of mine, destined I swear, for a future as the worst kind of miscreant!”

………..

 

Clifton Reid was admitted into the parlour where Rosemarie and Katherine were seated together looking at several swatches of material and discussing their various merits.  Katherine stood up immediately and moved to a chair further away by the window, something she was accustomed to doing when Clifton was present.

 

The relationship between Rosemarie and Clifton always had been a source of irritation with the younger woman.  She could remember the man being in their lives ever since she had been born,  seemingly dogging their heels everywhere they went.   She had asked her father about it once and Royale had just laughed at her antipathy and referred to the other man as a faithful old dog, one who was very useful to have around at times.

 

He was always respectful to her, of course, sometimes she would even catch him looking at her as though puzzled by her negativity towards him but she couldn’t stop her resentment.   Even now as he approached Rosemarie , Katherine felt a shiver down her back.

 

He was direct in what he had come to say however, after a brief glance in Katherine’s direction he said quite bluntly “The child’s fathers here in town.”

 

Rosemarie didn’t speak for a moment, she stared at him very hard before asking  “Are you sure?   Who is he?  Do you know his name?”

 

“I just read the cables he hopes to be sending his wife, father and the sheriff in Virginia City…”

 

“Virginia City?”. Rosemarie frowned “Alice wasn’t any where near there when we found here”

 

“She was near enough Rose.   We could have turned back.”

 

“And this mans name?”

 

“Adam Cartwright.”

 

There was silence and then Rosemarie turned away to look  over at Katherine,  then at the fire while she twisted round and round the rings on her fingers “The Ponderosa Cartwrights?”

 

“Yes.   And I have to tell you, Rose, Adam Cartwright won’t give up until he’s found her.”

 

“What makes you think that?”. She snapped back sharply

 

“Because I’ve read about him, he’s the one went to sea, became a Commadore ..,and you don’t reach that rank by sitting on your hands and doing nothing.”

 

Rosemarie shook her head. “The Cartwrights are known as stubborn men, Clifton, how else would they have got all that land and held into it for so long.”.

 

Again she was silent and again she looked over to her daughter whom she knew would be listening to every word so she now lowered her voice and turned her back on Katherine to speak exclusively to Clifton

 

“Get the cables, don’t let them be sent …”

 

“Rose …”. His voice held a warning note which she dismissed with a wave of the hand

 

“Does he know she’s here?”

 

“No, not yet.”

 

She nodded as though confirming the words and she was satisfied with them.  Clifton Reid stepped closer and placed a hand upon her arm, his fingers tightened as though the action would convey how important he felt his words were “Rose,  this is your chance to put an end to this charade and to return this child to her family.  I”ve read about this man, I know of what he is capable of doing, he will not stop, Rose, if he knows she is here he will do everything he can to get her and you won’t be able to stop him”

 

She shook his hand away, impatiently, but the look on her face indicated it was more than that which caused her to step away from him and from her seat Katherine watched with some concern having only heard a fraction of what had been said.  That the conversation concerned Alice was obvious, and what the outcome was going to be was making her feel light hearted with fear.

 

“Mother, what’s going on?”

 

Rosemarie turned to her and shook her head “Nothing, Katherine, nothing for you to be concerned about ..”

 

“But if its about Alice ..”

 

“Katherine, please …” Rosemarie raised her hand in a gesture for silence then looked again at Clifton “How does he know Alice could be here?   What proof has he got?”

 

“He has none at the moment, Rose, but he’s here, and what you should do now is to contact him and let him know his daughter is safe.”

“Clifton, I didn’t realise you were so sentimental.” Her eyes flicked over his face, cold and blank as was the smile on her lips.  “Just stop worrying, and let me handle this matter.”

 

“What do you want me to do?   Contact him?”

 

She shook her head and clasped her hands together “No, do nothing.”.

 

His face became blank, his eyes as cold as her own, “Nothing?”

 

“You heard what I said, Clifton.”.  Rosemarie shrugged slightly and turned away, resumed her seat and picked up some material,  the audience was over.

 

Chapter 50

 

Mrs Soames closed the door to the room and sat at the table where she carried out her work as a seamstress.  Until the death of her husband and her daughters disability she had been employed by one of the towns  dressmakers, now she took in work that could be done at home so that Ella was never alone.

 

The sound of the children’s chatter and laughter was music to her ears, Ella had become a lonely introverted child since the shooting, now this other little girl had brought some sunshine into their lives and for that Mrs Soames was truly grateful.

 

Phoebe kept her own counsel with regard to things she heard or noticed at her employers home; she made no mention of the punishment Miss Alice had been given, after all, a parent or grandparent had the right to discipline as she or he felt suitable.   But even so it stayed in her mind, along with other things she had heard and seen.  Now she left Sofia with Ella, kissed her mother goodbye and hurried back to the other house to continue with her duties there.

 

Ella and Sofia had decided to draw, especially as Sofia had told Ella her Aunt Katherine wanted a picture.  Very carefully the little girl carried all the paper and crayons to the table closer to Ella and together they began their picture… A princess in her castle, a mermaid swimming among the fishes … They laughed and chattered as the pictures took shape, of course the mermaid had to have the longest golden hair and the princess the bluest eyes…

 

“Tell me one of your stories, Alice, about your brother Reuben.”  Ella said as she carefully drew a fairy floating about on a rather strange cloud

 

Sofia shook her head and bowed her head lower over her drawing.  More than anything she would have liked to have drawn a picture of her real house, with her family there, all of them.   But she knew it would upset Aunt Katherine and also make Grandmother angry again

 

“Let’s draw a picture of Alice and the rabbit.” She suggested and was more than relieved when Ella seemed happy to do so.

 

Mrs Soames came in with cake, Annie’s special,  and some thing to drink.  When Ella teasingly suggested that her mama sang to them the woman laughed a little and after a little while sang some familiar nursery songs to which they could join in or clap along with….   She had a pleasant voice, and once she had got to enjoy herself she began to sing other songs.  The girls joined in heartily with”Skip to my Lou, my darling” and Ella clapped while Sofia danced and capered around the room, laughing as she did so until she stopped, so suddenly that Ella and her mother were brought to silence. “Alice dear, what is the matter?” Mrs Soames asked in such gentle tones that Sofia promptly burst into tears.

 

As the woman hurried her into her arms Sofia sobbed onto her shoulder, “Hush dear, hush now ..what is the matter!”

 

Sofia rubbed her eyes and wept, in a tear laden voice she

wailed “I want my daddy.”

…….…

 

The offices of the towns newspaper “The Standard Pioneer Journal of Mono County”* provided a warm  haven as Adam stepped into it from the latest snow shower.  After glancing around to get his bearings Adam made his way to the Editors office and after rapping on the door pushed it open.

 

The man seated at the desk looked up and glared at this newcomer, then sighed and gestured to a chair “Welcome to Bodie’s first newspaper, Mister.  What can I do for you? Are you a stranger to town?”

 

He had extended his hand which Adam shook as he sat down on his side of the desk “I take it you’ve only recently started printing?   Everything has that ‘new’ smell to it.”

 

The Editor nodded, smiled proudly “Yep,  now that the Standard Company has actually found gold in the Bodie hills* we’re expecting to expand in a big way.  We’re going to put Bodie on the map.  Are you in the newspaper business?  From Aurora are you?”

 

“No, I’m Adam Cartwright, from the Ponderosa.”. Adam sighed and fidgeted in his seat

 

“Adam Cartwright … The name sounds familiar, now, where have I heard that name before.”. He struck a pose, that of a man striving to recall some elusive but important fact “ah,  I’m Mills by the way, Editor of this weekly journal.”

 

Adam nodded opened his mouth to speak but Mills beat him to it as he continued speaking “Adam Cartwright, of course, Daniel deQuille has mentioned you often…been to sea haven’t you?   One of the Ponderosa Cartwrights … Coming to invest in the Standard Company’s mine?  Best get your shares in it now before stock rises.   Its just 1$ a share at present*  This gold strike is going to be bigger than anything found in Aurora, Virginia City or anywhere else on the Comstock …”

 

“Mr Mills …”. Adam paused as though to ensure that the man had actually stopped talking. “Mr Mills, I wanted to ask for your assistance …”

 

“Anything..just name it … You want to advertise something?  Or ….”

 

“I wanted some information..  The Territorial Enterprise often covers details of the comings and goings of Virginia City’s citizens … Social visits, business trips … And I was wondering if you did the same.”

 

Mills frowned, tugged at his moustache “Well, we only started printing in October,* and the first stage coach from. Carson City direct to here was on 1st December, * and …”

 

“It would more than likely be a private trip…some one travelling to visit relatives in Genoa or Aurora, even to Virgina City …”

 

Mills shook his head “We haven’t quite got that familiar with folk yet … It’ll come with time I guess, but not just now.”  He narrowed his eyes slightly “I’ve known Daniel for years, how is he getting along?”

 

Adam sighed and reached out for his hat,  then paused in the act of picking it up “Mr Mills, I wonder if you would be interested in printing a story …”

 

“What about?”. Mills asked as he pulled a notepad and got his pen poised

 

Adam set his hat back on the desk and set out the details regarding Sofia’s loss, how he was looking for her. He provided a description as well as details of her age … And when he had finished Mills put down his pen and nodded “A very compelling story,  Sir.   I’ll have it inserted and ‘put to bed’ right away although it won’t be available to the public until the end of the week.”

 

Adam knew there was nothing he could do about that but thanked the man as he rose from his seat.  Mills again shook his hand and wished him well on his search reminding him that the child could be elsewhere not necessarily in Bodie but in Colfax or Aurora.  Adam nodded, agreed and bade him farewell

 

He found himself retracing his footsteps to the Telegraph depot and found Seb doodling while he waited for his next customer.  His smile of welcome slipped a little when seeing Adam who assumed that was due to the news being negative rather than any other ulterior  motive.   Seb nodded and greeted Adam with an apology “I didn’t mention ..I mean I should have told you before that our telegraph line has only been installed recently*…and it only goes to Bridgenorth and Genoa.*   Of course, I guess the office in Genoa will no doubt transfer your messages on down to Virginia City just that i should have told you afore but didnt think to say ..”

 

“You haven’t sent them yet?”

 

“Snow ..”

 

“Of course ..,”. Adam bit down on his bottom lip and shook his head

 

“You want me to notify the office in Genoa to forward them on?”

 

Adam merely nodded, then turned and left the building. Seb wiped his brow and glanced over his shoulder in case Clifton Reid was lingering anywhere nearby

 

Adam felt frustration and irritation welling up inside of him. He glanced up and down the main street, already a mile * in length and wondered where else he could go … His stomach indicated that a meal would be a good idea, looking for some sign of an eating house he finally settled on The Del Monico Restaurant*.   As he made his way across the road he decided that his next stop was to visit the Royales. Just  possibly they would give him an idea of what direction he should take thereafter.

 

From childhood Adam had been used to times of feast and famine, even during this strange journey he had eaten little and he was a man who, when given the chance, enjoyed his food.  Now however, despite the hollow feeling in his stomach he found no pleasure in the thought of eating.  He sat down at a table and asked for coffee, then glanced at the menu that was placed on the table.

 

“Mr Cartwright?”

 

A nervous voice but one that was familiar and when he looked up at the speaker he recognised young Jethro Hardy

 

“Mr Hardy.” He nodded acknowledgement and gestured to the chair opposite “Have you eaten?  Care to join me”

 

Hardy nodded and gratefully sat down, placing his hat on the chair next to him.   “I work for the newspaper.” He said all in a rush of words and obviously anxious to please “I heard what you told Mr Mills.  It’s my job to set out the print”

 

Adam nodded, ordered another coffee for himself and for Hardy, ordered some food but the young man declined that saying he was short of time, he had Douglas to visit yet.

 

“I really came over to say that I’ll do what I can to help.  Keep my ears open and let you know if I hear anything about your little girl.”

 

Adam nodded, wondered why the offer and was told it was because of the way he had helped when Douglas got shot.

 

“Folk in town hereabouts will step over ya rather than lend a hand to help.  You did a real kindness to us, Douglas is the only kin left to me now.  I owe you, sir.”

 

He gulped down the coffee, confirmed where Adam was staying and left just as the waiter brought along the food.

 

As he ate a surprisingly well cooked meal Adam took time to observe his fellow diners, not that there were that many but it helped pass the time.   He had eaten his fill when a woman  entered and was greeted with the degree of servility to indicate that she was obviously a woman of some importance in the town.   A tall woman, no longer young but dressed to appear more youthful; she held herself erect and walked with that deliberate but dignified gait that indicated to others that she really was a superior being and her presence was to be noticed as such.  She was very attractive in every sense of the word, appealing to the eye even though every movement, every gesture was a warning not to venture too close.

 

She was ushered to a table where a tall rather fat man was already seated, and now hastened to his feet  as she approached.  The greeting between them was cordial, polite and respectful, he listened to her, drank wine, swallowed his coffee, all of which she herself declined.  After some moments it was he who left the restaurant.

 

She sat alone and in obvious deep thought for some moments, and when the waiter approached a second time she requested some hot chocolate to drink.

 

Adam found her of some interest as he watched and observed her while he finished his coffee.   He had risen to his feet just as another man approached her table, paused and said something to her and was obviously approved for he was sitting on the chair recently occupied by the fat man by the time Adam had paid his bill and was collecting his coat and hat.

 

He couldn’t help but wonder why a woman of her standing would be talking to a man who so obviously earned his living  by using his guns.  Adam recognised him from the times he had seen that face peering out from the Wanted posters in Roy’s, now Candy’s,  office.

 

Chapter 51

 

More snow.

 

It shimmied down from the sky looking so beautiful as it covered everything that  was bare and bleak and ugly with its pure fleece blanket of glistening whiteness.

 

Hester stood at the window and watched for a few more minutes before turning to where Olivia sat staring bleakly at the fire while the children played together and Reuben tried to concentrate on reading his book. When he noticed Hester crossing the room towards Olivia, Reuben immediately stood up as he waited to see the reaction this attention would bring to his mother.

 

“Olivia?”. Hester sat down beside her sister in law and reached out for her hand which she held tightly within her own even though it was cold and limp to her touch. “Dear Livvy, please come and eat something.   You need food, you know that, don’t you?”

 

“It’s alright, Hester, don’t worry, I’m just not hungry.” Olivia replied although she didn’t take her eyes from the fire which would have meant looking at Hester and being confronted by those fierce sapphire blue eyes.

 

“What about the children?   Nathaniel needs you, dear, and so does Reuben .. Come and eat with us now.”

 

Olivia sighed and said nothing to that ; she couldn’t shake off the misery anymore.  It weighed her down so much that it exhausted her and all she really wanted to do was sleep.  She frowned a little before turning to look at the other woman “I should have looked harder.   I tried but … ”

 

She looked back at the fire and shivered. Odd now she couldn’t get warm.   She felt as though she were still trapped in that fog the cold wetness of which seemed to soak into her skin even now.   As she looked into the flames she could see herself on Kamille that day they had spent searching for the children, straining her eyes to look through the curtain of mist and hearing her voice bouncing back at her.   Back and forth they had ridden, back and forth and yet they had found nothing.   A mother should be the one to find her children, surely?   So why had she been unable to do so?

 

A hand touched her arm and she looked up and saw Hop Sing smiling and nodding at her “I make you good chicken soup, Missy.   You come eat?”

 

His sloe black eyes crinkled in the creases of his face as he smiled, but she could see the concern for her and felt guilt.  She knew she was causing them all more concern and that was unfair of her but … “Do you think she’s alright, Hop Sing?”

“Mr Adam find her, you see.”. He nodded again and his smile didn’t falter.

 

“Is it still snowing?”

 

“Snowing very much snow.”  Hop Sing replied and extended his hand to her in order to assist her to her feet.

 

She took her seat at the table as though in a dream, it seemed as though life were suspended, hanging in a dream. Mary Ann smiled at her and she wondered when it was that she had arrived, she hadn’t noticed and forced a smile to which Mary Ann responded with a warm smile of her own.

 

Every one was waiting, and for some reason Olivia realised they could be waiting for a very long time.

…………………….

 

Eddy glanced up from checking the accounts for which he was responsible to the Telegraph Co and nodded at Candy “Ain’t got no news for ya, sheriff.  Lines are still down.  Doubt if they’ll clear anytime soon with this snow that’s coming down.”

 

Candy nodded, snow drifted from the brim of his hat and the shoulders of his coat as he did so.  “No letters?  Nothing ?”

 

“No, sir.  Aint had nothing through from no where for days now.”   Eddy cleared his throat “Once the lines are repaired or cleared of the snow,  there’ll no doubt be a whole batch of mail come through.”

 

Candy rubbed his gloved hands together and nodded again, and then made his way out of the building to stand a little while on the side walk and watch as the citizens of Virginia City continued with their lives.   There had been no stages for a week,  and the Gold Hill train had cancelled several of its scheduled journeys.   Miss Brandon and her fiance had departed on one journey,  and no doubt been relieved that the snow had prevented too many coming to see her departure.  Candy had been sad to see her go, as had many others, but as she had said with a sad smile life goes on  and as it did so, changes had to be made.

 

Daniel deQuille moped in his offices and chewed his nails to the quick.   He had  made copious notes from O’Brien’s journal and had been eager to see if he could return it and filch another to take its place but the several times he had attempted to leave town had met with failure.  Snow had completely blocked the route into the Ponderosa.

………………

 

Hoss dismounted and walked through knee high snow to attend to his mount, and to ensure that both he and Luke’s horse were still able to breathe freely.  Oftentimes they had had to clear away the ice that was forming over the animals faces as their breath slowly froze.   Both men knew from long experience on the plains that animals could literally suffocate from the ice muzzle that would form over the nostrils and mouths.

 

It was hard enough for the riders, let alone the animals and Hoss rubbed his face until he could feel some degree of warm blood flowing through his cheeks again.  He looked over at Luke who was sagging slightly in the saddle  “You alright, Luke?”

 

“I’m fine, just tired of being so cold.”

 

“Should get to Bodie before night fall.”  Hoss reassured him and remounted into the saddle.

 

The horses walked slower now,  it was an effort to wade through the snow.   It may have looked beautiful, disguised the ugly cold black rocks and  boulders behind a mantle of softy downy whiteness, but it seemed to have a power of its own, after a few miles it fought back,  pushing the horses feet from under them, being hard to shove through…Hoss sighed and shook his head, and remembered his father once telling Adam and himself that for every 1000 ft higher the route, then the temperature would fall one degree lower.

 

He wasn’t really into statistics, but he could feel that his father was right, for the cold wasn’t just nipping at his toes and fingers and nose, it was pure biting, and biting hard.

 

The wind played with them too, as though it had decided it and the snow should join forces to make the travellers journey even harder.  Every turning they made meant a faceful of snow flipped playfully at them,  or tumbled down from the rock face,  or drifting in a slow cadence of movement in imitation of a water fall until it landed on top of them.

 

He glanced back up at the sky and watched as the clouds gathered once more, inwardly he prayed that the snow would not fall,  not again, not until they had reached Bodie anyway.

……………………….

 

“What’s that?” Ella asked all big eyes and smiles as she leaned over Sofia’s arm to look at the drawing

 

“That’s my house, that’s where I live with … with my family.” Sofia said proudly and held the drawing up for her friend to see “That window is where my bedroom is,  and over there, that’s the stable where we keep the horses.  Did I tell you that my Pa has a horse called Kamille, and she was a present from a Sheik.”

 

“A shake?”  Ella breathed with rounder than ever eyes “What’s a Shake?”

 

Sofia frowned and put the picture down, she picked up a brown crayon and began to colour in the barn with slow strokes as she wondered if she had said too much and if Rosemarie were to know what would happen to her?   Ella tugged at her sleeve “Alice, what’s a shake?”

 

“Well, daddy said that a Sheik is a prince.   He lives in a country where there are camels and he’s very rich.   Kamille had a little boy horse, you know?”

