SUMMARY: A year late but here is the 2017 Once Upon a Midnight Dreary challenge to write a Gothic story in the style of Poe. This is my entry for the 2018 Better Late Than Never challenge. There’s murder and mayhem in Virginia City and the limited evidence points toward an unlikely suspect. The gruesome deeds occur off scene for it is the aftermath that matters most.
rating = T. word count = 7497
Red Night Series
It was one more night walking the streets of Virginia City and putting his town to bed until the morning. Most of the time during these strolls, Sheriff Roy Coffee found reassurance that all was well. Friday nights could be a bit of a strain especially before a cattle drive or when there was a major shutdown of the mines. However, neither of those had occurred recently so this Friday had been relatively quiet. Roy was about to head back to his office to lock up and head home when he saw a pair of boots protruding from the next alley. Groaning audibly, he moved to the boots with the holes in the soles and gave them a nudge.
“Come on now, Louie. I gotta put ya in a cell until morning. You know being drunk on the streets is against the law.”
“I know, Sheriff Roy. I’m sorry.” With Roy’s help, Louie struggled to his feet and rested his hand on the side of the nearest building to steady himself. “I’m sorry.”
Well aware the man wasn’t sorry and that he was looking for a place to sleep because he had probably used his rent money to drink, Roy wasn’t in a good mood at all. It got a lot worse when Louie dropped his hand to begin moving toward the jail. He had left a bloody handprint on the wall. Seeing that, Roy put a hand on Louie’s shoulder to stop him from going any further.
“Hold it, Louie. Are you hurt?”
“No, Sheriff Roy, I only had a few too many drinks.”
“Then where did this blood come from?”
As Louie held up his hands and looked down at himself, Roy moved to where Louie had been laying. He moved a barrel aside and caught by surprise, swayed back and stumbled several feet backwards into the street gagging. Louie stepped forward to see what had affected Roy so much. Seeing what Roy had seen, Louie bent over and puked up everything he could before dropping down on all fours retching and retching even though he had nothing more to spew out. Coming from doing rounds in the opposite direction, Deputy Clem Foster hurried to where Louie was retching and Roy stood with one hand up on the wall of the building and the other pressed to his forehead.
“Roy, what’s wrong?”
“We’ve got a terrible situation here, Clem. A woman’s been murdered.”
Roy answered no more questions because he couldn’t speak. He had seen horrible things, but this was worse than anything he had ever seen. When Clem made a move to go see what had disgusted Roy so much, Roy held Clem’s arm. “No, you don’t want to see this. It will never leave your mind if you do.”
“Roy, I should help.”
“You can help by keeping a clear head, and seeing this would be a problem for that. Go get a blanket. No, bring two and some towels, and get the doctor and the undertaker.”
“What is it, Roy?”
“That’s a good way to ask it. It’s a woman or what’s left of her. When somebody killed her, they tore her up something fierce and made a gruesome mess of her.”
“Maybe it was an animal.”
“Oh, it was an animal all right, but this animal was a man. No simple animal would have done what was done here tonight.”
“Who is it?”
“I can’t be sure. She’s got something in her mouth, but it looks like that Janie who worked over at Wilson’s.”
“I saw her earlier today. She was wearing a green dress if I remember correctly.”
“I can’t be sure with all the blood and how it’s tore up and all, but what I can see is green.”
When Doctor Paul Martin got there with a lantern and stepped into the alley when Roy pointed there, he dropped the blankets he had just been handed. Turning back to Roy, he gasped. “What happened here?”
“Doc, I’m hoping you can tell me.”
The undertaker arrived only a few minutes later and had the same kind of reaction. Roy told all four men not to tell anyone what they had seen but knew of course that it was futile. News of this horrible mutilation was going to get out and fairly soon most likely. Any further speculation on his part was ended when he heard the fire bells. Running to the middle of the street, he saw a glow near the edge of town, and although worried about a fire, he was glad at least that it wasn’t likely a threat to burn the town down. He told Clem to stay at the scene of the murder as he hurried off to the fire. What he heard when he got to the Bailey house and found it engulfed in flames was even more upsetting than the scene he had left.
