Like a Phoenix Rising #2 – Abbie’s Story (by Krystyna)

Summary: This is the second part of the story about Abbie who first appeared in the story Like a Phoenix Rising which ended with her married to one of the Cartwrights … this part reveals which Cartwright was her husband and what happened to them.

Rating:  PG  (20,000 words)

Like A Phoenix Rising Series:

Like a Phoenix Rising
Abbie’s Story

 

Abbie’s Story

 

It was not until later that night that the realisation of the foolishness of my journey that day really struck me. The house was settling down, all those odd and familiar noises that happen in a house struck in discord this evening. The stairs creaked and the clock wheezed before it chimed the hour, while a door slammed shut and made me jump.

 

“Are you alright, Abbie?”

 

His voice was gentle from his side of the bed and I could feel his body turn closer into mine, his hand reached out to touch my face.

 

“I’m a little jittery. I can’t think why …”

 

His fingers traced the outline of my lips, and then lightly stroked my cheek.

 

“You shouldn’t have gone to the cabin today, not on your own.” he whispered as he gathered a coil of my hair around his finger, “Why did you?”

 

I closed my eyes and frowned slightly as I relived the journey I had made that morning. I don’t think I could answer the question because I had not really set out to go there. I was just riding, enjoying the day, the smells and the openness of the land around me. The Ponderosa was truly the most beautiful place in the world and I doubt if I could ever put into words just how much it meant to me.

 

“I don’t know,” I eventually said very slowly, “I hadn’t even realised that I was riding towards it, and then suddenly it was there …” for some reason I gripped tightly the sheets covering us, as though the realisation of where I had been had swept over me just as it had then, the shock, almost physical, that had seized hold of me then, now made me gasp aloud and grab at the sheets.

 

Immediately his hand covered my own, lightly, very lightly. I kept my eyes closed and just let the warmth of his fingers seep into mine, spread out and into my body. I was shivering and he now drew me close to his body, his arm around my shoulders and his face close to my own,

 

“You’re frightened?” he whispered.

 

“I hadn’t realised that I was, not then, but now …” I licked dry lips and swallowed, “I’m cold.”

 

“Here, come closer to me” and he drew me into his arms while at the same time he pulled the sheets higher above my shoulders.

 

I could feel his breath against my cheek; I could smell his body, strong and masculine, warm, gentle, melding into my own. I turned my face towards his and kissed his lips,

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“What for? There’s nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart, nothing at all.”

 

“I wish I hadn’t gone there,” I whispered, “I wasn’t even thinking of it, I hadn’t even thought of it for so long.”

 

“Well, you needn’t think about it any longer now, need you?”

 

I felt the smile on his lips brush against my face, and turned away as though to sleep.

 

But it was like Pandora’s Box, the key had been turned, the lid opened and the memories within were beginning to rise and prepare to spill out. Memories that I had succeeded in suppressing for so long now tumbled into my mind so that I dared not close my eyes but instead stared out into the shadows which in turn drew me down into the labyrinth of time.

 

……………………….

 

The cold of the floor rose through my feet and into my body. I stood there and put my arms around my body in order to gain some warmth but could find none. I was alone, and it was very cold, all around me was the darkness and an awareness that I was in an unknown place.

 

“Run, Abbie, Run.”

 

It was a scream of a voice which seared through the night, ragged and wretched, piercing my mind and causing me to shriek aloud. I ran to the door and fumbled for the lock but it wasn’t there, I reached up for the bolts to draw them back, but they were not there. I screamed and with my bare hands thudded hard against the stubborn wood.

 

“Run, run, Abbie …”

 

A man’s voice shouting. I screamed again and again while all the time I pummelled the door in a frenzied attempt to open it.

 

“Abbie …”

 

The voice of my husband whispered in my ear, the softest gentlest whisper which drowned out the screams and curses that filled my poor confused brain. I turned to him, and stared into his face, looked into the anxious frightened eyes that told me only of his love for me, and then I fainted.

 

 

……………………………..

 

I could tell from the way the sun light slanted through the window across the bed that I had slept through the morning. I kept my eyes closed while I tried to recall what had happened and why no one had roused me from my sleep. Slowly I stretched out my arm to feel for the empty space beside me, where my husband had slept, just to feel for its warmth but that had already gone, faded away with the minutes that had passed since his rising from my side.

 

I didn’t move but enjoyed the sensation of the infant kicking within me, the sun light warming me, and the feel of the indentation in the pillows where his head had been. All that love. I felt surrounded by it, comforted by it. So much love.

 

“Abbie?”

 

I opened my eyes very slowly and turned in the direction of the voice, so that my eyes opened to look upon Ben’s face. He had that slight frown between his dark eyebrows that indicated concern, but the smile on his lips showed his kind interest as he leaned further towards me. His smile broadened as I smiled at him, and his hand stroked back some hair from my brow. I couldn’t help but think how blessed I was to have such a father in my life, and wished more could see him as I do,

 

“Have I slept so long?” I could hear my own voice, barely above a whisper, lost in the smile I gave him.

 

“It’s nearly mid day.” he said and his hand took hold of one of mine, “We thought it better for you to sleep on. You had a bad dream …”

 

“I did?”

 

“You don’t remember?”

 

I had to think, just for a moment, before nodding slowly.

 

“I remember going downstairs, the floor was cold -” I looked at him and saw that little frown furrowing his brow again, “Did I have a bad dream?”

 

“We thought it best not to disturb you.” his reply did not answer my question although his eyes showed wariness in their dark depths that made me nervous, “You didn’t mind, did you?”

 

“No, not really.” I smiled lazily, it wasn’t often I slept in late like this and it was rather a luxury. “Hop Sing didn’t mind, did he?”

 

“No, of course not. He’s prepared a light lunch for you.” his smile broadened when I hurriedly placed my hand over my stomach, “Little one’s active, huh?”

 

“Very.” I grimaced, it’s no fun having what seems like half a dozen squids kicking and prodding inside oneself, “It must be a boy.”

 

“More than likely -” he laughed now, pride in his voice, I liked that, it really made me feel important to him and for me that mattered so much.

 

I took my time to change my clothes and during doing so I thought about the previous night’s events. I could not remember no matter how hard I tried, why I had gone downstairs and Ben’s evasive dismissal of my question caused me more concern than he may have realised. I would much rather have preferred a straight answer, something I could have dealt with, or at least, I thought I would.

 

I had not expected to see any of the boys in the house now, and why we called them the boys I don’t know considering how they’re all grown men now. Ben was preparing to go out as I came down the stairs and after telling me to take care of myself he left the house.

 

I ate what Hop Sing had prepared and sat quietly at the table allowing the silence of the house to flood over me and calm my nerves. I had not expected to feel so jittery, but I did. People said that pregnant women had strange fancies and I told myself that this was the reason, the reason why I couldn’t sit without jumping out of my skin at the least sound, why my eyes kept returning to the door, looking at the bolts and the lock. The clock chimed the hour and I dropped my cup, coffee slopped into the saucer and all I could do was stare at it and wonder why it was there. Then very carefully I poured it back into the cup, which thankfully had not broken, put it back on the saucer and decided to go into town.

 

Hop Sing came running behind me as I hurried to the stable,

 

“Missy, you not ride hoss. Mr Catlight say make sure missy not ride hoss. You not go out now.”

 

“I need to go out, Hop Sing. I want some fresh air.”

 

“Flesh air? Plenty flesh air you sit on porch get flesh air.” he gestured to the day bed that had been set out for me to rest in during the hotter part of the days, but I shook my head and declined his kind intentions. “You take walk in garden. Plenty flower. You walk and smell flower and feel good.”

 

“No, I really need to get out, Hop Sing. I think I’ll go into town.”

 

“Town not good for you.”

 

“It’s better than staying here on my own -” I cried and felt the heat rising in my face, “I mean, I’d rather -”

 

As I stuttered and stammered the sound of a buggy entering the yard distracted our attention and we both turned to watch the vehicle do a neat spin around in the yard before coming to a halt. Mr Weems from the bank smiled, raised a hand and clambered down, then turned to help down a woman who, after she had smiled at me, walked quickly up to me. Hop Sing had down a swift about turn, and I knew that he was already getting ready for guests.

 

“Mrs Cartwright?”

 

“Yes.” I took in a deep breath, even after two years it still caught me by surprise to be addressed as Mrs Cartwright, especially when I was on my own.

 

“I’m Deirdre Nixon. I wondered if I could have a few minutes to discuss something with you about the land you own.”

 

“The land I own?” my mind was blank, I couldn’t recall owning any land and certainly I had no little acre of the Ponderosa to call my own. Then I realised what she had meant, I looked at her and knew that my face must have gone pale, and that I looked confused because she turned to Mr Weems and raised her eyebrows as though rather doubtful as to what else she could say, without putting it into words exactly, she must have thought she was dealing with a half wit. She smiled at me now and stretched out her arm, her hand gently touched mine,

 

“I’m sorry, Mrs Cartwright, I guess I was a little too abrupt. Perhaps we could talk indoors?”

 

I glanced at Mr Weems who was already looking rather apprehensively at me, but I forced a smile and nodded, then with an inclination of the head led the way back to the house.

 

Hop Sing was already setting things out on the low table by the hearth, and then hurried back to get the coffee prepared. I indicated a chair to Mrs Nixon, and Mr Weems before sitting down myself,

 

“You mentioned about some land?” I ventured and looked at them both, while Hop Sing carefully set down the coffee things upon the table, I caught his eye as he poured out the coffee and the kindly concern I saw there calmed me. I drew in my breath, “Yes, I know what you mean now. Oddly enough, I – I never really thought of that land as mine, you see.”

 

Mr Weems smiled and nodded, picked up the cup of steaming coffee, and relaxed. I could see in his eyes the anxiety fade away, and the tip of his tongue moistened the thin lips,

 

“Mrs Nixon and her husband wanted to buy land in this area. As you know land is at a premium at present, and then I remembered that yours was still available and as I had never heard anything about your having any interest in it at all, suggested that Mrs Nixon approach you with a view of buying it from yourself. Of course if you would prefer not to sell that is quite understandable after all.” he stopped himself then, and buried his face in the cup of coffee rather than proceed further.

 

I clasped my hands together in my skirts and looked at her, this Mrs Nixon. I wondered why she was here and not her husband, perhaps Mr Weems had thought that a woman discussing such things with another woman would make for an easier transaction, but all the same it seemed rather strange to me.

 

“I think I would rather Mr Nixon came and discussed the matter with my husband” I suggested quietly, “I mean, if it is convenient.”

 

She pursed her lips rather, and her eyes looked large and pathetic in her pale face. She was an attractive woman in her large boned way, her lips were full and rouged, her eyes were round and framed with long lashes which at present reminded me of a pet cow we once owned a long time ago. I could tell that she was not wealthy, but at the same time she was doing well for herself for her clothes were immaculate. She put her cup down carefully into the saucer and then looked at me rather as a school mistress would look at a recalcitrant student.