 

“A pony?”

 

“Yes, a real baby boy pony.   I wanted him for my own, he was so pretty, but my Uncle Joe …” she stopped again, Uncle Joe, always laughing and teasing with his merry hazel eyes and big grin, she blinked back tears.

 

“You arnt’ going to cry again, are you?” Ella said, putting a gentle hand on her friends arm “I don’t like to see  you so sad, Alice.”

 

Sofia shook her head “I’m not Alice, I’m Sofia …”

 

Ella looked at her and blinked, she nodded and removed her hand to pick up a crayon to complete her own picture.  “Yes, of course …”

 

But Sofia could hear the doubt in her friends voice,  the anxious doubt of someone who wanted to believe her but, well, after all those other stories how was she know which was the true one…Alice?  Sofia?  Ella sighed and then smiled, what did it matter, whatever the name was the girl was her friend, and she wrote very carefully on the drawing “S-O-F-I-A”

 

“She’s the best princess I ever drawed.”  she said proudly “And her name is Sofia.”

……………………….

 

The young woman who answered the door to a very persistent knocking looked up into the face of a good looking middle aged man with dark brown eyes, she nodded and smiled “Yes, sir?”

 

“Is this the home of Mrs Royale?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Is it possible for me to see her at all?  Is she available?”

 

“No, sir,  I’m afraid not.   Mrs Royale is out at present.  May I take your name?”

 

“Is there no one else I could speak to, it is rather urgent?”

 

“Not just yet, sir.  There’s no one home at all.”

 

He nodded slowly and frowned, looked thoughtful “Do you know when they would be available for a visit?”

 

“Not exactly, sir.   Mrs Royale doesn’t encourage visitors after 4 o’clock.”

 

The door was beginning to close, then stopped “Who shall I say called?”

 

“Cartwright.   Would you tell Mrs Royale, that Adam Cartwright from the Ponderosa called…and would like to see her.   I’m staying at the Bodie House Hotel*”

 

“Very well,  sir.”

 

This time the door closed with a definite clunk, and Adam stepped back feeling a sense of disappointment.  He wasn’t sure why he had felt that seeing the Royales was so important, after all, Cole had mentioned them in passing, just a woman and her daughter who were an important part of Bodie life and may have been of some help.  No one of any importance really.

 

He walked away and kicked at a pile of snow with his boot,  then continued on his way.  Half way to the hotel a woman was hurrying along the sidewalk with her head bowed against the wind, for while it was blowing against Adams back she was having to battle against it.   She had one hand holding onto her hat and another clasped at her throat where the scarf seemed to be blowing free and about to escape her.   As she turned in an attempt to grab at it, to prevent it from blowing away altogether, so her foot slipped in the ice and had Adam’s hand not grabbed at her arm she would have tumbled rather inelegantly into the snow pile.

 

“Are you alright, M’am?”

 

A kindly deep voice and gentle brown eyes looked down into her face.   This was the first sighting of Adam Cartwright that Katherine Royale had, it was one she would never forget.

 

“Thank you,  you’re very kind.” She gasped and then repeated herself as he caught at the errant scarf and gathered it together to place into her hands.  “Thank you.”

 

“Do you have far to go?”  Adam asked “Will you be alright?”

 

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, thank you.”

 

He nodded and touched the brim of his hat before passing on , his head bowed as he contemplated his next action with regard to locating Sofia.    He stopped,  paused and decided to go to the nearest saloon,  aptly called The Bonanza* Saloon.

 

It was not too busy,  snow kept even the most hardened drinkers from venturing out until their desire for liquor was greater than the misery of the cold.   He found a table and was soon provided with a glass filled with whiskey.  A woman with plastered on make up and golden blonde hair came and draped herself over him, the smell of stale perfume mingling with that of other smells that were rather unpleasant, he gently pushed her away and said quite bluntly “No, thanks…”

 

He noticed the drop of the smile, the hardness grow in her eyes but sometimes it was better to be blunt than not.  She strolled off to join several other girls, whispered to them her opinion of this latest new comer and as a result Adam found himself the object of several pairs of baleful eyes.

 

“Mr Cartwright?”

 

He glanced up and found himself looking at Dr Armstrong who bestowed a smile upon him as he pulled out a chair to sit upon,  a nod indicated that he wouldn’t mind one of the same so Adam beckoned to the bar keep who brought over a bottle…obviously knowing the doctor from of old.

 

“Have you had any success in finding anything out about your child”  the doctor removed his spectacles and placed them in his top pocket

 

“No, nothing.”

 

“Hardly surprising.   A child lost in the conditions you mentioned  …   I doubt if they would have survived the cold, the journey.”

 

“Which is why I came to you for answers, Dr Armstrong.” Adam replied and poured some of the alcohol into his glass and pushed the bottle over to the doctor.

 

“I have made enquiries on your behalf, my good sir.”  Armstrong smiled and nodded as he poured the whiskey into his glass “And I can tell you that several children were visited by various doctors in town.   I have their addresses here, and their names of course.”

 

With a flourish he produced a piece of paper with various names and addresses plus the name of the doctor who was attending them.  Adam looked at them and checked each address, each name and then sighed as he put the paper down …there was no Sofia Cartwright on the list.

 

“As an additional favour to you, sir, I also made enquiries at the under takers.”   he saw the colour fade from Adams face and felt a twinge of sympathy “It must have crossed your mind, sir, that she could have died.”

 

“It did.  I just didn’t want to be reminded in such a manner.”  Adam turned the glass round and round between his fingers, before turning to look up at the doctor “Well?”

 

“It’s been a busy time for them, winter brings a lot of sickness to this kind of town, especially with men who work in the mines.   But there was no little girl of your daughters name among the recently deceased.”

 

“Thank you,” Adam managed the flicker of a smile, “I’m very grateful to you for your help.”

 

“It was no trouble.”  Armstrong muttered in the voice of a human being rather than a professional man who disdained the emotions of others “I had a child once,  he died at a very early age.  I – I rather felt for you the other day and … it was the least I could do.”

 

He tipped more whiskey into the glass and frowned “So many sadnesses…. So many.  You know,  it’s odd, I have treated so many people, so many childen, but I couldn’t save my own child.”

 

“I’m sorry …”

 

“You would understand, I’m sure.”  Armstrong gulped down the amber liquid and plunked the glass down,  “I remember not long afterwards the school teacher here got shot, a good man, a good friend.”  he paused again, poured out more whiskey “Some idiot drunk chasing another fool down the main road and shooting his gun in all directions, killed my friend, and his little girl was shot too.   Not a pleasant sight, you know, seeing a little girl shot like that .. Blood all over her pretty little dress…I tried to save them both, but …”

 

“The child died too?”  Adam raised an eyebrow,  perhaps the whiskey was making him maudlin, he wasn’t sure why he felt so sad about this child and her father.

 

“No,  I tried my best, but the bullet was too close to the spine .. .. A pretty girl though,  just paralysed from the waist down.”

 

“What happened to the drunk who caused it?”  Adam asked and pushed his glass to one side.

 

“He fell off his horse and broke his neck…good job too,  had he not done it to himself there would have been a whole host of folk who would have stretched his neck for him.”    he finished off his drink with a flourish and then nodded “I’ll leave the list with you.”

 

Adam just nodded and watched as the doctor weaved his way around tables that were obviously not in the place he thought them to be.   When the doors closed Adam picked up the list and read through it again…. He gave a slight shrug of the shoulders when he noticed that Mrs Royales name and address was on the list, a little girl Alice Kincaid was attended to by Dr Lovell.    He folded the paper in half and slipped it into his pocket  … co-incidence … but then, he didn’t believe in co-incidence.

 

Chapter 52

 

Nathaniel ran around the table, now that he had found his feet he never walked if he could help it, his chubby little legs moved as jerkily and as fast as he could go while he shrieked and laughed as Hope chased behind him.

 

Hester observed her daughter and nephew with a fond softening of her face.  To think that there had actually been a time when she had thought her little girl was suffering some kind of sickness, she could laugh at herself now for her fears.

 

Hope caught her cousin, shrieked with delight in doing so while Nathaniel wriggled in protest “Caught you. Caught you”.

 

“Not ..Not”

 

Reuben left the table and his books to sit by his mothers side.  She had been watching the children with a smile but sadness in her eyes, a sadness that never seemed to leave her face now.

 

The child sat and took hold of her hand, “Mom?”

 

She turned away from the two little ones to observe Reuben, smiled and nodded, “Are you alright Reuben?”. She brushed back his hair from his brow, and then frowned “What’s the matter?”

 

Of course she knew it was a stupid question, what was the matter was hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles, in the air they breathed, in every word they spoke.  He leaned into her and was grateful for the fact that she opened her arms and took him into them, holding him close and resting her cheek upon his head

 

“Ma, I’m so sorry, I tried so hard to bring her home … I didn’t realise how lost we were, and all I wanted was to show Pa that I could bring her home safely … ”

 

Olivia didn’t speak at first, but she continued to hold him in her arms while so many thoughts and emotions tumbled through her mind.   Had he been a man, even a youth she may well have shouted and screamed that he’d made a fine mess of everything, that had he been more sensible he could have prevented it happening.  Those thoughts had gone through her mind so often, if there had to be blame placed in anyone … Then she would tell herself he was only a child, a boy, and he had done the very best he could do at the time.

 

“Ma?   Please don’t be angry with me…”

 

She sat up then and cupped his face within her hands, looked into his eyes and gently kissed him “Reuben,  you did all that you possibly could to have kept your sister safe.

How could I be angry with you?”

 

“But you’re so sad.  I know you are …and I’m sad too, Ma, really I am”

 

His lips trembled and a tear slipped down his face which she gently brushed away “Reuben, I’m .. I …”

 

“Mom, do you remember what you said to me that time I was so scared about going to that trial?  You know, when the Downing kid was there …” He watched as she nodded slowly,  her eyes looking thoughtfully into his “You said  ‘Fear knocked on the door, faith answered but there was nothing there'”.

 

“I remember, my mother told me that a long time ago.”

 

“Do you still believe it, mom?”

 

She turned her face away and closed her eyes, how could she explain to him that every time she tried to sleep at night she could see her little girl sleeping stiff and frozen in the snow looking like some kind of ice sculpture?   That her  dreams consisted of countless rides on Kamillle calling their names and never finding them and then waking up to tears on her face and her pillow wet as a result of them.

 

She nodded, leaned forward and kissed his brow, “I know” she whispered “I know what you’re saying, son.”

 

She held his hand in hers while he nestled his head upon her shoulder, he felt some reassurance now, there was comfort in having seen something in her eyes that showed she hadn’t been totally beaten by all that had happened.

 

“Reuben, we have to be patient.”.   She heard herself say the very words she had refused

to accept herself, “Your Pa will find her and bring her home.  We have to remember, your grandpa, and uncles are all searching for her too.”

 

He knew that … How many times had they said those words?  Everyone said the same, it was  like a prayer one said over and over until eventually they believed it.  He leaned into her again and thought of the snow, the constantly falling snow …

 

Someone tugged at his leg and he opened his eyes to see Nathaniel looking wide eyed up  at him, a cookie in his hand which was being offered up with dimples in his cheeks and big eyes beaming up at them.   As Reuben took the cookie the infant turned to Olivia “Me …. me too …” And stretched out his arms in order to be lifted up and held close within her embrace.

……..

 

Adam had folded the list into a pocket and then trudged his way back to the hotel. He paused once to glance over his shoulder to check that he wasn’t being followed.  In this town his instinct for danger was finely tuned.  He walked on and at the first opportunity took a side turning, pressed himself against the wall and waited, one hand on the handle of his gun.

 

He waited long enough for the most patient of pursuers to have continued following him, but no one came.  Only the snow  drizzled down in lazy spirals to the earth.

 

Had he imagined it?  Nerves?   He frowned and crossed to the other side of the alley from where he could see the way he had come and saw nothing, no one.

 

One thing he knew for sure was that he was  bone weary.  A man who was overly tired could imagine anything and make mistakes as a result.   He headed for his hotel, made his way to the room and locked the door.   Before he put a match to the lamps wick, he went to the window and looked out at the shadows below

 

Did he imagine the shape of a man partially concealed as he stood against  a wagon and appeared to be staring up at the hotel?   If he were not imagining it, why assume the man was watching his room?   He stepped back, pulled across the drapes, struck a match and lit the lamp.   The chair he again placed under the handle of the door and then removed his outer clothing cast off his boots  and then fell into the bed.

 

The bruises, the pains and aches, the utter weariness washed over him and within minutes he was sound asleep.

………..

 

Rosemarie Royale looked down at the little girl and gently stroked back the blonde curls.  When she smiled her eyes twinkled and she looked younger, prettier so it was only natural for Sofia to smile back.

 

“Now, my dear, did you enjoy your time today with Ella? Did she enjoy the cake Annie made?”

 

Sofia nodded, suddenly shy and confused. Rosemarie took hold of her hand and squeezed her fingers gently “Alice, little Ella enjoys your company, and I was thinking how nice it would be if she could come and spend time here instead. You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

 

“No, m’am”. She looked around the room “Where’s aunt Katherine?”

 

“She’s resting.  She’ll join us later.”.

 

Hand in hand the woman and child made their way to the large room where books lined the walls and a fire burned brightly in the hearth. Rosemarie paused and pointed to the books “Help yourself to any of these books, child.   You like reading, don’t you?”

 

“Yes, m’am”

 

Rosemarie sighed and leaned down to look into Sofia’s eyes,  “Darling,  i’m your grandmother, I know you find it hard to remember, after all, it was quite a while since we met before and you were a very, very little girl then.  But I am your grand mother, so don’t be frightened of me, call me grandmother instead of m’am”

 

Sofia nodded, she remembered, vaguely an old lady but yes, it was a long time ago.  Things were getting so very confused, she nodded again “Yes, grandmother”

 

“You’re a very pretty little girl, Alice.” Rosemarie smiled, her eyes gleamed and she gave the little girl a kiss on her cheek.

 

“Now, go and find yourself a book until Phoebe comes to bring you to dinner.”

 

She left the room, her long skirts drifted across the thick carpet her perfume lingered in the air as she moved.  Sofia watched her and then turned to the books, she chose one and settled down cross legged on the floor to immerse herself in another world and escape the one in which she was living in now.

………….

 

The sound of the door handle rattling roused Adam immediately and his hand went instinctively to his gun.  As his fingers curled around the handle a familiar voice yelled

“Hey, Adam. You in there?”

 

Hoss, by all that was wonderful, he rolled from the bed and within seconds the chair was removed, the key turned in the lock and the two brothers were staring at one another and then hugging and shaking each others hand “What are you doing here you big galoot?”

 

“Shucks, why’d ya think?”. Hoss grinned “look who came with me?”

 

Adam now realised there was another man with his brother, and both eyebrows rose as he looked at Luke Dent who was looking thoughtfully at him as though weighing him up as a worthy associate for the task ahead.   “Come on in,” Adam smiled after shaking Luke by the hand. “We can talk better without running the risk of being overheard.”

 

Once inside Adam turned towards them both and then shook them by the hand again “How long have you been here?”

 

“Long enough to stable the horses and look over the  registers of three hotels before getting to this one.” Hoss replied pulling out a chair to sit on, and giving his brother a grin

 

“Its good to see you, Luke ..but where’s Joe?  Is he alright?  How come you’re with this brother of mine?”

 

“She’s my niece,  Adam, you didn’t think I’d sit by and leave you all to find her by yourselves, did you?”. He removed his hat and brushed snow from his shoulders while Hoss explained to Adam how Ben, Roy and Luke had arrived at the Camerons ,  as Joe was still unwell it was considered wiser for the older men to stay with him. “It’s what Joe would have wanted anyway …” Hoss muttered.

 

“So, have you found any sign of her yet?” Luke asked as he looked around the room as though surprised not to see Sofia hiding in the wardrobe.

 

Adam shook his head and told them what he had done, even as he spoke  it sounded so little and he felt suddenly weighed down by guilt.  He rubbed the back of his neck and then pinched the bridge of his nose while Hoss paced the floor, his hands on his hips and brow puckered in a frown of deep concentration.  Luke was quiet as he observed the two other men and then asked  “The Royales, did you visit them?”

 

“I did, but they don’t see visitors … ” Adam sighed and gave a familiar shrug of the shoulders, “But ..” He paused as he clasped his  hands together ” I believe they know something.”. He paused, frowned over at Luke “what made you mention them?”

 

“I met an old friend in Colfax, he suggested visiting them…I used to serve under Royale, knew the family and Clifton Reid, he was a close friend of theirs and he’s also here in Bodie.”

 

Adam nodded, stared thoughtfully at Luke, then at Hoss,”Too many coincidences” he muttered, “It may be best, Luke, if you pay them a visit as soon as possible.”

 

Hoss nodded but raised a hand “First off, something to eat.  Luke and I ain’t eaten nothing since we left Cameron’s.”

 

“We can discuss a strategy as we eat.” Luke suggested as he got to his feet.

 

As Adam reached for his boots he said quietly “I’d best warn you now, there’s no law here in Bodie, I’ve recognised several faces from wanted posters already … Life is cheap so be careful.”

………..

 

It was early evening as the three men made their way through the town, the moon shone upon snow laden streets, the light reflecting back creating long shadows.

 

Sofia had eaten her meal and as everyone was in a good mood it had been a light hearted pleasant time together. Rosemarie had even encouraged her to show off her expertise on the piano and both women had clapped their lace mittened hands in pleasure.

“You’re quite a delight, darling.” Katherine said and gave her a hug while Rosemarie positively beamed at her and patted her on the head before saying how clever she was and that it was now time for bed.

 

Phoebe had already prepared her bed the room was warmed by the fire and she now assisted Sofia in undressing and slipping into her nightclothes.  There was no wind blowing this evening, and the moon sent a silver streak of light into the room through the gap in the curtains.  Drawn by the light Sofia ran to the window and clambered up onto the window seat.

 

The house was a three storeyed building and her room was at the top of the property, so seated by the window she had a very good position to watch the people down on the street without them ever realising they could be under observation.

 

She pressed her nose against the glass and watched with casual curiosity as people made their way to their various destinations. Shadows lengthened, shortened, and she wondered if shadows actually turned corners.

 

She noticed three men walking along the sidewalk and was fascinated by the difference in their shadows, one so big that she told herself it belonged to a giant.   For some reason they paused in a group, turned towards her house, perhaps the light from her bedroom attracted the attention of one man who had  raised his face

 

“Daddy!”.  She breathed the word, a whisper and then more loudly “Daddy!”

 

She banged on  the glass with the palms of her hand, watched as Adam lowered his head, shoved his hands into his pockets and turned to follow Hoss  and Luke.  Sofia couldn’t believe it, banged harder, called louder …  But the three men walked onwards and Phoebe came, told her to quieten down and get into  bed.

 

“It was my daddy,” the child whispered barely able to get the words through her sobs, “I saw him”

 

Phoebe shook her head “You thought you saw him, Alice that’s all.  Your daddy is in Warsop with your momma and the baby.  Why would he be here without them and -” she pulled the bed covers up to Sofia’s chin “if it was your daddy he would be here, wouldnt he? After all, this is where his family is, isn’t it?”

 

Sofia stared up into the honest trusting eyes of the young maid and said nothing. Phoebe sighed “If you work yourself into another fever Madam will bring in Dr Lovell again and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

 

She shook her head and sniffed, wiped her eyes and watched as Phoebe tidied the room and the left her on her own.   She couldn’t understand, nothing made sense anymore, things were getting mixed up in her head.  Tears trickled hot and sticky down her face into the pillow.  One thing she knew, just knew for sure, she had seen her daddy and the other men ..well,  one of them was Uncle Hoss for sure!