“The whole family must be inside. Nobody’s seen any of them.”
“Smells like coal oil too when you get close to the house.”
“Yeah, there’s at least three empty coal oil cans laying right there out in the open.”
“Somebody wanted us to know they burned ’em out on purpose.”
“Murder, it’s murder pure and simple and children too.”
“What kind of sick monster could do this?”
His heart sinking with that news, Roy approached the men who had been fighting the fire and grabbed one. “What do you know?”
“We heard screams when we first got here. We tried to get close to get inside, but the fire was burning too hot. Nobody could get close enough. It got quiet pretty fast. Roy, I think they’re all dead.”
Staring at the house, Roy made a tally here too. Anson Bailey was the head of a local bank. He had a wife who had borne three children for him, the youngest only six months old. If the people here were correct, someone had murdered five people by arson. This was the worst night of his career. Dan DeQuille of the Territorial Enterprise was at his side only a moment later asking him for details so he could print this story in the paper’s morning edition. Roy was brusque but had to tell the man what he knew. When Dan asked about the other murder, Roy gave him a limited account not mentioning the mutilation.
“I heard hunters say that things were done to her that they wouldn’t do to an animal they killed and that a black silk handkerchief was stuffed in her mouth so she couldn’t scream.”
Remaining as stoic as he could manage, Roy noted that at least Dan looked sickly as he asked the question. Clearly, he was having a difficult time believing what he had heard not only because he had most likely heard it from Louie but because it was so outlandishly gruesome. Roy wouldn’t lie but didn’t want to confirm the story either and have it splashed all over the paper.
“No comment. It’s an ongoing investigation.”
Back in his office later writing up reports of all that had happened, Roy was exhausted. There was a knock on the door and Dan was back.
“I told you that I wouldn’t comment, and that’s still the case so you can jest go right on back out that door.”
“I’m not here to question you about the crimes committed tonight. I’m here to report one. The newspaper offices have been vandalized. You don’t have to worry about these stories getting people in town all upset because there won’t be a morning edition.”
“Was anybody hurt?”
“No one was there.”
“Well, thank the Lord for that.”
“I have to tell you there’s some nasty rumors going around already about who might have done all this.”
“Who? I could use a suspect to question because I have no idea where to start. I have nothing.”
Dropping back against his chair, Roy registered his shock quite clearly.
“I don’t believe it either, but I thought you should know what the talk is. He knew that girl. She had her sights set on him, but he did his best to avoid her. You know about the row he had with Bailey about that loan he couldn’t get to start up a construction business, and I wrote a small piece about that in the paper. When people hear what happened to the paper, they’ll be even more likely to wonder if Adam did this.”
“He could never do anything at all like this.”
“I know, but the temper of the town is pretty mean at the moment. You might want to talk to him.”
When Dan opened the door to leave, Roy could see the first light of dawn streaking the sky. Many miles away, Adam Cartwright woke slowly and rolled over in the grass noting too that the sky was getting lighter. Cold and stiff, he put a hand to his sore head and felt a large lump at the back. His hand came away dry though so at least he wasn’t bleeding. Standing took quite a bit of effort though and made him dizzy and nauseated. Leaning against a tree, he let his head hang down until the nausea passed enough that he could open his eyes and survey his surroundings. As the light increased, he recognized the grove of trees as being in the northern pasture of the Ponderosa closest to Virginia City. Sport was tied to a tree nearby and obviously unhappy with the arrangement. Walking to his horse, Adam knew he was unsteady so he took it slowly. When he got to Sport, he reached for the stirrup to raise it so he could tighten the cinch. It was then that he saw the blood on his hand. Raising his other hand, he saw blood coating it as well. The blood was dried, cracked, and flaking but had obviously been thick on his hands. It was on the back of his hands though and not on the palms or underside of his fingers. It was something else that was odd, but his mind was sluggish. He could make no sense of his circumstances and had no memory of how he had gotten into this predicament. There was no canteen on Sport so he assumed he hadn’t been working far from the house when something had happened. He led Sport to a small pond nearby and washed his hands turning the water a dark reddish brown before carefully mounting up and riding slowly toward home.