 

“I quite understand your reservations, Mrs Cartwright, but you see I have only a short time available to look at property hereabouts before deciding to buy. My husband is not with me just at present but wants me to proceed with the transaction without him. I’m sure your husband could trust you enough to at least let me look around the place before I decide to go further. If it is to my liking then I promise I shall ask Mr Weems to deal with the matter with Mr Cartwright, your husband.” she smiled then, and her eyes smiled too, which makes a lot of difference when trying to gauge the sincerity of the stranger to whom one is dealing.

 

“Well, I understand what you’re saying, Mrs Nixon.” I glanced at Mr Weems who was staring thoughtfully down at the rug on the floor, and then I looked back at her, “I suppose I could come with you -”

 

“Oh excellent,” she clapped her hands together in a gesture of rather affected pleasure and rose to her feet, “Do you feel able to take us now? I have such a limited time to make all these decisions and the day is such a fine one, isn’t it? It’s always good to look at land and property when the sun is shining, don’t you think?”

 

I bit my lip, apprehensive, wishing that my husband were there to make the decision for me, for Ben, who would have taken my elbow and just told me to leave it to him. However, they were not here, so I rose to my feet as grandly as I could,

 

“It’s alright, of course I’ll take you, Mrs Nixon. If Mr Weems wouldn’t mind driving us there?”

 

Mr Weems assured us that he would be delighted to take us in his buggy. As he collected his hat, I gathered up my shawl and covered my shoulders with it.

 

Then together we left the house.

 

………………………

 

I shouldn’t have been here. I felt my whole body growing heavier and heavier the nearer we were to the land that my father had purchased so long ago. I felt my heart beating faster, and my hands growing icier. Mr Weems chattered about nothing of consequence, pointing first to one view, and then to another all to which Mrs Nixon murmured some approving response. Neither seemed inclined to include me in their conversation which was just as well as I had nothing to offer.

 

“This is it,” Mr Weems announced suddenly and there before me was the familiar scene of the burned out cabin, the overgrown weed strewn yard, the shrubs and trees close by that now appeared to have crept insidiously closer than ever to the sadly crippled building.

 

Mrs Nixon sat very still for some seconds as she glanced around the area, and then with a sweet smile turned to me,

 

“Well, I daresay we can get the building repaired. It seems in a state of near collapse anyway.” Then she stepped down, taking Mr Weems arm as a support.

 

Mr Weems looked now to me, and offered his arm to help me down. Again the thought hammered through my brain that I shouldn’t have been there. I could imagine Ben’s dark eyes looking anxiously at me and Adam pursing his lips and that dark frown furrowing his brow. I knew my husband well enough to know that he would have had something to say about the matter. Hoss of course would have been all concern.

 

I took Mr Weems arm and stepped down tentatively, then looked around me. Mrs Nixon was standing in the middle of the yard, like a little bird pecking at the ground her head went first this way and then that way as she perused the scene around her.

 

“Well, Mrs Cartwright, aren’t you going to show me around the place, this was, after all, your home, wasn’t it?” she smiled slowly, and extended her arm towards me, her hand beckoning to me to advance towards her.

 

Like a puppet on a string I did so, approaching the cabin and feeling dread at every step. So many memories with every step of the way.

 

There was my Mama, arching her back and sighing as she placed her hands at the small of her back just as I did now.

 

“Is the baby moving, Mama?”

 

“Yes and my back aches so much.”

 

“I’ll peg out the washing for you.”

 

“Thank you, sweetness, what would I do without you?”

 

I remembered it so well. I could see it in front of my eyes even now, my dear mother with her aching back, her hands and arms red from the hot water in which she had been scrubbing the clothes, the basket laden high. I had pulled the basket to the washing line and stumbled, the top garment had fallen into the dirt, and then a heavy hand had swept across the back of my shoulders sending me falling flat onto my back …

 

Mrs Nixon turned and looked at me

 

“Did you say something, Mrs Cartwright?” her eyes looked at me thoughtfully, and I realised I must have gasped out aloud as though that blow from my father had just this moment fallen across my back.

 

“No, I – nothing -” I replied and turned away from her to look at the ragged flowers from my mother’s garden that fought for survival among the weeds.

 

“You must be tired, I am sorry it was thoughtless of me to drag you out here today.” her voice softened, and she placed a gentle hand upon my arm, “You must be quite close to your time?”

 

“Two more months,” I murmured, and instinctively placed my hand upon the mound of my skirt.

 

“And here I am dragging you out here on a hot day.” Her brow furrowed anxiously, “Would you prefer to sit in the buggy?”

 

I was looking at the door as she spoke, the charred burned remnants of the door frame, the door hanging from its hinges blackened with the soot from the fire and from age. I wondered now how I had ever managed to pull open those bolts, how had I got out of that inferno when everyone else apart from my father, had perished. Martin, so dependent upon me, and whom I had set down on the floor while I had struggled to pull at the bolts and what had happened to Jesse? Hadn’t he been right behind me?

 

Thoughts that had never entered my head before now quietly intruded upon me. I felt Mrs Nixon’s arm tighten upon mine and forced myself to look at her,

 

“I think you should sit in the buggy, Mrs Cartwright. I’ll not take long to look around here then we shall take you back home.”

 

Mr Weems escorted me back and helped me step into the buggy. He looked anxiously at me, concern in his rheumy old eyes,

 

“I’m sorry, Mrs Cartwright, it was inconsiderate of me.” he paused, “Can I get you some water?”

 

I shook my head and leaned back against the seat. The sun had warmed the leather and the smell of it filled my nostrils, reminded me of that long ago evening when Adam had taken me into his arms and away from the fire, away from what had happened and the horror of it all.

 

The horror of it all seemed to be swallowing me up now.

 

 

…………………………………….

 

 

“You are home, you have come home to where your roots are to be found in your heart.”

 

That was what Hop Sing had said to me the day I had re-entered the Cartwright home after years away in Utah which I had spent in the care of the McIver family. I was then 18 years of age and had stepped into the house with the naïve impression that the Cartwrights would recognise me, and accept me as they had done just 8 years previously. My naivety had not been wrong, for they had wrapped me up into their lives again with the same warmth and love as they had done then. Hop Sing had been particularly endearing and taken hold of my hands, looked into my face with those tender almond eyes of his

 

But it wasn’t really true. My roots were at that burned out building which Mrs Nixon was even now exploring rather tentatively. Here it was where I had been born, just a year after Jesse and much later there had been Martin. Mama had lost two babies in between those years, and I had witnessed her pain and suffering during those times, just as I had witnessed and felt the pain of living with my father.

 

Had he always been thus? What changes a man from an honest hard working husband and father to one who is feared, loathed? I could not remember a day when he had held us gently in his arms and spoken kindly to us, nor a moment that was tender and sweet lulling us into thoughts that perhaps, maybe, life would be better. He could not always have been the man that I remembered for my dear sweet mother would never have married such a brute as he … surely, surely not?

 

They – Mr Weems and Mrs Nixon – returned to the buggy after a few more minutes and spoke together in low tones while I sat with my eyes closed and my mind wending along memory lane. Had adversity made father cruel for he had never had the success that Ben Cartwright had attained, or had adversity come as a result of my father’s indolence and his preference for the saloons in town to the hard work that would have resulted in prosperity. I recall him constantly cursing the ‘luck’ of his neighbours, berating us for his lack of success, always smelling of rotgut whiskey and the body odour of a man unkempt, uncaring and totally driven by his own physical and selfish desires.

 

“Mrs Cartwright?”

 

I opened my eyes instantly and looked into her eyes. She smiled and her hand once again gently touched my own,

 

“Is the water good here?”

 

“Yes. It’s always been clean and sweet. Mr Kendell helped my father dig the well. I remember -” I paused, and frowned, another intrusive memory of a day in the life of my family.

 

The well was being dug out by my father and a neighbour, Mr Kendell. It was Mr Kendell’s idea to lower a candle before they started digging in order to make sure that the air was clean. He told Pa that the lower they dug down the more likelihood there was of the air being poisonous. Pa went along with this well enough, bowing to Mr Kendell’s experience for once.

 

Then one morning Mr Kendell was late in arriving and Pa couldn’t wait, he started to dig while Jesse and I, young as we were, were recruited to pulling up the buckets of soil by the ropes. He hadn’t bothered with a candle, he said old Kendell was nothing more than an old woman fussing about nothing, but he soon found out to his cost that Mr Kendell had been right for it wasn’t long before all action came to a stop. It was Jesse who ran in to tell Ma that Pa had collapsed in the well and as a result of our efforts to get him out, the baby Ma had been expecting came too early. Yes, the well produced good sweet water for us, but it had cost us dear.

 

We drove back to the Ponderosa in silence. The Cartwright’s horses were all tethered to the hitching rail and the front door was open. As the buggy rolled into the yard my husband appeared on the porch and if I were ever in any doubt about his love for me, the memory of the anxiety on his face at that moment would always reassure me for there was no doubting what my eyes told me. Behind him came Ben, and then Adam and Hoss.

 

“Abbie, where have you been?” Joe was there, waiting for me to slip into his arms so that he could guide me down to the ground.

 

“Joe, this is Mrs Nixon, she wanted to buy my land.” I replied simply and turned to the woman who was being assisted down from the buggy by Mr Weems. “She asked me to show her around.”

 

If he was going to say anymore he was immediately interrupted by Mrs Nixon who approached him with a very concerned expression on her face,

 

“Mr Cartwright, I am sorry. I hadn’t realised how thoughtless it was of us to have expected your wife to take us to the property today, it was just that I am in a hurry to make a purchase, and have little time available before I have to return to my husband with news of any decision I may have made.”

 

Joe, one hand still holding mine, turned to her and shook her proffered hand, but his eyes held a gleam in them that I recognised as ill disguised annoyance. I squeezed his fingers,

 

“It’s alright, Joe, I’m not unwell, only pregnant.” and I smiled at him hoping that it would restore some good humour to his handsome countenance.

 

It was Ben who stepped forward now to shake her hand and introduce her to Adam and Hoss and himself. Mr Weems was accorded a rather sharp nod of the head in acknowledgement.

 

“You’re welcome to come indoors for some coffee or some other refreshment -” he indicated the house with a sweep of his hand.

 

“Thank you, but I shall have to decline.” Mrs Nixon replied but I noticed her eyes lingering over Adam, (something I had noticed many women had done in the past and would no doubt continue to do in the future). She smiled then turned to Mr Weems, “Mr Weems, you have another property to take me too, I believe?”

 

“Indeed yes, Madam.” he turned to me now, and smiled rather apologetically, “I do hope that the journey was not too arduous for you, Mrs Cartwright?”

 

“Certainly not, Mr Weems.” I assured him for I liked the little man very much, he was always very kind to me and a gentle soul, which is probably why he was so easily forced into situations he’d have preferred to avoid.