 

Chapter 53

 

Hester was more than surprised to find Olivia dressed and prepared for going outside and even more surprised when her sister in law greeted her with a smile “Hester, I’ve had a word with Ezra and he tells me it will be quite safe to get back home so I thought it would be a good idea if I took the children and got it ready for when Adam and Sofia get back.”

 

“Go home?  But, Livvy, this is your home for as long as you need us, you know that, don’t you?”

 

Olivia smiled again, a gentler smile this time as she  approached Hester and reached for her hand “Dear Hester, time and again you so willingly take care of us, but now’s the time I need to get back home and face up to things.  Reuben and Nathaniel need a mother who organises their lives not someone who mopes about all day feeling sorry for herself…”

 

“But you had …”

 

“Well,  perhaps, maybe, but I can’t take your kindness for granted any more, Hester.   You and Mary Ann have been  such dear friends”. She leaned forwards and kissed Hester on the cheek “poor Cheng Ho Lee will be wondering where I’ve got to…”

 

“Are you quite sure?”

 

“Yes, quite sure.   Ezra is fixing the rig with runners and will take us home.  I shall leave Kamille here rather than risk her in this weather, and ..and thank you, Hester, you’ve just been so kind”

 

They embraced again and Hester was about to ask concerning the children’s whereabouts when Reuben pushed open the front door “Its all ready, mom…” He smiled over at Hester and gave her a generous smile “We’re going home, Aunt Hester.”

 

Before Hester could say another word Hop Sing appeared with Nathaniel warmly wrapped up snug in his arms while two little girls held onto his tunic wailing and protesting at the loss of their playmate.  Nathaniel took it all in his stride and waved a mittened hand solemnly at his cousins.

 

“If you feel you need to come back, you will,  won’t you?” Hester cried grabbing hold of both Olivia’s hands within her own

 

“Dear Hester,” Olivia said gently, but firmly “Adam  married me thinking I was a strong woman, and I want him to come home and find that I am, that this situation hasn’t turned me into someone else… Some empty headed woman who has so little confidence in her husband that she goes to pieces.”

 

A little pressure on Hester’s fingers and then she turned, nodded to Reuben,  took hold of Nathaniel and hugged him close as she stepped  out of the house and followed her son to where Ezra awaited them.

 

Hester picked up Hope and followed by Hannah stepped out onto the porch.  Olivia caught sight of them waving  good bye just as the rig swept away from the stable.

………

 

Phoebe put the tray down and shook her head as Annie looked away from the oven, raised her eyebrows and asked how the little Miss was now.  “I don’t understand it, she went to bed so happy last night.”.

 

“She has a vivid imagination does that one,”. Annie sighed and returned to her baking, “But I got the impression she had  calmed down these past few days.   Your Ella’s been good company for her and Miss Katherine wants me to cook some little cakes  for them both as your sisters coming over today, isn’t she?”.  She frowned at the silence and turned to the younger woman “Cat got your tongue!”

 

“I was just remembering something that happened when I was putting her to bed.   She said…”

 

The sound of footsteps tapping down the hall stopped her from saying anything and she busied herself with clearing away the items on the tray as Katherine came into the kitchen

 

“Phoebe, how is Alice?   Do you think we should get Dr Lovell in to see her?”

 

“I don’t think so, Miss Katherine.   She’s had bad dreams during the night that’s all.”

 

Katherine nodded “Well, if you’re sure.” She still hesitated, her fingers constantly twisted the rings she wore on them round and round “Mother’s worried about her, She seems to have so many bad dreams”

 

The two women remained silent knowing from past experience that was the best way to handle her, she sighed and after shaking her head left them alone.   Annie rattled some crockery and muttered dourly “The thing is  that little girl isn’t happy, no matter what any one says…”

……..

 

The three men met in the foyer of the hotel and after a brief nod of a greeting left the building.  They parted, as planned the previous evening, and went their seperate ways.   Luke took the route to the Royales home, Hoss  to the saloon and Adam to the surgery of Dr Lovell.

 

The snow had stopped falling and the temperature had risen so the snow was beginning to turn to slush.  It dripped from roofs and cills adding to the accumulation of puddles everywhere.

 

The town was already busy, store keepers were serving early customers, women were wending their way back and forth, saloon keepers had their premises open for business.  A fight was already breaking out in the Comstock Saloon as two men tumbled through  the doors swinging punches at one another causing Hoss to step back to avoid them.

Adam didn’t break his stride by glancing over at the fight, but continued on towards the address  the Hotel clerk had given him

 

Clifton Reid had carried little Ella from the Soames house to the Royales. It was not a great distance, one from the other, and the man was thoughtful as he listened to the child talking excitedly about what she and Alice were going to do during this day together.  He had been told to take Ella up to Alice’s playroom and to make sure she was comfortable.

 

He had performed this task  and was just turning from the door of the house when he came face to face with a man approaching the property.  For a moment he considered whether it could be Adam Cartwright but before he could speak he recognized that there was something familiar about the man, searched back in his memory and thus encouraged stepped forward to greet Luke.

 

“Luke Dent?  It is you isn’t it?”

 

Luke was less than pleased to see Clifton, the plan had been to get into the house and see the women, meeting up with Clifton could be a barrier to that but he mustered up a smile, a nod of the head “Clifton?  Good to see you.”

 

The two men shook hands, a rather more cordial greeting than either anticipated.  “So what are you doing here, Dent?  Last I heard you were in Arizona”

 

“I went back home, have my own ranch now.  Bodie’s a growing town, should imagine some beef steaks wouldn’t go amiss …”

 

Clifton laughed “Its been a while since I had one of those although I guess you’re in the wrong place if you want to discuss cattle deals.”

 

Luke nodded and gave a shrug of his shoulders “I know, but I wanted to see Mrs Royale and Katherine.”. He pulled a wry face “just to catch up …”. He frowned “I believe that Emily’s in Warsop,,,with her family?”

 

“That’s right.”. Clifton nodded “Why the interest?”

 

Luke glanced at the house behind Clifton, before giving him a suspicious  glare “Is there a particular reason why I can’t visit Mrs Royale and Katherine?  There was a time when I was on good terms with them and I just thought, as I was here that it would be good to meet them again.   But if you feel that there is a reason why I shouldn’t call …”

 

Clifton shrugged “No reason, just .. Well just curious that’s all”

 

Luke looked again at the  house, nodded “Well, if you’ll excuse me …”

 

Clifton had no choice but to step aside, he waited for a moment as he watched him knock on the door, saw it opened and Phoebe came to answer it.  Luke removed his hat and after another moment stepped inside.

……..

 

Hoss looked around the saloon and wondered momentarily what could have caused the fight, it didn’t seem as if there was anything or anyone around to be the cause of one.  The man behind the counter glanced up at him and raised his eye brows, his eyes goggled a little, it didn’t bother Hoss he was used to people reacting like that when they saw him the first time.   “Just a coffee … No milk.”.  He flipped some coins into the counter and waited, staring at the scene of what was happening behind him as it was reflected from the mirror .

 

Clifton Reid entered the saloon just as the coffee was placed in front of Hoss, he nodded in acknowledgement of the big man and then asked for coffee plenty of sugar.

 

“What was the fight about this time?” He asked casually “I think Fred just bit Hanratty’s ear off.”

 

“Aw, he’s sore because Hanratty got a bonus and he didn’t … Three sugars, Mr Reid?”

Clifton nodded and then looked at Hoss. “Seem to get a lot of strangers here lately.”

 

Hoss shrugged “Would have thought  a town like Bodie would be used to strangers passing through, mister.”

 

Clifton nodded “Sure, not when its been weather like this though … You thinking of staying long?”

 

Hoss frowned, it seemed to him this person was being a mite uppity, at the same time he could remember Luke mentioning someone called Reid so refrained from saying anything that could cause the man to start a fight.

 

“That depends” he replied honestly and drank down his coffee and asked for another, “I came with a friend of mine, we’re in the cattle business.”

 

Clifton looked Hoss up and down, “You came in with Luke Dent?”

 

“S’right.”

 

“Well,  any friend of Luke’s is a friend of mine, name of Clifton Reid… Luke and Me we served in the same unit some while back.  Come and sit down, have a drink on me .. Mr..”

 

“Cartwright, Hoss  Cartwright but just coffee for me, thanks”

 

Clifton felt his throat tighten,  he nodded over to the bar man and then gestured towards a table “Hoss Cartwright …”. He sat down,  “Well, sure is a small world ..from the Ponderosa?”

 

“Yes, sir” Hoss smiled genially, and picked up the cup, “you know the Ponderosa then?”

 

“I certainly do, I have to got across it every time we go to Warsop.” Clifton leaned  his arms upon the table “So how long have you known Luke?”

……..

 

Dr Lovell looked over at his next patient and frowned, checked his list “who are you?  I’ve got Mrs Fawcett next…”

 

“Mrs Fawcett decided she didn’t need to see you, Dr Lovell.”

 

“And you do?” Lovell’s voice contained more than a hint of arrogance, the fat face reddened a little around the collar . Adam wondered if that was due to the collar being too tight Or the doctor being particularly irritated that his schedules had been disarranged.

 

“I do, but I won’t take up too much of your  time. Doctor Lovell.   I just want your help…”

 

“What medication do you need, sir?  I presume ..”

 

“Wrongly, you presume wrongly, Doctor. I don’t need a prescription just some information about a little girl, her name, Alice Kincaid.”

 

“Kincaid?”Lovell looked confused for a moment and shook his head “I don’t .ah, yes, of course, Mrs Royale’s grand daughter.”.

 

“What can you tell me about her?”

 

“Well,  not much really, she isn’t a regular  patient of mine you see.   Mrs Royale brought her across from her daughters home in Warsop.   The child was taken ill on the journey, what possessed them to travel …well anyway I told them when I saw Alice they were very irresponsible bringing a little girl in such weather conditions, it was no wonder she was ill.”

 

“How long ago was that?”

 

Lovell shrugged again, he was a man who enjoyed talking, confidences were very loose considerations so far as he was concerned, he rubbed his chin with a plump dimpled hand “We had snow, it had just started coming down heavy. Clifton said there was fog  along the way but being a higher elevation here we got the snow sooner …they got me out of bed to attend to her you know?   They were very concerned for her.”

 

“Describe the child …what was wrong with her ?  Has she recovered?”

 

For a moment Lovell hesitated, the intensity Adam conveyed and the bearing of the man made the doctor realise that just perhaps something was not quite right.  When he had hesitated a little longer than necessary  Adam opened his coat and put his hand on his gun handle,had it been  any other  man he would have appealed to their good nature, but this man ….Adam thought scaring him would save time and therefore be the more expedient method.

 

“A young child, dainty in stature, blonde hair and blue eyed.  She had got overly cold and had a fever .  I visited her several times until she was quite recovered.  She wanted her mother and father, cried a lot for them .. And her brother …” He paused “Are you alright?”

 

Adam nodded, controlled his emotions for the thought of his child crying out for them caused his heart to beat so fast he felt dizzy.  “Yes, I’m alright.   Go on…”

 

Lovell shrugged “Nothing really to say except that Mrs Royale explained that it was the  first time her grand daughter had been so far from home and family, she and her daughter, Katherine, were really relative strangers to her. It’s a long journey from here to Warsop you know,”

 

“And the child made a full recovery?”

 

“Oh yes, definitely. The last time I saw her she was running about playing with her dolls, and quite happy. She’s very fond of her aunt, Katherine.

 

“How old is the little girl?”

 

“Possibly six.  Very pretty, quite charming in fact.”

 

Adam nodded  “And in her fevers, did she mention any names at all? Places?”

 

“Not to my knowledge just the ravings of a child. Unintelligible mostly.”

 

Adam nodded. He stood very still for a moment before asking if any other 6 year old girls had been  attended to by him at that time, but Lovell shook his head none that he could recall.   There was nothing more to be said, Adam put money on the desk and in silence left the building

 

Chapter 54

 

Adam was deep in thought as he trudged through the sludge and slush of the melting snow.  There were other doctors to visit, to speak to but his instinct was so strong a compulsion in his gut that he was more than ever convinced  that everything was still pointing to the Royales.   He knew assumptions were unreliable, he knew coincidences did happen, but from a child he had always listened to his instincts and they had seldom been wrong.

 

He slowed his pace slightly as he thought over people from the past he had befriended …well,  there had been Tom of course, some could point to him as an example of his instincts leading him down a false trail but they’d be wrong in their thinking if they did.   He had always known Tom was a ‘wrong ‘un‘, but the man had saved his life and deserved the time and chance to make changes.   Adams instincts had been that Tom would always have chosen what suited Tom best … And he’d been right.  But had his instincts been wrong and Tom had chosen a decent settled life, then his life would have been saved, and Adams debt paid to him  in full.

 

He paused again, glanced over his shoulder as instinct now told him he was being followed.  He watched people as they made their way through heaped mounds of snow, horsemen walking their horses through puddles of snow melt.  Slightly on edge he continued on to the saloon where he had agreed to meet Hoss,

 

He immediately noticed his brother seated at a table with an older man sharing a jug of coffee. As he caught the bar man’s eye and indicated he’d like the same he could see the reflection of the man who followed him in.  Without breaking his stride he made his way to the table and pulled out a chair as the other man leaned upon the counter and ordered some whiskey.

 

From outside there were several gun shots causing both Adam and Hoss to half rise in their chairs, their hands hovering close to their holsters as they  turned their heads to the door but no one else moved an inch, just carried on as usual because that was  ‘the usual‘.  As they settled back down onto their seats Clifton Reid put out a hand “Clifton Reid, friend of Luke ‘s.   Take no notice of all that, it’s probably some hot heads shooting for the sake of it.”

 

“What if someone’s hurt, mister?”. Hoss asked but Clifton shrugged and said something along the lines of it being their own fault for getting in the way of any bullet.  Then he turned to Adam

 

“So you’re Adam Cartwright?   I’ve read a lot about you …”

 

“You don’t want to believe everything you read” Adam replied, and nodded his thanks to the barman for the coffee. “So you know Luke?”

 

“Knew him from way back when we served in the same army unit.  That was when Major Royale was in charge.  Yeah,, Luke was a good kid, had it rough during the war between States. You know his brother got killed at Bull Run.   Shot, dropped dead  right by Luke’s side?  ”

 

“He doesn’t talk about his past life much.” Adam said rather coolly, he glanced over at his brother who gave a slight nod of the head in understanding that the man wasn’t to be encouraged in discussing details of Luke’s life.  Some things one had to respect and if a friend hadn’t divulged certain matters then no stranger had the rights to do so.

 

Their conversation was disrupted by some altercation outside “This is a rather noisy town you got here, Mr Reid” Adam observed as he picked up his cup

 

“Folk here work hard, play hard …so long as no one interferes in their business they’ll be alright” came the immediate answer

 

“And what does interfering actually mean, Mr Reid?”

 

“Oh, asking too many questions about matters that don’t concern a person!”

 

Adam sipped the coffee, glanced over to the counter and caught the reflection of the man who had followed him.  He recognised him now, he’d seen him talking to a smart woman during which a very urgent discussion had taken place.  As he watched the man straightened up, his hand dropped to his holster but Adam moved slightly faster.   In reaching over to push his brother out of the way of any bullet the table was overturned, toppling against Clifton and sending him falling backwards suffering nothing more than a bang to the head from its contact with the floor.

 

Both Hoss  and Adam fired their guns back but could only watch as their assailant ran unscathed from the building

 

Clifton was on his feet and brushing down his jacket “Seems you have an enemy in town, Mr Cartwright.”

 

“I don’t think so, Mr Reid” Adam pulled the table upright “I rather think that bullet was meant for you,”

 

“For me?” Reid laughed but he soon became quiet when Adam dug out the bullet embedded in the wooden pillar where Reids  head had been reclining not so long prior to the shooting

 

“Did you recognise him?” Hoss set his chair straight and yelled for more coffee

 

“I thought I did, but – it doesn’t make sense, why would he shoot at me?”  Reid muttered as he picked up his hat and brushed down his jacket

 

“Maybe you know something you shouldn’t,” Hoss muttered with his usual naïveté as he poured out the coffee into three new cups

 

That comment went down like the proverbial lead balloon.

………..

 

Katherine Royale had greeted Luke like a long lost friend and, to all intents and purposes that was exactly what he was, her genuine pleasure at seeing him there helped him relax as he was helped out of his heavy coat and handed over his hat to Phoebe.

 

“Mother won’t be long, she had some business to attend to. Phoebe, do prepare some refreshments and bring them into the drawing room.”

 

Phoebe did what good servants  did best which was to disappear, bearing the coat and hat with her. The news that a gentleman had called, that Miss Katherine was so happy at seeing him led to the two women speculating for the few minutes it took them to prepare the tray that Phoebe then carried up to the drawing room

 

“I can hardly believe you’re here, Luke.   How did you find us?”

 

Luke smiled and settled into a chair by the fire, it was a pleasure to see her again for once upon a time he had harboured quite a fondness for Katherine Royale.  That fondness could have grown into something more permanent  until her mother put a stop to any hope of it progressing further. But he had to admit she was still a very pretty woman and when she smiled as she was now, she looked quite enchanting

 

“I only heard you were here by chance quite recently, Katy. If I had known earlier …”

 

“No one’s called me Katy for years,” she interrupted and sat down in a chair opposite to him but close enough to touch him if she had been able.  Phoebe came in with the laden tray and quietly went about bringing a small table closer to Katherine’s  chair so that she could pour out the coffee.

 

Katherine chattered on for a while, telling Luke about their life in Bodie, how her father had decided it was a good place for them, and how he had become the Mayor “Things have gone wild since he died, though.   I do wish Mother would consider moving. We could join Emily in Warsop, it would be so much better than staying here,”

 

“Why not go anyway, Katy?   If you’re so unhappy here, then why not join Emily there?   How is she, by the way?”

 

“Oh she’s very well, and happy.  She has family of her own now, and has just had a baby boy.  We visited them not so long ago.”. She sighed, melancholy slipped across her features just momentarily while she busied herself with preparing coffee for her visitor

 

He listened as she told him how unhappy the trips to Warsop made her because Emily, well, she had a husband,  children and although she herself didn’t mean to complain life with mother in such a God forsaken place as Bodie was no comparison.   “Its been made a little pleasanter since Alice came though.”

 

“Who’s Alice?”

 

“My niece.   Mother thought Emily needed time to recover from the delivery of her son,  to be with her husband and son alone and Alice hadn’t settled well with the  baby.   We had been promising Alice time here with us for so long.”. She paused, then looked over at him “I’m sorry, I’ve been prattling on and not asked you anything about yourself. What a selfish friend I am ..”

 

“I  would say a lonely one,  rather than a selfish one, Katy.”

 

She nodded and then looked uncomfortable as though acknowledging the truth about her life was not only rare but preferably hidden away even from herself,

 

So he told her about the ranch, about his wife which caused her to blush a little as though realising that the little castle in the air she had been constructing in her mind would never become a reality after all.  Noticing this Luke directed the conversation now to past events …parties and balls at the Fort, old friends they had in common, which led to him saying he had just met Clifton Reid outside the house.

 

“He was always a close friend to your father if I recall rightly”

 

She nodded “Yes, but sometimes he can be so tiresome ..” She shrugged “Mother keeps him employed here because of past loyalties, but that’s all,”

 

Luke was about to contiinue with the topic when the sound of familiar footsteps could be heard from outside indicating that their tete a tete was soon to end,.   In anticipation of Rosemarie’s entrance Luke rose to his feet and prepared himself to meet the lady of the house.

 

Rosemarie stepped into the drawing room with her handsome features set into cold and disdainful lines, her eyes were totally devoid of any warmth and her lips thin with disapproval at the sight of their visitor.    “Luke Dent!   I heard you were in town.”

 

“Really, Madam?  I only arrived last evening.”

 

“Enough time for news to get around.”. She looked him up and down, before stepping further into the room and occupying the chair  that Katherine had vacated for that purpose “so what have you two been talking about? Old times, no doubt,”

 

“Of course, mother … And old friends.”