When Adam rode into the yard at home, he noted that the chimneys on the house were all belching healthy amounts of smoke indicating that his family and Hop Sing were up and busy. He led Sport into the stable and into a stall unsaddling him and bringing him grain, hay, and water. Pleased with that, the horse calmed and seemed to enjoy the grooming. He had been difficult on the ride home fighting against Adam and acting wholly out of character. It was another mystery Adam couldn’t solve, but at least the horse settled down in a familiar setting. As he finished his tasks, Hoss came in the stable.
“Thought I heard you ride in. Whoa, you look awful. Have yourself a hard night?”
“Where were you?”
“So that’s the way it’s gonna be. Well, Pa’s in a temper so you better be ready for that, and I’m guessin’ he ain’t gonna like your answers none. Did you at least get those parts delivered to the mill?”
“Why are you questioning me so much?”
“Maybe ’cause you ain’t sayin’ much.”
“Nothing so new there.”
“True, but nothin’ new about me trying to find out more either, is there?” All Adam could do was to agree. “Well, I gotta get the wagon hitched up. Pa wants me and Joe to go get supplies. I know you was gonna do it, but you weren’t here this morning, and Pa said we should go. You wanta go, you go work it out with Pa.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Breakfast is still on the table but you better hurry. Hop Sing made extra hotcakes and eggs ’cause Joe said I ate too many, and he was still hungry.”
“I don’t want any.” The thought of food brought the nausea back. Adam thought a little water might be nice, but he didn’t want to eat anything.
“Ya shur are in a contrary mood this mornin’, ain’t ya? Well, Pa is too so I’m glad I’m a headin’ ta town. I’m thinkin’ there’s gonna be fireworks round here real soon.”
“Fireworks! Did I hear you say we’re having fireworks?” Joe walked into the stable. “Whoa, Adam, you look like you got hit with some fireworks. Where the heck have you been? Pa’s real upset, and we were worried about you. Well, I was worried when I woke up and found out you didn’t come home.”
“I ain’t shur Pa ever went ta bed last night ’cause he’s wearing the same clothes he was last night, and he was still up when I went ta bed. I think he was in that chair all night worried ’bout ya.”
“I can’t help it if he worries as if I’m a child.”
“Damn, that’s cold.”
Joe was upset too, but a warning look from Hoss and he said nothing more letting Hoss’ statement stand alone. Adam headed out of the stable then as Hoss and Joe watched him go.
“Joe, he looks sick, dontcha think?”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Where do ya think he was last night?”
“Don’t know, but maybe he’ll tell Pa. If he doesn’t, there’s going to be a big blowup in there. I’m glad we’re going to town.”
“Yah, me too.”
With that, Hoss and Joe got busy with the harness for the team and soon were heading to town. The blowup that Joe had predicted came to pass too because Adam didn’t answer his father’s questions any better than he answered Hoss’ queries. However, that tone and that kind of answer ignited his father’s temper.
“I expect a civil answer to a question when I ask one.”
“I’m a man. I don’t need to explain where I am every minute of every day to my father like I’m thirteen years old.”
“Perhaps you don’t, but if you tell me you’re going to be back in two hours and show up over twelve hours later, I think that deserves some kind of explanation. You did deliver those parts to the mill, didn’t you?”
“Is that all I’m going to get today? An inquisition?”
The quarrel escalated from there until there were two men with simmering tempers and no communication. Storming up the stairs to his room, Adam changed into clean clothing, shaved, and then walked back down the stairs. Ben resisted the urge to ask him where he was going knowing that Adam was throwing down the gauntlet in effect challenging him to ask that. When his oldest son went outside, he looked out the window and watched him load up nails and a hammer from the tool shed. He had his gloves in his back pocket. When he rode off to the southeast, Ben knew where he was going. They had some fence repairs that weren’t done in that pasture. Apparently, Adam was headed that way to work alone. He decided it was probably for the best as Adam wasn’t in a mood to be with anyone else.
In town, Hoss and Joe wondered why they were getting such hostile looks from people and why it seemed that people looked like they were talking about them as they drove past. When they saw Roy, Hoss pulled the team to a halt.
“Hey, Roy, how are ya?”