 

Mrs Nixon turned rather graciously to me, extended her hand and smiled

 

“Thank you so much for your time, Mrs Cartwright. Once again, I am grateful that you came to show me your property. I shall let you know within the next day or so whether or not I shall consider buying it.”

 

I held my tongue, life had taught me that lesson at least. I refrained to say anything about letting her know whether or not I would accept ‘her offer’.

 

No one spoke as they clambered back into the buggy and drove out of the yard. Then Ben shrugged, rolled his dark eyes and shook his head,

 

“Poor Weems, I doubt if he stood a chance against her -” he said as he turned towards me, “Alright, my dear?”

 

“Yes, I’m alright,” I replied as brightly as I could, “It’s just strange how I never went back there until yesterday, and now here I am, having gone there again today.”

 

“You could sell it, you know.” Adam said quietly as he stepped up to my side and walked to the house with us, “It’s your land after all.”

 

“I never thought of it as my land before now,” I replied in all honesty, and looked at Joe who was very quiet, “What do you think, Joe? Should I keep it?”

 

“Do you want to keep it?”

 

He was still holding my hand, and now his other hand went around my waist and drew me closer to him, but his smile was warm and his eyes twinkled now, having lost their brittle hardness from when he had addressed Mrs Nixon.

 

I didn’t reply. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure exactly what to say in answer to his question. We all walked into the house in contemplative silence.

 

……………………..

 

I awoke with a start and lay for some seconds very still. Perhaps I was still trapped in my dream or upon waking had slipped into a memory that was inhabited by the ghosts of those I had loved and lost. I tried to open my eyes but dreaded to do so, afraid of what I may see that would torment my fevered brain even more than the torture it was currently undergoing. I gulped in air and coughed. This was it, that same smell, that same horror. I reared upright and screamed. I struggled free from the bed clothes and fled from the room, the door slamming back against the wall and my feet thudding down the stairs.

 

Ahead of me the front door loomed large and firmly bolted. I ran to it and felt the wood bruise the palms of my hands as I pummelled against it. I knelt down upon the floor, searching, searching for the little one who slept swaddled in his blankets unknowing of the danger …

 

“Abbie. Abbie.”

 

My name was whispered into my ear, and strong arms fastened around me so that I turned and clung tightly to the dearest man on earth, my dearest husband.

 

“I ca – can’t open the door. I have to get out. I have to get Martin …”

 

“Hush now, hush” his voice was a soft breath against my cheek, and his fingers brushed aside the hair that fell loose over my face, “All’s well, my sweet, all’s well. You’re safe …”

 

“But Martin, I can’t find Martin.” I sobbed, bunching his night shirt between my fingers and sobbing into it.

 

“I know, Abbie. It’s alright, come back to bed now and try to sleep. It’s alright.”

 

He held me in his arms until I emerged out of my dream and looked up at him and blinked away the tears. His smile was reassuring, warm but anxious.

 

“I woke you up?” I said quietly, “I’m sorry, Joe.”

 

He merely smiled, kissed my brow and took me by the hand to lead me back up the stairs to our room. I heard Adam’s voice asking if I were alright and Joe’s quiet reassurance that I had had a bad dream. Then he led me back to our bed where the warmth of the bedding surrounded me so that I drifted back quickly into sleep.

 

……………………………

 

It was not often that Joe had to be absent from the Ponderosa for more than a night so with Adam absent in ‘Frisco and not expected home for a day or so, my husband left home for Placerville with the promise of returning home as soon as business was completed. I had passed a week with no disturbed sleep other than that of any woman expecting a baby which seemed to have more than the requisite arms and legs.

 

With the assurances from Ben and Hoss that I would be kept an eye on and well looked after Joe mounted Cochise and rode out of the yard. I still had the touch of his lips upon mine, and already longed to know that he was riding back home.

 

I had not heard a word from Mr Weems nor Mrs Nixon since the day they had visited the old homestead. I refused to allow myself to think about them and continued with the tasks the day provided me. Hop Sing was a dear friend and made my day easier by doing so much himself.

 

I have to confess that it had been hard for Hop Sing when I first moved into the Ponderosa as Mrs Joseph Cartwright. As mistress of the house he was now my subordinate, if one could use such a term in connection with him. For some days he was wary of me, watchful to correct any error I made and in general made me feel an intruder in his kingdom. It had not taken long, however, to realise that Hop Sing’s whole joy in life was to serve Ben and his sons to the best of his abilities, of which he had many. I stepped back and left him to do most things and asked him constantly for his help and guidance in others. Our working relationship blossomed along with our friendship.

 

Night came and with it pleasant sleep. The day had been overly warm and the baby had been overly active, tiring me far more than usual. I had no sooner put my head on the pillows than I was drifting into sleep.

 

I cannot recall when I awoke or even if I were awake when I left my bed. I silently made my way along the landing and down the stairs and made my way unhesitatingly to the main door of the house. Now the familiar fear and panic rose within me, and I reached out to fumble for the locks and bolts which would not open no matter how I tried. I began to cry out for Martin, for my mother, and I pummelled that relentless door with my bare hands as the fear of death by the flames that I imagined to be all around me.

 

Strong arms engulfed me and my name was spoken in a deep voice, but I pulled away and cried out again for my mother,

 

“Where’s Martin? I can’t find Martin.”

 

“It’s alright, Abbie, you’re safe, it’s alright.”

 

“Leave me alone, leave me alone.” I screamed at the top of my voice and beat with my fists against his chest, “I want Mama, I don’t want you, I don’t want you.”

 

“Hush, now, Abbie, you’re safe here. Come back to bed -”

 

“Papa, where’s Martin, don’t leave Martin -” and I hit out at him as hard as I could before falling against him and feeling his arms around me.

 

Now I was swept up into his arms, my feet left the cold floor and my head was resting against his shoulder. Now I could smell the familiar smell of him and the memory of that night time ride when he took me from the burning house to the Ponderosa made me feel safe once again.

 

I had not noticed him sitting by the last embers of the evening fire. He told me later that he had arrived home late that evening and had been reading some poetry when he had heard a sound, looked up and saw me apparently gliding across the floor like an apparition. He had watched me as I approached the door and hurried to guide me back to my bed, but the night terrors had already descended upon me by the time he had me in his arms.

 

I apologised profusely for having struck him, poor Adam, the last man on earth I would have wanted to harm in any way for didn’t I owe him my life? Had he not ridden to the burning house and found me I would never have survived that night, never have found the soul mate of my heart – dear Joe, and never become a part of the most loving of all families.

 

But he laughed and said it had been some time since a woman had struck him as hard as I had done, and yes, he forgave me entirely as he kissed my cheek and bade me goodnight.

 

I was awake for some time before drifting back to sleep.

 

……………………………….

 

Mr Weems was most apologetic the morning I called on him in town. It was pleasantly warm and I had enjoyed the ride in our buggy with the horses trotting briskly in unison all the way there. There was never any trouble with them, I had a good supple wrist and they obeyed everything I expected of them. Mr Weems had offered coffee, which I had declined, and then to my question told me quite frankly that he had heard nothing from Mrs Nixon since the day he had taken her to view my property.

 

“Is she still in town?”

 

“I cannot tell you, Mrs Cartwright. If she is I believe she is staying at the International.”

 

I shook his hand – which was always damp with sweat even on the coldest of days – and left the banks premises. I then made my way to the hotel International but Mrs Nixon had already left town with no forwarding address.

 

It was a mild irritation only as it meant that by her absence I did not have to make any decision with regard to the homestead. I now made my way to see Dr Martin.

 

Paul Martin was the kindest and gentlest of doctors. He didn’t act in any way as though surprised by my visit although I was not due to see him for another week or so. After accepting a glass of water from him and assuring him that I felt very well and that the baby was very active, I began with my request for his help.

 

“It’s to do with the night of the fire, when my family were killed.” I looked at his face very earnestly and accepted the nod of his head as permission to continue, “I was recalling recently that you would have seen my father, later on, after he had been found.”

 

“Yes, I did.” He frowned then and his eyes became remote as often happens when one closes them to the sights before them in order to traverse the memories of bygone times, he nodded again, “Yes, I saw your father the day after the fire. He was very ill for some time.”

 

“Did he say anything about the fire?”

 

“Hardly anything at all that made any sense.”

 

“I just wondered if he mentioned me at all -.” I looked at him then, very earnestly, and he, honest man that he was, struggled as earnestly to recall minding anything that would answer my question,

 

“No, except -” he paused, “I recall that when I told him his daughter was alive and well he just shook his head and said that ALL his family were dead to him. I asked him if he wanted to see you and he said that he did not, he was very definite about it.”

 

I sat there for a moment and felt in some strange way relieved. I had not wanted to hear any professing of love from the man I hated so much. I was more than pleased to be reminded that I owed him nothing, nothing at all.

 

……………………………………

 

 

Hop Sing was concerned for me. His dear face showed clearly that he felt it wrong for a pregnant lady to be worried about anything so hovered close to me during the day in order to provide me with all that he could to ease my back, rest my legs, refresh my appetite and give me comfort wherever he could.

 

“I am sorry, Hop Sing, am I being a nuisance to you?” I murmured as he slipped yet another cushion behind my back.

 

“You no nuisance. You must rest, take care so that baby is strong.” he smiled, nodded happily and then pushed a glass of lemonade into my hand.

 

“I’ll feel a lot better when Joe gets back home. I miss him terribly when he is away.”

 

“Of course, that is what happens, that is what it is to be in love.”

 

His face had softened, his eyes were darkened and for the first time I noticed that this dear man was growing old. How selfish of me not to have noticed before, and I reached out my hand to take hold of his,

 

“Oh Hop Sing, you are so good and kind, I wish -”

 

“You wish?” he looked at me as I paused, then smiled and covered my hand with his free one, held it a while and sighed softly, “Sometimes we all wish, wishes are things we stretch out to gain, but are like ashes we find next day from the fire. I am happy if you are happy, little Missy, don’t dream of wishes … for me.”

 

“Don’t you have any dreams, any wishes, any more, Hop Sing?”

 

He fussed over placing a blanket over my feet, before stepping away from my day bed, and then he turned to look at the sun as it shone down upon us both there on the porch,

 

“Only you stay well, have strong baby, everyone happy … that my only wish.” he said softly.

 

I could say no more to that but watched him return to the sanctuary of the house. I had little time to think anymore about what had been said between us for the sound of a horse intruded upon the silence and I turned to observe Hoss trotting into the yard upon Chubb.

 

“Hi, Abbie.” he waved a hand and then dismounted, tethered Chubb to the rail and then approached the porch, removing his hat and wiping his brow upon his sleeve as he did so, “Phew, it’s a hot one today. Any lemonade left?”

 

I indicated the jug on the table and watched him pour it into the glass which he emptied within two long gulps, after which he wiped his mouth, and smiled down at me,

 

“Well, Abbie, how’re you feeling today? I see Hop Sing is taking good care of you, huh?”