 

Rosemarie stared at Luke, decided she disliked him as much now as ever she did in the past, Luke, unfazed by her attitude promptly said “I believe congratulations are due Mrs Royale.  Katherine tells me that Emily has married and has children.”

 

Rosemarie’s lips puckered into a rosebud of annoyance she said nothing for a full moment then said that yes, Emily had both a daughter and a son.

 

“And living in Warsop?   Some distance for you to travel?   I suppose you take the junction and cross the Ponderosa to reach it?”

 

“You know the Ponderosa?” She snapped back at him and when he said that his ranch was close to its borders she shrugged “Then why ask a question when you obviously know that its the only route we can take which makes it remotely reasonable for such a journey to be undertaken”

 

“One you took quite recently?”

 

“To be with my daughter during her sons birth.” She looked at Katherine very sternly her cold eyes conveying a message that Luke couldn’t understand. “And to bring my grand daughter here for a while”

 

She stood up now and raised her chin as though challenging him to say anything more on the subject, realising his visit had to end Luke stood up, smiled at Katherine who lowered her head, suddenly shy. “Good day, Mr Dent”. Rosemarie said between clenched teeth but without even looking in his direction.

 

Katherine led him out to the Hall and located his hat and coat he smiled as he took them and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders “Seems your mother hasn’t warmed to me none…”

 

“I’m sorry, Luke.  She has strange fancies and …”

 

A noise behind them caused both to turn to see Phoebe closing a door to another room “Oh sorry miss,I didn’t hear you ring.”

 

“It’s alright Phoebe,  I didn’t ring for you” she smiled and then turned to him  “You must meet Alice before you go. Is she in the library, Phoebe?”

 

Phoebe had no time to answer as Katherine, all smiles and eyes alight with pleasure led Luke to the other room that Phoebe had just left.  She pushed the door open with a smile  on her face she stepped into the library “Oh. Alice ..”

 

The child  turned, the book on her lap nearly toppled to the floor, and her face coloured up immediately “Phoebe said …” she stammered but before she could say another word Rosemarie, standing directly behind Luke stepped forward, brushing both Luke and Katherine to one side, gave the girl a smile and  said  in warmer tones than Luke had been privy too  “That’s alright child, enjoy whatever book you wish.” Then she turned, stood in front of Katherine and successfully obscuring her from Luke’s view “my grand daughter, Alice.   Now, if you don’t mind sir …please leave my premises.”

 

Luke glanced back at the child sitting on the straight backed chair a pretty little girl indeed, but it wasn’t Sofia.

………

 

Reid had left the saloon by the time Luke arrived there and found the Cartwright brothers waiting for him.   He pulled out a chair and slumped down, slung his hat onto the table and yelled over for a whiskey before uttering a rather strong expletive

 

“As bad as  that, huh?” Adam muttered catching Hoss’ eye and raising his eyebrows

 

“That old virago ..I’d like to call her a lot worse and that’s a fact!”. He tossed back the whiskey and shuddered

 

“Did you see any sign of Sofia?” Hoss asked, leaning forwards to try and see Luke’s face for the other man had bowed his head into his hands

 

“No.”. Luke sighed and raised his head “The grand daughters there, Alice.   I saw her, it isn’t Sofia.”

 

Adam pouted slightly and frowned.  He chided himself inwardly for expecting this search to have been so easy. To have expected Sofia to be found in the first house so soon, no, that had been overly optimistic and yet ..how could he explain to anyone that even now, even now, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that the Royales knew something.

 

“Did you see Reid on the way from the Royales?” He asked Luke.

 

“No, why?”

 

Hoss shrugged “Someone took a pot shot at him … He was sitting right where you are now so be careful, that chair may give way any time soon.”

 

“You sure it wasn’t at either of you?”

 

Adam shook his head at that suggestion “Would have got him between the eyes if we hadn’t moved in time.  The shooter knew who he was aiming for, and so did Reid.  He left here as though the weight of the world was on his shoulders.”.

 

“Why would anyone want to shoot Reid?” Luke muttered and glanced around the near empty room as though someone, somewhere would supply him the answer

 

“Not just any someone … I recognised the man, he has a thousand dollar bounty on his head” Adam pushed the empty glass round the table “You have to ask yourself, what does he know that Mrs Royale  does not want him telling anyone?”

 

“What makes you think Mrs Royale  had anything to do with it?”. Luke muttered

 

“I accept the fact that I’ve never met the woman but …” Adam paused, asked himself if he were being foolhardy even thinking along those lines but nonetheless he told them both about seeing the elegant older woman talking to the gun shooter before adding “Reid knows too, he couldn’t hide the fact when he walked out of here.”

 

Hoss rose to his feet in a deliberate slow action “Then we had best go see Mr Reid before the next shot gets him!”

 

…….

 

Phoebe was confused.   She didn’t dare to tell Annie when she took the tray back down about what she had heard just before she had gone to collect it from the drawing room.  The whole thing still made her shiver.

 

Rosemarie had been talking, more than that, she had been shouting, her thin voice calling Katherine all manner of names “…and what else would you have told him had I not arrived when I did?  You stupid stupid girl!”  That had been followed by the sound of a hand striking flesh, then another slap accompanied by a startled cry of pain which had emboldened Phoebe to knock on the door and enter the room.

 

But servants are adept at noticing things that they should not, and despite Katherine turning away and Rosemarie calmly taking her seat as though nothing had happened Phoebe could see from Katherine’s reflection in the mirror the reddened cheeks that resulted from a slap around the face.   They were certainly not caused because of the young lady thinking of the gentleman who had just left!

…… ..

 

Ella was also confused, as well as worried about Alice.  Her little friend had been very quiet and tearful through the morning and had ran constantly to look out of the window.  When Ella had asked why Alice had said nothing but leaned closer into the glass until her brow was touching it.

 

When Phoebe had come with milk and cookies she had suggested that Ella went to read in the library while the other child had a little rest for Sofia was looking flushed and rather wild around the eyes.  So while Sofia was put to bed to rest a little, Phoebe carefully carried her sister down to the library and settled her there close to the fire and with a book to enjoy.

 

To add to Ella’s confusion had been Rosemarie, Katherine and a gentleman‘s sudden appearance and she couldn’t understand why Rosemarie had mentioned Alice when the only child in the room had been herself..   Her enjoyment of what should have been a happy day was fast dwindling to such an extent that she asked Phoebe if she could go home earlier.

 

“Are you sure!” Asked her sister who was still trying to recover some sense of equilibrium from what had taken place in the drawing room.”Alice will be so disappointed.”

 

“I don’t think Alice is very well, Phoebe, and I don’t want to sit here all day on my own”

 

“Do  you think I should tell Mrs Royale?  Does she need the doctor!”

 

Ella didn’t know, how would a child her age know about a thing like that?  Phoebe looked worried. Wrung her hands together before getting to her feet for she had been kneeling beside Ella’s chair “I’ll ask Mr Reid to take you home.  Don’t worry I’ll be back soon.”

.……….

 

Clifton Reid was more than a little nervous.  He was 100% sure that the bullet had been intended  for him even though he wanted to think it was more likely to have been aimed at Adam.   Fact was, it wasn’t!   That bullet would have got him right between the eyes had Cartwright not moved so fast.

 

Who would want him dead?

 

The answer to that question took him back over a number of years to when he had first met Katherine Royale.  He had loved her from the first day he had met her for she had been ,and still was, such a beauty!   She shone like a jewel whenever she appeared, and she had been a devoted wife to her husband.

 

But despite that loyalty, which Reid rather admired, he had continued to love her .

The Major had realised, of course, and Reid knew it had become a private joke between the couple, perhaps further afield  too.  But what did it matter, and when at times she had shown him some kindness it had compounded the intensity of his feeling for her

 

And he knew her so well.    He had known exactly what she had been thinking when he had tried reasoning with her about finding the parents of  the child.  He had seen and recognised that look in her eyes and remembered the last time he had seen it, shortly before Royale had died.

 

But she had turned  to him to attend to that little matter,  and as a result he  had achieved what he had desired for so long.

 

Clifton Reid kept his head down as he walked back to the house. Every nerve strained as he wondered if he would reach there alive.   He knew because he had followed her that evening when she had met  with Duggan, the latest gunslinger who had drifted into town.

 

Chapter 55

 

As the three men made their way along through town Hoss couldn’t resist giving his brother a nudge  in the ribs and saying, along with a wide grin how like the early years of  Virginia City this town was, wild, lawless, and noisy.

 

Adam nodded rather absent mindedly, his mind on other matters than the things that happened back in the past.  Luke had his head down,  scowling and thinking over what had happened at the Royales, feeling anxious for Katherine and wondering how they were possibly going to find Sofia.

 

“Where are we headed now, Adam?”.Hoss asked as he stuffed his hands in the pockets of his old brown coat

 

Luke glanced up, he had followed along with the two others because he couldn’t think what else to do, where else to go but now he stopped and grabbed at Adam’s sleeve

 

“Why are you coming here?  I’ve not long left and I’ve seen Alice, I told you already that she isn’t Sofia.”

 

“Doesn’t rightly matter who the girl was you saw, Luke, I still got to go and see Mrs Royale.”

 

“Ain’t that the dumbest thing, Adam” Hoss groaned, “Ain’t Luke just done  told you that Sofia ain’t there”

 

Adam shook his head, firmed his lips and stared at both men while the wind whistled around their ears and they stood glaring at one another. Finally he turned away to continue walking onto the Royales house

 

“Doggone it, Adam, if you  ain’t the most stubborn mule headed..”

 

;”Look, Hoss, call me whatever you like but I have to go there if only to satisfy my own mind.”

 

“Ain’t it enough that Luke has just been and …”

 

“There’s no point standing here arguing, Hoss.   Luke may have seen Alice, doesn’t mean Sofia isn’t somewhere else in the house, does it?   Or maybe she isn’t there at all but the women there may know something that gives us an idea of where she could be.”.  He glared at Hoss before turning to Luke. “Unless you got any ideas of your own to suggest?”

 

Luke shook his head.  There was a silence of a few minutes before Adam nodded, turned and continued to walk on.

 

 

Clifton Reid held Ella in his arms carefully as he walked from the big house to the sidewalk.  The child was quiet, unlike her usual chatty self and she looked pale and dark eyed.  He had just turned to walk to her house when there came the sound of a gun firing.  He wondered for a fraction of a minute, considered the possibility and dismissed it, held the girl closer.   Another shot and he was aware of his knees weakening, he tried to walk on,  despite muffled sounds around him he was aware of a child crying .. His heart thudded in his ears and he could hear himself saying “Sorry, Ella” before both he and the little girl fell into one of the snow mounds by the side of the road.

 

Luke had yelled “Alice … Run…”  Just as Clifton fell with the child still in his arms.

 

All three men ran towards  the victim, their own guns ready even though there was no sign of the ambusher.  Some others joined with them, some women who demanded a Doctor be sent for, although Clifton was more in  need of an undertaker.

 

“Alice, come here …” Luke said in a gentle voice, kindly enough to be non threatening to the little girl “Come on now, I”ll take you home.”

 

Ella remained where she was, pinned down in the snow by Cliftons arms and it was Hoss who carefully untangled her and whispered “Alright thar, little girl, come to Ol’Hoss and he’ll take you home.”

 

“I can’t, I can’t, “Ella sobbed “my legs …I can’t walk, Mister”

 

She was still sobbing, the tears streaming down her face as she felt once again the horror of being shot down in the street.    “They shot my daddy …  They did … And …and I can’t walk”

 

Hoss gripped her hand and nodded although he had no idea of what she was talking about “You got hit?   Whereabouts, honey?”

 

“Hoss, she needs to get back home,” Luke said as he placed a hand on the big mans shoulder, “The shocks got to her, can you carry her?”

 

Hoss nodded and as people began to move away, after all what was another shooting in Bodie – he picked the child up into his arms and turned towards the Royales drive that led to the big house

 

“Alice,” Luke said to the sobbing child,  “we’re going to take you home and …”

 

“She’s not Alice.”

 

The quiet way Adam said the three words stopped the other two men in their tracks.  Luke was immediately defensive

 

“I saw her in the house, Katherine identified her as her niece and Mrs Royale  did likewise.”

 

Adam raised his eyebrows “Well now, they lied, which begs the question as to why!”

 

“Shucks, Adam … If’ n you’re so danged sure she aint Alice, who is she?” Hoss asked slightly belligerently as he continued to stride down to the house

 

“Her  father was the school teacher here, she was shot down along with him a few years ago,  that’s why she can’t walk.”

 

“And how do you know this? ” Luke asked just as his hand was raised to bang on the door.

 

“Because a doctor told me …”  He stopped as the door was opened and before any word could be spoken the young woman looked wide eyed at the three of them,  then at the child and screamed

 

“Ella. Ella”. She pushed Adam aside and hurled herself at the little girl, pulling her away from Hoss and sobbing as she did so.   The responding open arms and tight embrace as Ella hugged into her sister  satisfied the men that Ella was in safe hands  although Hoss did manage a suggestion that a doctor be found to attend to her.

 

They now entered the hall and removed their hats as the mistress of the house bore down towards them. “What is all this caterwauling about?  Phoebe, take that child to the kitchen and get her seen to.”.

 

Rosemarie drew herself up straight backed and thin lipped, she glared at Luke before turning her heavily lidded eyes into the other two men “And who may you be?”

 

“Before anything else, Mrs Royale…” Luke began

 

“Did I give you permission to speak, Mr Dent?  No I don’ t think so.   Now – who are you men and what are you doing in my house?”

 

Adam promptly stepped forward and introduced himself and Hoss, then added that they had come to tell her that a friend of hers  had just been killed.  She looked from one to the other, during which time Katherine now appeared from the drawing room and hesitantly stood near by

 

“A friend? Who exactly do you mean?” Rosemarie asked and raised her chin challengingly

 

“Clifton .. He was shot while carrying a little girl …” Luke began but Katherine gave a startled cry of “Oh no…no” and covered her mouth in an effort to suppress another sound.

 

Rosemarie bowed her head , stared for a moment at their boots “Clifton … Shot?”

 

Luke had gone to Katherine’s side and gently supported her saying as he did so that she needed some brandy as she was near to fainting and then carefully steered her back into the drawing room.

 

Rosemarie had no choice but to follow demanding all the time for details about what had happened.  Luke helped Katherine onto a chaise longue and then poured wine into a glass while Hoss looked around the room for some sign of his brother who had suddenly disappeared.

……….

 

 

It seemed too good a chance to miss out from as everyone seemed to head for the drawing room so Adam headed for the stairs.  It seemed logical to him that had another child been in any of the rooms on the lower floor they would have followed Katherine’s example and at least have peeked round the door to see what had happened.

 

He took the stairs two at a time while his heart thudded loudly even though he was telling himself to keep a calm head, it was possible he was wrong and if there was a child here, then it could well be Alice Kincaid.

 

He turned to the next flight of stairs ignoring the rooms as he knew if the child was not up in the eaves he could always look into the other rooms on the way back down.

 

‘She may not be here, she could have gone out…where would she have gone out to?  No, she’s here ..and if she isn’t there will be something of hers in the room…but she will be here …”

……………

 

Sofia had slept a little for her head had ached and she couldn’t even begin to pretend to be happy while Ella was there.  Sleep had been deep and pleasant as she had dreamt of the fields full of wild flowers and the river that slipped lazily along down past the house.

When she woke up she just lay there awhile thinking of her dream  and then she remembered that she had seen her father and uncle’s from the window so hurried over to scramble back upon the window seat.

 

The window overlooked the back of the house and the main street beyond so she was spared the sight of the shooting which had taken place from the other side of the house.  Nor did she hear a sound

.

For a few moments she pressed her nose against the glass and stared down at the street below.  After a while her eyes tired of staring, she leaned her head against the glass and just closed her eyes.

 

She was slipping back to sleep when footsteps could be heard, heavier steps than Katherines or Rosemarie’s. She wondered if, just possibly, that horrible Dr Lovell was visiting  with his fat fingers and heavy nasally breathing.

 

A door opened and someone said, not too loudly, “Sofia?”

Then the door closed very gently.

 

She waited, wondered, dared hardly to breathe as she watched the door handle turning.  Then it was pushed open and a tall broad shouldered man stood in the opening and called her name

 

“Sofia?”

 

Chapter 56

 

Snow was pattering on the glass of the window as Sofia leaned further forwards to make sure what her eyes saw, what her brain captured, what her heart told her was actually true.   Not yet more of the half truths and lies that had been fed to her over the past weeks

Adam felt feelings he didn’t even understand himself, feelings he couldn’t express and would never be able to put into words as he stood looking at the little girl seated by the window

 

“Sofia?”.  His voice caught in his throat, and it wasn’t just because he wanted to attain to her level that caused him to sink to his knees … He opened out his arms “Hey, pumpkin, time to go home…”

 

“DADDY!   OH. DADDY!”

 

She ran into those outstretched arms as though her life depended upon it, and perhaps, it DID but she was safe now.   She knew that for sure as his arms held her close.

Too close really because she thought her ribs would break and she could barely breathe but it didn’t matter, no, it didn’t matter.   Nothing mattered now just those arms around her, his warmth against her face, his smell reminding her of home.

 

“Oh daddy, I knew you would come, I knew you would.”  She whispered  into his ear and her warm breath drifted past his cheek like a kiss, the softest sweetest kiss of all.

 

“I came as soon as I could, as soon as I could.” He whispered and the sound of his voice brought the tears to her eyes so that she began to weep and her little body shook in his arms with the force of her sobs.

 

For a moment he couldn’t move, self control almost deserted him as his heart cried along with her but then very carefully Adam stood up with her in his arms and turned to carry her from the room, slowly stroking her back in an effort to calm her.

 

He had gone one step onto the landing when Rosemarie Royale appeared at the head of the stairs closely followed by Katherine, Luke and Hoss.  A jumble of voices, exclamations of delight as Hoss and Luke called her name so that she peeked shyly over at them,  and there was Katherine’s gasp and cry of pain as she cried “Alice, oh Alice.!”

 

But above all was Rosemarie’s voice, cold and callous as it cut through all the other sounds in such a manner that everyone just froze, resembling an ensemble of marble statues rather than humans beings of flesh and blood

 

“Put the child down, this instant, Mr Cartwright”

 

Sofia’s arms tightened around his neck as though unconsciously determined to ensure that he would not be able to comply even were he to choose to do so.  Holding her close and one hand supporting her back Adam stepped forward.

 

“Put my grand daughter down.  This instant!    Alice, let go of him and go into your room.”

 

She stepped to one side in a bid to stop him walking on, Katherine stepped beside her mother with tears in her eyes “Alice?”

 

Such pleading in her voice that Hoss, always tender hearted felt a pang smite his heart but then he saw his brother’s face  and recognised that stern proud aloofness and the coldness in his eyes so stepped forward and put his hand  upon Katherine’s arm,

 

“Miss, you need to let my brother and his daughter pass by if you know what’s good for you?”

 

“No…” Katherine cried and stepped forward to snatch at the child “No, you can’t … You can’t take her away, you can’t..”

 

She was screaming now but Adam walked on until Rosemarie once again blocked his passage,

 

“How can you call this child your daughter when you left her, abandoned her?   If we had not found her she would have died, frozen to death”

 

“Daddy…” Sofia’s whimper quelled the anger that was beginning to boil inside Adam while being he turned his eyes from Rosemarie and pushed past her and began to descend the stairs.

 

Rosemarie was on his heels instantly, grabbing at his jacket, ordering him to stop but he walked on until he reached the hallway when he paused at the sight of the young woman who stood with her hands clasped at her waist. Phoebe looked from Adam to Rosemary, then back to Adam,

 

“Thank you, Mister for what you did for Ella.”.