“Could be better, Hoss, Joe.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Why don’t the two of you come on in to my office? I got quite a lot to tell ya.”
Almost a half hour later, both Hoss and Joe sat in shock, but Joe was the first to react. “People don’t really think Adam could have done any of this, do they?”
“People who really know him, know better, but there’s lots who don’t know him that well. What they do know is that Janie was after him. She told everybody who’d listen that she planned on getting him to marry her.”
“Aw, dadburnit, Roy, Adam never did nothin’ to make her feel that way at all. He ignored her. He didn’t have to kill her. She couldn’t push him into marriage. He knew that.”
“Besides that, Adam would never hurt a woman. If he wanted to hurt a woman, there are a few who deserved it, but he never did a thing to any woman. Laura deserved a lot, but he gave her his blessing and sent her off with Will.”
“I know Adam wasn’t interested in her, but she wouldn’t give up, and some folks are saying he might of got fed up with it. Most folks knew about the failed business try Adam had with the construction business he wanted to start because Dan put that story in the paper, and because of that, they know why too. Bailey wouldn’t give him the loan he needed for the startup costs. So far as anybody can tell, Adam is the only one who has ties to all three.”
“As far as anyone knows, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who hold grudges but don’t have the same morals as our brother. Hoss and I know he didn’t do any of it, and so do you.”
“I do, but you might want to warn Adam not to come into town for a bit. It could get ugly here if he does. I need some time to find out who done these things.”
“All right, Roy, but you know how Adam is. He’s innocent, and it ain’t gonna set right with him to act guilty by stayin’ away from town like he’s scared to come here.”
“I know that, Hoss, but for your brother’s safety, you need to keep him close to home.”‘
Shocked, Joe had to say something. “Isn’t it your job to protect him if he comes to town?”
“Of course, it is, Joe, but I can’t stop a hundred people if they was to get up a head of steam and decide they know who done these things and want to take care of justice their own way. You know how people feel about a man who would hurt a woman or hurt a child. Joe, three little ones died in that fire, and two women died last night too and all of them died hard, real hard.”
Feeling sick at what they had heard and worried about their brother, Hoss and Joe went to get supplies and had to restrain each other from getting in fights after each was taunted several times by men there and outside the store. A number of them insulted not only Adam but the Cartwright family. Finally, the supplies were loaded and the brothers could leave. They were in a foul mood when they arrived home and told their stories to their father. Shocked by the brutality of the crimes that had been perpetrated, Ben explained that Adam had refused to say where he had been the night before. Therefore, when Adam returned from doing fence repairs, his younger brothers turned their anger toward him and unleashed the stories.
“Are you accusing me of something?”
“We ain’t, but people in town are talking something fierce about it, and your name is the only one being mentioned. Now you won’t say where you was last night. You gotta be able to see how bad that looks.”
“Son, you have to see that Hoss is right. Nobody can help you if you don’t even try to help yourself.”
“Why should an innocent man have to have help?” Adam put a hand to his head because the throbbing headache he had the whole day was getting worse. He had not had anything to eat all day either because of the nausea so he was lightheaded after working in the hot sun. The next thing he knew, he was laying in his bed and looking up into the faces of his worried family and Hop Sing.
“Son, why didn’t you tell us you were hurt?”
It made all of them smile slightly. Hop Sing handed a cup of tea to Ben who asked Hoss to help Adam sit up. Then he helped his son drink the tea. That Adam didn’t object to either one helping told them that he was anything but fine. However, at least he was awake again, he was able to drink the tea, and he was coherent. However, they needed to find out why he had passed out.
The next morning, Ben looked in Adam’s room and found him sleeping soundly. At the breakfast table, he asked Hop Sing if there was anything in that tea that had anything to do with Adam sleeping so well.
“Tea help him relax. So tired make him sleep.”
With a slight smile, Ben thanked his longtime friend for once again helping his son. At least for the moment, he didn’t need to worry about Adam. That didn’t last though because as soon as Hoss and Joe came down for breakfast, the topic of conversation was what had happened in town and how to keep Adam from going to town until Roy had finished his investigation.