 

“He pampers me, Hoss, more than I deserve to be.”

 

“Shucks, I can’t agree with that -” Hoss grinned and his blue eyes twinkled, “You gotta remember you’re special.”

 

“Am I?” I frowned slightly, “Am I really, Hoss?”

 

“You sure are, little gal, and don’t you be forgittin it.” he poured out another glass of lemonade, emptying the jug in the process, “Fact is, if’n you hadn’t bin so dead set on my little brother I’d have snapped you up myself.”

 

“Well, if your little brother hadn’t been so dead set on me I may well have considered being snapped up by you, Hoss.”

 

We shared a little laugh together about that and then he pulled out a letter from his shirt pocket and handed it over to me,

 

“Mr Weems gave this to me and asked me to hand it over to you. It’s from that Mrs Nixon woman.”

 

I took it from him and bit down on my bottom lip, then turned it over and over between my fingers, Hoss sighed as he watched me and obviously must have wondered why it was that I hesitated to open the letter,

 

“It ain’t nothing bad, Abbie. If she wants to buy all you gotta do is say yes or no, and if she don’t want to buy then all you gotta do is -” he shrugged and grimaced, “leave it as it is.”

 

“I suppose so,” I weighed the letter in my hand, it didn’t feel like a little note just saying please can I buy/not buy your property, and for some reason I felt nervous about opening it up and reading its contents. “It feels like a long letter.”

 

“P’raps she’s the kind of lady likes to talk a lot, some ladies do, y’know.”

 

I gave him a faltering smile and then looked at the jug with the few slices of lemon at the bottom, he took the hint and with a sheepish grin picked the jug up and went into the house to replenish it.

 

I didn’t want to open the letter. Just for a while I wanted to enjoy the sun, just relax there with the cushion under my head and the blanket at my feet, knowing that Hop Sing was preparing a lovely meal for us all to enjoy and all I had to do was – well – nothing at all. I closed my eyes and sighed deeply, it was so comfortable and so pleasant yet all I could think of now was the letter, the edges of the envelope even now rough against my fingers.

 

I resisted for several more minutes before finally sitting up and tearing open the envelope. Several pages of paper covered in very neat and even writing fell into my hands, and I knew for a certainty that this was not just a simple matter of buying or selling a homestead.

 

“Dear Mrs Cartwright” the letter began, and I noted that the date of the letter was two days earlier, “I truly do apologise for the delay in contacting you about the matter under consideration, that is, the sale of your property. However, there were several important facts that I had to look into before I could make up my mind whether or not to proceed.

 

The fact is, Mrs Cartwright, that -”

 

I put the letter down as Hoss came out of the house with a full jug of lemonade which he set down on the table; he poured some into my glass and smiled, nodded at the letter,

 

“Is she going to buy?”

 

“I don’t know. I think you’re right, Hoss, she’s a lady who has a lot to say about things.”

 

He looked at the sheets of paper in my hand and nodded,

 

“Which means it’s going to get complicated.” he shrugged and shook his head, he was a simple man, complications irritated him, “Guess I’d better go and get Chubb settled in his stall.”

 

I watched him walk across to his horse with his usual casual strides, dear Hoss, I wonder if he would ever realise just how much we all loved him. I let my hand fall into my lap, the pages softly crumpled against my fingers. I didn’t want to read the letter … not just yet.

 

………………………..

 

I never mentioned anything about the letter to Ben or Adam, and Hoss seemed to have forgotten about it. The evening passed pleasantly with light conversation while I darned some socks and hemmed a little garment for the coming infant. Adam spent some time writing a letter, his brow furrowed and a look of concentration on his face. I watched him for some seconds wondering whether or not to ask him to look at the letter with me, but then decided that if anyone should share its contents then it should be my husband.

 

Hoss went straight to the stable after supper due to concerns about Chubb who had developed a hot leg. I know how important a horse is to a cattle man and expressed my hope that it was not going to be anything serious. He had smiled and I knew that whether serious or not, Hoss would have been quite capable of dealing with it. He was absolutely wonderful with animals.

 

Ben decided to concentrate on his accounts, every so often he would interrupt Adam to ask some question to which he would receive a very short answer. After a while Adam abandoned his letter writing and turned his attention to assisting his father at the ledgers.

 

I was putting the last stitch in the hem of my baby’s gown and leaning over as I did so when the letter in my pocket crackled a little, a subtle reminder that it was still there and still unread. I glanced over at Ben and Adam but they were too engrossed to pay any attention to me so I excused myself, bade them good night and made my way to our room.

 

After turning the flame in the lamp a little higher I carried it to the small desk by the window and sat down to read the letter. Taking a deep breath, for I anticipated only bad news, I began to read from where I had left off earlier in the day.

 

“The fact is, Mrs Cartwright, that I was concerned at how distressed you appeared to be during the time we were together. When I saw the condition of the house, which I was not expecting, I realised that some great drama had played out here, one in which you must have been involved. Returning to town I asked Mr Weems if he knew what had happened and he told me the story, as he knew it, of the fire. He told me that everyone except you had died.

 

Of course, he had one fact incorrect, on the night of the fire there were two persons who had survived it, although one of them was now dead. At the time Mr Weems told me, however, I did not know enough about the matter to put him right.

 

I thought long and hard about whether or not to proceed with the purchase. It would have been solely my responsibility, my husband was relying on me to find a new home, and trusted me implicitly, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that the property was one in which we would both be happy. To be honest, all the time that I was at the property you have for sale, I felt only sadness and a longing to get away from it. Perhaps it was the building itself, still standing like a monument to the misery of what had taken place there. Perhaps it was seeing the graves and being reminded that even if the house were taken down and another built in its place, there would always be that poignant reminder.”

 

I put down the letter at this point and inhaled deeply, for the letter reminded of something that I had forgotten, or perhaps, deliberately put to the back of my mind. The graves of those I had loved had been dug out close to where I had been found. I had been too ill to attend the burials for it had been a hasty affair due to the condition of the remains, and I had never been back to see them. Even that day of my visit prior to Mrs Nixon’s I had not gone to the graves.

 

My father however, had been buried in Boot Hill. It seemed the most suitable place to put his remains, pickled though they were from his years of drinking and smoking and other abuses. It would have been an insult to have had him buried beside my mother and brothers, although Adam had told me that what they had found of Martin had been buried with my mother.

 

I returned to my perusal of the letter:

 

“Having decided this about your property I then went to view several others in the area. Reference was made of your land and of what had happened by one of the women, and the name of your father, Jack Jamieson, was mentioned. I asked for some more details about your father and was told enough for me to realise that I had, in fact, known him.

 

By that, I should say, I had met him. However, before I decided to write this letter to you, I wanted to verify that he was the correct person and the facts behind his story. With the assistance of various peoples, including the sheriff, Judge and Doctor, I had confirmed that the Jack Jamieson I had met was indeed your father. Having now had this information confirmed I feel I should now tell you something of what happened at the time of our meeting with him.

 

My husband had, at one time, been a coal miner in Philadelphia. It was here that he met your father and knew him well as a fellow worker and convivial drinking companion. Josiah worked along with your father for several years until he, my husband, was promoted and they went their separate ways.

 

Josiah tells me that the last time he met Jack was when he married your mother. Josiah was invited to the wedding, a small affair, and was most impressed by the woman Jack now had as a wife. She was pretty and intelligent, and the daughter of a man higher up the rungs of the ladder than Jack at the time. Of course, it was not long before Jack was doing well for himself but his decision to move away from Philadelphia was a surprise to everyone and that was the last Josiah ever knew about him.

 

When my father died we were in a position to leave the city back East and travel. We settled in a town not far from the Mexican border. A few years ago a man came to our home claiming to be an old friend of my husbands – it was your father, Jack Jamieson.

 

According to the date on his gravestone this meeting took place just nine months before your father’s death. He was, as you can imagine, very much changed from the man my husband once knew. His clothing, his attitude and even his stance showed him to be a man who had nothing, cared even less and spent more time viewing life from the bottom of a bottle than in work. My husband barely recognised him.

 

Not only that but he was bearing injuries that indicated he had at some time been badly burned in a fire. I shall not, for fear of distressing you further, go into detail suffice to say that one of his hands was practically unusable, and his face was badly scarred.

 

I mention these things only in order to prepare you for what is to come – and hope that in some small way it alleviates some of your fears over the events in the past.

 

He had come to my husband for help, money of course. Josiah promised him a good wage if he was prepared to work for it, and he agreed to do so. However after a mere few days he was found drunk wandering around the grounds of the house. There was nothing we could do for him but to tell him he was beyond our help.

 

He told us then about the fire, and everything else that led up to it. The disappointments, the failures. Josiah suggested he went back and tried to make a go of the place now, but he said that he had nothing to go back to, everything had been destroyed on the night of the fire.

 

“Didn’t you have a daughter?” I said and he turned his face away, shook his head, “I thought you just said that you had a daughter who survived the fire?”

 

“She’s alive but she doesn’t want me in her life.” he replied, “How can I go back to her when after I had dragged her from the building all she wanted to do was run right back into it, anything rather than be with me. She told me she hated me and only wanted to be with her mother.”

 

He told us how your mother had thrown the lamp at him, the fire took hold quickly and your mother screamed to the children to get out, to run for your lives. He saw you, Mrs Cartwright, carrying the baby in your arms, your brother came down, ran to help his mother, fought his father to reach her side. You were standing at the door, struggling to open it, to pull back the bolts. He went to your side, pulled back the bolts and lifted you up in his arms to carry you out.”

 

I put down the papers, there was still more to read but I could not yet muster up the strength to read it. I just stared at the words I had just read until they blurred before my eyes and didn’t realise I was crying until my tears made blots upon the dark ink upon the paper.

 

I wasn’t really sure why I was crying, perhaps because I had a tendency to be rather emotional at this present time or because the information was so relevant to my present circumstances, in a way explaining why I had been able to get through that door on that terrible night. For years whenever I had allowed myself to dwell on memories of that time I had never been able to get beyond grappling with those bolts.

 

I found myself even now going through what I had remembered … going upstairs to get Martin, Jesse behind me as I came down the stairs with Martin in my arms, putting Martin down because I had to drag a chair to the door to reach the higher bolt which wouldn’t move. Now here it was explained – except that Martin had been left behind. I still could not remove the blame and responsibility from myself for his death.

 

Taking a deep breath and forcing myself to control my emotions, I picked up the paper and continued to read:

 

“Your father was in great pain from his own injuries and collapsed, his last glimpse of you was of you running back into the house, or, at least, so he thought. Later he learned that you had been found and sent far away, out of his reach, to be raised and educated by some other family. Once he had recovered from his injuries he thought about trying to locate you, but then remembered that you had preferred running back into the fire rather than be with him. He felt that in some way you were already dead to him.