 

A voice of calm, and warmth in the maelstrom of emotions engulfing them.  Adam nodded “Is she alright?”

 

“She ‘s with Annie ..”. Phoebe looked across Adam to where Rosemarie stood, then nodded “I’ll take care of Sofia, mister, I’ll take her to Ella.  They can comfort each other.”

 

This made sense to Adam, he whispered to Sofia and then handed her to Phoebe who took her into her arms and carried her to the kitchen where Ella, with a tearstained face saw her friend and smiled “Alice!”

 

Phoebe shook her head “This is Sofia, Ella.  She isn’t Alice.”

 

Ella’s eyes widened “Sofia?   Then you really do have a brother called Reuben?”

 

“Yes, and my daddy’s here …”. Sofia flung her arms around Ella’s neck “My daddy came for me.”

……..

 

Once Sofia had been taken away by Phoebe, Adam turned to face Rosemarie and Katherine.   Hoss and Luke had already stepped forward to flank Adam on either side.

Rosemarie put out a hand and grasped hold of her daughters, the fact that Katherine’s hand was shaking irritated her but she tightened her hold as though by her will power and force she could stop the woman’s shivering.

 

“You heard what I said, Mr Cartwright.  You leave Alice here and leave this town.”

 

Hoss shrugged “Or what?   Folk who say them kinda things always add some kinda threat.   Not that we’d take any notice mind!”

 

“Or you’ll never leave here except in a six foot hole in Boots Hill.”. Came the immediate response, “Don’t think that’s an idle threat either, this town is – as you may have noticed – without law.” She drew herself more erect “When my husband died, I became the only law here … Clifton found that out, too late sadly, for him.”

 

“Lady”  Hoss shook his head “I think you’re crazy!”

 

Smiling Rosemarie shrugged “It doesn’t matter what you think,  but you step out of this house with Alice and …” She sighed “you won’t survive many hours that’s a guarantee.”

 

Katherine stepped forward now but turned to face the other woman with the look  of confusion on her own features “Mother, perhaps we should explain…you could explain.”

 

She pointed to the adjacent door and with a nod the older woman turned to lead them into the sitting room.

 

The three men followed them.  It seemed to Adam as though the nightmare was never ending, all he could think of as he stood in the centre of that ornate over warm room was that Olivia would be wondering if they would ever reach home.  She didn’t even know that Sofia was safe, he lowered his head, looked at the hems of their skirts and waited to hear what Rosemarie would say next

 

Was she mad?  Each man there wondered that same question, after all, her actions would indicate she was but then again perhaps she was just a woman so used to having her own way and with so much power that she assumed she could do anything, without having to answer to anyone…not even God.

 

“You have to understand” Katherine was saying groping for the right words; words that would sound reasonable to a father who had just found his daughter “when we quite by chance came across Alice  …the child … It was like a miracle. She was –  just there – lying on the ground by a dying fire.  Just there?  Don’t you see?  We could have driven right on by and never even seen her but we did … we found her there, abandoned as she was.” she paused to take in a deep breath, to control her emotions, before she continued “You can’t imagine how it felt to hold this little girl in my arms, and she was so  ill.  We thought she was going to die, we tried so hard  to keep her safe and  it seemed the very best thing was to bring her home and …”

 

Rosemarie shook her head “That’s enough, we don’t have to  grovel and apologise to the likes of them.  You left your child to die, we saved her, therefore you owe her life to us.  I don’t have to explain anything further to you.  Alice stays here…”

 

“Mother!”. Katherine’s voice had a touch of her mothers hauteur, and for an instance Rosemarie was silent but not for long as she turned back to Adam, Luke and Hoss

 

“Leave this house now or, I swear, you won’t leave this town alive.  That includes – Alice.”

 

Adam shook his head. then slowly placed his hat upon his head, nodded over to his brother and Luke and left the room.  He could have explained, of course he could have done.  He could have told them about his son who would never abandon his sister, he could have told them about a mother aching for her daughter to be safe in her arms again… but he felt there was little point.  As far as he was concerned they were beneath contempt and totally undeserving of any explanation.

 

Less than five minutes later Sofia was in her father’s arms walking down the drive flanked by both her uncles.  They passed through the gates where Clifton had died. His body had been removed but blood still stained the snow upon which he had fallen less than an hour earlier

 

Chapter 57

 

For some while nothing could be heard in the sitting room but the ticking of a clock, the settling of a log in the hearth. Eventually there came the sound of sobbing, heart rending sobs that caused Rosemarie to come out of her self absorption to turn and observe her daughter.

 

“Pull yourself together, girl. Can’t you see what a mess you  have made of all this?   I gave you the chance to have Alice back and you threw it away!   You’re like your father, you’re weak!”

 

Katherine held a handkerchief to her face, shook her head and uttered a low moan as she  almost fell into the chair closest to her. ‘”You can’t say that about Father. He was a good man, he wasn’t weak. If anything made him weak it was his love for you.”

 

“Love?  What do you know about love?”  Rosemarie taunted and walked slowly to wards the window as though the view beyond it was better than that currently in the room

 

“I had the chance of love” Katherine said, weeping still and barely able to get the words pass her lips “but you put a stop to that didn’t you?”

 

“You mean that silly infatuation with Luke Dent?  Oh, yes,  I noticed how you kept looking at him while he was here. You stupid girl,  he never had any interest in you.” She smiled thinly and tossed her head as though she had scored a victory and was proud of it.

 

“No, it wasn’t Luke who loved me, and whom I loved.” Katherine whispered and wiped her eyes as though even the memory of that love was giving her the courage to speak “It was some one else entirely …”

 

“The father of that child you had I presume?”

 

“I would have been a good mother to her, you didn’t have to have her taken from me.   If Paul had lived he would never have let you take her, we would have married and …and you could never have interfered in our lives again, never.”

 

Rosemarie turned slowly and faced the weeping woman who, standing with the handkerchief to her face, should have touched a mother’s heart with some degree of pity but Rosemary stared at her daughter with contempt and shook her head “Some mother you would  have made.  Look at you?  You’re a mess!  Emily and James were far better suited to raise your child, you should be grateful they agreed to do so or it would have been taken to the nunnery like all bastards usually are.”

 

“And did you never think of how I would feel, every time I saw her, having to pretend she was my niece and Emily always making sure I knew how happy Alice is with them … Don’t you realise how it makes me feel when the child ignores me, turns away from me?”

 

“What do you expect her to do? She’s a child and you’re just a stranger to her.” Rosemary shrugged her shoulders and moved towards the fire, turning her back to the other woman

 

“Oh mother mother …don’t you feel any pity for any one? Why,  you haven’t even given Clifton a single thought … A man who devoted himself to you for so many years?  Don’t you even feel anything at all for him?  If you can’t feel any love for me, you could spare some thought for him?”

 

Her mother stared blankly at her then shook her head “Why should I do that? He’s dead, isn’t he?”

 

Katherine no longer wept but stared at Rosemarie as though seeing her for what she really was for the first time in her life.  After a moments pause during which time Rosemarie had pulled the tasselled bell rope that would summon a servant Katherine turned to leave the room, paused and looked back at her mother  “That was cruel what we did to that little girl..”

 

“You think so now, you didn’t earlier..”

 

“No, and I was wrong.  I wanted her to be my Alice, someone I could love and be loved by …she was such a pretty little girl but I’m glad her father came for   her.  You would eventually have poisoned her  life as you’ve ruined mine”

 

“You always were given to theatrics, Katherine … Go to your room and clean yourself up.”

 

Katherine made no comment to that but left the room, passing a Maid as she did so who entered the sitting room.

 

She didn’t see the letter given to the girl with instructions to hand it to a certain person staying at The Comstock Hotel.

……….

 

 

Hoss had blubbered a bit once they were back at the hotel, and Sofia had hugged him and kissed him, told him she loved him and was longing to see everyone back home again.   Then he had hugged her, swung her up and spun her round and sang her a song about a donkey that made her laugh and clap her hands.

 

Luke had laughed along with her, his own relief at finding his little niece safe had quite overwhelmed him, bringing back memories of a child he had lost years ago.   Seated nearby Adam watched them with a gentle smile on his face while his eyes dwelt upon his daughter as a starving man would look upon a banquet of good things.

 

Eventually Sofia ran to her father and clambered upon his knee “Daddy, can I see Ella again?   She was my friend.  She can’t walk, you know?”

 

“I know, sweetheart.” He caressed her head, curled a lock of hair around his fingers “She helped you a lot, did she?”

 

Sofia nodded “She made me laugh, and her mother sang songs.   But Ella can’t dance …”

 

Adam nodded, looked at Hoss and Luke, “We shall have to see what we can do for her.” he smiled “And for her mother.”

 

“Daddy, Phoebe was my friend too.” she rested her hands in her lap and leaned against his chest “I’m tired, daddy.”

 

“Of course you are.” Adam said softly and lifted her up, carried her to the bed and settled her under the coverlet.

 

Hoss blew his nose again and turned to look out of the window.   Luke, always pragmatic, rose to his feet and walked over to the window “What do we do now?   That woman’s threats were not empty words, you know.  I have memories of her from a long time back.”

 

He turned now to observe  the two brothers before returning his gaze upon the street below. Adam stood up and joined his friend at the window.  “What do you think Clifton Reid knew that would have caused Mrs Royale to have him killed?”

 

Luke shrugged “Clifton Reid and the Royales go back a long time. I should think once anyone started scratching around they would find far more than the bargained for … But Rosemarie Royale gets bored easily, and Clifton has been around for too long.”

 

“Mmm, well -” Adam tugged his ear lobe and looked over at his brother “Hoss, will you look after Sofia.  There are a few matters I need to deal with.”

 

“What if she wakes up and doesn’t find you here?” Hoss asked immediately

His brother smiled and slapped him affectionately on the arm “You’ll be there, and I won’t be long.”

 

“What do you want me to do?” Luke asked

 

Adam shrugged and leaned closer to the glass “I think you’re about to get a visitor..best you get down to the foyer to meet her”.

 

..……

 

Katherine Royale was heavily cloaked as she entered the hotel and hurried to the reception desk. The conversation was interrupted when the clerk glanced up and murmured that gentleman about whom she was enquiring had just entered the foyer.

Luke could see that the woman was frightened, her nervousness was betrayed by her constant wringing of her hands or brushing aside some strands of hair that weren’t there.

 

“Luke … Is there anywhere we can talk privately?”

 

Luke glanced around him, the last thing he could afford to do was risk being accused of any impropriety with Rosemarie Royales daughter.   How could he trust Katherine after all? He indicated a room beyond the foyer, a small restaurant, a public place but at that time of day few were partaking of the hotels culinary delights.

 

A waiter hovered and he ordered coffee for them both, settled her at a table that was more concealed than others and then sat down opposite her.

 

They sat in silence for a few minutes before she spoke

 

“You must think me as mad as my mother, taking the child, keeping her here ..”

 

“You didn’t kidnap her, Katherine.    No one’s accusing you of that … And you were right, you did save her life.”

 

“I really thought she had been abandoned, you know?  I saw it happen when we were in  Fort Sill, wagons coming in and families bereft because a child had been lost.” She dabbed at her eyes “mother immediately assumed that had happened with Alice ..I mean …what is her name?”

 

“Sofia.   And she was not abandoned, Katy.  Her brother was nearby, saw you take her.   We were just hours from finding them both…”

 

“Her brother?”.  Katherine frowned recalling to mind now the way the child had called out for her parents, for someone called Reuben, a baby ..she buried her face in the palms of her hands and wept

 

The waiter came and placed down the coffee in delicate little cups on pretty saucers and then discreetly left them. Luke cleared his throat and rubbed his jaw “Her mother Sofia’s mother that is, is my sister.   She’s …”

 

“Please, Luke, don’t say it , I can imagine how she feels.”

 

“Can you?   Sofia is very much loved,  there were posses out searching for her and her brother, if the weather had not been so bad they would not have been lost, or if they had been they would have been found much sooner.”

 

She nodded as though acknowledging she heard the words, and again wiped her eyes. With trembling fingers she picked up the cup and looked at him from over its rim “We did save her life.”

 

“Yes, you did, for that we are truly grateful” he frowned “But why didn’t you take her up to Virginia City?”

 

She stared at him then,  after which she released a long sigh

 

“Mother decided to continue on to Bodie and Clinton said the weather was going to worsen.  Mother had business to attend to and couldn’t afford to lose more time going in the opposite direction.   And,  in all honesty, I wanted to keep her.  She was so lovely, I said to Mother how she was so like Alice she … She could almost be her.”

 

“Your niece?” luke frowned, assuming that a frustrated spinster saw herself with the chance of having a child of her own.

 

“No not my niece my daughter. Alice Kincaid is my daughter… I disgraced my family by having a baby out of wedlock.  Emily and James adopted her and I see her maybe once a year.”

 

He said nothing to that,  any words of recrimination died on his lips and he gently squeezed her fingers within his own, after all, hadn’t he only moments earlier be mourning the loss of a child? She glanced up at him and saw the softening of his face, she slowly withdrew her hand,,

 

“Luke I didn’t come here to talk about Alice..I mean … Sofia.  After you left Mother sent for a man called Duggan.  He’s a murderer, wanted in several states for various crimes.  He’s replaced Clinton … Anyway, to come to the point, she ‘s given him orders to make sure that you don’t leave town… Or if you do, you don’t get far.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“I overheard them … I was coming down the stairs and saw him go into mothers private study and listened.  She hates being beaten by anyone, and she never did like you …”

 

He nodded “Did you hear anything he said?  What plan he had?”

 

She shook her head “No, I couldn’t hear anything like that, only that he’ll do what my mother has ordered him, and no doubt, he’ll be paid well.”

 

Luke nodded, he had no doubt that Duggan would be paid well, no doubt at all.

 

Chapter 58

The knocking on the door caught Mrs Soames by surprise; so much so that she spilled the liquid in the glass over her fingers instead of pouring it into Ella’s mouth.  The child’s eyes widened in fear as the knocking persisted.  After what had already happened she was feeling as though caught in a nightmare from which there was no escape, or rather, having escaped it once, the killer had returned to try again.

 

“Phoebe, open the door..” Mrs Soames cried as she wiped the dampness from her hands “It’s alright, Ella, it has nothing to do with you.  Now then, let’s see how much medicine I can spill this time, shall we?”

 

Her teasing words, gentle voice and smile reassured the child who obediently swallowed down the medicine and relaxed as her mother leaned to kiss her forehead with all the tenderness a mother possibly could after all how many mothers have kissed their children while wishing that child’s pain could be their own rather than see them suffer any more.

 

“Ma…its a gentleman to see you.” Phoebe whispered

 

“Not Dr Armstrong?” Mrs Soames frowned and rose to her feet, turned and then stood very still as Adam stepped into the room, his hat held in one hand and his brown eyes looking from her to the little girl lying on the daybed.

 

“Dr Armstrong is on his way, Madam. I saw him a moment ago and he asked me to assure you he would not be long.”

 

She nodded and waited for more, after all, he didn’t look the kind of man who would consent to running messages.  As though realising her discomfiture Adam smiled and stepped further into the room, looked directly at Ella “I really wanted to see this young lady and to thank her for all she has done for my daughter.”

“Oh!” Phoebe nodded and beamed over to her mother  “I should have realised, I’m so sorry, sir, I clean forgot what with all that going on over there .. Ma, this is Alice’s Pa.”

 

“Sofia ..” Ella said quietly, barely loud enough to be heard “her name is Sofia.”

 

Mrs Soames nodded and beckoned to Adam to pull up a chair while telling him how Sofia had cried for him and missed him so much. “We didn’t realise what was going on,  Sir, we thought she was telling stories.”.

 

Phoebe nodded “She had been ill you see, sir, and Dr Lovell said she would be prone to odd fancies so we just thought she was still a bit sick in the head.”

 

Adam inclined his head to acknowledge what they were saying and then sat down in the chair and looked again at Ella “You’ve had a rather unpleasant shock, haven’t you?” He took hold of her hand “How are you feeling now?”

 

“Scared .. A little bit … in case he comes back and tries to shoot me again.”

 

Adam’s smile gentled “He won’t come back to hurt you, Ella.  He got the person he wanted it was just a shame you were there at the time.”

 

Phoebe and Mrs Soames dithered about, they asked if he would like some coffee or tea which he declined.  Still holding Ella’s hand he told her how grateful he was that his own little girl had had the blessing of having her as a friend .

 

“You helped Sofia through a very dark time in her life, Ella. A good friend is worth more than anything in the world when it seems there is no one to be trusted.”

 

Ella nodded and smiled slowly “I thought she was telling me lovely stories about people she dreamed of but all the time she was talking about you, and her Momma, and her brothers Reuben and … And Nathaniel.”.  She sighed and her hand trembled a little within his “Are you going to take her home?”

 

“I am, as soon as possible.”

 

“Will you tell her to write to me?” she smiled again “She’s my best friend.”

 

“Ella, some time ago my son, Reuben, was involved in a shooting accident .…he couldn’t walk for a while but we had a chair that helped him get from room to room on his own.  Sofia was very sure that you would like to do that too …”

 

Ella’s smile widened and her fingers squeezed Adams “Oh yes, I would so like to do that, it’s hard to  be sitting in one place all the time and it’s hard for Momma as well, after all, I am getting a big girl now.”

 

Adam laughed softly and squeezed her hands and then stood up, releasing her hand as he did so “Thank you, Ella.”

 

The medicine was taking effect, her eyes were closing but a smile lingered on her lips, as Adam glanced back at her he thought what a joy she must have been to her father, what a sorrow for her mother.

 

Mrs Soames followed him out of the room and closed the door “We tried to get one of those chairs you were talking about but we couldn’t afford one.   They’re much too expensive for the likes of us.  I can’t work as I used to because I have to stay here and there’s the rent to pay for this place as well as for her medicine ..” She stopped when he out a hand on her arm and looked at her with raised eyebrows as though he had heard enough and there was no need for her to run on so anymore.

 

“The chair is already on its way, Mrs Soames.  I wouldn’t have mentioned it to Ella if I couldn’t have provided it.  But there is something else I wanted to discuss with you ”

 

He paused to give her time to wipe her eyes, blow her nose and hug Phoebe who said she needed a cup of something so would boil the kettle after all.

 

“Mr Cartwright, life has been so hard .. I’ve tried to keep going but …” She blew her nose again apologised and said how no one had been so kind to them before; she felt overwhelmed with what he had done for Ella  “My husband was a good man, he wanted to see this town become a good strong community but when Mr Royale was killed everything just seemed to go wrong.”

 

Adam nodded, it happened in so many of these mushroom gold boom towns, it just took one little shove and then another and like a row of domino’s things come crashing down.  Word gets around among a certain type of person and it would not have taken long for every outlaw, killer to start drifting to the place like iron filings to a magnet.  But among the dross would be found the decent and law abiding.

 

Mrs Soames continued to talk, it was as though a dam had been released and for the first time in  years she could pour out what had happened, how and why and the result of it all.  “Ella had always loved music, and dancing.  It was a joy to have your little girl here to keep her company but such a painful reminder of what she had lost.   I am grateful, Mr Cartwright, truly I am.”

 

“It’s what Sofia would want for her friend.” Adam fidgeted a little with his hat “Do you need to stay here, in Bodie?  Have you never thought of moving elsewhere?”

 

“At times” she nodded, “But how could I with Ella? My husbands elderly parents still live here too and depend on me.  And I have my regular customers, and Phoebe has her job.  It isn‘t much of an income but it is steady work and ..”

 

“I’m not going back there to work for that old witch” Phoebe declared resolutely as she put down the coffee pot with a smack upon the table, along with some cups that rattled in their saucers.

 

Adam said nothing to that although he had full sympathy and respect for the girls decision, he looked thoughtfully at Mrs Soames before speaking what was on his mind.