“For now, it won’t be a problem. In his condition, we should be able to keep him in the house and then around the house for a few days. The problem will be in a few days when he feels better and won’t want to be fenced in by anyone.”
“Maybe Roy will have this all figured out by then.”
“Hoss, whoever did this, did it under the cover of darkness and did a lot in a short period of time. It seems they must have been very organized and intelligent.”
“It seems more like they’re sick and evil.”
“Oh, they’re that all right, Joe, but don’t underestimate this fiend because of what he did. He did it all without anyone seeing him do it. That points at a sly intelligence. Roy’s going to have a tough time with this one.”
Hoss lost his appetite as he heard that. “Then we’re gonna have a tough time too, ain’t we?”
That tough time started to be even more apparent later that morning when Roy arrived. Everyone knew it wasn’t a social call.
“Roy, Adam is resting. He isn’t well.”
“Ben, all I need to do is talk to him some. There’s a lot of pressure being put on me, and I have to do this.”
“I never knew you to give in to the pressure of rumors and gossiping citizens.”
“This time it’s more than that. I got the city council asking why I haven’t questioned Adam and some even wondered why he ain’t locked up yet.”
“Oh, now that’s ridiculous. You can’t lock someone up based on rumors.”
“Ben, you know it’s a bit more than that. Now if I could talk to Adam, I could maybe clear this all up for him and get on to finding out who really done this.”
“I told you the truth. He is in bed.”
“Can he talk?”
Reluctantly, Ben had to agree that he could, and he led Roy into the house and up to Adam’s bedroom where they found Adam awake and eating the light breakfast Hop Sing had brought to him. He hadn’t eaten much though. Roy greeted him and asked how he was feeling before telling Adam why he was there.
“Do I need an alibi?”
“Not yet, but it shur wouldn’t hurt if you could give me one to put the rumors to rest.”
“I don’t think I should have to provide an alibi when there’s no evidence that I committed a crime much less three horrific crimes.”
“You don’t have to get on your high horse with me. I only came here to try to help. If you don’t want it, then you can wait until the order comes down for your arrest, and I got no choice in the matter.” With Adam remaining silent, Roy turned and left obviously unhappy with Adam’s attitude. All he had learned was that Adam had gone to the mill that day and otherwise had remained on the Ponderosa. However, no details and no alibi witnesses had been provided.
Not pleased either, Ben questioned Adam as to why he wouldn’t give Roy a simple answer so he would have an alibi.
Equally frustrated, Adam finally blurted out the truth. “Because I don’t remember anything from that night, that’s why. I woke up laying on the ground next to a tree, and Sport was tied next to me. I don’t know how I got there.”
“Perhaps whoever did all this might have done something to you too?” Ben appreciated that his son trusted him enough to confide in him.
“Like putting blood on my hands?”
Pausing in shock, Ben took a moment to respond. “Adam, I know you didn’t do these things.”
“Thank you for that. Pa, I got a lump on the back of my head. Something happened to me, but I don’t know what it was. What if I did have something to do with these crimes but I can’t remember?”
Reaching behind Adam’s head to examine the lump that Adam indicated was there, Ben was surprised, but then knew why Adam had been dizzy and nauseated, and it explained why he had passed out the previous night. “That’s quite a lump, but there’s no blood. Whoever hit you did so with something padded so it wouldn’t bleed. That speaks to preparation. They got up close to you without you objecting or defending yourself too. I don’t believe you could have had anything to do with any of the evil that was done, but what have you gotten into the middle of here, son?”
“I wish I had an answer for you.” Hazy shapes and fuzzy indistinct words flitted about the edges of Adam’s memory, but nothing coalesced into anything recognizable and never would.
“What’s the last thing you remember from that day?”
“I remember leaving here to go to the mill and delivering the parts they needed. Everything after that is a blur or a blank.”
“Maybe I need to take a ride out to the mill and see what they can tell me about that day.”
“Pa, maybe it would be a good idea if you didn’t go alone.”
“All right, but I have a request too. I want to tell your brothers what you told me. Things are going to go a lot better around here if we’re all communicating and working together.”
After Adam agreed to that, Ben talked to Hoss and Joe before riding to the mill with them. Once there, they found the mill foreman and asked to speak to him in the office.