 

You may wonder why I am telling you this, after all it was a long time ago, and perhaps you already knew about what your father had done and no longer cared anyway. It is just that you looked so sad, and now I ask myself, am I adding to your sadness by telling you this? I just do not know except that I felt I owed it to you and to Mr Jamieson, your father, to tell you what I knew, what he had told us.

 

It also seemed to me such a co-incidence that of all the places to view it had been his property and, of course, meeting you there. My husband was taken ill at Genoa so I had to return to him to ask his advice about writing this letter to you, and also to ensure that what I did write was accurate, he has a far more retentive memory than me.

 

Although we were much moved by his story your father was far too unreliable to keep in our employ We were unsure really what to do, my husband felt that giving him money could well kill him as there was no doubt that he would have spent it all on drink.

 

I did have the temerity to ask him what had caused his wife to start the fire, and why had he allowed himself to fall into such a disgraceful situation … he had a means to prosper, a lovely wife, a family? His reply was that he had been born a wastrel, had abused the opportunities that had come his way, even abusing his wife and children. He hated himself for his failure and took his hate out on everyone around him. He had discovered that his wife was going to leave him and take the children to Nebraska with her. His only answer to that was to take off his belt and beat the hide off her, as he put it. She had replied that she would rather die than live with him a moment longer, had taken up the lamp and hurled it against the wall.

 

Now that is all, he seemed to far gone in his ways to feel remorse, only bitterness and resentment at ‘ill chance not prospering him’. I left him then and never saw him again. Josiah saw him before he left the house, having given him new clothing and food to sustain him and a ticket to San Francisco. That was the last we knew of him.

 

Dear Mrs Cartwright, if I have misjudged the situation and in writing this letter only added to your sorrows, would you please forgive me? I marvel at the fact that you were saved that dreadful night and have been blessed with much happiness, from what I know of your childhood, it is well deserved. God blessed you with a fine family to care for you, and I am sure He will continue to do so in the future.

 

Josiah and I have decided to return to Philadelphia after all this time away from it. He returned with me from Genoa and as we are staying a few more days in Virginia City would be most pleased to meet you. Then if there are any questions you need answered, perhaps we can answer them. Should you prefer to leave it then it only remains for me to say farewell

 

Yours, most sincerely,

 

Deirdre Nixon.”

 

I put the letter down with a sigh, reading it had exhausted me but I no longer felt any distress, just a relief that it was all over. My father had returned to Virginia City and died here, the inevitable death for a man as wretched as he, while I had, as Mrs Nixon said, been well blessed.

 

I put the letter back in its envelope and decided to leave it until Joe returned home. With a much lighter heart I rose from the desk, washed my face from the bowl and dabbed it dry, dry from tears and sorrow. I went to my bed and was soon asleep, my arm stretched out over the empty space where my husband usually slept beside me.

 

……………………………….

 

Joe was expected home today and my excitement and joy at the prospect left me in a high state of nerves. Adam and Hoss had left the house early so it was Ben and Hop Sing who had to bear the brunt of my outbursts of singing around the house, bustling and fussing over this and that, adjusting an ornament here and replacing it over there. Of course the baby picked up on all the nervous energy I had and was bouncing about vigorously.

 

“Abbie, Joe isn’t due home for another hour,” Ben eventually felt compelled to say with one of his big generous smiles although I think he must have been longing to say “Shut up, woman, go and lock yourself in your room for an hour.”

 

I gave him an impulsive hug and a kiss on the cheek which he responded to by pinching mine very gently,

 

“Are you happy, Abbie?” he asked softly with his hand gently resting upon my shoulder.

 

“Yes, I am.” I took his hand in mine and looked into his eyes, “I had a letter from Mrs Nixon yesterday, she reminded me of the blessings I’ve enjoyed over the years since – since the fire.” he frowned slightly, and looked at me as though expecting something about which to be concerned, so I smiled as I continued “It made me realise that I can’t thank you enough, Ben, for all that you have done for me. From that first night that Adam brought me here you have cared for me, made sure I was safe and well, you gave me a family -”

 

“Now then, girl,” he placed his hand beneath my chin and raised my face up to look down upon it tenderly, “There’s no need to continue. Your thanks comes daily from the happiness you give us all, and the joy you’ve brought to my son, as well as the future pleasures you bring with you.” he placed his hand then upon the mound of my skirt where the infant now rested, “Say nothing more about what you owe us, whatever it was, has been long repaid.”

 

I hugged him then, and then left him to his work while I hurried to my room and picked up Mrs Nixon’s letter which after re-reading I slipped into my pocket.

 

………………..

 

Joe held me close in his arms and laughed loving nonsense in my ear. If I could have melted into his body I would have done willingly, I was so happy to have him home again. The bible says a married couple become one flesh, and for us, I truly believe it is so.

 

“Did you miss me?” he held both my hands in his now, and leaned forward to kiss me, “I missed you.”

 

“I missed you too,” I slipped an arm through his and together we strolled through the gardens planted long ago by his mother and tended so carefully by Hop Sing. Sweet smells drifted about us and for a while we were silent, just relishing being with one another again.

 

“Have you had any more dreams, Abbie?” the concern in his voice touched me and I stopped walking to regard him more closely, I hadn’t realised how badly my nocturnal wanderings had affected him but his eyes looked troubled as he looked into my face.

 

“I had a dream the other night, but only the once. In fact, I had a letter from Mrs Nixon which has solved one of the things that has been worrying me.” I pulled the letter from my pocket and as we had reached the bench so pleasantly positioned under a rose bower, we sat down together so that he could read it.

 

I watched him as he scanned the words, watched as the sun shone upon the rich chestnut curls of his hair, the smooth arch of his tanned neck as his head was bent forward, I smiled at the sight of the dirt on his collar which definitely needed washing, and I mentally caressed the tautness of the jacket that stretched across his shoulders and strong young back. I had loved him the moment I had first looked into his hazel green eyes, that night long ago when the four of them were doing their utmost to ease my pain and suffering.

 

Eventually he put the papers down, and after a seconds thought, slipped them into the envelope which he gave back to me. His large eyes looked into mine,

 

“You will have to see them, of course. I’ll come with you, Abbie, I wouldn’t want you to go alone.”

 

“Do you think it was a kind letter, Joe?”

 

“Yes, I do.” he smiled then and reached out for my hand which he held loosely in his own, then he looked up and around him, his generous mouth widened into the grin I loved so much, “I used to come here often, with my Ma. After she died I couldn’t bear to come here, the happy memories were suddenly too painful.”

 

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” I frowned slightly, “My childhood has few happy memories, and I hold onto them, while you -”

 

“Oh, I don’t feel that way now, my love, although I wish she were here now to meet you and come to love you too.”

 

I leaned forward to kiss him, sometimes he was such a little boy and so adorable. Then he held me close and kissed me in a way no little boy would but as passionately as only Joe could.

 

“We must be having visitors -” I whispered with my lips still touching his but he only smiled, I could feel the smile beneath my lips, “I can hear a wagon.”

 

“Hush -” was all he said, so I hushed as I was told.

 

…………………..

 

There were the sounds of laughter, shouting and Ben’s voice giving orders, Hop Sing’s giving shrill exclamations and as we approached from the garden the four of them paused and turned to look at us,

 

“What on earth is going on?” I exclaimed for each of them looked excited and guilty with big smiled on their faces.

 

“Well, you had best ask your husband,” Adam retorted with a wink and a grin before turning to walk back into the house.

 

He was followed by the others, and I looked at Joe with raised eyebrows, but he just laughed and led me into the house where I found Hoss and Adam engaged in pushing and pulling a piano into the main room.

 

A piano. I could hardly believe my eyes. Ben turned to me and laughed at the look of incredulity on my face,

 

“Just tell them where you would like it before they wreck it, my dear.”

 

I turned to Joe who was watching me with such pleasure on his face that I could have cried. What kindness, what generosity. I was overwhelmed and followed Adam and Hoss as though sleep walking while pointing over to that corner, no, that one over there, or perhaps by the window so that the sun shone down upon it but – well – you decide and they all laughed and cheered when it was finally set into position. Hop Sing then ran forward and placed the stool down in front of it.

 

I won’t go into the scene that followed, suffice to say I wept, they laughed, we sang songs and had a noisy hilarious time. I had never realised until then just how happy this family had made me, and my husband, dear Joe, stood by my side the nosiest and loudest and worse singer of them all. I love him with all my heart.

 

…………………….

 

I sent a note to Mr and Mrs Nixon to say I would meet them the following morning. Hop Sing delivered it when he took the laundry into town that day. In the meantime Ben had read the letter and agreed that the kindest thing to do was to see them, then he looked at me thoughtfully,

 

“Does this change your feelings towards your father now, Abbie?” he asked, “After all, he saved your life.”

 

I smiled slowly, and shook my head,

 

“I understand what you are saying, Ben, but my father saved my life only because I happened to be there at the time. There was only one exit from the house and I stood in front of it, on that chair, trying to pull back the bolts. To get out he could do nothing else but take me with him -”

 

“But, my dear, he saved your life,” Ben gentled his voice a tone, leaned forward and took hold of my hand.

 

“He could’ve have saved Martin too, but he didn’t take the time to lean down and pick him up, he left Martin behind -” I frowned a little, for I had thought this over long and hard after reading Mrs Nixon’s letter, “Yes, he saved my life, Ben, I do agree and admit that, but -” I paused then, unable to find the words but he said nothing, merely nodded, he understood and for that I was grateful.

 

…………………………….

 

Mr and Mrs Nixon were very warm in their reception of us. She appeared a little nervous at first, but soon relaxed and became more expansive in her manner of speech, which was very kind and considerate throughout our time together.

 

“You were not offended by my letter at all, were you, Mrs Cartwright?” was one of her first questions and upon my reassuring her that I was far from being so, she settled down with a smile and happier countenance.

 

Mr Nixon was a tired looking man, he wore spectacles behind which his blue eyes watched the world with a weary look in them. He had a beard worn much in the fashion of the day, probably to balance out the fact that he was quite bald on the top of his head. He was tall, however, and his smile was warm and generous and made his eyes twinkle, even if only momentarily.

 

“I told my wife she should write about your father’s visit to us, just in case you needed to know certain facts.” he took pains to inform us, and Joe thanked him and told him how I had always wondered how it was I had got out of the house.

 

We had coffee and some of the Hotel’s specialised delicacies to enjoy, and it was Mrs Nixon who poured out the hot liquid into our cups as she listened to what Joe was telling them. She eventually put down the coffee pot and observed me thoughtfully,

 

“So you really didn’t know your father very well, did you?”

 

“I knew him,” I replied rather coolly, “I knew him very well, in fact.”

 

“I meant that you didn’t know anything about your father’s background.” she smiled then, “About his life before he moved west?”

 

I looked at Joe for encouragement and he raised his eyebrows, smiled and nodded as though understanding my thoughts and urging me to ask what I felt I had to learn about this man, my father.

 

“I was surprised to learn that he had been a miner in Philadelphia, and the impression I received from your letter was that he bettered himself by his marriage.” I paused, and glanced at Mr Nixon who was nodding thoughtfully.

 

“Yes, Jack had no family and was raised in an orphanage. It was quite common for boys of that kind to be apprenticed out for menial labour, the coal mines were full of them.”

 

“I didn’t know he was an orphan -” I murmured and frowned slightly, in fact, I began to feel uneasy. I didn’t want any feelings of sympathy for the Jack Jamieson I did not know soften the feelings for the man that I did know.

 

“He never spoke about it, he was an orphan with no siblings. Alone in the world he got by -” Mr Nixon frowned then, his blue eyes gleamed and he took his spectacles off to polish them rather absent mindedly on the napkin from the table, “He had a strong desire to better himself but was quick tempered, impatient, couldn’t listen to reason for the life of him. He was in more scrapes than anyone I knew.”

 

“Yet you befriended him?” Joe said quietly.

 

“He asked me one day for help, to learn to read and write, to learn math. I did so because I was flattered into thinking that anyone would want help from me. I was rather a timid youth at the time.” he smiled and I could see he was see a shy man, reticent one could say, to speak well of himself. “As he mastered these elements Jack became less angry. He learned quickly and then became ambitious for better things. I was in a good position, I didn’t work on the coal face, which he did …” he sighed, “It’s a hard life, in the coal mines.”

 

“As hard as it must for the miners here,” Mrs Nixon smiled slowly, “digging for gold must be harder than digging for coal, it is that more elusive.”

 

“How did my father meet my mother?” I asked after some moments of contemplative silence had passed between us.

 

“I don’t know. I had lost touch with Jack for some time, we – er – broke off our friendship because Jack wasn’t getting promoted quickly enough for his liking and I was getting too big for my boots, so he told me anyway.”

 

“But you were invited to their wedding? Was my mother happy? Did she love him?”

 

Mrs Nixon glanced at her husband then, a quick furtive look that made me uncomfortable, but Mr Nixon nodded,

 

“Yes, your mother was perfectly happy. It looked like Jack had calmed down, he had married into a steady family, not rich, but reasonably well set up. Your mother was an only child and, if I may say so myself, a very lovely girl.” he looked more closely at me then, leaning forward to peer at me through his spectacles and then he smiled, “You resemble her a great deal, my dear.”

 

I was happy at that thought, and hoped that he wasn’t going to add that in any way I looked like Jack. He didn’t and I could breathe easy. We settled to drinking our coffee and eating, nibbling, at some of the delicacies, then he resumed his narrative,

 

“I saw them occasionally for about a year after the wedding. They always looked happy in each other’s company and your mother – well, she used to look at Jack as though she couldn’t believe she had married such a wonderful man. He was a good looking man at that time, you know?”

 

I knew that was true, even at his worse, Jack was always good looking, perhaps too much so, and I had a fleeting memory of him sitting at the table, lounging back in the seat with his thumbs through his braces, while he told mother some tale or another. I remember it because he was happy that day and sober, he had taken her hand in his and was talking to her, and I can remember that she was smiling at him, her face soft with the look of love that was there. I shut the memory off and looked at Joe and reached for his hand,

 

“Why did they go west? Would they have been happier staying where they were?” Joe asked now,

 

“They couldn’t stay where they were, Jack did something stupid -” Mr Nixon shook his head, “He was always a one to bite the hand that fed him, he stole money from his father in law, a large sum, unfortunately for him he was not clever enough to hide the fact and was caught.”

 

“Did they – ?”

 

“No, he was never put on trial, just told to leave. Your grand parents wanted your mother to leave him but she wouldn’t, she was pregnant then and felt that she had to keep to her vows. He came to me and asked for help, I loaned him enough money to buy the wagon and horses. I saw your mother briefly then and she wasn’t the happy smiling girl she had been -” he sighed, then looked at me, “That was the last I saw of him until he came to our home about a year after the fire. He hadn’t really changed, he was still arrogant and unreasonable, although in great pain from his injuries still. He swore that the reason he drank was to dull the pain but I believe it was more because he was a habitual drinker.”

 

That just about summed him up, I thought. I picked up my cup of coffee and slowly drained the cup dry. I wondered then what had been the point of coming to hear what I really knew, apart from his being an orphan. Then I remembered I had grand parents and enquired of Mr Nixon if he knew whether or not they were still alive.

 

“Your grand mother died not long after they left, talk was that she died from a broken heart. Such things do happen for I know she adored your mother. Your grandfather lived on for some years and prospered, he died only a year or so ago.”

 

I squeezed Joe’s hand, his family were more to me now than ever having discovered that I had no blood relatives living. It is a sober thought for a woman barely 21 years of age to discover although I suppose I had not really given it a second thought until now.

 

“Has this helped you in any way, my dear?” Mrs Nixon asked gently, and placed her hand upon my arm with a kind smile on her face, a smile that lightened her eyes and made me appreciate that she was, in fact, a very attractive woman.

 

“I don’t know, Mrs Nixon. Perhaps it has, perhaps I’ll realise it more later, when I have had time to ponder over what you have told me.”

 

“I am more sorry than I can say about your mother and brother.” she said softly.

 

“Brothers. I had two brothers.” I reminded her gently.

 

“Your father only mentioned the one son, the one who ran to be with his mother and died with her.”

 

“I had another brother, a baby only a few weeks old, he -” I stopped myself from saying the words that had risen bitter and hate filled to my lips, I swallowed them down and bowed my head, “he died.”

 

They were silent. Perhaps I had embarrassed them, but if I had softened my opinion of my father having learned of his history, the fact that he had never mentioned Martin, the infant he had left to die, only hardened my resolve to never to forgive him.

 

We finished our coffee, and after a few moments of casual talk stood up to leave them. Mrs Nixon and her husband walked to the door of the hotel with us, as she told us they were leaving on the afternoon stage. We shook hands, I thanked them again for their help, and then we parted. I was never to see them again.

 

In the evening the family discussed the conversation, it was duly dissected and turned upside down on its head and examined all ways possible. The conclusion of the matter was decided and that was for the old house to be demolished, flattened and then, depending on how I felt, it would be put up for sale.

 

I was quite satisfied by that idea. Perhaps by dismantling the house my fears and horrors would be dismantled as well. Adam decided that he would get some men together and start the work that weekend, he looked at me as he said it and I nodded agreement. I felt at total peace with the whole thing.

 

During the night, of course, thoughts tip toed their way back into the recesses of my mind. The baby was always active at night and now often kept me awake by kicking and elbowing my ribs and back. By my side Joe slept soundly, every so often he would sigh or snore, and once his hand reached out for mine and held it tightly.

 

My husband, like my father, was a very handsome man. Previous to our marriage he had courted most of the girls in town, and I know a number of women who still tried to catch his eye even now. I knew from what I had gleaned as a child and from talk in town that he had never been faithful to my mother. I had mentioned it once and the Cartwrights, who had known him slightly, had to confirm that fact. Drunk or sober, Jack Jamieson had been like a honey pot to bees where women were concerned, and sad to say, so was Joe.

 

As I lay there in the shadows of the night listening to the clock ticking away the minutes and feeling the baby turning somersaults within me, I recalled one young woman approaching me shortly after the wedding and with a slight smile of scorn on her lips, she had looked me up and down then declared that I had to be something special to have snapped up the best looking guy in the territory. She had laughed then and said, “Of course, keeping him is another thing altogether, I hope you manage it, honey.”

 

Those words came back to haunt me every so often, and now they went round and round in my head. Keeping him? Was it at all possible that I could lose Joe to some other woman? What was so special about me that he should want to stay faithful? I was getting progressively fatter every day it seemed to me, and I was not vivacious and sparkling with wit and humour. I was a quiet girl, timid in some ways, I wasn’t good with guns, and the joke was that I couldn’t hit the barn if I was aiming at it. I rode a horse well enough, but I wasn’t feisty and clever, not at all.

 

My mother was still a very attractive woman at the time she had died. When had Jack decided she was no longer good enough for him? I remember how he wouldn’t look at her some days, and after Martin had been born he had not been at her bed side, in fact, I could never remember him even picking the child up. That was not particularly important as he had never shown much interest in either Jesse or I, but little Martin – no, he had never even touched him.

 

Once I remembered him standing by the crib staring down at Martin, staring really hard with that mean look on his face that made me scared in case he was going to hurt the infant. Then he saw me standing there and accused me of spying on him, and brought the back of his hand across my head. For the remaining few weeks of his life I was Martin’s self appointed protector, although my father showed such little interest in him that it was hardly necessary.

 

What a roller coaster of emotions I seemed to be going through. I turned my head to observe Joe, sleeping peacefully, contentedly. I could never imagine him being anything other than the love of my life. An insidious thought niggled into my head – had not my mother thought the same thing about Jack at one time?

 

The hour struck 3.00 a.m. No kindly moon beamed upon us that night. This time it was I who reached out for Joe’s hand and held onto to it resolutely until morning.

 

………………….

 

I watched as Adam tightened the buckle of his gun belt around his waist, and then tied down the leather thong of the holster around his thigh. I couldn’t recall my father ever riding into town with a pistol, he always carried his rifle and said it was an extension of his right arm.

 

“A nickel or a dime?” Adam asked with a smile in his voice.

 

I blinked out of my reverie and looked at him, smiled (who could resist one of Adam’s smiles?) and shook my head,

 

“Not worth a plugged nickel.”

 

“You looked deep in thought though, is anything bothering you? Anything about what the Nixon’s said about Jack?”

 

“No, not really.” I stood up and walked to the bureau, picked up his hat and held it to him, “Adam, did you ever get to know my father beyond a casual greeting in the saloon, anything like that at all?”

 

“Not really.” he replied rather shortly as he took the hat from me, “Why do you ask?”

 

“I just wondered – he was a bad tempered man, always drunk, I would have thought he’d have had a reputation in town for trouble.”

 

He looked at me, his dark eyes hooded by heavy lids, he nodded,

 

“Yeah, he had a reputation for trouble. He was banned from several of the saloons. Usually went to – well – the kind of saloons and places we didn’t frequent, so our paths didn’t cross often.”

 

“And my mother? Did you meet her?”

 

He was getting fidgety, uncomfortable, he sighed then and slipped his hat over his head, smoothing it down upon the dark curls, then raised his eyebrows before sniffing and saying

 

“I met her once or twice.”

 

“Did you like her?”

 

“She was a nice lady,” his frown deepened, “Why the questions, Abbie? Why not ask Joe?”

 

“I would but I didn’t think about it until I saw you putting your gun belt on just now.”

 

He put his arm around my shoulders and together walked to the door, which he opened allowing the mornings sun to flood into the room,

 

“Your mother was very attractive. You’re a lot like her, Abbie, same coloring and poise. I never really knew her, I can’t tell you anything other than that.”

 

“Did she look – happy?” I stumbled over the word and looked into his face, but he just shook his head, shrugged slightly,

 

“Not the times I met her, no. Your Pa was in trouble pretty often, Abbie, brawling and such. I met her once getting him out of jail on bail.” he pursed his lips, “It was a pretty regular occurrence.”

 

I nodded, I knew all about Pa’s sojourns in jail. Some lasted longer than others depending on what money we had at the time, or what was in the house worth pawning. We all knew we would all suffer if he was in jail longer than HE thought necessary.

 

“I’m sorry, Abbie,” he said very quietly, “I knew she was unhappy but there was nothing I could do, or have done, to have helped her. I’ve often wished I could have done, believe me.”

 

I said nothing to that, only wondered how many others had thought the same thing and felt equally as impotent. Adam gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, bade me farewell and left me on the porch. I raised a hand to wave to him before he disappeared into the dark shadows of the stable.

 

………………………

 

Time has a habit of passing by so quickly and suddenly there was only two weeks to go before the baby was due. Dr Martin had come to see me and checked that everything was just fine. Joe decided that he didn’t want to work too far from the house ‘just in case’, and Hop Sing kept assuring me that he had plenty of raspberry tea and clean towels ready.

 

A lot of my worries had seemed to drift away too, I slept soundly at night, and always woke up to see Joe’s face close to mine and a smile on his lips, his eyes looking still sleepy but lovingly into mine. It became one of my favourite moments of the day, just the two of us – oh, and that massive bump between us.

 

One mid morning Hoss rode in from town with some packages and mail. He was looking hot and a trifle damp, it was one of those real dry hot days where even the wood of the house felt warm to the touch. He wiped his brow as he took off his hat, and grinned over at me

 

“Hi Abbie, you’re looking pretty cute today.”

 

“Oh come on now, I look as huge as a barge.” I laughed and took the package he held out to me, “Oh, it’s from Martha.”

 

Martha was Mrs McIver who had been like a mother to me after I had been sent to her home all those years back. I quickly untied the string and wax seals and checked over the contents, as I suspected, a beautifully made shawl, one I knew she would have knitted herself. Behind me Ben and Hoss were discussing a letter they had received and I turned to show them the shawl with much pride; it was then that Hoss remembered to tell me something,

 

“Shucks, I clean forgot, there was a man in town asking for you, Abbie.”

 

“A man?”

 

“Well, to be honest, he was enquiring after your folks.” he looked at me thoughtfully, as though he wanted to say something else but couldn’t find the right words.

 

“Did he give his name?”

 

“I didn’t speak to him myself, I just heard about him from Tom when I went to pick up the mail.”

 

“I wonder who it could be,” I frowned but then dismissed him from my mind, preferring to spread out the shawl and admire it’s delicate patterns.

 

“I did ask Tom if he had told the stranger about what had happened, but Tom said he had just said to see you at the Ponderosa. I reckon you’ll likely have a visitor sometime.”

 

I didn’t say anything, it didn’t seem important enough to think about really. Hoss turned back to discussing the letter with Ben and I read my letter which had been enclosed with the gift for baby.

 

…………………..

 

It was in the afternoon when a horse trotted into the yard. I had taken to resting in the shadows of the porch, on the little day bed, and watched idly as the rider dismounted. At first I thought it was one of the hands, but after shading my eyes with a hand I could see it was a stranger. I pushed myself up into a sitting position and regarded him thoughtfully, this was obviously the gentleman Hoss had said would call.

 

He was tall, near on 6 ft I should say, thickset around the shoulders narrow in the hips and long legged. His dark hair was thinning, and there were streaks of silver at the sides which made him look quite distinguished but also gave a clue to his age, he was undoubtedly closer to 50 than 40. He took off his hat as he approached me, and I could see that as a young man he would have been handsome, even now he was a good looking man with a confident air about him that was quite pleasing.

 

“Miss Abbie Jamieson?”

 

“Mrs Abbie Cartwright, sir.” I replied my head to one side to continue my observation as he drew nearer, “I was Jamieson, before my marriage.”

 

“I could tell, you look enough like your mother to give you away.” he smiled slowly, his eyes fixed on my face, “I guess you don’t remember me?”

 

“No, sir, I don’t. Were you a friend of my parents?”

 

He was silent, but was now close enough for me to have touched him were I able to lean forward (something I hadn’t been able to do in a while, not in a sitting position).

 

“Would you like to sit down and have something cool to drink, Mr ….?”

 

“Otis Harding.” he said quietly.

 

“Please sit down, Mr Harding. Hop Sing has just made some fresh lemonade which you’ll find very refreshing, if you could just pour yourself some …” I smiled, hoping he would understand my request and not think me rude.

 

He poured out the lemonade and drank it down in two long gulps, and then he poured out some more and held it in his hand as he took his seat.

 

“I guess you don’t recognise me, do you, Abbie? You don’t mind if I call you Abbie, do you?”

 

“No, Mr Harding, I don’t. And, no, I don’t recognise you at all. Should I?”

 

“I guess there ain’t no special reason for you to do so.” he replied slowly, and he took a sip of the drink, then looked up at me with dark brown eyes which looked a trifle anxious, “I left Virginia City some years back, when you were still a little girl. This is my first time back in a long while -” he paused again, whatever he had to say he was obviously finding difficult to say it, “I remember giving you and your brother a stick of candy one time while you were waiting on your Ma. Guess you’d have forgotten that, huh?”

 

I looked at him thoughtfully as my mind went back over the years to the day Jesse and I were in town with Ma. She had gone into the store and we sat there very still, waiting for her to come out. We knew she wouldn’t be long because she didn’t have much money to spend and she never got things on credit like some folks. A man came and stopped to talk to us, I ignored him but Jesse chatted. Yes, I remembered the candy. It was the only candy we had ever had, we never had a candy bar before or after that day. Ma came out and looked shocked when she saw us and then turned to say something to the man, she spoke very fast and I heard him say how it was only a stick of candy surely there was no harm in that?

 

I had turned to look at him then, because to us it wasn’t just a stick of candy. Oh sure, we were eating it as fast as ever we could but we knew that if Pa saw us then no matter what reason we gave him for it, we would be in trouble. That usually meant the belt for Jesse and a slapping for me.

 

I remember Ma looking flustered, her cheeks were red, she was whispering to him and when he took her arm to assist her up on the wagon seat she pulled it away and looked about her to make sure Pa hadn’t seen.

 

I remember how he had tipped his hat to us and looked gravely sad even when we were nearly at the corner of the street and I looked back, he was still there.

At home we had to wash hands and faces quickly so that there was no tell tale sign of stickiness from the candy and Ma said not to mention it – as if we would! But I remembered that taste for a long time afterwards, and I remembered the man for a while, I called him the Gravely Sad Man.

 

And here he was, sitting in front of me nursing a glass of lemonade. I smiled,

 

“I remember that day, Mr Harding.”

 

“I never saw you again after that, did I?”

 

“Not that I recall.”

 

“Well, the thing is -” he sipped the lemonade and stared into the glass for a moment, “I really came to see your – folks. I thought as I was in town I would look them up. When I enquired about them I was just told to come here to see you.” he looked at me with anxious eyes, and I knew then that he hadn’t heard, or been told, about the fire.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr Harding, but my parents are dead. They -”

 

“Dead? Is – do you – do you mean that she’s dead?” The colour had drained from his face, and the dark eyes stared from their sockets, even his lips looked bloodless, “No, not after all this time, it can’t be -” he shivered, ran his fingers through his hair and lowered his head, “No, but then – that explains it – of course – but not dead?” he whispered all this to himself before looking up, “I’m sorry, Abbie, I hadn’t known. How long ago was it, that she – they – died?”

 

I told him the whole sad story as briefly as I could all the while watching his face and wondering about him. He listened without interruption although he emptied the glass by the time I had finished speaking. He blinked rapidly once or twice, then nodded as though to himself when I had stopped talking.

 

“I didn’t know.” he said quietly, “I had wondered why I had heard no word from – her. Such a long time ago now, such futility -” his voice trailed away and he ran his fingers through his hair again so that it looked very much as though he had been at one of those carnivals and had an electric shock.

 

“Mr Harding, is there anything else I can tell you? You seem very distressed for someone who was just a passing friend.” I spoke as softly as I could, for I, who loved someone so much, sensed instinctively that this was a soul who had, was, also in love.

 

His lips twitched, he wanted to talk but held back, as though to gather his thoughts or to consider the wisdom of speaking further to me. I waited a while as patiently as I could and was about to ask him to either speak up or go when he began to talk.

 

“I loved your mother. I loved her for lots of reasons, not just because she was lovely to look at, but because she was a lovely person, kind and gentle, sweet -” he paused, “we did nothing wrong, Abbie, just spoke words of love, read books, shared thoughts, sustained one another through the weeks by the promise of seeing each other every so often. We would hold hands, kiss – but nothing more than that, I assure you.” he looked intently at me, willing me to believe him, “She was too good for him. She fought against her feelings for me for a long time, but she was a woman who was made to be loved, not by him -” his voice quavered, and he gulped, I saw his Adams apple jerk, and he bowed his head into his hands.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr Harding, I don’t for the life of me know how mother managed to meet you without Pa ever finding out, but -”

 

“We made plans. She was going to divorce him and take you both with her to Nebraska, I was going to leave sooner and prepare a place for us. She promised me that she would come as soon after the baby was born as possible.”

 

“Martin?”

 

“Was that what she called him? Well, that was the agreement, if she had changed her mind for any reason at all, then she would write and tell me that she wasn’t coming after all. I left about a month before the child was due to be born, and I got to Nebraska, I waited -” again his voice trailed off and he stared down at the floor, “Of course, there was no letter, but when she didn’t come and I heard no word I thought for sure she had changed her mind.”

 

“No, she hadn’t changed her mind, Mr Harding. She told us that we were going to leave Pa and go to Nebraska, she told us not to say a word, and she got everything ready to go, but Pa came back home early.”

 

“I know she was terrified of him, and the fear that he would find out about us nearly drove her to breaking point, that was why I decided to leave Virginia City, so that she didn’t have to sneak about or tell any lies that would make him suspicious.” he frowned, “But he suspected something was going on, I had a visit from him one evening. He was drunk as usual, made some filthy suggestions, one thing led to another and we fought – but he knew how I felt about her, he knew like the rat that he was -”

 

So Pa knew, and he made Ma suffer for it for weeks on end, and – and then, of course, there was Martin.

 

For a moment there was silence as Mr Harding wrestled with his emotions and I thought over what had been said and tried to tie up the loose ends as best I could. Eventually I found myself asking the question that tormented me the most although I felt ashamed to do so and half afraid at the same time.

 

“Please excuse me from asking what may be a very personal question, Mr Harding, but – the baby – Martin I mean – was he -” I stopped at the stricken look on his face, but it passed and he shook his head,

 

“The baby was not mine if that was your question, Abbie. No, had she been expecting our child – not that that was in any way possible – had it been then I would have had her and her children in a wagon on the way to Nebraska before Jamieson could have sobered up long enough to find us. No, the baby was his, and because of that she wouldn’t leave him.”

 

“But she did love you?”

 

“She told me she did, but that she had made certain vows and the fact that the baby was his -” he swallowed the lump in his throat, “I’m sorry, Abbie, but your father was a brute and if I had had the sense I’d have put a bullet through his head and – and -” he put his hand to his brow, shading his eyes.

 

“Why did you wait so long to come back?”

 

“Pride, I suppose. I loved her so much that when I didn’t hear from her I felt disgusted at myself for even thinking she could have loved me. I wallowed in self pity for a while, got myself into trouble with the law once or twice, then straightened myself out and concentrated on building up my business. I’m a successful man now, but I don’t have anyone to share it with -” he shrugged, “then I got to thinking that perhaps it would be worthwhile coming back here just to find out what had happened to her. Perhaps she had written to me, perhaps he had got hold of the letter – perhaps she still loved me and -” he paused again and then looked at the lemonade and asked if he could pour himself some more to drink.

 

So Martin was my father’s child, poor infant, condemned to neglect and death because of Jack’s suspicions that he was someone else’s son. All those months of brooding anger and mistrust culminating in the brutal act of stepping past him and allowing the infant to die in that fire, his own baby.

 

“If he hadn’t come home early we would have been on our way to Nebraska, and Ma would be safe, and – and we would have been safe from him.” I whispered and stretched out my hand towards him, “Oh Mr Harding, if only she had taken her chance on love with you instead of staying with him.”

 

He took hold of my hand and held it between his,

 

“She told me that the child was conceived in a brutal act, that she could barely believe that it could have come about as a result of what he had done but that – that every child should know its father and -” he couldn’t say another word but stumbled an apology for speaking so openly, mumbled something about what a purposeless waste and rose to his feet, “I should go now, I’ve taken up enough of your time. I have spoken honestly, perhaps too honestly, about your father, and apologise if I have mentioned things that a lady in your condition should have been spared from hearing.”

 

“A child should be spared from hearing many things, Mr Harding, believe me, Jesse and I heard far more than any child should ever have to and I have no love for that man for what he did to my mother over the years.”

 

“I – I had best go now,” he said in a very low voice, “I am so pleased to find you in such a happy state, Abbie, and wish you every joy.”

 

“Oh Mr Harding, I can’t possibly let you leave now. You must have been the only source of happiness in my mother’s life during the last months of it, please don’t go away.”

 

He said nothing to that but stood there the picture of misery, twisting and turning his hat round and round between his fingers. With an effort I got to my feet (there is little point in even trying to be dignified when one is looking like a beached whale!) and walked to his side, I placed a hand on his arm

 

“Would you like to come with me to my mother’s grave?” I asked and looked into his eyes in which there came a spark of interest, he smiled slowly and nodded.

 

…………….

 

I was quite amazed at myself for being totally unconcerned about going to the old homestead now. Having someone else about whom to be concerned made me feel as though I had side stepped my own fears about the place and as we made our way there I listened attentively to some of the things he told me about his life in Nebraska, what the place was like and how he had never married because of his love for my mother.

 

I had not expected to find such a change to my old home. For a start it was no longer there, just the rough outline of where it had stood upon the bare rock foundations. The well remained with the growth of many years of ivy and wild roses tumbling about it, giving it a quite romantic appearance. There also was the tree where the swing had been and I saw myself once again, a little girl in a blue dress singing while my mother hovered near by.

 

For the first time in my life I was aware of birds singing in that garden with which I associated only sombre dark shadows, they were trilling lustily as though awoken from a dark spell that had prevented them from uttering such joyous notes. I felt my whole heart lift up and overflow with the release of so much misery and fear.

 

He stepped down from the buggy and then came to my side and lifted me down. Then side by side we walked to the graves … Adam or someone had tidied them from the overgrown weeds and such and had placed a small bunch of wild flowers there. Otis Harding took off his hat, bowed his head and wept.

 

No one should dwell overmuch on the misery of another soul. I left him there to his own thoughts and walked slowly away. The sun was shining and slanted dappled light across where the house had once stood. It reminded me of times when the sun shone through the windows upon the kitchen table, and mother would be kneading bread, or baking cakes. I shed my own tears then but not the heart rending ones that I once shed, not now that I knew that she had been loved and would now be mourned for the man who had waited for her for so long.

 

…………………….

 

Ben was home when we returned, and he looked not too happy with me as I walked towards him, with Mr Harding trailing behind me.

 

“Abbie, what are you doing, child, you should know that you should keep close to the house now.”

 

“I know, Ben, but I had good company who took care of me.” I smiled my brightest to let him see that I was well and happy, “This is Otis Harding, from Nebraska, he was a friend of my mothers. I took him to see her grave.”

 

Ben shot a hard look at Otis then, his black eyes narrowed but then his face relaxed into the warm creases that came upon the recognition of a fellow sufferer. A man who had loved and lost three beloved wives could not fail to recognise the sign of a man suffering the same raw loss.

 

So it was that Otis was invited in and stayed for the supper, and was invited to spend the night. So it was that he and Ben bonded into good friends over a game of chess and a cigar, and when Ben discovered that Otis was in the horse trading business, well, it wasn’t long before they were talking business as well.

 

……………………

 

In my husband’s arms that night I held him close to me, my arms around his neck and my head upon his chest. He stroked my head and curled my hair around his fingers. It was quiet, very quiet, and peaceful.

 

“So I guess you have all the answers now, sweet heart, does it make you happier?” he whispered.

 

“Yes, I feel happy now. I can understand why certain things had happened, it won’t haunt me anymore.”

 

“I love you, Abbie.”

 

“Will you love me forever and forever?”

 

“Yes, if you promise to love me forever and forever?”

 

We kissed tenderly, smiled at one another, and then settled for the night. I wondered, as I lay there by his side, if Otis Harding would like to buy the homestead, it would be good to have him close by and perhaps he would like to spend his last years on her land. I don’t know, perhaps not, but I intended to ask him in the morning.

 

I closed my eyes and placed my hands on my stomach, for once Baby C was quiet and still. I allowed myself a small smile and drifted into sleep.

 

……………………….

 

Paul Martin was a kindly doctor and during the last days of my pregnancy visited the Ponderosa daily to make sure all was well. Joe hovered around the ranch house and looked as though the sword of Damocles would fall at any second. The brunt of the work fell on Hoss and Adam both of whom ordered me not to deliver the goods, as Hoss aptly put it, until they returned from working near to Papoose Peak.

 

It was a happy few days. I no longer had the fears of my past haunting me, and Mr Harding, Otis I mean, had agreed to have the land. He returned to Nebraska to sell up and finalise things there and work on a new cabin had already started. He and Ben were going to go into horse breeding together. They chatted about it like two eager school boys planning some grand prank making the rest of us look on and smile indulgently.

 

It may seem a very strange thing to say but it was almost as though Otis was taking the place of my own family, a kind of surrogate Grandfather to the child I was carrying. I felt as though everything had gone full circle and even though my dear mother would not be here for me, the man who would have been my step father, well, he would be.

 

The evening before he left to return to Nebraska we had strolled out to the garden and sat together under the rose arbour. He had taken my hand and for some moments we sat in silence,

 

“Abbie, I want you to make me a promise.”

 

“If I can keep it, Otis, then I will.” I placed my free hand over his, hoping in my heart of hearts that this would be a promise I could definitely keep for him.

 

“When my time comes,” he looked at me earnestly and squeezed my hand, “will you promise to bury me beside your mother?”

 

The tears gushed up into my eyes, I couldn’t speak but I nodded dumbly. In a few short days he had endeared himself to us all, if that was all I could do for him now, then so be it. Yes, Amen to that …

 

“Do you think it will come today?”

 

“Abbie, you ask me that every morning,” Paul smiled and patted me on the head as though I were some pet dog, “It’ll come when it’s ready, my dear. Ripe fruit always fall from the bough when it’s ready.”

 

He closed his medical bag with a snap, and looked fondly at Joe and I, then proceeded to walk to the door,

 

“The head’s engaged, and I have no doubt that the baby will arrive very soon. I shall call in later today to make sure you are alright.”

 

We both smiled at him as though he had awarded us both a medal for good conduct. When the door closed behind him Joe turned to me and kissed my cheek,

 

“Patience, they say, is a virtue.” he laughed.

 

“If it’s a girl we’ll have to call it that, just as a reminder of how patient we’ve been.”

 

“And Ethan if it’s a boy, because that means endurance, and you’ve had much to endure over the past months, sweet heart.”

 

“You’ve had to endure more than me, darling, after all, you’ve had to put up with me.” and I rubbed my nose against his, then kissed him.

 

“And patience, don’t forget the patience -” he chuckled and hugged me close.

 

I just kind of froze at that point, I love being hugged by Joe, I really did but not this time, I felt as though my back was going to break in half and without realising it I just groaned.

 

Joe went rather a puce colour before turning grey, he let go of me as though I was a red hot cinder and rushed for the door, tripping over the rug as he did so. I heard him yelling for the doctor as I carefully lowered myself down on the settee.

 

“Hop Sing. Hop Sing.” I cried while outside Joe was yelling ‘Doc, Doc’ and I could hear Ben coming from the yard shouting “Whatisit, whatisit?”

 

Pandemonium ensued.

 

There’s little point in going into every puff, pant and groan. Anyone who has a baby knows exactly how undignified and painful the whole procedure is until the bundle arrives safe and sound, intact, with all toes and fingers, nose and two eyes. This particular baby had a mass of black hair, his father’s nose, and was definitely the most beautiful baby in the whole world. I am not biased. That is a fact which every Cartwright in the family attested to as soon as they set eyes on the dear child.

 

“Jest look at thet -” Hoss exclaimed at first sight of Joe’s son, “All them thar little toes and nails, and ain’t he got the longest eyelashes?”

 

How small our son looked nestled in Hoss’ arms, and how proud Hoss looked as he cuddled his nephew.

 

“What are you going to call him?” Adam asked when he finally managed to wrest the baby from Hoss,

 

“Ethan Benjamin Cartwright.” Joe declared proudly.

 

Adam smiled over at me and nodded, his dark eyes twinkled and then he looked down at the baby and stroked his cheek,

 

“Ethan – that’s a good name, it means Endurance.” and he looked earnestly down at the sleeping infant as though to imprint the look of him upon his mind, “He looks like you, Joe, when you were born.”

 

“Yeah, he sure does at that,” Hoss declared, peeking over Adam’s shoulder to take another look, “Sure got the Cartwright brand there alrighty.”

 

Proud Grandfather now bustled up and decided it was his turn to hold the child, which prompted Ethan to open his eyes and gaze up into the older man’s dark face, then yawn hugely.

 

I lean back against the pillows and watch them – four grown men and one tiny baby. What a lot of love, so much love … truly I am much blessed.

 

The End

July 2009

 

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