 

“There’s a doctor in Virginia City, he‘s very skilled and  I ‘d like him to check on Ella’s injury.  He’s an excellent surgeon and …” he raised a hand to prevent another outburst of words. “I can afford to pay for an operation if he thought it would be successful.  All you need do is  get there. I understand your responsibilities here, but think about it, and should you decide to come contact me and let me know so I can get everything arranged.” he smiled and the seriousness of the subject left his face, replaced by one of gentle compassion “Spring is not too far away, is it?”

 

He stood up,  smiled again and shook their hands before turning to leave.  A loud rapping on the door indicated the arrival of Dr Armstrong who nodded over at Adam as   they passed on the threshold of the  house.

.…….

 

He was deep in thought as he made his way to his next stop, arriving just as the Telegraph Clerk was thinking of closing up the office.  He looked rather sourly at Adam and assured him the lines were still unusable.  Adam considered his options for a moment then nodded “I need to have your assurance that these messages will go through as soon as the lines are cleared.  I know all about there being no direct line to Virginia City, but that’s no problem as it can be forwarded on from wherever you can send it.  My wife has to know that her daughter is safe and a telegraph will travel far more quickly than we will.”

 

The clerk nodded, “Write it out then and I’ll mark it as urgent. I give you my word it’ll get through”

 

Adam crooked an eyebrow and gave him a long dark look before nodding “I shall know if you don’t get it sent ” he said  coldly and picked up a pencil to write his cable to Livvy.

 

He wished as he scribbled down the words that he could convey in them all the feelings he had experienced when he had found Sofia. He could imagine how she would be feeling now, how she would feel when she got the cable and then the anxious waiting time before they got home. The words on the cable were so brief, didn’t say enough except telling her everything she needed to know.

 

He passed it to the man on the other side of the counter and paid slightly over the amount necessary.

 

Once he was on the sidewalk he exhaled, waited just a moment before crossing the road to the livery. Behind him the clerk locked the door and turned the notice to say ‘Closed’ .…then he picked  up the message, sat at his desk and attempted to send it through the wires but with a shake of the head finally left his seat.  The lines were still down, but he left the written note on desk ready for another attempt in the morning.

 

 

The Manager of the livery listened attentively to Adams request, stroked his beard and nodded repeatedly.  They. shook hands on the deal and Adam handed over the necessary money, plus the amount already accrued from the stabling of his horse.

 

He was aware that daylight was fading, most of the snow had been trodden down and the wind had frozen it into piles making it icy and slippery underfoot. He was also aware that he was hungry and the thought of taking Sofia to the restaurant to eat with them brought a smile to his lips.  The very thought was a confirmation that she was safe, with him and her Uncles.  All was well….

 

Thinking pleasant thoughts he stepped off the sidewalk and passed an alley.  Two steps along something hard jabbed into his back and a voice hissed “Not thinking of going anyplace are you?”

 

“Not at this precise moment in time.” he said with a cold preciseness for he was angry at himself for his lack of concentration and in being caught as easily as an empty headed adolescent.

 

“Keep your hands away from your body and step into the alley.”

 

There were very few people abroad at this time of day and those present hurried by with averted eyes for fear of seeing too much and being called to account at some later time.  Although, of course,  in Bodie that was very unlikely.

 

“Turn around” Duggan now ordered “Slowly …. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

 

Adam raised his hands a little higher and slightly further from his body.   The sun was slipping away but even as it did so it cast an oblique shaft of light across his face. Duggan nodded and stepped further into shadow.

 

“So you’re Commodore Adam Cartwright.  Well, well ….I would never have known had not Reid been talking about you the other evening.  You Captained the Ainola, didn’t you?”

 

“Once upon a time, a long time ago.” Adam murmured quietly.

 

Duggan nodded “I don’t suppose you remember anyone called Andrew Duggan?”

 

Adam bowed his head and thought over all the men he had known over the years he had been at sea.  He looked up and the other man “Yes, a marine.  He served on the Ainola.” He thought a while longer after all Duggan seemed not to mind.  “He was a good man, Armstrong thought highly of him.  He was recommended for special duties at times.   A relative of yours?”

 

“My youngest brother.  He spoke highly of you.  Said you were a fair man.  Hard but fair.”

 

Adam nodded, shrugged slightly “So, now that we have the pleasantries over with, perhaps you’ll explain why we’re both standing here like this?”

 

“Because I wanted to meet you before I carried out my  orders  to see you dead.”

 

“Mrs Royales orders I believe?”

 

“You seem to have upset her, Captain.  You took something of hers and she wants it back.”

 

Adam shook his head “No, she won’t get Sofia back. Duggan.”

 

“I could have shot you down just now, just the same way I shot Reid.”

 

“The same way you’ll end up no doubt …” Adam sighed and gave a wry smile “You’re nothing like your brother, Duggan”

 

“So my mother used to constantly tell me.   As for Reid, I hope you ain’t wasting time considering him any kind of hero.  He was as cold blooded as they come.”

 

“No doubt -” Adam nodded and stared at the other man, tried to figure out a way to stop him firing that gun, watched that slight flicker of the eyelids as the man began to squeeze the trigger.

 

No time left but it was worth trying anyway and Adam kicked out at Duggans ankle and as the gun went off  Duggan slid rather clumsily on the ice upon which he had been standing.

 

By the time he realised what was happening it was too late, he landed heavily, his gun rattled out of his hand and when he looked up Adam was standing over him with his own gun inches from Duggans head.

 

He grinned rather like an over grown schoolboy tricked into falling and struggled to get up, a slightly difficult task as his feet keep slipping on the ice.  “Well?   You going to shoot me or what?   There ain’t no sheriff here, no law for you to tote me off to.”

 

He was upright now and shrugged as he watched Adam pick up the dropped gun

“You could change, Duggan. This could be your chance to ride on out of here, leave the place and start fresh.”

 

Duggan shook his head “I only just got here, I got men ready to do what I tell them.  I’m not small fry here, Captain.”

 

“While you take orders from a woman?”  Adam shrugged and stepped back “you could come back with us…”

 

“So that you can collect on the bounty and then see me hang?”

 

Adam sighed, nodded “Well, I was thinking of your brother, hoping there was some decency in you.  Obviously there isn’t.”.  He waved the gun to one side “You had better start walking, Mr Duggan.  No doubt we’ll meet again.”

 

“Yeah …. Soon” Duggan snarled and strode away, slipped on snow, righted himself and swore loudly.

 

Adam watched until he was out of sight and then turned to resume his journey to the hotel.  He had only gone a few paces when a man stepped out of the shadows of a doorway.

 

Chapter 59

 

Luke Dent paused a moment in order to give Adam time to return his gun to its holster.  Had he not called out “It’s me, Adam” as he stepped into the path of the other man, he could very well have found himself with a bullet somewhere in his body.

 

“I heard what Duggan was saying, I was just coming to try and find you to warn you.  Katherine told me that her mother had hired him to replace Reid.”

 

Adam nodded but didn’t speak. The two men walked to the hotel while he listened to Luke who told him the context of Katherine’s discussion.   As he pushed open the door of the hotel he was telling Adam that the young woman suspected, but lacked proof, that Reid and her mother were behind Major Royale’s death.

 

“This town needs cleaning out that’s for sure.”. Adam said quietly as they mounted the thickly carpeted stairs to their rooms.  “When we get back to Virginia City we’ll contact the Governor and see what he can arrange.”

 

The seriousness of his face softened and broke into a smile when he stepped into his room to  see Sofia sitting on Hoss’ lap listening to some story he was telling her.  They  looked over as he and Luke walked in and closed the door behind them.  With a delighted squeal Sofia was quick to abandon her Uncle’s lap and run into her father’s arms so that he could  swing her high until she was held close  against his chest.

 

“Well now, Sofia, did you notice how thin your poor uncle Hoss has become?  I think we should go and get him fattened up some, huh?”

 

Sofia nodded “Poor uncle Hoss.”

 

Luke was somewhat bemused that Adam could be so calm after his encounter with Duggan. That the man could act as though nothing had happened, that danger didn’t lurk everywhere.  He trailed behind the two brothers wondering what Adam intended to do now and for  how long did he intend to stay in a town so full of men like Duggan who wouldn’t think twice about blasting his way into the hotel should he so wish.

 

The restaurant was not too full and Adam lowered Sofia into her seat before he pushed it closer to the table.  Looking anxiously around the room for anyone likely to pull a gun Luke thought he was the only sensible man among them. Hoss frowned as he took his seat

 

“Something worrying you, Luke?”.

 

“Worrying me?  Should be that we all oughta be worried.  Adam hasn’t told you of his encounter with Duggan yet!” he pulled out a chair and sat down “Anyone would think this place were normal!  It isn’t…”

 

Hoss frowned and looked at Adam them back again at Luke  “You’re sounding just like Joe …   Worrying about things when he should be concentrating on enjoying his food.  If you want to avoid indigestion you should quit worrying and git down to some serious eating.”.   He snatched the menu from the waiters hands and scowled “And you seem to forgit, I ain’t eaten a decent meal for some while and when I’m hungry I got tetchy!”

 

Sofia giggled she could never tell when her Uncle Hoss was serious or funning, he always sounded like he was joking about and she gazed at him in adoration.

 

They ordered food and some wine, water for Sofia and although Luke was touched by the solicitous manner in which Adam cared for his daughter, he was still wondering how the man could act as though he were sitting at the International in Virginia City.

 

“So you met up with Duggan then?” Hoss muttered as he sliced through his steak. “Friendly, was he?”

 

Adam smiled down at Sofia and then looked up at his brother “Turns out I knew his brother…”

 

“No kidding?”

 

“Served on the Ainola.   I didn’t tell him that his brother was one of the biggest rogues on board ship, it might have prejudiced him against me.”

 

” Yeah, I can see that…so what else did he  have to say?”

 

Adam shrugged, glanced sharply over at Luke then said he got the impression Mr Duggan didn’t want them to leave because his employer wanted a certain item returned to her. Luke frowned, nodded and Hoss chewed on the steak awhile before he also nodded “So when do we leave?”

 

Adam smiled down at Sofia “When do you want to leave for home, Sofia?”

 

Sofia leaned against him “I don’t want to stay here daddy. Its not a nice place is it?”

 

“There you have it, gentlemen.  We leave first thing in the morning!”   He lowered his voice and leaned forward slightly “We need to get some sleep, its not going to be an easy ride and if we start exhausted then we’ll not make a good job of it.”

 

“Shouldn’t we be getting some thing organised … Some men..,”. Luke suggested

 

Hoss’ blue eyes widened “Men?  What men!  Ain’t no man here I would trust not to put a bullet in my back.”

 

Adam raised his eyebrows and gave a warning glance at his brother to be more careful with what he was saying but Sofia appeared not to have noticed.  For a while the three men talked about home, safe topics that would include Sofia after all she loved to hear that Marcy’s cat was about to have kittens again, Hannah had lost another tooth and Nathaniel had grown another inch, all said in a light hearted fashion to distract Sofia from anything that could cause her any anxiety.

 

With the meal finished at last Adam scooped Sofia upon one arm  and  carried her out of the restaurant.    They were nearly at the stairs when the manager called “Mr Cartwright”

 

They turned, Luke instinctively stepping in front of Adam and Sofia with his hand going to his gun but the elderly Manager, no doubt used to such reactions, merely beamed at them and held a package in his hands “Miss Katherine sent these for the little girl.   She thinks that they’ll be useful for the journey.”

 

Hoss raised his eyebrows and took the package, as he did so the big doors opened and Phoebe stepped into the foyer, saw them and hurried towards them with a wide smile on her face and eyes beaming. In her hands she carried a box, which had Hoss  leaning towards it to give it a hearty sniff.

 

“Mr Cartwright, oh..goodness me, I just don’t know how to thank you, Ella is so excited with that chair…oh Miss Sofia you should see how she gets around in it even now.  Ma can’t thank you enough.  She wrote a letter here for you, sir.” She pushed the box into Luke’s hands in order to find the letter which she passed to Adam “She said to tell you that she’ll give the matter of leaving here some thought …well,  its all in the letter… And Miss Sofia, Annie made a batch of your favourite cookies for you.  She said she won’t never forget you.”

 

She stopped as though afraid she had already said too much, wiped a tear from her cheek and smiled slightly as though perhaps even that was too much

 

“I’m not ever going back to that nasty old lady, Phoebe.” Sofia cried

 

“No, miss, no more am I !” Phoebe exclaimed, “You will write to Ella, won’t you?”

 

With promises made along with farewells Phoebe finally left the hotel casting one last look over at the little girl who raised her hand to wave goodbye. Once the doors closed and the three men turned to wards the stairs Sofia bowed her head upon Adams shoulder and whispered “I don’t have to see that horrible lady again, will I, daddy?”

 

“No, sweetheart, you won’t… Never.”

 

“Promise?”

 

“I promise.” he kissed her cheek and stroked back a curl of golden blonde hair and carried her to their room.

 

The package Katherine had brought contained the coat, fur hat, mittens and muff that she had bought for the child she had so hoped would replace her own.  There was also a note addressed to Luke thanking him for past friendships, and to tell him that she was planning to leave Bodie as soon as the thaw set in.  She was going to reclaim her daughter and no one was going to stop her, “I can” she added “be as stubborn as my mother when it is necessary to be and seeing the example of Sofia’s family coming for her makes me ashamed at having been so weak for so long!

 

Oh how Hoss drooled over the box of goodies from Annie… There were snickerdoodles, sticky buns, crisp bread rolls and bottles of raspberry as well as strawberry cordial. Sofia pointed to a little pink iced cake and sighed “My favourite” before yawning hugely.

 

Adam looked at Luke and then at Hoss “Well, best get some sleep… We leave at dawn”

 

“And Duggan?” Luke queried as though determined to have the last say on the matter

 

“Duggan?   We’ll deal with him when the time comes, the main thing is to get out of here with Sofia.”

 

Hoss nodded in agreement, slapped his brother on the arm and left for his own room, followed by Luke who proceeded to spend the next half hour checking his gun and rifle and ensuring he had adequate ammunition for the battle he was sure they would have to face.  He went several times to the window to check for hidden shadows among the darkness  before he settled himself upon his bed.  Even then he found sleep elusive as he tried to think of other ways in which Sofia could be spirited away back to Virginia City and home

 

………..

 

The knock on the door came shortly after the other two men had gone to their rooms and after checking to ensure that Sofia had not been disturbed Adam opened the door with his usual caution…. slowly and his gun in his other hand.

 

Jethro Hardy slipped into the room and removed his hat as he did so.  Glancing over his shoulder he gave the other man a grin “Well, I done as you said, Mr. Cartwright.   There’s no way Duggan will be able to follow you out of town tomorrow morning.”

 

Adam looked at the other man and then indicated a chair but Jethro declined “No, its alright, I have to get back to check on Douglas.  Anyhow here’s to fill you in on some of the details… my cousin Gabe got enlisted by Duggan along with some other men to keep tracks of you.   Seems they didn’t have much of a plan except to watch the hotel which job they gave to Gabe.  Well, he don’t mind standing around so much really but decided not to hang around too long seeing how cold it is.”

 

Adam narrowed his eyes, obviously good deeds were rare in the town and needed to be discussed in great detail, but Jethro was a man not inclined to hurry over much anyway so took a deep breath and plunged on “Duggan likes his drink, so it didn’t take long to get him so drunk he couldn’t stand up straight.  Right now he’s flat on his back nursing a bottle of whiskey which he’ll empty by morning.  Then he’ll have a hangover that’ll last him until next winter.”

 

“What about his so called army?   Is there any one capable of carrying out the job Duggan was given?”

 

“Pah, Duggan didn’t trust anyone with details although I guess the whole town knows Mrs Royale don’t want you leaving town with the girl.   Fact is no one wants to get involved – well – perhaps some would but we done dealt with them.”

 

“You have?” Adam grimaced and then smiled “How?”

 

“One of ‘em broke his leg falling over something, probably his own feet he was that drunk and it is icy outside.   Then another ….well, he always liked Gertrude, the new saloon girl so he’s busy with her right now if you know what I mean.  He won’t be wanting to go no place tomorrow.   Some got easily talked out of it because they plain hate Duggan anyway and are thinking of how to turn him in and claim the bounty without anyone turning them in as well.  Other than that the others are too stupid to do anything of their own accord, they need a leader to tell ‘em what to do.”

 

Adam laughed quietly, Jethro’s gleeful countenance proof enough that the task allocated to him had been quite happily complied with.   “Jethro, when your brother is fit and well why on earth don’t you move on out of here?”

 

Jethro shrugged “If every decent person up and left, Mr Cartwright, there wouldn’t be much of a town here, would there?   If we don’t stay and do honest work then everything will fall apart.   There’s gold in that there mountain and the Standard Company* reckons there’ll be enough bullion coming out of it *to make people sit up and take notice of this town.  Sides, I got my eye on a girl here and …” he blushed a little and gave a slight shrug of the shoulders “when I get myself established I’d like to think we could settle down.”

 

Adam nodded and extended his hand to be shaken “Thank you, Jethro, I wish you well.”

 

“My pleasure, sir.   I’ll keep an eye on things until you’re well out of here.  May not be able to keep Duggan away too long, I reckon once he’s recovered himself he’ll be angrier than a hornet and come on after you hell bent on getting ya.”

 

“No doubt.”  Adam agreed “But at least you’ve helped give us a head start, and if all goes well we should be well on our way home by the time he gets on our trail.”

 

Jethro shook Adams hand once again and with a rather sheepish look on his face left the room, as he stood on the landing he heard the bolt slide over and the key turn in the lock. He replaced his hat like a man with a lot on his mind before making his way down the stairs and back out into the bitter cold.

 

Chapter 60

Hoss and Luke were waiting outside Adams room before the  dawn. It was bitterly cold and both men were already blowing on their hands and stamping their feet.  Adam opened the door to them and complained that they sounded like a herd of elephants and ushered them in, where they found Sofia,  blinking like a little owl, as she stood beside the crumpled bed waiting for her father to finish preparing her for the journey

 

She managed a smile at her two Uncles although she was swaying on her feet, half asleep, and the chill of the day only just beginning to rob her of the cosy warmth from the bed.  Adam put his hand on her shoulder to  steady her and then picked her up and set her down on his lap.

 

In silence the other men gathered up various items needed for the journey while Adam buttoned up Sofia’s coat, checked that her boots were fastened, her little fur hat and muff in place and then passed her to Hoss.  After he had pulled on his heavy coat and muffler, he yanked the quilt from the bed and wrapped his daughter in it.  By the time they were at the half landing Sofia was asleep, her head bobbing up and down upon Hoss’ shoulder.

 

Luke was surprised to see the Manager standing in the foyer as though in expectation of them.  He was seated at the counter but upon seeing them jumped to his feet and reached for something which was hidden from view causing Luke to anxiously put his hand to his gun.

 

“Everything’s ready, sir.“  the elderly man said, addressing his words to Adam and gesturing to the back door while at the same time he thrust a package into Luke’s hand.

 

“A safe journey, Captain.”  he whispered conspiratorially and  shook Adam by the hand as he wished him well, then he slapped Luke on the arm and winked, as he did with Hoss before ushering  them through the door,  He hovered there for a moment or two and then the door was closed carefully behind them.  Luke shivered as he heard the sound of the bolts being drawn across.   It seemed to him as though this flight from Bodie was both clandestine and dangerous, and he shivered again the cold air from outside invaded the corridor to envelop them all.

 

“Did you know him?” Luke asked as they made their way down through a corridor to the yard outside “I mean, from before sometime ?”

 

“No, but he’s  Cape Hornier..” Adam muttered as his warm breath plumed into the cold air.

 

Luke shook his head slightly, that meant nothing to him at all but he followed along as they walked at a fast pace until they were in the yard .  A young man warmly muffled against the cold beckoned and led them  to where their horses were waiting beside a two seater buggy which had runners attached to its undercarriage in place of its wheels.  Two strong looking horses were harnessed to the vehicle and a third horse, Luke presumed it was Adams original mount, was on a leading rein in the ostlers hands.