“Sure, Adam was here. He brought the parts we needed. We had some coffee here before he headed to town.”
Surprised, Ben registered that information and asked for clarification.
“Yup, he headed off to town. Said he had some business to take care of there. Come to think on it, he was acting a bit odd. I didn’t say that part when the sheriff was here though. I only told him that first part.”
“Sheriff Coffee was here asking about Adam?”
“Sure was and not more than an hour or so ago. I guess it’s because of all that horrible stuff in town they’re saying he did.”
“Adam didn’t do any of those things. He’s not that kind of man.”
“Oh, of course not. I only told the sheriff what I knew. I didn’t give him any opinions on what I thought. Sorry you’re all having to face all this.”
Unsure of how to take the comment, Ben only tipped his hat slightly and then left. Hoss and Joe were quiet at first, but Joe couldn’t hold back and had to say what they were thinking.
“Pa, it sounds like he thinks Adam did those things. If men who work for us and know Adam could think that, then what about all the people who don’t know him and know he couldn’t do those things?”
Refusing to drop his head and show his deep worry, Ben turned instead with a resolute expression. “Adam is innocent and we’re going to find a way to prove it.”
“But Pa, you done told us a lot of times that it can be nigh on impossible to prove that someone didn’t do something. It’s hard enough to prove someone did something.”
“We’re going to do it. Hoss, you look for Adam’s tracks leaving here. He didn’t go to town so he must have left a track as to where he did go. Joe, we’re going to town to see what Roy is doing investigating Adam.”
A few hours later, a red-faced Ben and an equally angry Joe left town amid the stares of many people in town. They had heard a few taunts about the Red Night as the night of tragedy was being called and questions had been yelled out about whether Adam had washed the blood from his hands yet. The meeting with Roy hadn’t gone well either as the sheriff said that all he could do was to follow the evidence and listen to anyone who had information to give to him. He didn’t tell them that the mill foreman had volunteered his statement. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. When they got home, Hoss was still in the stable.
“Pa, I found his trail. It was odd. He started out on a straight track back here, but then he slowed down and started going this way and that. He even went around in a circle once. Then another rider joined up with him and they headed off toward the north. I lost the trail when they crossed through the cattle herd, and I couldn’t pick it up again. I don’t rightly know where they headed.”
“Except that’s in the general direction of town. That doesn’t help.” Joe was upset even more.
Even as Ben was getting a suspicion about all of this, Hoss voiced it. “It’s as if someone did all those things in order to blame Adam and get him hung for it, but even worse, get him as humiliated and shamed as he could first.”
“Hoss, who could hate Adam that much?” Joe was skeptical.
However, Ben sided with Hoss. “I don’t know, but if we don’t find out soon, your brother’s life may be forfeited. Let’s go inside. We need to talk with Adam and try to figure this out. He needs to tell us if he knows of anyone who could want revenge this badly, and we need to see if he remembers who met up with him as he was riding back home from the mill.”
When they got in the house though, they didn’t get any answers from Adam. Hop Sing looked worried but gave them the message Adam had left. After reading it, Ben sighed and turned to his younger sons.
“It may be for the best right now. We had a contract that had to be delivered, and Adam has decided to take it to them early. He took a pack horse and will travel cross country to Sacramento to deliver it. He has friends there. Under the circumstances, he may want to stay for a while and visit.”
“Ifn I was him, I wouldn’t come back ’til they catch who done all of this.”
Two days later, Sheriff Coffee was at the ranch saying that Adam had to come to town to officially answer some questions and that he was probably going to end up in jail if he wouldn’t provide an alibi for the Red Night. Even Roy had taken to calling it that.
“I’m sorry, Roy, but Adam went to Sacramento on a business trip. He won’t be back for at least a week or two more.”
“Now that doesn’t look good for him running off.”
“Roy, he didn’t ‘run off’ because he didn’t need to do anything of the sort. We needed a contract delivered, and he usually does that. He wasn’t told to stay here nor was he told he was a suspect in any criminal investigation.”
Although Roy wanted to say more, he didn’t. He did know though that he was going to have to issue a fugitive warrant for Adam if he didn’t come back in that week or the following week. It would say he was wanted for questioning in the case of multiple murders and arson. Roy didn’t want to do that, but he knew he would have to do it. In Sacramento, Adam had had the same thought expecting that soon there would be an official effort to return him to Virginia City. When Roy was visiting the Ponderosa to bring him to town for questioning, he was buying passage to San Francisco and planned to take a ship out of that port. With time to post a letter to his family, he explained his immediate plans and nothing more because he didn’t have any more he could tell them yet. He only hoped they would understand. His feeling was that he was going to be standing on the gallows with a noose around his neck if he stayed so he was going. This was one time he was going to act based on his gut and not trust the law and the legal system.
When a letter arrived from Sacramento addressed to Ben Cartwright and Adam didn’t come back, rumors were quickly generated that Adam had taken off. Others thought that perhaps that was a ruse concocted by the Cartwrights and that Adam was actually hiding out on the Ponderosa. A small group of men decided to search the Ponderosa to find Adam and bring him to justice. Thinking that Adam was most likely hiding in one of the line cabins that dotted the Ponderosa, they began their search by going from one of those to another. At the end of the third day of searching, they came to the fourth line cabin and saw the door standing open. It made them think that perhaps someone was there. They spread out and rode toward the cabin from multiple directions. One man got there first and ran to the door with his gun drawn, raced inside, and then backed out to retch repeatedly. He was unable to talk. The others noticed the smell from a distance and cautiously approached . Some who noted how the awful smell intensified as they drew closer and saw the reaction of the first man who had entered the cabin waited for him to tell them what he had seen. The rest of the searchers were impatient and rushed to the open door trying to be the first to see what had so affected the man who had been guiding the posse. The reactions of all those who entered were similar to the first man.
“We gotta go get the sheriff. He’s gotta see this!”
“We should cut her down at least.”
“No, we can’t. It’s evidence.”
“Well, close the door then.”
“I’ll ride to town to tell the sheriff. I can’t get caught here or I’ll lose my job at the mill. I showed all of you where the line cabins are, but I need that job as foreman at the mill. You’ll have to have a cold camp so the Cartwrights don’t see you’re up here.”
“Yeah, they must not know this is here or they would have burned this cabin down to hide what he done.”
By the end of the next day, Roy was again knocking on the door of the Ponderosa ranch house, but this time he had far worse news than ever before. “Ben, I got horrible news. I have to tell you about what was found in one of your line shacks. One of our saloon gals went missing two days ago. She was found in one of your line shacks and it was as bad as the first woman who was killed. This one had a black silk handkerchief tied over her eyes. She was hanging upside down, and it was plain awful in there. In some ways, it was even worse than the woman I found in town because there was no effort to hide her. It was more like she was on display. Ben, a monster did this, but again, it was a woman Adam knew. I have to talk to him. I think you know what I’m going to tell you next.”
“Roy, Adam was in Sacramento headed to San Francisco. He had nothing to do with this. Someone wants you to think so, but he’s innocent.”
“Can you prove he was in Sacramento?”
“I have a letter posted from there three days ago. He couldn’t have gotten here and killed that woman in one day.”
“Ben, you know as well as I do that he could have had somebody else post that letter.”
“Roy, you don’t think he could do this?”
“No, what I’m saying is what any prosecutor would say. He needs to explain himself and give an alibi that can hold up in court. Now ifn he was in Sacramento, there have to be people who can swear to that.”
“He doesn’t trust the way this is going. He said he’s leaving.”
“Ben, that looks real bad. It makes it look like he’s on the run.”
“It’s his life, Roy. He has a right to protect it. It doesn’t seem like anyone here is interested in protecting him.”
The rebuke stung, but Roy understood the frustration Ben was feeling. “I gotta put out a fugitive warrant on him ifn he ain’t back here by the end of the week. I suggest you tell him to change his mind and get himself back here.”
Both of them knew that wasn’t going to happen. Roy was giving Adam extra time to get away.
Unable to speak, Ben simply put out his hand and Roy took it. Old friends didn’t need words at a time like this. The men with Roy heard the words not the underlying communication.