 

Adam was first to board the vehicle and then took Sofia from Hoss into his arms in order to settle her next to him. Swaddled in the quilt she looked warm and pink cheeked, she briefly opened her eyes to look up at him and dozily whispered “Home, daddy?”

 

“Home, sweetheart.” he tweaked her nose and then pulled the quilt up to cover her face in order to protect her from the chill early morning air. The packages, consisting of Annie’s provisions and the food that was contained in the managers parcel, were carefully placed at his feet.  He then pulled the buggy’s apron up and fixed it to the hood, this would successfully protect Sofia from the worst of the weather, and himself to some degree.

 

Luke felt a slight twinge of guilt at the realisation that while he had been wondering about Adams lack of doing anything, and he himself doing very little,  the man had actually been very busy in providing for their departure.  Even the buggy was a strong sturdy modern vehicle and the runners were perfect for travelling through the snow as transport on   wheels would constantly  be slowing down as they got clogged up by the snow and ice.  It would have meant stopping in order to kick the wheels  free and clear again, thus losing valuable time.  Even so their progress depended a lot on the strength and stamina of their horses.

 

They were ready.   They were leaving Bodie behind them.  The runners slid over the ice packed snow with a swishing sound as the blades skimmed over  the surface of the road..  Here and there could be seen a light gleaming in the window of a house denoting that at least one of  the occupants was up and preparing for the new day.

 

Nothing and no one impeded their flight

 

………

 

Duggan stirred slowly and groaned as first one limb  and another twitched and sent spasms of prickly pain through his body.  Somewhere in the far recesses of his memory he knew he had to be doing something important but the thought flickered through a fog of alcoholic infused brain matter and slowly drifted into nothingness.

 

He could only think of one thing at a time and his main concern at that moment was the pain in his head, the aching of his remaining teeth, the pins and needles that were like millions of soldier ants biting into him …and his stomach.

 

His stomach suddenly took prominence over anything and everything else as he rolled from the bed and vomited over the floor.

 

After that he felt marginally better and fell asleep where he had fallen .

………

 

Katherine Royale stood in the pink room and gazed around her.  This was the room her own child should have had as her own,  instead of living in cramped quarters in a small house in Warsop.  This is where Alice would have played and where she, Katherine, would have spent her time with her, reading her bedtime stories, singing to her and nursing her through any childhood illness.

 

But instead all she had was a memory of someone else’s child who had  spent her confused days there trying to be someone she wasn’t because Rosemarie Royale had chosen it so.  Just as years previously she had decided that the baby girl Katherine had delivered would be handed immediately to her daughter, Emily.   By the time Katherine had recovered from her confinement James Kincaid had been ordered to take his wife and the child  far away.

 

She stooped to pick up a ribbon from the floor and walked to the window to look up and over the skyline of the town laid out before her, bathed now in the apologetic beams of a new days sun.    The cold of the morning made Katherine shiver and pull her shawl closer around her shoulders.   She turned to look again at the room, so quiet, so empty of life now.  As she stared at the toy wooden house with its painted doors and window it occurred to Katherine that her mother had inflicted to much damage for too long.  As far back as she could remember Rosemarie Royale had dictated on what was to be done, and how it was to be accomplished,  and with an intake of breath Katherine realised that she had just allowed everything to happen, just like that, just sat and done nothing.

 

It couldn’t continue, not now, there were new longings, new desires in her heart and she didn’t want to live a life with a woman who had control over so many lives.  She clutched the ribbon in her hand tightly against her heart, as though in some way during the course of these past days she had woken from a stupor into which she had descended when her baby had been taken from her.

 

All that time that had passed by and she had walked through the days, the weeks as though in a dream of ‘Yes, mother’  ‘No, mother’  and so much had happened, so many things that should never have happened.  She sat now by the bed and concentrated hard on some events that had taken place during this somnolent period of time and as certain things clicked into place she knew that now was the time to confront the woman with her suspicions.   Could she do it though?   Could she actually accuse her mother of  killing her own husband, Katherine‘s father?.   It would take courage and she hesitated a moment at what she planned to do, after all,   many years had passed with her being totally subservient to her mother’s will. It was hard to cast off the shackles that crippled one mentally, emotionally.

 

She made her way hastily from the room,  to hesitate now would cause her to lose courage and she couldn’t afford to do that, not now that she had reached a decision.

 

On the half landing she heard the sound of voices, her mother’s was loudest and the other, a man’s voice sounded dull and heavy.  Slowing her pace she crept down the remaining stairs and leaned closer to the wall in order to hear more.

 

“They must have left before dawn.  They can’t have gone far, it’ll take no time at all to catch them.”

 

“But,” Rosemarie’s voice was shrill “if you had had your wits about you they wouldn’t have had a chance of leaving.  Why not just admit the fact that you were drunk,  Mr Duggan. Too drunk to carry out a simple task of getting a child away from Cartwright.  Are you so stupid as to think I wouldn’t have known?”.

 

There was a pause and Katherine could imagine her mother pacing the floor, wringing her hands as she thought of what next should be done

 

“How many men do you have?”

 

“Six.”

 

“Do you think that will be enough?”

 

“Quite enough, I could get more but that will take time, and more money.”

 

“Time’s too precious, take the six men and get out of here.”

 

From her position on the stairs Katherine watched the broad shouldered man stride out of the room, grab at his hat which had been left on a settle in the hall and leave the house.  The slamming of the door made the glass in the chandelier shimmer and tinkle.

 

She stepped into the room but before she could utter a word her mother turned, saw her and cried “That stupid fool…do you know what he did?  He let Cartwright leave town with the girl.  Can you believe that?   Why am I always surrounded by fools?  Absolute fools… ”

 

“Is that what you thought of father?   Did you think him a fool to?”

 

Rosemarie’s eyes blinked, her face didn’t change apart from her eyes which narrowed, darkened as she looked at her daughter.   Then she shook her head as though the change she saw in Katherine was purely imagination, she even smiled as she exclaimed

 

“What?   For goodness sake, Katherine, I’m talking about a totally different subject here?   What does your father have to do with it?”

 

“Did you think Clifton stupid too?  Was that why you had him killed?”

 

Rosemarie drew herself  to her full height, she was a tall woman anyway but now she  seemed to have added inches and to tower over the other woman.  Such a stance would have intimidated the younger woman at one time, left her meek, caused her to apologise profusely but Katherine was no longer so easily cowed, she was too full of anger now to be fearful of this woman again. They glared at each other across the room, neither prepared to give way to the other while their hearts beat against their ribs and their eyes hardened and gleamed with ill concealed hatred.

 

“What’s this all about, Katherine?  Why are you bringing all this up now?   Has that Luke Dent turned your head with his moralising?”

 

“No” Katherine shook her head “No, it was having the child here, realising how much I wanted to have my own child to love and the reason I couldn’t was because of you.”

 

She stepped forward a few paces while a puzzled expression crossed her face “Why, mother, why are you so determined to get Sofia back?   She doesn’t belong  here with us?  She has a family who love her, a father who sought her out and ,..”. She shook her “and yet you persist in hounding them down,”

 

“I have my reasons” Rosemarie scowled and her hands clenched into fists, her mouth tightened across her teeth.  She was a beautiful woman, had always been so, but at that moment Katherine saw no beauty, only a selfish, cold hearted person with no compassion, no feeling for anyone else existent in her.

 

“Clifton wanted you to hand her back, didn’t he?  Is that why you had him killed?”

 

Rosemarie shrugged and walked slowly to the window that overlooked a small yard, “He was weak, I was forever having to direct his attention to   matters, organise things myself. Your father was the same, always seeing the good and the potential in everything.  He thought I was cruel giving Alice to Emily. I had to remind him repeatedly that it was the best thing for everyone concerned …you could get on with your life without bringing shame on us,  Emily would have a child to love, the child would be safe …but, no, he wouldn’t listen”

 

“So you killed him?   Or was that Clifton? Did he do it for you?”

 

Rosemarie sighed as though the matter was really hardly worth bothering with, she turned to face her daughter  “Men can become quite tiresome after a while, Katherine, take it from me, once they become  too boring the best thing is to get rid of them. They’re all alike in the long run, always making excuses not to do something.”

 

“You killed Papa, didn’t  you?”  Katherine whispered, “Didn’t you?”

 

Rosemarie didn’t answer but turned again to look out of the window, it was only when she heard the rustle of Katherine’s skirts and footsteps upon the stairs that she turned, realised her daughter had gone “ Where are you going?”

 

Her voice rose as she hurried from the room, stood at the foot of the stairs and watched Katherine with her skirt gathered in her hands for her feet to take the stairs more swiftly “Where are you going? Come back here  this moment”

 

Katherine barely glanced back at her mother but continued on to Rosemarie’s private room.   For years she had watched as her mother had written down details of the days events in slim journals, each journal marked with the year, there would be rows of them, dozens of them but she knew, sensed, that everything she needed to know would be found in the one of the slim volumes she had watched her mother write in so often during her life.

 

As she pulled at the locked drawers of a bureau she heard her mother coming up the stairs.  Hysteria was building up inside her, choking her, bringing tears to her eyes.  She heard her mother screaming at her to leave well alone…or face the consequences. Everything on the bureau rattled as she pulled and tugged to get the drawer open and then quite suddenly Rosemarie ‘s fingers tightened around her wrist and forced her hand away.

 

“You did, didn’t you?   You killed Papa?” she was gasping out the words, ashamed of the tears filling her eyes and blurring her mothers features “Did you hate  him so much?  He was such a good man…”

 

“He was weak.  Stupid.  Don’t you understand, Katherine?  In a town like this you can’t be weak.  You have to be strong.”

 

“But you killed my papa …”  it was a wail, an awful sounding wail of distress and heart ache.   All those years ago when she lived in that dazed half awake half asleep time she had never felt the grief of her fathers loss so acutely. It were as though the loss of her child had taken away every emotion from her heart but now it poured in, filled up her whole being, choked her words in her throat.

 

“Stupid, stupid girl…” Rosemarie screamed and raised her hand to strike her daughter as hard as she could, hard enough to obliterate her if that were possible.

 

The tussle didn’t take long, both women were hysterical and screaming, both were evenly matched in strength and determination to better the other.   It was Rosemarie’s misfortune to fall back upon the landing, to momentarily loosen her hold on Katherine.   The heel of her shoe  snapped, she staggered back, reached out for a fresh hand hold but found none.

 

She fell without a word, without even a gasp.  Her flailing hand scrabbled for a hand hold, but only her nails scratched along the surface of the wall as she continued her fall down the stairs.   Katherine watched as her mother rolled and tumbled until she reached the hard marble floor below.

 

When Rosemary had reached the bottom of that stairway she didn’t move again.

 

Duggan had been paid half of his money but whatever the outcome of the chase he would never receive the other half.

……….

 

The telegraph clerk was more than relieved to discover that the messages he had piled on his desk could, at last,  be sent.

 

So he started with the one on top of the pile…addressed to Olivia Cartwright at the Ponderosa.

 

Chapter 61

 

The landscape around them was dazzling in its whiteness; its stark barren snow covered vastness was unbroken by any tree or shrub.  It were as though looking out upon its own nakedness as it shimmered raw and undulating, miles of ice and snow surrounding them from every side.

 

A low keening sound drifted and eddied about them as though the gliding of the runners over the harsh stark snow, their breathing and that of their horses, could barely tolerated rivals in the making of noise in such a rarefied location.

 

“It’s as though we are ghosts, fleeing from some supernatural presence that we must avoid or die as a result.” thought Luke as he pulled his scarf higher in order to breathe  more easily.

The cold made the inside of their noses burn and then hurt with a dull constant ache that reached across their brows and blurred their vision.  Luke could see Hoss rubbing at his face and knew the big man was suffering from the intensity of a temperature that had plummeted over the course of their journey.

 

After a while Hoss raised his arm and brought his horse to a standstill.  Both he and the animal were breathing heavily, their gasps loud to the ears of the  other men.  Luke realised he was the same, there was a tightness across his chest.  The extreme cold was coupled with the fact that the higher elevation made the air thinner.   It was exhausting.

 

Hoss dismounted and plunged into deep snow, after checking his horse to ensure its legs were still strong and its muzzle and nostrils free from ice and snow he forced his way to the buggy.

 

“How far do you reckon we’ve come?” he asked and looked around at the terrible white bleakness surrounding them.

 

“Still a long way to go yet, Hoss.”. Adam sighed which was not the answer to his brother’s question although Hoss accepted it as such, he unclipped the apron so that he could get down and stretch his legs lifting the parcel of food down with him “Here, have something while we rest up a moment.”

 

Luke had joined them now, he took some of the food and looked over at Sofia who was snug in the quilt and nibbling at the pink cake Annie had made.

 

“How is she?”

 

“Doing well,” Adam replied and then turned to look up at the sun and the gathering clouds.   From his pocket he withdrew his compass and began to check out his bearings, as he did so Hoss nudged his arm and nodded over to the horizon which was hazed over with the mists of an approaching snow storm.

 

“I don’t like the look of that.” He muttered.

 

“We should avoid the worst of it,” Adam replied “We have to veer south east”. he pointed to the direction they were to take “Eat some and then do your business, we need to get on before it hits us.    Luke, are you alright?  Do you want to take a shift in the buggy, it does give some protection from the weather, not much, but some.”

 

Luke nodded “I’m alright just now, thanks.  Perhaps next time”

 

Adam nodded and made the same offer to Hoss who shook his head, then scooped up a handful of snow and swallowed it down “This is sure some place, ain’t it?   Not even a danged tree or rock to hide and do your business in any privacy.” He wrinkled his nose as though disgusted  at such primitive conditions but called out a cheery hello to Sofia as he passed the buggy.

 

“At least we can see anyone who may be coming after us.” Luke said as he looked back at their tracks which had mangled the pristine whiteness behind them.

 

“We have a good start on them,”Adam agreed and swallowed the bread he had been chewing, then, like Hoss  earlier he scooped some snow with which he filled his mouth.

 

“He was pretty generous that old guy who ran the hotel.  What did you mean when you said he was a Cape Hornier?”

 

Adam nodded as though only now realising that not everyone understood seamans terminology.  After looking over at the horizon to check on the speed of the approaching storm he explained that he recognised that the manager had been at sea and during conversation had discovered that he had sailed around the Horn which entitled him to several ‘privileges’, but he didn’t tell Luke what they were although he grinned and his eyes twinkled as he mentioned it.

 

“And have you sailed around the Horn?” Luke now asked and wasn’t surprised when Adam nodded, said he had several times, both ways.

 

As he made his way to relieve himself he couldn’t help but mumble  beneath his breath “But of course you did I should have known!”

 

Once everyone was comfortable and Sofia had been refreshed with her cake and some of the cordial, the little convoy continued on their way.

 

The sky was so blue that the snow crystals reflected its blueness, but that didn’t last long as the snow  cloud  slowly eclipsed the sun shrouding everything in eerie greyness and mist before the snow eventually began to fall.

…..…………..

 

Doctor Lovell stepped away from the body of the late unlamented Rosemarie Royale and nodded ponderously before turning to the undertaker and several others who had succeeded in sneaking in for a peek at the messy sight of the bloodied corpse at the bottom of the stairs

 

“Well, you can take her away, Biggins.  Straightforward case, no need for any Inquiry … My opinion, substantiated by Miss Royales own statement is that she got upstairs, the heel of her shoe broke, she lost her grip and fell. Quite conclusive. Quite straightforward.”

 

Biggins and the surrounding few nodded, Lovell clicked his fingers and some men came forward to remove the body.  The broken shoe slipped from her foot as they did so and their seemed a collective sigh of relief as though, with their own eyes they saw the proof of the doctors verdict on cause of death.   Of course landing on a marble floor from that height didn’t help, and she could have been pushed, who was to know?   There were plenty enough in town would have gladly carried out the deed.  There were plenty in town now breathing a sigh of relief at the knowledge of her passing.

 

In the drawing room Katherine shivered by the fire as she thought over her future.  Like a wide golden pathway lined with apple blossom laden trees it stretched out before her.  All she had to do was put her foot on the path and follow where it led her.

 

Phoebe was by her side, dear Phoebe, the first person she had ran to for help and whose family had rallied round so comfortingly.  She had noticed Ella in the wheelchair, and wondered why it was that she had never thought to be so kind as to provide one all those years before … She should have done, and felt ashamed at the thought that she had not.

 

Phoebe had been telling her of their future plans, of how she was getting married eventually to a gentleman called Jethro Hardy, and that her mother and sister were going to move to Virginia City because Mr Cartwright knew a doctor there who could help Ella.

 

She smiled as Phoebe handed her a cup of soothing tea, it was all coming together so well.  The future, set out all before them.  It was sure to be wonderful !

……….

 

Sometimes as she lay in bed the groaning  and howling of the wind around the house and outbuildings seemed to be doing all the groaning and howling that she felt knotted up inside herself.  Why  waste energy oneself when the wind did it so effortlessly and loudly

as it raged about and flung the snow at the windows and heaped it around the doors.

 

Olivia dressed herself with cold fingers for there was no fire in the room, she had been too tired to attend to it before retiring to bed.  She drew aside the drapes and a wintry sun beamed down upon her as though it was glad to start the new day, even if somewhat sluggishly.

 

There were times when fear for her husband and daughter overwhelmed her and it was then she would read through his letters or go to his study to check the atlas, spin the globe, and trace with her finger all the journeys he had undertaken, all the dangers of storms at sea, men seeking him in order to kill him and then she would pray that the God who had delivered him safely home then, would deliver him as safely again.

 

Cheng Ho Lee was preparing the morning meal and smiled encouragingly over at her “No snow today” he pointed to the clear blue sky and nodded, it was good he thought that there was no more snow.

 

“That’s two days without snow, perhaps the pass will clear.”she replied as she carried a still drowsy Nathaniel to the table.

 

Cheng nodded, sloe black eyes twinkled and he resumed his food preparation as she settled Nathaniel into his high chair. The infant was still sleepy and sat compliantly in the chair with his thumb in his mouth.   He turned with interest though when the door opened and Reuben came in and smiled over at his little brother who beamed a dimpled smile in response.

 

“I got the kindling in, Ma, and stacked the logs like Pa showed  me how, and I’m really hungry now.  It sure is cold out there.”

 

Cheng Ho Lee nodded the thin braid of hair bounced down his back as he did so and Nathaniel stretched out a lazy hand to grab at it.  “I make man size breakfast for hard working boy.”

 

Reuben smiled over at his mother as his eyes sought her approval and when she dropped a kiss on the top of his head as she passed behind him on her way to the dresser he felt a tingle of pride run through him. If Ma was pleased she would tell Pa, then Pa would know that his son had done well, and could be trusted.

 

“I said a really big prayer last night, Ma, I told God to make sure Pa and Sofia came home soon as well as Granpa, and Uncle Hoss, Uncle Joe and Uncle Luke.”. his anxious eyes turned towards her again “They’ll be home soon, you’ll see.” he grinned up at Cheng as the plate of food was out before him “It was such a big prayer I fell asleep in the middle of saying it but I reckon God won’t mind that, will he?”

 

“I think he’ll understand,  now eat your breakfast.  Nathaniel, naughty boy, what are you doing?”. she scolded but with a smile so that the little boy clapped his hands and the bowl of oatmeal slipped from the table and onto the floor.

 

“I think he wants a mans breakfast like me, Ma.” Reuben chuckled but his mother shook her head and said that he had worked hard and earned it but that little scamp had done nothing at all.

 

But they all played their part in pretending life was going on fairly normally.   Even little Nathaniel who was totally  innocent and ignorant of events did his bit just by being such entertainment and keeping them smiling at his antics.

 

As she sat by his side to make sure he ate his food she wondered how Mary Ann and Hester were managing without their men, and,,  of course, there was Marcy without her dear Luke, and so far away from them all…

………

 

Marcy Dent had milked the cow and put down some feed for her, fed the chickens and ensured the stables were clean fresh water in troughs along with hay and oats.  The sky was clear blue and frost rimed the rooftops of the house and stables making the snow underfoot crisp and squeaky beneath her feet..

 

She felt Luke’s absence keenly but being busy was the best anecdote to feeling lonesome that she knew.  As she counted the days she was more and more convinced that it wouldn’t be long before he came home.

 

She entered the house with the pail of milk which she set down in the pantry, after washing her hands she prepared her morning meal and then sat by the fire to eat it with a cup of coffee .   She ate slowly as she lingered over memories of when she had arrived at the house, then there had been old Mrs Abigail Phillips, slowly losing what was left of her mind. Miss Olivia of  course and the two little ones. It had been a noisy happy home.

Perhaps, soon, it would be again  and a secret smile played about the corners of her mouth as she thought of the surprise she had to tell him.  She would wait and let him settle into the home after such a long journey.  Then she would make him his favourite meal after which she would say, well, no, she would tease him just a little, for a short while.

 

Perhaps he would guess…but then again perhaps not.

 

She sighed and got to her feet.  There was work to be done.

………

 

In the town Eddy received the cabled messages and slipped them into the relevant envelopes.  When the door opened and closed he was not surprised to see Daniel deQuille standing there as usual the first customer of the day.

 

“Just the one for you, Mr deQuille” he smiled and passed the envelope to him.

 

“About time to;  send these off for me, Eddy, as soon as possible.”

 

Eddy accepted the scrawled notes and frowned, obviously the newspaper man was determined to get replies from all his contacts at some time or another even though most had retained a steely silence on the various matters relating to Commodore Cartwright.  He put them to one side and leaned his elbows on the counter

 

“Do you know if the pass is clear yet?  There’s mail here for the Ponderosa.”

 

“I believe it is.”. Daniel muttered while he kept his eyes fixed in the cable he was reading.

 

The door reopened and Candy entered, the two men nodded in acknowledgement of one another and as Dan headed for the door he heard Eddy  telling the sheriff that he had received news from Adam Cartwright.   They were on the way home with the child.

 

“Olivia will be more than pleased to know that,” Candy said in an undertone, after all it would never do for the public to know he had condoned a felony as disclosing the contents  of mail could be considered such … But this was such good news, and he was the sheriff after all. “A pity I’m busy today. Let’s hope someone manages to get into town soon, Olivia really needs to get this news quickly.”

 

Daniel paused with his fingers in the door handle, he turned and cleared his throat “Did you mention Olivia ? Anything I can do to help?”

 

Eddy and Candy exchanged a look, it was Candy who answered that yes, a cable for Olivia.  Dan nodded, “If you would like to entrust me with it?   I could try to get it to her.  Important is it?”

 

The clerk nodded while Candy frowned and shuffled his feet

 

Dan smiled “In that case I’ll definitely take it in for her.  I can check out the pass for myself as well … Who knows I could get a scoop..”  he grinned, his teeth gleamed through his beard, and he pocketed the cable Eddy handed over with a feeling of glee.

 

Being in the right place at the right time was the essence if being a good newspaperman, and this was a golden opportunity to return that journal.  His own cable had been disappointing as it informed him that everything he was enquiring about appeared to have been put into the classified category making it inaccessible ‘without funding’ which indicated money was needed to grease palms.

 

“Any other mail for the Ponderosa?   I might as well take it all while risking my  neck for one cablegram”

 

Eddy nodded, removed from various pigeon holes the mail for the Ponderosa and put it into a U.S mail pouch which he then handed over.   Candy watched with a niggle of misgiving.   The journalist nodded, bade them farewell and left the building whistling a

jaunty tune that made the other two men look at one another with raised eyebrows.

 

Daniel didn’t care, he sauntered along thinking what a wonderful thing ‘chance’ happened to be and how one day, he would write a story about it.  For the present an urgent need of his own had been answered, now to take advantage of it!

 

Chapter 62

 

Cheng Ho Lee opened to the rather authoritive rapping on the door and stepped back a pace or two upon seeing the well wrapped but dapper figure of Daniel deQuille standing on the porch with a rather vague smile on his whiskery features.

 

“Good morning, I’m presuming your mistress is home only ..” He held the mail bag aloft, swinging it by its handle “I elected to be mail man today.”

 

Cheng made no comment but merely stepped to one side to admit the man who removed his hat and coat upon entry and then followed him into the house.

 

Olivia was sitting at the table with her son, Reuben, and from all appearances was coaching him on some math.  It was obvious that inaccessibility to school didn’t mean lessons were to be ignored and like her husband, Olivia took her childrens education seriously..  From Reubens look of concentration he was tackling a rather difficult problem although when he caught sight of Daniel he stopped chewing his pencil and removed it from his mouth with a look of astonishment on his face,

 

Olivia stood up immediately to welcome her guest, catching Cheng’s eye and giving the slightest of nods to indicate that refreshments would be necessary. Daniel watched his departure with a wry smile before looking at the Mistress of the house, he gave a slight mimicry of a bow before speaking.

 

“Good morning, Mrs Cartwright.  As you can see the pass is just about clear and I have delivered your mail.” he flourished the mail bag once more and then placed his hand in to the inner pocket of his jacket, having removed his heavy coat in the porch upon entering the building. “And I hope … Some good news for you”

 

He held out the cable and was witness to a number of expressions that flitted across her face, he noticed how her colour faded, rushed back to suffuse her cheeks with colour before settling back to normal apart from a pleasing blush on her cheeks..  Reuben had risen to his feet also and stood by her side, his hand resting upon her arm as though to remind her that he was there whether the cable contained good news or bad.

 

“You are very kind, Mr deQuille,” she said in as calm a voice as possible “So the pass is clear now?  Well, that’s good news.”

 

“Just about clear, Mrs Cartwright, had I not known how important this was to you I assure you I would have turned back several times, not having the same -er – stamina as your husband.”

 

“Then I thank you again, that’s very kind.  Do please sit down Cheng will bring some coffee soon.   You must be cold… Do take the chair by the fire.”

 

He inclined his head in acceptance of her invitation and took the seat nearest the fire while watching her from the corner of his eye and trying not to be too obvious about doing so.  She had turned her back upon him,  however, in order to read her cable message in some privacy and not expose her feelings too obviously to the journalist.  He heard the tearing open of  the envelope and the rustle of paper.   Only seconds later a gasp, a murmur of words and Reuben’s voice saying “I told you, didn’t I say?”

 

Cheng came in with a laden tray and it was to him that Olivia said “Adam has Sofia, they are on the way home now.”

 

There was so much joy and relief in her voice that Daniel had to stand up again and when she turned with a beaming countenance and tears sparkling in her eyes he stepped forward to shake her hands and all the time saying “Wonderful, wonderful news, Mrs Cartwright.”

 

She had to turn her head away for a moment to compose herself and quickly wipe the tears away  before, blinking rather rapidly, she turned back  to him.

 

“I’m so grateful to you for bringing this, you can’t imagine what it means to us.”

 

“Dear lady, it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time.  I was in the telegraph depot and heard Eddy say he had mail and a cable for you,  the sheriff would have brought it himself but he has duties in town as you know.”

 

She nodded with a fixed smile on her face all the while he continued talking, they sat down by the fire and she provided coffee looking like she was caught up in a dream, her mind so in a whirl that she could barely put two sentences together.  Finally she apologised and hoped he wasn’t offended if she appeared a bad hostess.

 

“We’ve waited so long to hear from them, to know they’re safe ..I mean, I know they have a long journey yet but at least they are all together, and with Sofia.  Oh, I must let Hester and Mary Ann know…” She paused, shook her head and offered him a smile of such sweet gentleness that he envied Adam Cartwright from the bottom of his heart.

 

He stood up, having placed his empty cup and saucer back on the tray “Well, I must not delay you further. Thank you for your hospitality.”

 

“Its very little considering what you have done for us today.”

 

She followed him from the chair and was surprised when he stopped and turned . “I hope you don’t mind, Mrs Cartwright, if I just return something I borrowed from Adam … From his study.  I’ll just put it on his desk before leaving.”

 

“Oh I can do that for you…”

 

“No, don’t let me cause you any further delay, you have other mail and as it is, it won’t take  any time at all as I know where the book goes ..”

 

“Well, if you insist, thank you again, so very much.”.

 

It took but a moment for him to slip into the study and push one journal onto the shelf, he paused at the sound behind him and saw Cheng standing at the door way his eyes narrowed with suspicion,

 

“I’m just returning something” he said  and after a nod of the head hurried from the room.

As it was Chen’s intentions were to assist the man into the heavy fur coat he had earlier set aside, so after struggling back into it  Daniel stomped off back to his vehicle. Partly relieved that one journal had been replaced and partly angry at the fact that he had been thwarted in getting another.

 

In the house Olivia sorted through the mail, taking whatever was addressed for her husband and herself, while the rest was returned to the bag.  “We’ll go in the sledge, Hester will be so surprised at seeing us.  We can go up to Mary Ann’s afterwards..”  She clasped her hands together, then hugged Reuben and kissed his rosy cheeks.

 

“I’ll go and get it all ready, Mom.” Reuben shouted and with a whoop ran to the porch to pull on his thick coat and boots

 

Within less than 15 minutes they were all bundled up and heading to the Ponderosa ranch house, Olivia and Reuben laughing and singing snatches of song while Nathaniel looked around him wide eyed in surprise at having been snatched from warm cosiness to cold whiteness while his mother and brother seemed …well ..not quite what he was used to!

 

Ezra meanwhile was not quite so happy but took his orders and considered them as a form of penance for his previous errors.   Bundled up against the cold he was heading for the Double D with a letter to Marcy to tell her that Luke was on his way home.

………….

 

Clem Foster observed his boss anxiously as he watched Candy prowl around the office, rubbing his chin and going out to look up at the sky and then at the road as it stretched clear to the horizon all the way to the Ponderosa.

 

Finally he could stand it no longer and strode out to join Candy in staring at the sky and road before saying in a firm voice “Why don’t you go and check for yourself, Candy.   It could start snowing anytime again and you’ll never know if Mr deQuille got there safely or not.   Could be, if it snows he could be trapped in a snow drift and we won’t find him till the big thaw sets in.”

 

Candy glanced at his deputy as though the man were mad but Clem just kept his eyes fixed on the sky as though there were clouds amassing up there for  the sole purpose of preventing the newspaperman from ever returning to town.

 

“I’ve things that have to be done in town, Clem.” Candy muttered “And there’s the report on the McAllister case to be written up before the Judge demands them on his desk tomorrow.”

 

“Some would say it were your civic duty to make sure that Mr DeQuille got back safely.”  Clem shrugged “but you’re the boss, you do what you think best.”

 

Clem turned back into the office then, whistling innocently.  He knew how Candy had felt about that cable being delivered by deQuille, such news should have been delivered by a friend not a newspaperman looking for a scoop.   But at the same time Candy was right, his duties were to the town and folk would be quick to cast him out if they knew their sheriff gave the women on the Ponderosa more consideration than themselves.  And that report needed to be written…

 

“He is late getting back …” Candy said as he entered the office “I should never have let him go.”

 

Clem nodded “I can make a start on that report …after all Mr deQuille is an important man in these parts.”.

 

He leaned back in his chair and began to sift through the latest batch of Wanted posters and didn’t look up until the door had closed with a thud behind the sheriff who was hastily pulling on his fur collared long coat in order to face the weather out of town.

…….

 

Hester was delighted to see her sister in law and the children as the sledge came to an abrupt halt in the yard.  She had just collected an armful of logs for the stove and dropped several before hugging them closer to ensure she didn’t drop any more.

 

“Hester, Hester. ..“ Olivia pulled the cable from the safety of her glove and waved it above her head “A cable from Adam,  they have Sofia safe and are on their way home,”

 

“All of them?  Are they all safe?”

 

Olivia nodded “I shall go on up to tell Mary Ann, will you look after the boys for me?   I sent Ezra to tell Marcy.  Mary Ann will be so pleased to know they are all safe.”

 

“And coming home!  Oh, thank goodness.”. Hester’s eyes danced and her face was illuminated by her smile  “Mary Ann will be so happy.   Bring her down, Olivia, we can talk..oh thank you Reuben,I thought my arms would drop off it I stood here much longer with  all these logs”

 

Reuben smiled gallantly as he took some of the logs from his aunt and took them inside where Olivia had already deposited Nathaniel and left him to the excited attentions of Hannah and Hope

.

Heater brushed wood dust and splinters from her coat “How did you get the news..I mean,  who brought the telegram ?  Is the pass clear enough for us to get into town?”

 

“Mr deQuille brought all the mail, he got through alright.  I sent Ezra to tell Marcy so hopefully he’ll get through alright.”

 

Hester grinned rather mischievously as she walked back with Olivia to the sledge “Poor Ezra, he’s so willing to do everything we ask of him nowadays, it’s a long trip to the Double D.”

 

“I know, I have written a note to Marcy to take good care of him, and keep him there until tomorrow.”

 

Hester nodded and her grin broadened “Oh, Livvy, it will be so good to have them home again.   Don’t forget to tell Mary Ann to come back with you.”

 

With a wave of the hand Olivia took the reins and turned the sledge out of the Ponderosa yard and into the track to where  Joe and Mary Ann lived.  As always the view as she turned into the last curve took her breath away, especially with everything wearing its mantle of white snow.  Even where the river had iced over the snow had crept up and over it.

 

Jenny opened the door and exclaimed with delight at the sight of the other woman whom she ushered inside but who ran ahead of her to find her sister in law, calling her name as she went so that Mary Ann came out of the kitchen in a rush “What’s happened?   Goodness me, Olivia, how wild you look?   Is everything alright?”

 

“Yes yes, more than alright.  They have Sofia, Mary Ann, they have her safe and sound and are on their way home.”

 

Mary Ann clapped her hands together and then with a squeal of delight threw her arms around Olivia “Home!  And Sofia safe … What an answer to prayer!” and in her delight at the news burst into happy tears “I know its silly, I shouldn’t cry but I’m so happy.”

 

Daniel was now tugging at her skirt “Mommy, mommy…” So that she stooped down and swung him into the air and into her arms. “Daddy’s coming home. Daddy’s coming home”

she laughed and kissed him, then danced a little jig in the hall which made Olivia smile with tears in her eyes at seeing the younger woman’s joy then she grabbed at Mary Ann’s arm “Come along, Mary Ann, Hester wants us to get back.  Do hurry ….”

 

………

 

Candy drew  in his horse and shook his head bemusedly at the sight that met his eyes.   True enough the pass was clear, but only just clear enough for what could be called wriggle space, and on both sides the steep inclines of rock were covered with snow that was loosening.  Any loud sudden noise and the risk of avalanche could be only too real.

 

Ahead of him was deQuille, struggling to get his vehicle upright while his horse threshed about in an attempt to be free of the contraption to which he was harnessed.

 

Guiding his horse gingerly along the narrow strip where deQuille had travelled safely through earlier Candy approached and then dismounted to help the journalist set the buggy upright and calm the horse.

 

“What happened?”  he eventually asked feeling sweat cooling on his skin beneath his clothes for it had been no easy task that they had laboured on.

 

“Some fool rode by going too fast, spooked my horse.  By the time he had disappeared the buggy was over.  I didn’t dare shout or fire my gun for help as ..well, you can see for yourself how precarious it is.”

 

Candy nodded and glanced again at the overhanging mounds of snow threatening to fall “Did you manage to get through to Olivia with the mail?”

 

“Oh yes, got through well enough.” Daniel looked sharply over at the sheriff “Don’t tell me you didn’t trust me?  It would really hurt my pride if I thought you had deserted your duties in town to make sure I had delivered that cable!”

 

Candy flushed a little after all that was exactly the reason why and he felt somewhat ashamed now although deQuille’s sneer also made him feel annoyed enough to want to slap the sneer from his face

 

“How was Mrs Cartwright?” he asked rather stiffly

 

“How do you expect?  The child has been found and the men are coming back with her.  She was – ecstatic.”

 

Candy cast him a thoughtful glance before going to the horse and carefully checking its legs, and after affirming that the beast was sound in every respect he nodded over to where deQuille was clambering back to take up the reins and resume his seat.

 

“I’ll ride along with you, Mr deQuille.  Just to make sure you get to Town safely.”

 

Daniel gave a curt nod of acceptance at the sheriffs words and in silence began the journey back to town, their eyes constantly upon the heavily laden snow covered crags, cringing at the sound of a bird as it cawed raucously overhead and a small cascade of snow trickled downwards.

 

Once free of the pass Candy leaned forwards so that his head appeared from beneath the vehicles hood “So you didn’t get your scoop, Mr deQuille?”

 

Daniel shrugged and grinned “Oh but I did.  I’m going to write a modern Good Samaritan story about a courageous reporter who risks all to let a young mother know her child was safe and her husband returning home!”

 

His laugh floated in the air as he  took the direction of the livery, and left Candy riding towards the sheriff’s office.  But Candy was smiling. It struck him as somehow amusing that  Daniels good deed was to be turned into a tale of heroics.  As he dismounted he wondered if he would feature in the tale … Somehow he thought not!!

 

Chapter 63

 

Relief at reaching a haven of some sort made each man realise their exhaustion.  It was hard to resist the temptation to crumple onto the ground and just allow  sleep to take over completely.   Luke clambered down from the buggy, fumbling with numb hands to get the hood released in order to do so.  His legs felt as though they would take hours to thaw enough to move, as he glanced over at the other two men he sympathised at just how stiff and painful their legs and bodies would be feeling as they attempted to move in order to care for their animals.

 

“Stay there, Sofia.”. he cautioned the child who had moved as though she also was going to get out of the buggy and join him.

 

“But, Uncle Luke…”

 

“Wait until we get a fire of sorts lighted, its still too  cold for you.”

 

With a sigh Sofia retreated back into the comfort of the quilt and tried to see through the gloom of their surroundings at exactly what was going on.   Hoss’ voice came in a kind of rumble as the cave or fissure in the rocks created an echo so that words  seemed to bounce around.   He was examining all the horses, telling Luke to unharness the animals from the buggy while Adam was already unsaddling their mounts; Sofia could hear the clunk and rattle as the tack was dropped onto the ground.

 

“Well, seeing how hard we rode  ’em they are in good shape. A rest will do ’em as much good as it’ll do us.” Hoss  blew on his hands and looked around at the vast hollow into which they  had ridden “This is perfect.  Snug. Dry. I reckon I could sleep a week here.”

 

“You can,” Adam muttered although he smiled as he spoke “but we won’t.   Now, let’s see if there’s anything we can use as fuel around here.”

 

Matches were struck to illuminate where they were casting shadows over their faces but providing sufficient light for them to see that the hollow was deep, gouged out of the mountain by some natural phenomena perhaps thousands of years before. More matches were struck as they went further into the rear, Luke nodded and smiled “Smells clean”

 

“Seems air from outside is blowing in via a natural vent further back, but its a decent temperature hereabouts” Hoss  muttered “And plenty of fuel too.”

 

It took little time to get a small fire started from the debris that had blown in over the years, plus the unexpected bonus of  very dry animal dung that must have piled up at some time.  Hoss and Luke discussed how it had got there and what kind of creature or creatures they  could have been while Adam was reminded of the wagon train journeys he had been on when all they had for fuel was buffalo and cattle dung.  It was the children’s task to collect the dry ‘chips’ as they walked along and throw them into the nets slung under the wagons so that there was a fire for the times they needed to cook.   In those days there was always more than enough, but he wondered now with the demise of the buffalo how modern travellers would fare.  He laughed to himself, and shook his head, showed his age, he had forgotten they could travel in comfort