That night at dinner, Ben told his sons that they weren’t going to tell Adam about the other woman when they got a chance to write to him. Joe decided that Adam had a right to know all the news though and explained all of it in the first letter he wrote when he was able to send a letter to Adam who wrote to tell them he was in New York two years later. After the fact, he told Hoss what he had done. Hoss was shocked and said they had to tell their father.
“Cause maybe now Adam ain’t never coming home!”
“But no more women have been killed, and it all calmed down when Roy got those statements from Sacramento that Adam was there when that saloon gal was killed.”
“Yeah, well, he still don’t have an alibi for the first one or the arson, and people will start talking again if he comes back especially because two got killed and one was on the Ponderosa. Legally he may be in the clear, but it still could be hard. Pa didn’t want him to know how hard.”
“At least you cleared up the mystery of who ruined the newspaper offices.”
Shortly after Adam had left, Rance Davis, who had delivered papers for the Territorial Enterprise, asked for a job on the Ponderosa. Hoss said he was sorry but wouldn’t hire him because he had been drinking. He let loose with expletives and said that Hoss would be sorry just like his old bosses were sorry. Hoss told Roy what Rance had said. Roy decided that he needed to have a long conversation with the man, and Rance was arrested for the vandalism as a result. One of the crimes of the Red Night was solved.
Not much later, alcohol was a factor in solving the arson case too. Tom Baxter had become a town drunk doing menial jobs to get enough money for another bottle of whisky and drinking himself into a stupor as often as he could. He rented a small room at the back of the livery stable and mucked out stalls to pay the rent on it. There seemed to be no limit on what he would do so every dirty job in town became one that people might call on him to do. A little more than two years of that and he became too physically unable to complete jobs though shaking almost uncontrollably whenever he was sober. Without alcohol, he couldn’t escape his memories. One morning when the livery stable stalls weren’t mucked out, the owner angrily opened Tom’s room and found him hanging from the rafter that ran through the middle of the ceiling there. Tom had committed suicide and left a note explaining why. When he had lost his ranch to the bank, his wife ran off with the foreman. In the note, he said he was sorry the banker’s family died. He hadn’t meant to do that, but he had been drinking and only thought about killing the banker by burning his house. He hadn’t thought about the others in the house or even remembered that the banker had a family. The guilt ate him up until he had to punish himself because he couldn’t face the humiliation of everyone knowing what he had done and then having to die on the gallows for his crime. He wrote that he saved everyone the trouble and took care of justice for them. A second of the Red Night crimes was solved.
The deaths of the two women remained unsolved and might have faded in memories too except for some things that continued to happen despite Roy’s efforts to find out who was doing them so they could be stopped. Someone wrote to Janie’s family in the east and included all the most salacious parts of the story that implicated Adam in her death and the other crimes of Red Night never explaining that Rance and Tom had committed the other crimes. Apparently, that person kept writing to the family keeping the issue a priority based on how often family members contacted Roy wanting to know what he was doing about bringing Janie’s murderer to justice. Ben had the family lawyer quash the fugitive warrant for Adam so there was nothing new in the case and Adam wasn’t a suspect although Janie’s family thought he was. Roy tried to find out who was posting letters to Janie’s family but was unable to find out that information.
Everyone else might have forgotten about those murders too eventually, but every month, something black was placed on the graves of one or both of the women. Sometimes it was a black silk flower or sometimes a black silk handkerchief tied to a sharp piece of wood. A few times, wooden crosses painted black were stuck in the ground there. Roy feared that the Red Night murder case one day was going to have another victim, and he still worried that it would be Adam.
As Adam built a new life and a new career, he no longer worried much about what he had fled. Legally he faced no more jeopardy, but Joe’s letter had let him know that he would be a social pariah if he returned, and in many ways, he would be a burden on his family. He decided that the best thing to do was to stay away. But sometimes at night, he awakened from terrible dreams in which he stared down at his blood caked hands and heard a voice whispering that people were dead and he was responsible. At those times, he wondered who had killed those two women he had known and tried to be completely sure that he had not had anything to do with the murders. But without a memory of what he had done and where he had been on Red Night, it was difficult.
Next Story in the Red Night Series: