The Widow (by Krystyna)

Summary: A widow arrives in Virginia City who has had connections with the Countess of Chadwick. She also has connections with someone else from the Cartwrights past that cast a long shadow.

Rated: K+ (27,915 words)

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

 

The Widow

Chapter 1
“Adam?”

The young man thus addressed paused in the act of putting food into his mouth and looked up at his father, then rolled his eyes sidelong to his two brothers before lowering his fork and with a sigh saying “Yes, Pa?”

“What did you intend to do to-day?”

“What you told me to do, go to Lindon’s and check out their bull….why?” he raised the food hopefully to his mouth although he kept his eyes on his father who was cutting into his own meat with an air of distraction

“I’d rather you went to town.”

“Why’s that?” Adam mumbled, having stuffed the food into his mouth while he had the opportunity and was suffering the consequence of having literally bitten off more than he could chew

“There’s a land auction at the real estate office and I want you to bid for it.”

“What piece of land is it, Pa?” Joseph asked, seeing that his eldest brother was struggling and unable to ask, and Joe, seeing a chance to get a word in, chose not to lose the opportunity while he had it!

“Remember that land Linda bought?”

“Oh, the Countess of Chadwick.” Joe chuckled and raised his eye brows at Hoss, who gave a sidelong glance at his father and smirked good humouredly.

“Well, despite all the problems she gave us, she did do us one good turn, and that was to bring that piece of land to our attention again.”

“It’s not for sale.” Adam said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Ben scowled, his black eyes darkening

“What I said…it’s not for sale.” and Adam stared back into the black eyes and shrugged “I enquired about it a few weeks ago, but Sneddon said that Lady Chadwick had no intention of selling.”

“YOU enquired about it? Why did you do that?” Hoss asked, before cramming a slice of ham into his mouth with the ease of a gourmet.

“Same reason as Pa probably, it’s good land, lots of timber and the water we use on the west side originates from that source. It’s fed by underwater springs so it’s never been known to run dry. If someone else buys it and we don’t get along, then come a drought or any dispute we could be without a water supply when we most need it. Lady Chadwick certainly knew what she was doing when she chose that particular section of land, it’s a real valuable piece of property.”

“You’re right there.” Hoss muttered.

“Yes” Ben nodded with his face looking a little pensive and his three sons glanced at one another warily, anxious that their father was not mourning his loss of the lady. “Yes, I recall saying at the time, to Linda, that I couldn’t understand why we had not bought that land long before,” he shrugged and smiled at them “Still, no time like the present. Adam? “

“Yes, Pa, I’ll go rightaway.” Adam tossed his napkin down and pushed back his chair “How high do I go in the bidding?”

“As high as it needs.” Ben smiled

Adam frowned and looked at his father suspiciously,

“How come you found out about this auction anyway?”

“Widow Hawkins told me about it,” Ben frowned, realising that he had walked into a real bear trap and he looked at Hoss and Joe as though daring them to make any comment for he had noticed the glint in their eyes and the way they had grinned over at one another.

“I wasn’t going to say a word.” Joe muttered, carefully folding his napkin by his plate.

“Nor me.” Hoss grinned from ear to ear and stood up “Hey, Pa, mind if we go along with Adam?”
“Well, if you’ve done everything else,” Ben frowned “I’ve work to do here, so you may as well.” he looked up with eyes wide in surprise at the speed the two younger men left the table to get to their hats and gun belts, he looked over at Adam “What’s going on with those two?”

“How’d I know? “ he muttered and then smiled slowly “So…Widow Hawkins told you about this auction, did she? I thought you weren’t on speaking terms with her?”

“I’m not. It’s just that she doesn’t know that.” Ben growled and stood up “And not another word about her if you don’t mind.”

Chapter 2
Widow Hawkins was as happy as she could be for life was good for her too. She had a new boarder who was a cut above the normal class of person who stayed at her establishment. This was a lady, or so she informed the ladies at her Ladies Temperance Meeting (and how she became a member of that was still a mystery!) A lady who had travelled the world, was very wealthy and had recently been widowed. She was a lady of such good breeding that every evening she would patiently sit and listen to all of Widow Hawkins adventures, past, present and the hoped for future!
That morning Widow Clemantine Hawkins accompanied her new found friend along the streets of town towards the livery stable where they were to meet a gentleman who was going to take them for a drive out of town. As they approached the Bucket of Blood saloon the sounds of flesh pounding against flesh, of glass being shattered, of furniture being smashed, came loud to their ears and Clemmie was about to take her friends elbow and lead her to the other side of the road when a young mans body flew through the door with no apparent means of support before landing at their feet on the sidewalk with an almighty crash. Both women winced. The youth groaned and opened his eyes and looked up into their anxious faces

“Sorry, ladies. Oh, good morning, Widow Hawkins. Ma’am” he rubbed his head through an unruly mop of hair and got to his feet “Excuse me.” He gave a nod with a brief smile and returned to the saloon,

“Was he alright?” asked the other woman but before Clemmie could reply the door of the saloon was once again crashed open and the youth reappeared, staggering backwards and colliding into the post that supported the roof of the verandah. He grabbed hold of it for a second, to steady up, and blinked rather rapidly. Blood was trickling from the corner of his mouth and he touched it gingerly with his fingers, then he saw the two women, still standing where they had been earlier.

“Oh, good day, ladies. Sorry, can’t stop.”

They watched as he ran back into the saloon where the smashing of furniture could still be heard along with mens grunts and a few coarse words that made Clemmie raise her eyebrows and grab her friend’s elbow,

“Come along, we had better get away from here before one of them land on us.” she remarked.

Adam Cartwright had spent some minutes reading through the poster that had been pasted up on the real estate offices windows. It announced to any who were interested that a parcel of land at such and such a location was available for sale by auction on that particular day but splashed across it was the word Cancelled / SOLD. He pushed open the door and looked about him and then, seeing Sneddons clerk, approached him.

“Good day, Mr Cartwright,” Mr Riley visibly quailed under the black look that was directed at him with the sharpness of two steel rapiers…”Can I….can I be of assistance?”

“I want to see Sneddon.” Adam growled, and narrowed his eyes

“Mr Sneddon isn’t here, sir.”

“Then where is he?” Adam said through gritted teeth, and his black brows raised over ever darkening eyes,

“He’s…he’s gone out.”

“I had actually managed to figure that out for myself, Mr Riley. All I want to know is where has he ‘gone out’ to?”

“He’s taking a lady out to view the property.”

“The property that was supposed to have been auctioned today?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And who is this lady?”

“She’s the new owner, she bought the land over a week ago”

“I don’t understand you. How could she have bought the land a week ago when it has only just gone up for auction?” he leaned against the counter, his ferociousness abating as his curiousity now took over.

“I know, sir, a most inconvenient digression, but you know that Lady Chadwick was always so -” he shrugged as obviously words failed him and Adam, who could think of quite a string of words by which he could have described the Countess, felt it better to keep silent. “It seems she met Lady Chadwick in San Francisco a few weeks ago and they got talking and the transaction took place there. She had all the papers, land deeds, receipts ..everything…and was most annoyed when she saw it being put up for auction. Of course, Mr Sneddon explained that Lady Chadwick had left instructions for the land to be auctioned off this week by prior arrangement. Obviously now that it has been sold and Lady Chadwick is satisfied with the arrangements, we had to cancel the auction.”

Adam frowned and stared past the little clerk and at the wall while he thought the matter over. Mr Riley nervously rearranged some of the pens and pencils that had got slightly scattered upon Adams abrupt arrival.

“So, who is this lady? Is she one of our local people?”

“No, Mr Cartwright, sir. She’s a foreigner!” Adam took a deep breath and scowled darkly at Riley, who gulped, “Actually, she just sounded a little bit foreign, very wealthy, and a widow.”

Adams shoulders sagged. Another wealthy widow and an associate of Lady Chadwicks. Things did not look very good for the future and he pursed his lips and chewed the inside of his cheek a little.
“She seemed very nice, very quiet, and polite.”

“You said she was angry.”

“No. I meant she was rightly annoyed. A little put out obviously after all, she had paid a lot of money for that land.”

“How much?”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Mr Cartwright, I couldn’t possibly say.”

Adam pushed his hat to the back of his head and nodded “Of course not, I’m sorry, Mr Riley, of course you can’t tell me.” he shook his head and sighed

“There is one thing I can tell you though although perhaps I shouldn’t.” Riley’s voice trailed off but one look at Adams face encouraged him to speak up “We had explicit instructions that if any Cartwright, or any one associated with the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa, were to put in an offer, no matter how high they were to be ignored.”

“Ignored?” Adam did a fair impersonation of his father’s deep voice as he growled the question and poor Riley quailed just as he would have done had Ben been standing in front of him.

“Yes, sir. Lady Chadwick gave implicit instructions that the land was not to be purchased to you on any account.” He leaned forward conspiratorially “In fact, she said that she would rather sell it to the local drunk for fifty dollars than to a Cartwright for a million!”

“She said that?”

“She did, sir!”

Adam nodded and gave a grim, tight lipped smile to Riley, thanked him and walked out of the office, closing the door with deliberate firmness behind him.

Hoss was dabbing at a cut above his right eye while Little Joe was dabbing at a split in his lip when their elder brother approached them. He glanced at them both and they both shrugged and looked apologetic and searched in their minds for explanations that would seem plausible to their more responsible brother, but he made no enquiry as to their bumps and cuts and bruises, only mounted Sport with a rather aggressive air, and indicated that they were to leave town as of now.
Hoss and Joe promptly mounted their horses and followed Adam out through the main street into the open countryside. After a few minutes of total silence Joe spurred Cochise forward, so that he and his brother were riding heel to heel

“What’s wrong? That was the quickest auction I’ve ever known.”

“There wasn’t one.” Adam replied briefly.

“You mean, Widow Hawkins got her facts wrong?”

“Widow Hawkins did not have all the facts.”

“Oh!” Joe frowned and tried to work that out “Adam?”

“Mmmmm?”

“So, what about the land?”

“It’s sold”

“To us?”

“Nope!”

“Heck, who then?”

“A wealthy widow, a friend of Lady Chadwicks.”

Joe released a slow whistle and frowned “Pa’s not going to be happy!”

“Nope!”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“Do you want to?”

“Nope!”
***********

“HE SAID WHAT?”

It was never exactly what Ben said that broke a mans nerve, more the way that it was said. His growl of a voice that his dear Elizabeth had once likened to a fog horn could make the walls reverberate even if he was not shouting. Adam turned his hat round in his hands and surveyed his father coolly, much like any man would when asked at his execution for his last request. He repeated exactly what Riley had told him with a quiet manner that could usually calm his father down into a rational human being again.

“Didn’t he give you a name?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“Because…” Adam glanced over at Hoss and Joe, who were languishing at the far end of the room, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. “I didn’t ask.”

“YOU didn’t ask?”

“I didn’t think it was important .” Adam shrugged and turned to walk away.

“YOU didn’t think it was IMPORTANT! Of course it was IMPORTANT! She’s a friend of Linda’s for heavens sake. The whole thing could be a another plot of Linda’s to ruin us.”

Adam nodded slowly, his lips pursed and his eyebrows raised. He shrugged again

“Her name is Freya Sorensen, she’s a widow, American by birth, but married to a Norwegian and has lived in Norway for about 30 years. This is her first time back in America since her marriage. She is extremely wealthy. Her husband was Olaf Sorensen.”

“Olaf Sorensen?” Ben frowned and sat back in his high backed leather chair, his black mood having evaporated,

“Olaf Sorensen, grandson of Lars Sorensen who was founder of Sorensens Shipping Company. Olaf died, leaving a widow and three children, four grandchildren. They were his children, not hers and…”

“Hang on, where did you get all this information?” Ben asked, a slight smile touching his lips now.

“Mr Riley knew zilch. I met one of Mrs Hawkins Temperance ladies and she gave me all the information .”

Hoss stepped forward, his face thoughtful “Hey, how come Widow Hawkins got to be a member of that Temperance thing anyhows?”

Ben and Adam surveyed Hoss silently for a second or two, then cast a look at Joe who managed to muster up a weak smile,
“What happened to your face?” Adam asked “You look all beat up!”
Chapter 3
“Joe, are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” Hoss looked anxiously at his little brother who was carefully brushing back his hair and straightening his string tie and grinning at his reflection in the mirror.

“Hey, quit worrying, older brother….” Joe darted a quick look at his brother lounging against the doorframe and then returned to survey himslf in the mirror and he sighed and grinned and his eyes twinkled merrily”Now..admit it…isn’t that a sight for sore eyes..” and he stepped back to admire the image of himself more fully.

“You look good, you smell good, which means you’re up to no good…what’s going on?” Adam asked as he paused to stop at the doorway and look in at his brother who was now pulling on his best and newest jacket

“I have a date.” Joe declared with a wink and a twitch at his string tie.

“I gathered that,” Adam said drily as he looked over at Hoss who was looking rather nervously at them both “Who with?”

“No one you know.” Joe replied quietly

“It’s Julia McManus.” Hoss said ignoring the flash of green in Joe’s hazel eyes.

“Julia McManus, huh?” Adm raised his eyebrows and gave his brother a lop sided grin “Well, fancy, I thought Seth Johnson was courting her?”

“He thinks he’s courting her.” Joe said “But Julia has other thoughts about that.”

“Is this the same Seth that beat you two up yesterday?”

“He didn’t beat me up.” Hoss declared, looking at his brother with wide eyes and a look of amazement on his face

“No? Those cuts and bruises just happened to appear overnight after a visit from the tooth fairy, I suppose!”

“Shucks, Adam, Seth started calling the odds against Joe and Joe tried reasoning with him, and then Seth thumped him and you know how big Seth is compared to Joe? I just thought I’d lend Joe a hand and the next thing I know the whole place was a battlefield. I didn’t know who I was fighting or for why.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Joe muttered, straightening his tie for the umpteenth time, “It just blew out of control, you know how it is! Anyway, I have to go.” He grinned at himself again and winked “Yessir!” he breathed in approval before turning round and rushing past his brothers without another word, they heard him call out goodbye to Ben before the door slammed shut.

“That boy loves himself too much.” Adam observed with a smile

“He’s young still,” Hoss grinned as though he were at least a hundred years of age.

“The follies of youth, huh, Hoss?” Adams eyes twinkled.

“Yeah…” Hoss nodded and paused “What’s follies mean?”
“Adam? Hoss?”

The two younger men sighed and walked downstairs in answer to the summons. Since the news about the sale of the adjoining land, Ben had been like a bear with a sore head. Conversation had been limited to grunts and mumbles and rumbles so that in the end the three boys had left their father to himself at his desk while they had shared the last few hours of the day together by the fire. He looked up at them now and frowned, tightening the knot of leather that held down his gun holster as he did so..

“I’m going into town.” he growled.

“Why? I thought you were going to check over at the McKenzies, about that timber contract.” Adam said

“You can do that for me, if you please. Hoss, you can come with me.”

“Sure, Pa, where we going?”

“To Widow Hawkins.”

“Oh” Hoss’ big blue eyes widened and he glanced sidelong down to Adam who raised his eyebrows and grinned “You sure you want me to come along, Pa?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.” he picked up his hat and paused and looked over at Adam who was surveying him now with thoughtful brown eyes “I want to see this Sorenesen woman. Linda’s behind this and I want to know what’s going on.”

“Well, Pa, it could all be perfectly alright. Mrs Sorensen appears to be a very pleasant woman”

“Linda can appear to be a very pleasant woman when it suits her, she had me fooled, and I don’t intend to be fooled by her again, not this time!”

“There’s not really much you can do to change the situation, Pa.” Adam said slowly “The lands sold to a legitimate owner and we just lost out on the deal, that’s all!”

“That is not all” Ben grabbed for his hat and scowled over at his eldest son “Linda has a scheme brewing and will no doubt be using this widow to suit her own interests, you can mark my words on that score.”

“Pa, I think you are over reacting.”

“It wasn’t that long ago that you and Joe thought I wasn’t reacting enough.”

”Yeah, well…” Adam scratched the back of his neck and frowned “It was just pretty obvious to us that Linda was trying to hog tie you any which way she could, it was just that you,” he paused and looked over at Hoss who was shaking his head warningly behind Bens back When Ben was doing a good impersonation of Mount Versuivius about to erupt, one did not rush in with a poker to stoke up the flames. Adam retreated and forced a smile
“Enjoy your trip, Pa,” he said quickly

“Enjoy my trip,” Ben growled under his breath “Huh, nonsense.” and he continued to growl and mumble as he left the house.

Adam and Hoss exchanged looks and raised eyebrows and shook their heads. Hoss whispered “Couldn’t we swap places?” To which request Adam shook his head even more determinedly. With a gulp and grimace Hoss slapped his hat on his head and left the building.
……………….
She breathed in fresh clean air. The smell of moist soil and duff permeated wherever she went, mingled with the scent of wild flowers hidden beneath the undergrowth or peeking shyly from secret hollows in the ground. The horse and buggy picked its way daintily through a trail that had not been used for many years and the smells that eddied up from the crushed undergrowth were so fresh and stimulating that it made her feel light headed.
She was free and after so many years, she was alone. She felt relief mingle with pure joy. Now she found her mind wandering back to the time, only months ago, when she had stood at the graveside of her husband, a clump of soil in her hand, and how she had cried and everyone had consoled and comforted her and she could not say anything or tell anyone that the tears she cried were not from grief, but from joy, pure simple down to earth joy and happiness. When they spoke of a life ending she thought of her own life beginning. When they drank champagne in consolation, she wanted to drink it in congratulation!
She had watched them all and known them all to be hypocrites. They spoke the words of sympathy and sorrow with dry eyes and narrow mouths and thoughts of how to use this empire with out Olaf at the helm. She watched her husbands so called friends and associates ingratiate themselves with her stepsons and step daughter and she saw the hungry wolf look in their eyes and felt relief again and a confirmation that her decision to leave Norway and the Sorenesen empire had been the correct one.
Only when she had said her farewells to the family, those children now adults, whom she had loved and cared for over the years, had she felt a little guilt and sorrow. Lars, Heydrik, and little Margitta, and their children, yes, it had been sad to say good bye to them.
Now she roused herself out of her more morbid thoughts and returned to the mood that had settled itself about her as she had taken the turning onto her land. The Countess of Chadwick had been right in her appraisal of the land because everywhere she looked she could see not only its beauty but also its wealth; she urged the horse to walk on, and approached a small stream. It trickled through the trees like a pale living ribbon wending its ways through the forestry, and widening out to fuller waters that disappeared beyond her view. It was here that she decided to sit awhile and think about her plans for the future.
********
“Good morning, Clementine” Ben took in a deep breath and wondered if Clemmie would ever realise that the amount of perfume she put on was enough to knock a weaker man unconscious!

“Are you cummin in fer a minute or two?”

“No..no time for that, purely a business call on your boarder, Mrs Sorenesen? Is she at home?” Ben realised the words were tumbling out, but the feeling of panic he felt whenever he was near Clemmie, especially with one of his sons nearby, was close to hysteria.

“ “She’s gorn to ‘ave a looksee round her bit of land what she bought the other week.” Clemmie said, hoping that would encourage Ben to stay awhile.

“Oh, I see.” Bens voice lowered and became deeper and at his side Hoss rolled his eyes and inwardly quailed “Thank you.”

He snapped the gate shut and walked with a stiff back to where his horse waited, nodding drowsily over the hitching rail, as he mounted up he began to mumble and growl to himself.

“Well, she didn’t waste anytime, did she? Had to go and have a look around her plot of land, didn’t she?”

“Pa?”

“Right, she’s probably wondering what other piece of land she can buy that will push us into an even tighter corner.”

“Pa?”

“WHAT?” he turned to glare at his son who just shook his head and sighed

“Pa, why not just give her the benefit of the doubt. You don’t even know the lady.”

“I know that she knows Linda, and she knows that particular lady well enough to have bought that land which Linda didn’t want us to have.”

“It doesn’t mean to say that she’s – ” Hoss shrugged “Pa, don’t you think you’re letting your imagination run away with you somewhat?”

Ben gave his son a withering look and took in a deep breath
“Hoss, if I had used my imagination a little more a few months ago, I wouldn’t have fallen so neatly into Linda’s little traps.”

“Shucks, Pa, but you didn’t, did you?”

“If it hadn’t been for Adam and Joe,” he frowned and then shook his head and looked at his son again and smiled grimly “You’re right, Hoss…I’m sorry. I feel just a bit uptight about all this. I guess my pride was dented by what happened.”

“Aw, that’s alright, Pa” Hoss grinned amiably “You’d have worked it out for yourself before too late anyhows.”

*********
Little Joe Cartwright pulled out his timekeeper and checked it for the tenth time in an hour. He looked at the watch face and then up at the sun as though to confirm what the watch told him. He sat down on a boulder and contemplated the view before him. It was one of his favourite places on the Ponderosa and the place he liked to take his dates because anyone seeing such beauty spread out before them were quite overwhelmed by it and thus it created the perfect ambience for a pleasant few hours or so.
But time was ticking away and Julia had not made her appearance after all. Now he stood up and paced the ground, with his hands behind his back and his head down, thoughtful and anxious. Had it been her parents, perhaps? The McManus family had only been in Virginia City six months and her parents were very strict about things like dating, which is why they preferred her to spark off with Seth rather than himself. She had told him that they viewed the Cartwrights as rather a wild bunch, and that Joe himself had a reputation around town for dating the ladies whereas Seth was quiet and shy and in line for big things for the future. Of course, Joe wanted to tell her that Seth was not at all quiet and shy. He could have told her that Seth was a trouble maker and a bad tempered bully but that would only have lowered her estimation of him, Joe, so he had kept quiet and assured her that people only spread lies about those who were better than themselves. Well, that had seemed to work, but come the day and she was most definitely absent.
At the rustle of leaves behind him, Joe turned

“Hey, Julia, I had almost given you up for lost.” he said with a smile in his voice.

“It ain’t Julia, Cartwright.”

Joe glanced around him and blanched! Perhaps Seth Johnson on his own would have been a reasonable match, but Stuart McManus and Arnold Gere as well. The three of them would flatten him like a ten ton weight.

“I warned you, yesterday, Cartwright. You stay away from my girl!”

“Julia doesn’t seem to agree that she is your girl, Seth!” Joe said quietly, stepping backwards and hoping he could reach Cochise and get into the saddle and make as quick an exit as possible. It was humiliating to run, to turn tail and scuttle, but there were times when a quick assessment of the situation was enough to confirm the obvious, broken bones. His broken bones!

A movement behind him and he turned his head and felt his heart sink as he saw Arnold Gere already in position to cut him off from his horse. He was now hemmed in and they were stepping forward, boxing him into no possible retreat. He saw Stuart pick up a fallen branch and thought that should Stuart use it then he stood no chance whatsoever.

“Look, Seth, there’s no point in fighting over this. I admit that I was a mite rash in thinking that Julia wasn’t interested in you but -” the branch struck him across the shoulders and propelled him forwards, words that were to be said were knocked out of him in a loud grunt and gasp. As he staggered forwards he saw Seths fists swinging towards his face and suceeded in ducking out of the way and retreating out of the circle and back towards the pool of water that gleamed bright blue and silver in the sun.

The three young men stepped back hurridly from the water and Arnold hurridly cast aside the branch and began to run towards his horse. Now that the heat of the fight was over, not that it could have been called a fight, but now that it was finished he felt a surge of fear ripple through him. He had known Little Joe all his life practically, they had gone to school together, and he had been good friends with Hoss for just as long. It was alright for Stuart, he had only been in Virginia City for six months and had no idea just how powerful the Cartwrights were, nor what loyal and decent friends they could be and he felt sick to the stomach at the thought that he, Arnold Gere, could have had a hand in murdering the boy.

“Quit that blabbing!” Seth gasped, breathless himself from the exertion of the fight “We had better get into town as fast as we can and get ourselves alibi’s”

“You never said that it would be like this, Johnson.” Arnold cried accusingly “You just said it would be a bit of a tussle, just to teach him a lesson not to grab at the girls like he does and -”

“I said quit it!” Johnson growled, grabbing a handful of shirt and shaking the wretched youth “Git home now and clean yourself up”

Arnold cast a hurried look at the water that had gleamed bright blue and silver in the sun not so long ago, now there were stains of red floating on its surface like so many red ribbons eddying from the body that lay there…

Joe felt that a heavy band was tightening around his chest and when he breathed there was no air, only bubbles of water and blood. His whole body felt heavy and yet he was floating. He knew that he had to move in order to live and summoned every ounce of strength that was left in him to haul himself up and onto his feet. No sooner had he suceeded in doing that than his legs began to wobble and betray him and he knew that he would never reach the safe region of dry land that was so tantalisingly near at hand. He fell forwards and gasped for breath as cold water dashed up over him and with it came terrible pain. He reached out with a hand and felt something hard and turning towards it in the hope that it would be something of support, he collapsed.
………….
The horse and buggy came along at a fast gallop and moved as quickly as she could possibly get it to move. Had she not realised that she had wandered onto Ponderosa land she would not have taken the turning that had meant her seeing the fight that had taken place at the waters edge and now, unable to prevent its outcome, she was determined to do all that she could to assist the victim of the assault.
She had hoped that the empty track would have some traveller upon it to whom she could appeal for help but no one came and the only dust clouds visible were her own and that made by the three men riding crazily towards town.
She drew the horse up and even before the buggy had rocked to a standstill she had jumped down and was running to the waters edge. Throwing aside her hat and gloves and unbuttoning her lightwight summer coat and discarding it as she ran, she threw herself into the water and began to wade towards the helpless youth whose life blood seemed to be thickening the waters and clinging to her clothes as she pushed herself through it. Oh curse the skirts that hampered her by clinging around her legs, and curse her weakness as a woman too! Her hand at last touched the body and she paused a moment to catch her breath before seizing him by both hands and trying to get a grip sufficiently firm enough to enable her to get him back to the dry land.
Joe was totally unconscious and his body was dead weight in her arms so that as she stepped back she fell into the water with Joe on top of her and for a frantic few seconds she struggled not to panic, and to regain her feet and balance. It took precious minutes but finally she was able to get a grip of him and slowly haul him backwards with every step seeming to pull her arms out of their sockets and more than once she stumbled over her wet cloying skirts and landed flat on her back amongst the water, reeds and mud.
At last she was on dry land and was heaving him up to where thick lush grass grew and would be a soft bed upon which he could lay…her own breath was coming in short sharp gasps and a stitch seared through her side doubling her over more than once, so that she had to pause in dragging him up. Then she set him down and turned him onto his side and knelt beside him without the strength to do anything to help him at all for a short while. She puffed and wheezed until eventually the pain left her and her heart beat was back to normal and despite the trembling sensation in her legs and arms, she knew she would be able to see to the boy.
“Oh you poor boy!” she whispered as she checked over the wounds “You poor boy! Well, don’t you worry, they won’t get away with this, I promise you, they will not!” she whispered whilst frantically dabbing at the cuts and bruises with a very small handkerchief. “This isn’t doing any good….what am I going to do with you? Come now…come…tell me who you are?” and she shook his shoulder gently to try and rouse him from unconsciousness.
When there was no response she felt fear touch her heart for she knew the boy needed urgent medical attention and yet here she was with nothing and who was he, where did he live and how would she get him home? All these and countless other questions raced through her mind as she frantically attempted to staunch the flow of blood from the worse of the gashes in the boys head.
Cochise snorted and pawed at the ground. A familiar smell had touched his nostrils and that was the smell of a stable mate to whom he now whinneyed. Seeing the horse the woman got to her feet and ran towards it, and pulled the rifle from its sheath and pointing it skywards fired off three shots. She remembered Clemmie telling her that three shots would indicate to any passer by that help was needed. She lowered the rifle and her shoulders sagged. What if she had remembered everything wrongly, Clemmie was so full of stories and sometimes her brain switched off. Cochise whinneyed again and tossed his head.
A chestnut horse bearing a rider clad in black galloped towards them and she watched him approach with the utmost relief and as he came nearer she ran towards him, waving her silly square of cambric handkerchief as she did so.

“Please, please stop.” she called out even when it was quite obvious that was exactly what he had intended to do.
Adam Cartwright slowed Sport down with a gentle but firm hand as he surveyed the woman running towards him. This was certainly not Julia McManus. For a start she was not young enough, but whoever she was it was quite obvious that she was in trouble, for she was dripping mud and water and what seemed like blood streaked her sodden clothes. Her hair which seemed to be blonde, hung down her back and over her face like mud clotted reeds and it was impossible to see what exactly she looked like because mud smeared her features. He dismounted and surveyed her cautiously, as though he had come across a mad dog that needed to be handled with care and respect.

“I need help.” she gasped.

“Yes, m’am.” he glanced around him and something hit him forcibly in the chest, nothing physical, just the sudden realisation that this was Joe’s favourite spot and that Cochise was displaying signs of agitation whilst of his brother there was no sign at all the woman was now clutching at his arm

“There’s a young man here…”

“Where?” he cried, and inwardly his heart turned over ‘oh, no..no..don’t let it be Joe…’ his brain screamed as he ran by her side and then he was by his brothers side and taking hold of his hand and touching the poor face,
”Oh Joe!” he breathed “What happened to you?”

“I can’t get him to the buggy but if you would help me and tell me where he lives.”

“He’s my brother.” he replied without looking up at her “Did you see what happened?”

“Yes, please help me get him to the buggy, he needs medical attention, he’s lost so much blood.” she gestured wildly in the direction of the water as though the red stains there would prove her words to be true and he would do something instead of kneeling there holding the youth in his arms and looking so wild eyed and terrible himself.

“M’am. He’s my brother.” he repeated “I’ll take him home.” He added in a quieter voice and very carefully he lifted the youth up in his arms

“Take the buggy.” she urged “You don’t know what injuries he has, there’s a blanket and cushions”

He looked down at her as though suddenly realising that she was there and that what she was saying was making sense of some sort. He nodded but not too much because he did not want the tears that were in his eyes to fall in front of this oddity of a woman, well, he would not have wanted to weep in front of any woman come to that, ,he bit his lip and followed her to the buggy, where she pulled out cushions and blankets upon which together they managed to place Joe.

“I’ll take your brothers horse.” she said and seeing the question leap into his eyes she added “If you don’t mind, I’ll ride into town and get the doctor to come to see to him, where shall I say it is?” and she picked away a strand of hair that was hardening into a slick of mud across her face

“The Ponderosa. Tell Paul. Joe’s been hurt.”

“I’ll get the sherriff to come too, in case there is anything that your brother can tell him when he regains consciousness.”

“Someone attacked him?” Adam asked quietly as he tied Sports reins to the back of the buggy

“Some three, I saw it.” she pointed to the track and then turned “You must hurry, Mr…… Cartwright, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Adam Cartwright.” he was walking quickly to the front of the buggy now, glancing anxiously down at his brother before climbing up to take the drivers seat so he did not notice the look on her face as she stared at him, nor observe the quick intake of breath, now he looked down at her and became aware of very blue eyes looking up at him, very blue and very wide
“Ma’am, thank you.”

“Hurry now…” she said, and her voice was thick with emotion and he saw the tears filling her eyes and then she was gone, running in an odd fashion towards Cochise, with her wet mud cloying skirts clinging to her legs and hampering her every step; he shook his head and flicked the reins and hurtled as fast as the horse could take them away towards home.
Chapter 5
Paul came downstairs very slowly, the bag swinging against his leg at every step whilst Ben followed him with his heart pounding harder against his ribs the nearer he got to where Adam, Hoss and Roy Coffee were standing, waiting.

“How is he?” Hoss was the first to ask, his voice shaking

“He’s going to be alright.” Paul said with the briefest of smiles. “Thankfully he got prompt attention and that saved his life. The main problem is blood loss but I’m sure Hop Sing can help remedy that.” And he smiled at the cook who was hovering anxiously at the back of the room “and he may have a concussion, but it is too early for me to tell, which is a good sign!”

All three Cartwrights heaved a sigh of relief and visibly relaxed. Hoss stepped forward with a question in his eyes and Ben smiled and nodded,

“He’s sleeping, Hoss, so be quiet now.”

“Sure, thanks, Pa” and with a shy smile at everyone Hoss very quietly mounted the stairs to Joe’s bedroom.

“He’ll sleep for some time, I’ve left some laudenum for him.” Paul picked up his hat and looked at them thoughtfully “Thank goodness for the thickness of the Cartwright skull, something of which Joe’s assailants were unaware.” He smiled and nodded and placed his hat on his head “Don’t worry, Ben, just keep him warm and rested and feed him up. I’ll call by tomorrow and check on him. Adam.” He shook the younger man by the hand “Thank God you came by when you did.” he nodded his farewell to Roy and left the house.
“Well, Roy? Can you tell us now what happened?”

“I certainly can, Ben.” Roy jutted out his jaw in his familiar fashion and his moustache bristled like an old frayed toothbrush and his pale eyes went as hard as two round marbles “Can’t say as I rightly can remember a more unpleasant attack in all my years as sherriff….” Adam pursed his lips and glanced over at his father, sometimes Roys rambling mode of delivering data drove him to distraction, but Ben was too intent in listening to every detail to notice, so his son had to be content to sit and listen with endurance
“Of course, I never guessed in a million years when that lady burst into my office what she was about to tell me I thought for an instant that there was a mad woman loose and no one had seen fit to tell me about her. Wet through and covered in mud and blood she was, and her hair looking like someone had pulled up a clump of reeds out of some pond. Shucks, Ben, when she started babbling on about Joe being near killed I thought she had come to confess to having done it. Then she said how she saw the attack with her own two eyeballs, three men attacked one lad and left him for dead in the water. She gave me enough of a description of them for me to recognise who the culprits were as well”

“And have you arrested them?”

“Wal, no sooner had she took off for home when in comes that young lad, Gere. In a right state he was, had to give him a strong mug of coffee to get him calmed down enough for him to tell me what had happened and he confessed to having taken part in the attack on Joe. He had come right to see me because he thought that if I got to Joe in time I might be able to save his life. Right distressed and sorry for it he was too.”

“So he should be.” Ben growled ferociously, his face set in a contorted confusion of emotions “And you say this Arnold Gere came and confessed to his part in the action?”

“No sooner had I got rid of the woman dripping mud and blood all over the floor when in staggers young Arnold still wet through himself. Tears were jest dripping down his face such as would break his old mothers heart were she alive today to see ‘em.”

“And why did they attack him?”

“Seth Johnson thought Julia McManus was interested in him and then Joe came along and that put Seths nose right out of joint, so he found out from Julia when Joe had fixed up a date and sich, and got his pals to go along with him. The other lad was Julia’s brother, Stuart.” Roy turned to Adam “Good job you came by when you did.”

“I heard three shots.” Adam said quietly

“That’s some female, dagburn it.” Roy picked up his hat “Dragged the boy out of the water and had the sense to fire off for help!” he slapped the battered hat onto his head “Not bad for a furriner.”

“You didn’t actually say who she was” Adam stood up and watched the sherriff straighten his head gear and walk towards the door “And I was so concerned about Joe that I forgot to ask.”

“I kin understand how you would” Roy said in that slow way of his and he put his hand on the door handle and paused and then turned and looked at them “It was that lady staying over at Widow Hawkins house. Her names Sorensen and she’s a widow. Fact is, Ben, I hear around town that she bought that piece of land next to the Ponderosa border.”

“Yep, she did.” Ben sighed and nodded and then put a gentle hand on his old friends shoulder “Thanks for coming, Roy, and give Mary our regards.”

“Thank you, Ben, and don’t you worry about a thing, those three are behind bars and your boy will soon be well.” he was still chattering when the door closed on him, not that he noticed because it happened all the time!
“Well?” Adam looked at his father with raised eye brows and that faint hint of mockery on his face which Ben accepted as the nearest thing to reproof that Adam ever gave him. Ben shrugged and scratched the back of his head

“I think I’ll go and see how Joe is.” he muttered

“Pa?” the younger man frowned and looked at his fathers retreating back anxiously “What about Mrs Sorensen?”

“What about her?” Ben paused with his foot on the bottom step.

“You were quick enough to think about getting round to see her about that land, but it seems to me that when it comes to getting round there to thank her for what she did,” his voice trailed away as he saw his fathers face redden and the veins at his temples begin to throb, so Adam shrugged and spread out his hands in a gesture of supplication “Are you just going to leave it then?”

“No, of course not.” Ben frowned and looked at his son thoughtfully “I’ll get Hoss to sit with Joe and then I guess we should at least return the lady’s buggy and thank her, of course.” He smiled at his son “And I promise I won’t mention Linda at all, not even once”

Joe heard the door softly open and gently close and the attempts of a heavy man trying to walk quietly towards the bed. He tried to open his eyelids but they stayed as though glued together and as the footsteps came nearer he raised a hand to his face in a defensive gesture and cried out “Don’t …don’t come any nearer.” in such a terrified voice that Hoss was startled out of his wits and came to an abrupt halt

“Hey, Joe. it’s me. it’s Hoss, little brother, I jest came up here to see ya, fella, it’s alright.” He stepped nearer, his hand hovering closer to his brothers body as he approached the bed and making soft hushing noises, just as though the terrified lad was a frightened wild pony who just needed a little reassurance to calm him down “Now then, Joe, it’s jest me.”

“Hoss? Is it you?”

“Sure, didn’t I jest say?” Hoss pulled up a chair and sat down by the bed and leaned forward. No doubt about it, his little brother had been given a thorough going over but Joe had survived worse. That was one reassuring thing, Joe had bounced back from worse than this! He took hold of his brothers hand and held it gently between his own, and chewed his lips as his brow creased in thought. Sure enough, Joe had been beaten near to death once or twice, but he had never been terrified to death and there was no doubting the fact that he had been terrified just then, when he came into the room “Joe?”

“Yeah?” the one word slid from Joes swollen lips in a slur of a whisper.

“You know where you are, don’tcha?”

“Am I home?”

“Sure you are, buddy, in your own room.”

Joe was quiet for a moment, forcing his breathing to slow down and his heart to stop thudding,

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Little Joe?”

“They they just left me in the water – just left me to drown and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe and there was all this water coming in my nose, and mouth and it was – .”

“I know, it’s alright though, Joe, you’re safe and home now.”

“They jest left me to drown, Hoss. Why’d they do that?”

Hoss found he could not find the words to answer him and just held the trembling hands in his own and asked himself the same question

Chapter 6
“Pa?”

Ben glanced up at his sons voice and frowned

“What’s the matter?” He pushed back his hat and observed the road in the direction in which his son was pointing and frowned even more deeply as he saw Cochise trotting towards them but carrying someone other than his son on his back. “What the ..?”

“Seems like the lady thought along the same lines as us,” Adam’s dark eyes twinkled and he looked down at his father, who was seated in the buggy, and gave him a rather whimsical grin “Remember your promise about Linda”

“I had not forgotten.” Ben replied rather testily, and gave his son a sharp look of reproof “What do you think I should say?”

“Hadn’t you thought of anything?”

“No, I’ve been too busy thinking of other things about Joseph and … things.”

“Then you could start by thanking the lady” Adam suggested, struggling to control the desire to laugh.

“And what then?”

“Invite her to supper. She probably would want to see how Joe is anyway, considering how she could have drowned herself trying to save him.”

“Supper?” Ben cast a look in his sons direction and tried to see whether or not his son was serious, but Adam had shaded his eyes with his hat and was looking ahead at the approaching traveller.
Mrs Sorensen slowed the horse to a trot and looked thoughtfully at the two men and bit her bottom lip as she recognised Adam and then realised that the older man in the buggy was Ben Cartwright. Her heart did an Irish jig and the colour rushed to her cheeks and she wondered whether or not to turn back, after all, her speech, all the things she was going to say when she met him for the first time, had all centred around being at the house, not meeting half way like this! She took a deep breath and rode on whilst her blue eyes took in every feature of the man she was approaching….yes, a big man, broad shouldered, broad round the chest, and tall. He had finely shaped hands, that she could clearly see from the way he was holding the reins, and when she looked up she saw very strong features set in a dark tanned face, framed by white sideburns and greying hair, for he had taken off his hat upon her approach, as his son had done also, as gentlemen would on a lady’s entrance. Strong aggressive jaw and an arrogant thrust to it..yes, that was Ben Cartwright she thought to herself. She noticed the well defined mouth, and the large aquiline nose above which were two fiercly brown eyes, so brown that the black of the iris swam into them! She took a deep breath and prepared herself for this initial meeting.
Ben Cartwright watched as she stopped Cochise but before she could dismount, Adam had already reached her side and very gently helped her from the saddle, although, truth be told, she required little help as she was an expert horsewoman. She allowed him to take her elbow and lead her towards his father. It was her impression that this young man was finding this meeting of some amusement

“Pa – Mrs Freya Sorensen. Mrs Sorensen, this is my father – Ben Cartwright!”

Ben opened his mouth and closed it. He realised he should have got down from the buggy and now felt clumsy having to do it while she stood so close and the introductions had been made. He swallowed hard and nodded and as quickly as he could he got down and walked towards her, his hand outstretched to accept hers.

“Mrs Sorensen.” he paused and looked at her and smiled “It seems great minds think alike,” he indicated Cochise and she looked at the buggy and they laughed together, and by their side, watching them both, Adam had a quiet laugh too. He could not recall the last time he had seen his father looking so embarressed and uncomfortable in front of a woman.

“I thought the horse should come home.” She said quietly, softly, and the smile she gave him was warm and soft and generous and the voice equally as soft but with an accent which caused Adam to glance sideways to see what effect the voice would have on his father and although Ben made a swift recovery it was obvious that the accent had touched a nerve for the colour had risen and then fallen from his fathers face like swift shadows
“How is your son? Is he well?”
“Thanks to you, yes.” he shook her hand again, his mind having travelled back a few years now having to swing forward to the present “Mrs Sorensen, I can’t thank you enough. Adam tells me that you saved Joe’s life “

“Mr Cartwright” she said quietly, placing her free hand on his “It is alright, you can stop shaking my hand now,” and she laughed a young womans laugh, with a lilt to it “And it was just that I was there, the right time, the right place…”
*********

Mrs Sorensen leaned over the bed and touched the boys hands and face and took a deep breath. She raised her eyes and looked around the room and smiled at the things that the boy obviously treasured and had hanging on his walls, Indian artefacts, shields, feathers and above a desk was a large portrait which she stared at even more closely than she had surveyed the boy.

“Was this his mother?” she asked Hoss

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“What was her name?”

“Marie, she was from New Orleans!”

She nodded and returned to look down at the youth and then at Hoss, and smiled slowly, a very sad, wistful smile. “Don’t worry,Hoss, he will be alright, the doctor said so, didn’t he?”

“Yes, ma’am” Hoss nodded and frowned, his big face crumpled up into a miserable scowl “It’s jest that I keep thinkin’ on them thar varmints leaving him to drown in that pool.”

“I know, I keep thinking about it too.”

“One of ‘em went to Roy, and told him what had happened.”

“I’m glad about that, at least one of them had something fine still in him.”

“Dagburn it, ma’am, Joe’s bin in all kind of scuffles and brought home near dead I can’t tell you how often, but,” he took a deep breath and sniffed hard and then looked down at her with a shy look “Shucks, ma’am, I ain’t even got round to thanking you yet for getting him out of the pool and you so small as well.” he frowned and looked at her thoughtfully

“I’m not that small, Hoss, it is just that you are that big.” and she laughed and that made him laugh and his blue eyes more or less disappeared in the crinkles of his face.

“Well done, Pa, you managed pretty well, so far.” Adam said in a low voice as they stood together by the bureau.

“Hmm” Ben snorted softly and glared up the stairs “Adam, something odd is going on here”

“Pa” Adam put a warning hand on his fathers arm and looked at him anxiously “Pa, stop being so cynical, huh? Just accept the fact that an attractive woman is here as your guest, and that she will be your neighbour soon. Is that too hard to ask?”

“You’re missing the point”

“What point exactly?”

“The accent!”

Adam’s face grew serious and he glanced once again up the stairs and then shrugged.

“So?”

“She…doesn’t her voice remind you of anyone?”

“Which anyone are you thinking of, Pa?”

“Inger, of course!”

Adam stared into his fathers face and then down at the floor and a frown creased his brow, and he nodded “Yes, I did do kind of a double take when I heard her speak but -” he paused again and then shrugged slightly.

“It would be just like Linda to have got this whole thing rigged up!”

“You mean, Joe being half killed? Aren’t you getting a bit carried away with all this, Pa?”

“No. I don’t mean that. That just happened as an unfortunate coincidence that makes things more plausible.” he shrugged

“Pa, did you have a good look at her yet?” Adams eyes widened to their fullest and then he shook his head “She is about five feet plus a few inches. she went into that water and dragged out a youth several stone heavier than her, and a good few inches taller. Use your imagination, Pa.”

“Are you giving me a lecture?” Ben smiled and poured out some claret into the wine glasses.

“I don’t mean to be, Pa, it’s just that I admire the way she did what she did, that’s all! “ he picked up one of the glasses and then over the rim of it at his father and saw the anxious look in the dark eyes “Pa, if Linda had rigged up something in connection with Mrs Sorensen, I’ll eat my hat!”
“Promise?” Ben grinned and the twinkle returned to his eyes before he sighed and walked slowly over to the big leather chair by the fire “The whole thing with Linda really got to me, Adam. We nearly lost the Ponderosa and our reputations, thanks to her!”

For a while Ben was silent, before leaning forward in a conspiratorial manner

“Adam, when Mrs Sorensen started to talk -” He gestured as though to indicate that he could not find the right words to explain just how he felt and how it had swept him back in time and feelings long suppressed tumbled one after another through him

“She’s Norwegian, they sound much the same as Swedish…accents….” He paused and sighed “Pa, you promised not to mention Linda..”

“I won’t, but don’t you think -.” Adam raised his eyebrows sharply and Ben turned, forcing a smile to his lips and a gentle look to his features, as Hoss and Mrs Sorensen came downstairs together.
Hoss was smiling and looking at the woman admiringly, respectfully, whilst she was chatting to him as though they were old friends, at the foot of the stairs she stopped and stared straight into Bens eyes. So, she thought, here I am….at the Ponderosa!
She stood with one hand still on the bannister rail and standing beside Hoss, she seemed quite small and fragile. As Adam had said earlier she was not tall, and of slight build but for some reason that niether he nor Ben could explain her presence there seemed to fill the room. She was blonde, blue eyed with an oval face. She had high cheek bones and a wide generous mouth. Her hands and feet were small. She was not and probably never had been beautiful. Evenso she had that indefinable something that made people stop and look again, a quality perhaps that beautiful people did not need in order to quantify their lives.
As she walked towards them Adam stole a sidelong glance at his father and a fleeting thought trickled into his mind as he saw the colour rise in Bens face, that perhaps a long stifled fire was beginning to flicker back into life, even if Ben were unaware of it!
It was Adam who passed the wine to her and received the smile of thanks, and it was he who escorted her to the table and assisted her to her seat. She looked at him and the look she gave him was long, and steady and very tender. He could feel the colour mantling his cheeks now and he sat down opposite her, baffled and determined to pay very close attention to every word and action that took place there that evening.
“Mrs Sorensen?” Ben smiled at his guest as he passed her the platter of bread.

“Yes, Mr Cartwright?” she took the bread and smiled, her eyes very blue and slightly mocking.

“I hope you don’t mind my mentioning this, but I was rather surprised when we met you -.”

“Really, Mr Cartwright? No, thank you, Hoss, but some of that would be lovely.” she looked up at Ben again, her eyes wide and innocent

“Just that we had been told you were American and yet -.” He realised he had been balancing the bread platter overlong and placed it noisily back onto the table. So far, Adam surmised, Mrs Sorensen was in total control of the situation whilst Ben was slowly unravelling. He looked over at Hoss, who was sublimely unaware of anything but listening intently to the conversation anyway “You’re Norwegian.”

“No” she said simply, cutting into her food in the European manner “I am American by birth. In Norway they always referred to me as the American lady with the very bad accent, so I was quite horrified to discover on coming home that I may be the American lady but I have just changed one accent for the other.” She smiled “I have lived in Norway for 30 years and although I tried to keep hold of my own language, it is not easy to do so.”

“How do you mean? “ Hoss frowned “If you speak English all your life how can you forget it?”

“My husband did not want me to speak English and after a little while I was not allowed to read even any papers or books that were in English. He wanted me to only speak Norwegian and after a while that is what became my native language.”

“My ma was Swedish,” Hoss said simply “I guess she would have spoke like you do.” he looked at his father with open faced wide eyed honesty “Ain’t that so, Pa?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Ben said quietly “Oddly enough, as soon as I heard you speak, it reminded me of Inger, not just the accent, but the same timbre and softness.” He bit his inner cheek and glanced at Adam who smiled and nodded whilst his face denoted that Ben had just fallen at the first hurdle.

She looked at Ben thoughtfully then and said nothing before smiling at Hoss and returning to eat her food, after a while Hoss broke the silence by asking her why it was that her husband would not let her read anything in English and she shrugged slightly and picked up her glass and looked at Hoss

“Well, he was almost as old as my father when I married him. I was very homesick and miserable in Norway without anyone I loved to be with me and I think he wanted to make it easier for me by removing reminders of my previous life.” She looked down at her food and moved it about a little as though wondering whether or not she should continue and as no one spoke there was a moment or two of uneasy silence. “He had three children and after a little while we were great friends, so that made life easier. Then my father wrote to say he was ill and would like to see me, but Olaf said I was to stay in Norway, in Oslo where we lived, so I took a horse and rode to Bergen but I forgot that the Sorensen company is everywhere and he came and took me back, that’s when he said I could not read anything in English anymore and he started to call me Freya instead of Rachel, which is my real name.”

“Why?” Adam asked in a shocked tone of voice and almost spilling his drink as he put down the glass so heavily.

“I suppose he was not used to being disobeyed and I was his wife and I had humiliated him in a way; he said as I liked horses so much Freya was a suitable name for me “

“What was so important about Freya?” Hoss asked, looking at her tenderly, for her story touched his heart and he could not believe that anyone could treat such a fine lady as her in such a manner.

“Freya was the Scandanavian goddess of love and fertility, not applicable in this instance” she smiled at him “But she was also the leader of the Valkyries who rode fast horses over the battlefields to collect those who had been slain whom the god Odin wanted to have with him in Valhalla; he, Olaf, thought it would dent my pride and vanity a little! “

“And did it?” Ben smiled

“Sadly not, I suppose I was too young to take the lesson because it just fed my anger and it was just difficult for a while” she looked at Ben then and frowned slightly “I am sorry if my accent caused you any distress, Mr Cartwright.”

“It caused no distress, believe me,” his smile widened and the dark eyes went a little darker “It brought back a lot of very happy memories with Inger.”

She nodded and smiled again, and her eyes flicked from Ben to Adam, who nodded gently and smiled at her so that he was treated once again to that strangely haunting and tender smile .

“Mrs Sorensen, please, couldn’t you call me Ben?”

“Then you must call me Rachel.” She said and looked at him challengingly, with her chin up and her eyes looking directly into his as though, Adam thought, she were trying to tell Ben something important without having to put it into words. Adam swivelled the stem of his glass round and round while he thought a little more about what was going on. It was rather like being the spectator to a game of chess that only one of the participants knew they were playing and that she was trying to get the other parties to realise what was happening without actually telling them – but why?

“Rachel it is,” and Ben gave her a smile that lit up his eyes and caused Hoss to look over at Adam and roll his eyes upwards. “So? What did you think of your property? Were you pleased with it?” he smiled again, innocently and didn’t flicker an eye lid when Adam just nudged his foot gently

“It is as beautiful as I could ever imagine. There is a stream there that runs from the mountains and on into your land. I suppose you knew that anyway? The Countess had told me that it was a lovely piece of land and for once she was not exaggerating.”

“You know the Countess well, do you?” Adam said quickly, before Ben could say a word on the subject

“I’ve known Linda for about fourteen years now. Olaf and I met the Count and Countess in Paris, France at some event.”she shrugged

“Paris, you mean, in France where they speak French?” Hoss breathed in awe

“Yes.” She smiled at him and her eyes twinkled “You would like it there, Hoss, they make wonderful pastries and cakes, you know, and in some places they make chocolate,and they eat snails.”

“Snails? Shucks, someone told me that before, but I didn’t rightly believe them.” Hoss frowned “Were they any good?”

“I don’t know, they reeked of garlic, and they ate frogs legs.”

“There’s always a downside to everything.” the young man murmered and with a sigh stuffed a large portion of roast pork into his mouth

“Did you know Linda very well?” Adam asked quietly, still smiling at the little hilarity that had gone on before.

“I knew Linda socially not too much” she replied in her odd Norwegian flavoured English “But Linda, yes, she , I knew her very well. As soon as I saw her I knew that she was a lady who liked collecting things – expensive things, diamonds and big houses, carriages and fine horses, money and men.” she shrugged and raised her eyes ceilingward “She is not a happy woman.”

“So, I take it you were not friends then?” Adam refilled her glass and smiled at her as he spoke

“No, Linda and I were never friends.” She frowned slightly and looked at Ben “I know that you may think we were, and that is why I bought the land from her, so I am telling you these things so that you know the truth.”

“I…..er…….don’t doubt for a moment.” Ben stuttered.

“It is easy to think, to speculate and surmise all manner of things, and I cannot blame you for that after all, you do not know me.” her voice dipped and her eyes became downcast for a moment, then she looked at him again “but you know her and what she is like and how she felt about you, and how she tried to harm your land and reputation.”

“Yes, go on.”

“She was very surprised to see me in San Francisco, for we had not met for some years. She naturally,” she frowned and looked at Adam “I don’t remember the right word,” then she shrugged “to put it crudely, whatever she thinks of me as a person, she recognises the fact that the Sorensen empire could swallow her up in a gulp, and the Ponderosa too,” she smiled slowly then and gave Ben a slight inclination of the head “so she was very happy to see me and to let people think we were very good friends indeed. There were people there who knew of you, and that she had been visiting you, and the subject of the land came into conversation. Next day I saw her and brought the subject round to her visit and this piece of land and she told me what she had intended to do with it.” She looked at Ben again, very direct into his eyes.

“I imagine that she was not going to let us benefit by it” he said in his quietest voice.

“No. She was wanting to hurt you very much, if she could!” she pushed away her place and sighed, taking a sip of the wine before continuing “Linda is never content with what she has, and she envies those who have more but most of all she envies those who are happy, even if they have nothing in comparison to the material things she posses. It is very sad because sometimes she can be so pleasant and charming, but when she is like that, one must be very careful!”

“We learned that lesson mighty quick” Hoss agreed, scowling at the memory of the Countess and the harm she had tried to do to them.

“Eventually I offered her a lot of money for the land, more than what it is worth. She was going to England again, so was happy to agree to my offer, after all, what did it matter to her now?”

“So, she went back to England.” Ben said softly

“She is going back to get married.” She smiled and her eyes crinkled into creases at the corners “She met a very wealthy industrialist in San Francisco who likes the thought of living in a draughty English house.” She drank some of the wine and put down the glass carefully “So, that is the story as to how I became your neighbour, Mr Cartwright.”

“Do you intend to build on the land ?”

“Build?” she frowned, “Build what?”

“A house? Your home?” Adam said, with a smile in his eyes

She said nothing for a moment and then shook her head “No, it is not for me to build on. I am keeping it for a friend, for someone. It is a promise I made, you see,” and before they could speak she turned to Hop Sing who was hovering by her elbow “Mr Hop Sing, that was the most delicious meal I have ever tasted, thank you so much.”

“Mr” Hop Sing beamed with pleasure and in his quiet way began to clear away the plates from the table. Ben and Adam had exchanged anxious looks at Rachels last comments, but both had felt it unwise to probe deeper, there would be other occasions upon which to talk. At least the danger of the Countess of Chadwick had been eliminated .

Chapter 7
When Adam came down the stairs he paused a moment to watch the couple who were standing beside the big globe near Bens desk. She seemed even shorter standing beside Ben, but in the lamplight both of them looked very young and at ease with one another as they talked about countries they had visited. As he walked quietly down the steps he could hear Bens deep rich boom of a voice describing the sea journey round Cape Horn whilst his finger traced out the journey on the globe, and she, all attention, looking at him, then at the globe, nodding, smiling, murmering a comment . He approached and coughed politely,

“Rachel, Joe would like to see you if you could spare a moment?” he said very quietly.

“He’s awake? “ she cried, and then looked at Ben “oh, but you should see him, Ben, he would want to see you.”

“He asked for you, Rachel. I’ll come up in a moment.” Ben smiled and perhaps, accidently, his hand just happened to touch hers as she turned so that she paused a second, then continued on and Ben was left watching them with a strange turbulence of emotions running round and round in his head and heart.
Joe could barely keep his eyes open and the lamp light by his bedside made them ache but he was determined to see this woman who had, according to Adam, hauled him out of the water and saved his life and then ridden Cochise into town to get Paul and Roy. He heard the sound of her gown as it swished softly over the floor and then he smelt the perfume as it drifted towards him and he struggled to manage a smile and turn his head in her direction.

“How are you feeling, Joe?” she asked very softly, leaning down towards him.

“A lot better than I was, thank you, ma’am” he whispered “Adam told me that you saved my life, got me out of the water.”

“Yes, but anyone would have done the same if they had been there,” she smiled at him and his pain was reflected in the anxiety that now showed on her face “Are you in much pain?”

“I have felt worse, honestly, I have.” he closed his eyes “Shucks, ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying so, how’d you manage it? To get me outa there.”

“With great difficulty, more than one time we both went under the water, but thankfully we came back up and always a little nearer to the land.”

He opened his eyes again and looked up at her and smiled again, but his eyelids were heavier and his intentions of staying awake were quickly going adrift, he groped for her hand and took hold of it, and squeezed the fingers gently “Thank you, ma’am.” he whispered in a hoarse voice “I thank you.”

She leaned closer and looked into his face and sighed softly, then looked over at Adam.

“He is asleep” she whispered.

“He’s had a strong sedative. Paul made sure of that,” Adam approached the bed and noticed that she had not yet withdrawn her hand,and that Little Joe’s fingers were curled tightly around hers. When he came to stand at her side, she gently extricated her hand and stood beside him as he looked down at his brother and smoothed back the curls from the youths brow and smiled down at him affectionately, not realising that she was watching him as attentively as he had been observing her all evening.

She stepped back away from the bed and turned, so that she was facing the bureau and the portrait of Marie Cartwright.

“It was a murderous attack on him.” She said very quietly

“Did you see everything?”

“I think so, he fought back so bravely but it was not a fight he could possibly win” she glanced over at him and shook her head “I felt as though that horse had lead weights on all four feet. If only I could have got there sooner.”

“They may have hurt you.” He said quietly

“Perhaps…” she shrugged as though that thought hardly bothered her. “I never felt so useless before as when I was trying to get him out of that water, everything seemed to be making it so hard, my stupid skirts kept winding round my legs, and he was so heavy.” she smiled suddenly “Ah well, it came alright in the end, and you rode by to help like a brave Sir Lancelot du Lac!”

“How is he?” Hoss asked as soon as they were back downstairs

“Sleeping and looking rested.” Adam replied as he picked up his cup and poured some coffee into it “Rachel, some coffee?”

“No.” she said quietly “No thank you. I really should be going back . Poor Clementine will be wondering where I am”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked, getting up quickly from his chair and slopping his coffee into the saucer as a result, something which seemed to embarress him as he went very red in the face even though it was practically a daily event. Hoss caught Adams eye and winked, whilst Adam gave a quick life of his eye brows and grinned. “I doubt if Widow Hawkins will be too anxious, she knows you were coming here and will be quite safe with us.”

“Yes, I am sure I am and I have enjoyed being here with you all. May I call again soon? I would like to see how Joseph is getting along”

“You’ll always be welcome at the Ponderosa, Rachel,” Ben said quietly, walking with her to the door of the house and stepping aside to let her pass through “For whatever reason.” he added in an even quieter voice

“Thank you, Ben, I may well take you up on your offer.” She pulled on her gloves and smiled a rather winsome smile as they walked together to wards the buggy and waiting horse. “Your Ponderosa is very beautiful, Ben. I can see why you love it so much.”

“I’m very proud of it. I feel that it is something worthy to keep in trust for the boys.”

“Yes, I can understand that “ she replied “They are good sons, Ben, no doubt you must be enormously proud of them too.”

“I could never put how I feel about my boys into words, Rachel. All this counts for nothing in comparison .”

“You would give this all up for your sons then?” she looked at him with her blue eyes looking sad and anxious

“Even for one of them, anyone of them.” he replied and he smiled grimly “Why do you ask?”

“No real reason.” She replied “Probably because it is something different to what I have lived with for the past 30 years. Olaf had an enormous business capacity and was a brilliant economist but somewhere along the line he gave his heart away .” and she sighed again and Ben touched her hand gently and looked into her face.

“But not to you?”

“Pooh, I didn’t want it anyway. Perhaps that was what was wrong really, but I was so young when I married him and he was already old. I think he was born 70 years old you know.” She smiled and withdrew her hand “Good bye, Ben.”

“Don’t forget my invitation, Rachel. Feel free to come and go on the Ponderosa and to visit at anytime.”

He stepped back and helped her into the buggy and then watched as she left the yard, turning smartly left at the stables and disappearing from sight.
For a few minutes he stood with his hands in his back pockets and his eyes faraway and seeing nothing but vague memories and jumbled thoughts. Eventually he returned to the house and closed the door behind him.
“What do you know about the Sorensen Shipping Line, Pa” Adam asked as the three of them sat together drinking their coffee.

“Well, not that much really. I know that your grandfather and most of the seamen in New England would have had dealings with them at some time or other. I recall going to Norway once with Henry Stoddard, that was your grandfathers brother. I met some people who were employed with the Sorensens and from what they were saying it was a big business then. But I’ve lost touch with things of that nature since leaving the sea. Haven’t noticed them around San Francisco though.” he frowned at the thought “How about you, Adam? Have you heard anything about them in Frisco?”

“Nothing at all, Pa.”

Hoss put down his cup and with a frown on his face looked at them both

“Do you reckon that’s why she’s here? To get the Sorensen business set up in Frisco.”

“She’s a long way from Frisco if that’s her intention.” Ben chuckled.

They settled into a comfortable silence and Adam stretched out a hand to retrieve the book he had hidden safely under his chair. He smiled to himself when he recalled her referring to him as Sir Lancelot du Lac and hid his face behind his book while he thought over some of the things he had seen and needed to meditate upon.

“So?” Ben said suddenly “What did you think of Mrs Sorensen?”

“I thought she was a mighty fine lady.” Hoss replied “And brave too…I wonder why she put up with a husband like Sorensen.”

“She tried to run away once, remember” Adam muttered.

“I liked that story about Freya and the horses.” Hoss grinned

“Your mother used to tell me stories about her.” Adam said to Hoss with a faraway look on his eyes “Inger used to tell me stories about all the Scandanavian gods and goddesses. Norway, Denmark and Sweden have a lot in common, I guess.”

“It’s a lovely country, from what I saw of it” Ben muttered “Norway, I mean.”

“She was very open about everything, wasn’t she? About Linda and that piece of land.” Adam leaned towards the table to pour himself some more coffee “I wonder who she is keeping it in trust for. Did she give you any idea, pa?”

“No, no, she didn’t” Ben frowned “But I don’t think we have anything about which to worry. I am sure Rachel is as honest as the day is long.” And he rubbed his hands together and looked at them both, and they both looked at him with blank faces that held a hint of mockery so that he blushed and decided another cup of coffee would be a good idea. He stood up “I think I’ll go and see how Joe is getting along.”

“Yeah, you do that, Pa.” Hoss said and grinned over at his brother so that by the time Ben was half way up the stairs he could hear them both chuckling, which made his ears tingle as he conjectured to himself the reason why.

Chapter 8

“Adam?”

“Yes, Joe?”

Adam Cartwright looked at his younger brother and then leaned forward to adjust the rug that Ben had insisted his son had to be cocooned in for his first day downstairs. Several days had passed since the incident that had nearly seen the end of the youngest Cartwright and life had slipped back to normality for the other three men, whilst Joe had languished in bed impatient for his own recovery and a return to a busy life on the ranch. Now he surveyed his eldest brother thoughtfully and plucked at the fringes of the rug before taking a deep breath,

“Is there anything wrong?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, is there anything going on that I should know about?”

“I don’t think so, why do you ask?” Adam walked across the room to the table and picked up the tray containing Joe’s medicines and a carafe of water and glass, he placed these carefully by Joe’s side and smiled “Come on, Joe, what have you got going on in that head of yours?”

“Pa.” Joe said simply

“Pa?” Adam sat down on the arm of the settee and observed Joe intently “Our Pa, d’you mean?”

“Of course our Pa, who else would I mean?” Joe muttered “Where is he anyhows?”

“He went into town with Hoss, to see Roy about what happened to you.” Adam replied very slowly

“Uh-huh! That’s what he told you, huh?”

“Yep!”

“All spruced up in his suit and best shirt, huh?”

“I didn’t see him go,” Adam remarked, narrowing his eyes slightly as he surveyed his youngest brother’s anxious face.

“Have you heard him whistling?”

“Whistling? What? Our Pa? Whistling?”

“For pete’s sake, something is going on around here! If there isn’t something wrong with Pa then there’s definitely something wrong with you.” Joe cried petulently “Come on, Adam, tell me before I go as mad as you sound.”

Adam put on a look of bewildered distress, as though his brothers words pained him too much to answer,

“I don’t know what’s going on, Joe, honestly”

“Have you heard him whistling? And humming?”

“What? Whistling and humming? That’s some feat.”

“You’re doing it again, for crying out loud, can’t anyone give me a straight answer around here.”

“I’ve chores to do, Joe. If you hear me whistle and hum let me know about it, huh?” and chuckling to himself Adam left the invalid to dwell upon the latest phenonomen to strike the Ponderosa!
Hoss Cartwright raised his hat politely as Rachel Sorensen approached him from the direction of the General Store. She had a bag of groceries in her arms and a thoughtful expression on her face but when she saw him her face immediately broke into a wide smile and her blue eyes twinkled

“Oh Good morning, Hoss. How is Joe?”

“He’s outta bed now, Miss Rachel” he twisted his hat round and round in his big hands and then placed it hurridly back on his head and took the groceries from her with a smile of his own “Are you on your way to Widow Hawkins’, ma’am?”

“Yes, I am “

“Then I’ll tote these for you.” He matched his stride to hers, grateful that she was not the kind of woman who took those tiny mincing little steps that nearly broke a guys neck trying to slow down to that level. “How you getting on with Widow Hawkins, ma’am?”

“Very well, Hoss.” She smiled again and glanced up at him as he balanced the packages carefully from one hand to the other.

“Guess you’ve heard all about her Harry the strong man?”
“Oh, yes,” she laughed softly, “She talks of him often.”

“I kin lift that 500lb weight, you know?” he muttered

“I’m not at all surprised at that, Hoss.” She replied and smiled at him admiringly

“But I don’t reckon much on the pink tights.”

They shared a chuckle, and Hoss took a deep breath and felt a flow of warmth towards this woman whom his Pa had told him sounded like his own mother.
Hoss paused to open the gate and as he did so Bens voice called out to them both, bringing them to a standstill. Hoss rolled his eyes from his father to the widow and back again, then with a bit of swagger he plumped the groceries into his fathers arms and muttered something about getting a drink with the boys at the Bucket of Blood.

“Hello, Rachel” Ben said quietly, not at all nonplussed at finding himself loaded down with her groceries

“Hello, Ben. You are looking very smart this morning.”

“I…er….I’ve been to see Roy about those men who attacked Joe.”

“What did he say?” she asked as they walked side by side to the front door of Widow Hawkins house

“Roy told me they have all confessed, owned up to the attack. If Joe wants to press charges then they’ll come up before the Judge when he gets here next week. Then they’ll plead guilty to the charge and be sentenced.”

“And if Joe does not press charges?”

“They go free”

“Do you think they should go free?” she raised her face to look up into his dark eyes, and he saw in her eyes determination and a spark of anger.

“Do you?”

“No” she pushed the door open and turned to take the groceries from him. “Ben, I saw what they did to him. Even if they had a legitimate reason for the fight, even if he, Joe, were the instigator of the fight, there was never, never, any justification for them to leave him to drown. And he would have drowned, Ben, even if Adam had chanced upon him when he rode by, Joe would have been drowned by that time.”

Ben sighed and nodded “I know and I agree. Arnold Gere is particularly distressed about it and I don’t think the two others would have come forward had it not been for him going to Roy and confessing to his involvement.” He sighed “But it depends on Joseph I guess.”

She stood on the threshold of the house and looked at him, and when his near black eyes met hers, she lowered her face and turned away “Would you like to come in for some coffee or tea, Ben?” she offered quietly

“Actually I was going to ask you if you would like to go for a ride. I’ve brought our buggy in case you said yes.”

She smiled “I’ll just put these things away and grab my hat.”

The grass was covered in wild flowers. They grew in such profusion that it dazzled the eyes to look too far into the horizon. Their perfume hung heavily in the air as the heat of the mid day sun drenched their petals with golden warmth. Daisies drew themselves up tall to thrust out their golden centres to the golden orb so high above them, and buttercups shimmered like golden nuggets among the greenest blades of grass.

Ben sighed and stretched out his legs and crossed his arms behind his head and smiled lazily, he could not remember the last time he had ‘taken time out’ to ‘date a lady’. From half closed eyes he watched her as she sat only a little distance from him, her skirts bunched about her and her hat thrown carelessly onto the grass and her face still and stern as she concentrated on making a daisy chain

“You know, only little girls do things like that,” he heard himself say, whilst his dark eyes dwelt on the sight of sun gleaming on golden hair and a pale slender neck.

“I am a little girl,” she replied primly, giving him a very stern look of reproof. “Didn’t you realise that?”

“I think I am beginning to see that,” he drawled, his deep voice slightly deeper than normal.

She tossed the daisies to one side and brushed the remnants of them from her skirt and looked at him and smiled.

“Your sons would think us old fools to see us now.” she said with a chuckle in her voice.

“What? Sitting here and enjoying the sun and the beauty of our land? Never! They would be only too happy to be doing exactly the same…”

“They are young, Ben.”

“So are we, where it matters” he replied softly.

She said nothing to that but plucked up a buttercup and spun it round and round between her fingers, looking at it intently as she did so.

“Do you miss Norway?” he asked

“Not at all. It is beautiful, of course, very beautiful. But here it is equally as lovely. No, I do not miss Norway or anything to do with Norway. What do you miss, Ben? Of your old life, before coming here, I mean?”

“So much has happened, Rachel, good things, sad things.” he sat up now and leaned forward, resting his chin upon one hand with his elbow on one knee. He looked about him and smiled slowly “I thought I would miss the sea more than I did. What do I miss?” he frowned “I don’t know what I miss really. To wish for one thing would wipe out another.”

“How do you mean?”

“I could wish for Elizabeth back.” He said very quietly “I could wish that she had never died and all the good times we had enjoyed could have gone on much longer. Adam would have known his own mother and no doubt been a lot happier.”

“I see what you mean, if Elizabeth lived, there would have been no Inger, no Marie.”

“They all brought me immense joy.”

“And sorrow!” she glanced down at her hands, the words were spoken so softly that he had to bow his head to hear them,

“And sorrow, yes, on their leaving us.” He sighed and looked at her and reached for her hand, surprised that she did not, for once, resist him but allowed him to hold it loosely in his own. “What about you, Rachel? Was life so very miserable in Norway?”

“It had its happy times, Ben.”

“Was he such a bad husband to you?”

“Olaf did not know how to be a loving husband, or a loving father. My main happiness came through his children, I suppose.”

“Then why didn’t you leave him?”

“I tried that one time, to get home to see my father. Olaf was just so angry then and I think if he had ever loved me,which I think he must have done to have insisted so much on marrying me in the first place, but -” her voice trailed away and she shook her head “Well, I had a good beating that’s for sure, the first in my life, but not the last!”

“Rachel, you should have left him. No woman has to endure a life like that.”

She looked at him thoughtfully and then smiled and put her hand gently to his face and traced the outline of his nose with her forefinger,

“Ben, it would never enter your head to do such a thing, would it? You are so kind and gentle and make a person feel so safe.”

“Even so.” He could feel himself reddening for no woman had touched him like this since those heady days with Marie.

“Ben, I tried to think of things through Olafs’ eyes, he married at 36 a girl of 17 and hoped to mould her into something I could not be! He must have felt so frustrated at me after all I had everything materially….big houses, marble floors, crystal chandaliers, as if they were important!” she shrugged “I resisted him at every turn. I fought against everything he did. Worse of all, for him, he knew I did not love him and no matter what he did or said, I would never never love him. Eventually he beat me and that made him angry at himself for being so weak. But in the end that was the only way he could handle me. I suppose he could have divorced me but then that would have been acknowledging a weakness in himself and perhaps by then he was content with what he had, I do not know. I doubt if I would ever really know how he felt about anything apart from the Company. When he became ill about four years ago, I became more involved with the Company myself and that was probably the calmest time of our marriage. We managed to find something in common.”

“You could have left him and found someone else.” Ben said.

“No, there was no one else I could love.” she turned away and bit her lip and feeling the pressure of his hand upon hers she shrugged “In my family,when we make a promise, we keep it. Marriage vows are sacred, are they not?”

“Yes, of course they are.” he said very quietly

“Tell me about Inger and the wagon train, about little Adam and how Hoss was born, tell it to me like as if you were telling me a story, so I can see it all and make it real” she said and with a smile she lay down upon the grass with her arms folded behind her head and her eyes closed “Go on, Ben, tell me what it was like?”

Ben looked down at her and wished that they could talk about the future rather than the past, and he looked around at the wild flowers and smiled, yes, it was appropriate to think of Inger now, in this setting for she had been like a wild blossom basking in sunlight herself and so he began the story.
“It was like this, Adam was just five years old.” His voice was deep and steady, and she listened to every word as the weeks and months and years with Inger and Adam spun out in words over the warmth of the day and through the scent of the flowers that, when she did open her eyes, seemed to nod down at her and when the words finally came to an end and Ben seemed unable to speak anything more she took hold of his hand and they said nothing more but in saying nothing, they spoke volumes!

Chapter 9.
Small groups of townspeople gathered outside the Court house to discuss the case and eventually to drift away. Joseph, his face still bearing the marks of the beating he had received from them, and limping quite heavily, walked beside his father and brothers to the buggy.

“I guess there was no other way of dealing with it, was there, Pa?” he asked quietly.
“No, son. It is just a shame that Stuart had to get mixed up with them in the first place, no one really got to see just what he had to offer “

“Julia didn’t come, did she?” Joe sighed and bowed his head regretfully

“Well, it could not be easy for her, Joe, after all she did care for you, and yet it was her brother who had taken part in what happened. She could even think it may have been her fault.”

“I guess you’re right, Pa.” He glanced over to where Rachel Sorensen was talking to Amanda Ridley and he looked at Ben, who had followed his sons glance and was watching Rachel and Amanda together. “She’s quite a formidable lady, isn’t she, pa?”

“I guess she is, Joe.” Ben smiled slowly and then, noticing that three pairs of eyes were watching his reaction with the utmost scrutiny, coughed and clambered up into the drivers seat. He took up the reins and muttered the command to ‘get going’ to the horses and slowly trotted away from the town centre. Behind the buggy Hoss and Adam rode close side by side and all four Cartwrights raised their hats as they passed the two ladies.

“Such a nice family” Amanda Ridley observed, dimpling over at them as they took the corner by the hotel and disappeared from view.
…………..
“Have you noticed” Joe said in a quiet voice as the three brothers sat together that evening “how happy Pa seems lately?”

“Pa’s always happy.” Hoss mumbled, scowling in concentration at the chequers board and at the crushing silence that followed this remark he glanced up, to see his brothers staring at him as though he were mad “Well, mostly he is, in his own way.” his big hand moved sideways and grabbed at a cookie.

“Have you noticed how often he has to take the buggy into town?” Adam observed, stretching out his legs and resting them on the table. He turned over a page in his book and frowned “Sometimes with a hamper.”

“Naw?” Hoss glanced up with his eyes wide “A hamper..of food?”

“Yep”

“Shucks, I didn’t notice that.”

“He whistles and sings to himself.” Joe grumbled “It puts a fella right off his breakfast.”

“He never could sing.” Adam agreed, turning over another page.

“He just growls through a song. Remember when Pastor John told him that the congregation would benefit more from his silence?” Hoss chuckled at the memory and how Ben had grumbled all the way home.

“He’s too old to fall in love again, ain’t he?” Joe asked.

“You didn’t seem to think about that when the Countess was here.” Adam muttered.

“Aw, they were just old friends.”

“What did you say, Joe?” Adam looked over at his brother, the banter suddenly struck a more serious note, to him anyway

“I said, Pa and the Countess were old friends.” Joe leaned forward and promptly jumped four of Hoss’ blacks and declared himself the winner
“Right, Adam, I won, it’s your turn to play the winner.” and he swept the chequer board clear with his arm.

********

Adam stepped into the older mans room and noticed how Ben quickly closed the lid of the musical box to turn towards him. It was Elizabeth’s musical box and Adam had heard it playing as he had passed his fathers door.

“Are you alright, Pa?”

“Yes, son. Why do you ask?”

“I heard the music. You usually only play it when you’re worried about something.”

Ben frowned and stood up and walked over to the window. Outside the night was black with not even a slither of a moon to shed light upon the sombre earth. He clasped his hands behind his back

“It’s a strange thing, Adam.” He said watching the reflection of his son mirrored in the blackness of the window “I’ve had your mother on my mind a lot over the past few months. I’ve dreamed about her, heard her voice, wondered what life would have been like had she lived.”

“And?” Adam prompted gently

“I can’t understand why I should be thinking so much of Elizabeth when, really, I can’t stop feeling so much about Rachel” he shrugged “I guess I’m too old to fall in love, is that it?”

“No one’s too old for that, Pa” Adam smiled gently “Do you really love her, Rachel I mean?”

“Yes, I do. It’s a strange thing, Adam, to be a man without love for so long as I have been. You don’t even realise that there are certain parts of you that have been locked away because you still function normally, you can even talk about past loves, laugh about other peoples loves, perhaps, as they now laugh at mine.”

“I doubt that, Pa. I should think everyone will be very happy about you and Rachel.”

“It’s just that suddenly I feel young again. Odd, you don’t even realise you are growing old until this happens and -” his voice trailed away and he returned to the table where the musical box stood “you feel young again, but you know you aren’t and wish you were!” he smiled dreamily “I don’t suppose that makes much sense, huh?”

“You wish you had met Rachel a long time ago I suppose”

“That’s about right.” He glanced up “What do you think? What will Joe and Hoss think?”

“They’ll think you’re an old fool, and be almighty jealous!” Adam grinned “I think she’ll make you happy, Pa.”

Ben smiled and lifted the lid of the little box and looked over at Adam “I think so too….”

“Have you asked her yet? To marry you, I mean”

“Not yet.” Ben looked embarressed “I wanted to make sure it was alright with you all first.”

Adam nodded. Typical of his father, he mused, quite typical.
Chapter 10
The letters stood in a neat pile on Bens desk just where Hop Sing had left them when he had returned from Virginia City earlier that morning. Spring had passed to summer and onto autumn and the threat of a cold winter was beginning to rear its ugly head. Bens gentle love affair with Rachel was now an open secret to everyone although Ben had still not plucked up courage to propose to her. It had been Hoss who had teased Ben into agreeing to propose to Rachel the following week end, reminding Ben of the time when he himself had dragged his heels about proposing to little Margie and lost her for being too slow.
Ben picked up the letters and scanned them one by one. The three younger men stretched their weary bones and headed for the fire and the pot of steaming coffee on the table and Joe was teasing Hoss about something of no importance when Ben erupted in an angry tirade and strode over to them flourishing a letter in his hand.

“I’ve never read such arrant nonsense in my life.” he stormed “Who the Sam Hill do they think they are demanding that sum of money for a loan I have never taken from them in all my born days, have you ever read such an idiotic demand ?”

Adam grasped the letter from his fathers hand and took a deep breath and read it through before handing it to Hoss who after reading it passed it on to Joe. The four men just stood looking at one another as though if they waited long enough one of them would find the answer.

“Did you see who it came from?” Joe said quietly.

“The Sorensen Shipping Line.” Hoss murmered “But, we ain’t never dealt with them, have we, Pa?”

“Never!” Ben growled and Adam shook his head and stared thoughtfully at the letter now in his hands.

“It says it’s a loan from many years standing, pa. A bad debt that should have been cleared years ago but which due to the large amount of interest can not be ignored any longer.”

“Dagburn it, Pa.what bad debt?”

Adam looked at his father and realised from the pain in the older mans black eyes that he was thinking of something else other than a bad debt. He put out a hand and placed it gently on his fathers arm

“Pa, don’t think it.”

“Think what?”

“Don’t think, don’t even start to think, that this has anything to do with Rachel.”

“Well, hasn’t it?” Ben growled, snatching the letter from his sons hand and scrunching it up into a ball “What a fool I have been. Linda first, then this, this letter.” He brought his clenched fist hard down onto the table and the colour rushed purple to his face “Of all the fools on Gods earth I must be the biggest to have trusted her. All the time she was just planning to do exactly what Linda had intended, to snatch the Ponderosa away from us and to make sure she got it. She’s used this pretext of Sorensens bad debt. I’ve never had any dealings with Sorensens in my life.” And he brought his fist down hard again so that ink pots jumped and several pens dived to the floor as though for protection!

“Yes, you have.” a quiet voice came from behind them
Rachel Sorensen had never looked so small and fragile as she did at that moment, nor had she ever felt so vulnerable or alone for many a long year as she had when she heard Bens furious tirade against her.
She stood by the door holding her hat loosely in her hand by its ribbons, so that it trailed against her long green skirt. Her fur lined fitted green jacket showed off the gentle curves of her body and the black leather boots enhanced the smallness of her neat feet. Her hair was caught at the nape of her neck by a green ribbon, but gleamed even so soft golden blonde and her eyes, which seemed now the only colour in her face, were as dark blue as an evening sky.
She held out a package in her other hand, but when it seemed no one was going to move towards her to take it, she allowed her arm to drop to her side.
“Ben, I did not think you would be so quick to accuse me to trying to harm you and your boys. I did not ever imagine that you would put me in the same category as Linda. I never thought that you would associate me with things to do with Sorensens.” she spoke in gasps, as though her breathing had suddenly failed her, as indeed it had, for she was struggling now to hold back tears and the pain she felt was so acute that she wanted to run somewhere very quiet to scream out her anguish.
As it was the sadness in her voice touched their hearts and Hoss was the first to go to her side and put an arm around her shoulders

“It’s alright, Rachel, Pa didn’t mean it, it was just the shock of the letter.”

“That’s right.” Joe murmered, stepping forward to touch her hand gently with his own “Pa?” he turned to Ben “Pa, explain to Rachel. Pa?”

Adam looked at his father and raised his eye brows

“Well, Pa?”
“I received this.” Ben held up the ragged remnants of the letter “from a Lars Hanson. Do you know him?”

“Yes, he was Olaf’s private assistant” she said in a very low whisper whilst the colour drained even more from her face and her lips.

“He reminds me of a loan I went surety for some years ago and that as it stands now it would be a good idea to repay it, promptly.”

“Yes.” she lowered her head and Joe was reminded of times back at school when a pupil was being reprimanded by the teacher.

“I have never–.” Ben barked but stopped when she raised her head and looked at him, the colour rushing back into her face and the blue eyes as bright and hard as two sapphires.

“You have…you did…you went surety 34 years ago for Henry Stoddard.”

“What?” Ben’s black eyes went round and Adam blanched. The Stoddard name was seldom mentioned, but it was his by rights, as much as the name Cartwright. He frowned and looked at Ben

“Is that right, Pa?”

“I don’t recall anything to do with Henry Stoddard.” Ben said and turned his back on them “Do you realise, madam, how much they are demanding from me for this so called loan?” he turned again and glared at her “And you knew about it, didn’t you?”

She nodded dumbly and glanced down at the package in her hand. She looked at Adam and then at Ben, at Joe and Hoss and took a deep breath
“I was coming today to talk to you about something very important.” Her voice sounded more Norwegian than ever, but it was stronger than it had been initially, and she raised her face and jutted out her chin with an arrogance that was quite admirable “I never thought to hear what I heard just now when you did not know I was here….and I never thought that I would continue to be so humiliated in front of your sons by you now, Ben Cartwright! You have no kindness in you after all, you are as arrogant and as selfish as Olaf ever was, just differently, just that you hide it away and pretend. What a fool I have been to have loved you for so long” and without another word she turned around and walked hurridly from the room, slamming the door behind her as she did so.
Her little hat, caught by its ribbons, tumbled slowly onto the floor.

Adam bit his bottom lip and looked at his father. Ben swallowed the lump in his throat and tried to stop his world from spinning totally out of his control. Joe and Hoss looked at one another and then at Adam and Ben

“You have to go after her, Pa.” Hoss said quietly, picking up the little hat and holding it gently, as though it were a small living bird, in his big hands.

“Sure, Pa, if you love her, you can’t lose her like this.” Joe approached his father and looked at him rather fiercely “You didn’t give her any time to explain.”

“She admitted knowing about it. Isn’t that explanation enough.” Ben growled.

“Stop giving yourself an excuse to cover your pride” Adam snapped “Rachel’s worth ten times the amount Sorensen is demanding and you’d be a fool to let her go.”

“Is that what you think?” Ben shouted

“You know it, Pa.” Adam said coldly.

“THIS” Ben waved the letter in front of them “This amounts to the loss of your inheritance, you do realise that, don’t you?”

“Rachels more important than that,” Hoss said and he shrugged “Anyway, we can find the money from somewhere.”
“Just like that?” his father boomed

“We can at least try to find it.” Joe said quietly “Better than ranting on and losing someone like Rachel, isn’t it?”

“Pa” Adam caught hold of his father by the arm “Pa, if you really cared anything for Rachel, you had better go and apologise right now.”

“Right now, huh?”

Adam stared back into the dark eyes and nodded. He pointed to the door

“That’s the way out, the sooner the better.” he raised his eyebrows and thrust out his chin in a way that made Ben soften and as quickly as it had erupted, so his temper evaporated. He looked at the door and then at his sons, Hoss stepped back to give his father some space and looked over at his older brother

“Reckon he’ll catch up with her?” he queried

“She’s got a head start on him and he never was any good at tracking.” Adam replied with a shrug of the shoulders.

Joe sighed and shook his head “Do you think she’ll forgive him?”

“Would you?” Hoss stroked his chin thoughtfully “What did she mean about Pa standing surety for Henry Stoddard? Who’s Henry Stoddard?”

“I think he was my grandfathers brother, but apart from that I don’t know.” Adam walked to the bureau and picked up his hat “I’ve things to think about, so I’ll see you both later.”

Chapter 11
“Rachel?”

She turned at the sound of her name and watched as Adam walked towards her. He had tied Sports reins to a tree that was slowly surrendering its gold and russet hued leaves to the cool breezes that drifted through the valley of the land she had bought from the Countess of Chadwick. She watched as this tall, long legged young man came towards her with a sad expression on his face and his dark eyes thoughtful and sombre. He took off his hat and sat down on the rock by her side and looked over the valley and said nothing.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked after a lapse of some moments had ticked steadily away

“I remembered you saying how this was your favourite place and took a chance that you would be here. And” he smiled at her “you didn’t exactly hide your trail!”

“Oh” she shrugged “I don’t know anything about things like that. Where’s Ben?”

“Racing around the Ponderosa looking for you.” He folded his arms across his chest and stared to the far horizon where the trees rose to meet the sky and embrace the clouds, and the thin strip of river could be seen threading its way to the Lake like a silver and blue ribbon “It is beautiful here”

“Yes” she sat with her hands folded in her lap, very still and peaceful

“Are you still angry with Pa?”

“Yes. Very much so.” She raised her chin defiantly again “But it was my fault really, I know that.” She sighed and looked at him sadly “I was just very disappointed and hurt, but I know it was my fault”

“Pa does have a quick temper on him, but he cools down as quickly as he erupts, and he doesn’t really mean everything he says.”

“I know”

“How long have you known Pa?” he asked without looking at her

“Since I was ten years old.”

He did look at her then, his eyes wide in surprise

“I was coming today, to tell you all . I should have said right from the start, when I first met you, but the circumstances of our meeting made my little speech more difficult and then I let my stupid vanity and pride get in the way again. So, as usual, I left everything too late!”

“Do you want to tell me about it?” he looked at her and smiled “I’ve plenty of time”

“Adam, it is a long story and it gets complicated too. Perhaps I should just leave it for now and wait for another time”

“Don’t you think you’ve waited long enough?” he asked “Or don’t you love Pa as much as you thought you did?”

She looked away from him then with a frown creasing her brow and a faraway look in her eyes, then after a little while she looked at him again and smiled “It must seem strange to you to talk about love with someone of my age! Young people often think it is the sole right of youth to know, feel , experience love.”

“I never think of you or Pa as being so old as to be past falling in love, in fact, it’s hard to think of either of you as much older than myself.”

“You are very tactful, Adam.” she laughed softly and folded her hands once more in her lap and stared out far away to where the ribbon of river finally met the lake “My father was Henry Stoddard.” she felt his body jerk by her side and realised that she had started the story with a shock to him and so she turned to look at him “Have you ever heard of him before?”

“Yes” Adam replied quietly, his head drooped and he stared at the ground and shifted a stone with his foot “Grandfathers brother.”

“That’s right. My mother died when I was five years old and my father was too distressed to have me in the house, he wanted to go to sea and put as much sea water between us as possible. So when I was five I went to live with your grandparents and with Elizabeth, your mother.”

“My mother…..” he muttered quietly and clenched his teeth tightly “I wish you had told us all this before, Rachel”

“So do I now!” she sighed “Shall I go on or would you prefer me to leave it for another time, or, if you like, I could write it all down in a letter”

“No, I’d rather hear it from you now.” And he smiled at her and his brown eyes twinkled “Seeing as we’re related.”

She smiled and slipped her arm through his and hugged his arm against her and then stood up and walked a little way as she tried to find the right words to tell him her story.

“Elizabeth was nearly 9 and as excited as I was that we were to be together. It was like suddenly finding out that there was a sister waiting for to play and talk with…it was the best time of my life and I doubt if I could have been happier. Elizabeth and I loved the same things, shared the same things and her mother, was as gentle to me as if she were my own mother. Captain Stoddard, your grandpapa, could be very gruff and stern and sometimes when he was in a bad mood or a little –“ she waggled her hand to indicate that sometimes Grandpa got rather a little more than inebriated “he would send us both running to our room, cowering under the covers. Most often he was away at sea with my father. I lived there for ten years and saw Elizabeth grow from a child to a young woman. I saw her meet your father and fall in love with him “

“And what happened?”

“What happened! Oh lots of things happened, Adam. Your mother was so beautiful and sweet natured, it was no wonder that Ben fell in love with her. I remember when he first came to the house, he wanted to be a cabin boy of all things and Eliza and I crept down the stairs to look at him through the bannisters. He had such a deep voice and was so tall and dark that we were both scared stiff at the sound and sight of him, and we ran up to our room to discuss this lad. We were so serious about it all. I remember Eliza whispering to me “Oh, Rachel, he has a voice like a foghorn” and I said “Well, that’s a good thing if they are ever caught in a fog and can’t find the wretched thing” “ she shook her head and kicked at a stone “I’m digressing too much.”

“I like to hear about my mother” Adam said quickly “I don’t really know much, to tell you the truth” he kicked at the stone again, sending it scudding across the dry ground, then he looked up at the clouds “I can’t believe that you spent so much time with my mother and managed to keep so quiet about it for so long”

“It was not easy, Adam believe me.” She frowned and approached him as though she were just a small child afraid of being reprimanded, and she put out her hand and touched his gently “Please forgive me and don’t be cross, will you?”

He laughed then and took her hand in his and looked at her

“And are you much like my mother to look at, apart from the colouring, of course.”

“Elizabeth and I were very much alike, or rather to be more honest, enough alike to be mistaken for real sisters. But Elizabeth had spirit and she just glowed with life whereas I tended to enjoy being in the shadows , watching life before me rather than living it as she did. When I left the house at my fathers request, it was very difficult for us both but we wrote every week and saw one another whenever possible.”

“And when my father married her, how did you feel?” he looked at her thoughtfully

“I was happy for them both, of course. They were perfectly matched, both high spirited and stubborn, both loved life and wanted to explore it as far as they could. I loved them both very much indeed. “ she withdrew her hand and sat down beside him again, returning her hands to her lap “Elizabeth knew how much I loved Ben, and we used to joke about it and call it my little infatuation and I thought that it would fade away in time, and it did, to some extent. Then you were born.”

“Yes.” Adam clenched his teeth together and she could see the veins throbbing at his temple “and she died.”

“She died.” She looked away as the spasm of anguish that passed over his face cut her to the heart “I was able to stay at their home for several weeks afterwards. I nursed you and held you in my arms and loved you. Ben was so distressed, if you had not been there, Adam, he would either have killed himself or ended up as one of those seamen who just rattle from ship to tavern and from tavern to ship. He could have become a hard, bitter man instead of the man he is now. Thanks to you, he survived that time and found happiness again” she looked at him and smiled and he managed a rather weak grin in return.

“What did you do then, Rachel, was that when you got married?”

“I begged my father to let me go with Ben so that I could look after you as well as him, but he would not let me but told me that he had made a marriage arrangement for me. I was distrought. Not only had I lost my cousin who was more like my sister, but I was about to lose you and Ben . He kept insisting that I would soon forget you all because I was going to go and live like a princess in Norway. When I met Olaf I nearly went out of my head with grief. How could someone sell their daughter, barely 17, to an old man of over 30!” she gave a slight chuckle “Of course, now that I am past 30, I would be only too glad to be that old again!”

“He sold you?”

“Olaf had seen me several times and fell in love with me and wanted me to be his wife. This is where the loan, for which your father signed as surety, came into play.”

“So Pa had signed as surety? That letter from Sorensens is accurate?”

“This is what happened. Your father often sailed with my father, as well as with Uncle. The time they went to Norway my father decided to cut ties with my uncle but he needed money to set himself up in business. He found a willing loan agent in Olaf, who saw it as a means of securing a niche in the New England fishing and trading routes. The loan was quite substantial, and your father, whom my father trusted implicitly, was coaxed into signing as a surety. The interest for the first five years would be minimal, but it would increase by 20% every year. As events in your fathers life rolled forward, and the past dimmed, so, obviously has any recollection of that agreement, possibly he assumed that my father had paid it off, and he had every right to do so. I can’t blame him for that assumption.”

“But he had not?”

“No, Olaf promised to forget about the loan if I married him. He knew that most 17 year old American girls would have preferred younger husbands, so this loan was used as a kind of lever.”

“And if you had not married him?”

“The loan would be brought in and my father ruined and several others who had trusted my father, which would have included your grandfather and Ben. Their mercantile chandlers business was mainly funded by that loan, or rather, Uncle’s share in it.”

“So why has it suddenly been brought to Pa’s attention now?”

“Olaf knew how much I cared about your father and he threatened, after that time I ran away, that should I ever leave him, then Ben would have to pay the full amount, interest of 20% over all those years. It would have destroyed any hope he had of making his promise to Elizabeth come true.”

“Is that why you stayed with Olaf, despite the beatings and the lack of love he showed to you?”

“Partly.” she looked at him thoughtfully and their eyes met and she smiled “You are so like Elizabeth, you know. The first time, when we met, I could have fallen at your feet and wept, good grief, I still could!” and the tears welled up in her eyes again “Anyway, the last time I saw your mother, which was about a week before you were born, she asked me to make her a promise, and later I received a letter from her, reminding me of that promise. She made me swear on the bible that if I were ever in a position to help you or Ben, then I would do everything in my power to do so, she wept as she asked me because she was so afraid that … that she would never see Bens dream nor you. We wept together, in each others arms” she felt the tears trickling down her face at the memory of that time and pressed the handkerchief to her face. “So it was partly for that reason too. but I was sorry for Olaf as well, he knew I didn’t love him, and he needed to be loved, he had never been loved for himself and I was his wife and should have loved him, but I just could not, I could not.” and her tears turned now to sobs which she tried to staunch with the handkerchief

“It’s alright,” Adam said softly, putting his arm around her and gently holding her close to him “It’s all over now. There’s nothing more to worry about.”

After a while she was able to calm herself and although still agitated,which was evident by the way she mangled the handkerchief in her hands, she resumed the story

“Sometimes I wanted to forget that promise, especially as years passed and I more or less assumed you were all dead. I was unable to receive letters from family once father had died, and I had no access to American newspapers. The only news I ever had came from passing foreign businessmen who came as Olafs’ guests.” She paused “It was when we were in Paris and I met Linda that I found that you were still alive, and that Ben had remarried and had another son. Linda was on her honeymoon at the time but she was bitterly angry with Ben because he had preferred Marie to herself. Anyway, snippets like that came my way every so often as though to remind me that I had to keep faithful to Elizabeths request, even if it did mean standing guard over a stupid piece of paper for what seemed forever.”

“Was your husband ill for long?”

“Long enough for me to take the reins of his business for several years. Lars Hanson was his private secretary and had been for many years and he really resented what he called my Yankee American influence, which was ridiculous as I had no business acumen at all when I married Olaf. He was probably the only person in Norway who knew about that surety and how Olaf used it against me; when Olaf died I resigned from the business and left as soon as I could. You know the rest, I met Linda in San Francisco after one of her run ins with your father and after hearing her plans to use this land to your disadvantage, I thought of Elizabeth and my promise and that’s all really.”
She leaned down and picked up the package that she had held in her hand when she had visited the ranch earlier that day and now she passed it to Adam with a smile.
“Anyway, this is for you. Read it when you get home but promise me that you won’t let Ben see it until sometime tomorrow.”

“Aren’t you coming back with me now?”

“No, I don’t think so, Adam”

“Pa will be worried and I would like you to come home, Rachel.”

She looked down at her shoes, the toes of which could just be seen peeking from the hem of her green skirt, and a small frown created a little horseshoe crease on her brow, then she turned to look at him with very clear blue eyes

“Adam, I had intended, all those months ago, to just ride up to the ranch and say, more or less, “Hello, Ben Cartwright…look, it’s me, Rachel Stoddard!” and take things from there. But things got all disarranged and when I did meet him for the first time, he did not recognise Rachel Stoddard at all. He could only keep telling me how my accent reminded him of his second wife! Then, I thought what if he has become fond of me because I remind him of Inger. If that is the case, how will he feel for me when he realises that I am Elizabeths’ cousin, the little nuisance he never really took any notice of all those years ago. So as time went by and I thought that perhaps he did care about me I expected him to one day say that I reminded him of a little girl he once knew, the cousin of his first wife, but he never said so. I don’t think Ben loves me, Adam, maybe he is fond of me because of Inger, because he is of an age when he needs to be loved. I don’t know. Do you know?”

She looked searchingly into his face, and saw the embarrassed look in his eyes and the slight colour in his cheeks, he shrugged

“No, I don’t know. Pa can be pretty deep at times but he is very discerning, and he would never commit to saying he cared about someone, unless he was one hundred per cent sure. He would want to be sure of how they felt for him too.” And he glanced at her and raised his eyebrows “I always believed that the foundation of a good marriage was trust”

“Do you think I have broken that trust?”

“After all those years of servitude to Olaf to protect my father and myself, on the basis of a promise to Elizabeth?. How can I say that you have broken any trust?”

“I do love Ben. I have carried this love for him like a lead weight in my heart for years, and when, during these past few months, I thought he cared for me, that lead weight became so light, it was as though I were a girl again and allowed my self to think stupid romantic thoughts. But now I don’t know how I feel .”

“What are you going to do now ?”

“Go home. I should have gone home in the first place and just posted these things on to you. It would have spared us all a lot of grief.” She smiled slowly and held out her hand “Good bye, Adam”

“Rachel, come home with me now, and tell Pa what you’ve told me.” he pleaded, taking hold of her hand

“I don’t think so, but take care of him, won’t you?” she frowned again, her blue eyes looking sad “Poor Adam, you’ve spent your whole life looking after him, haven’t you? Don’t forget me, will you?”

“Is that your last word?”

She nodded and resolutely turned her back on him and walked hurridly to where her horse was hobbled.

“Rachel…” he called to her, but she did not turn back only mounted the horse and galloped away, leaving the dust to settle upon the falling leaves.

Chapter 12
“Where’s Pa?”

Hoss and Joe glanced up at their elder brother and glumly indicated their father who was seated at his desk with the darkest expression on his face that they had seen for some time. Adam slipped the package beneath his coat and then slowly put away his hat and gunbelt. The atmosphere in the house was frigid and even Hop Sing appeared affected as he came into the room with the evening coffee with a melancholy expression in his eyes and a droop to his lips.

“What’s the matter with him?” Adam asked his brothers, nodding in the direction of Hop Sing as he himself sat down in his usual chair and groped for the book that he had slid beneath it.

“He took a shine to Rachel,” Hoss muttered

“Pa came in and told him that there would be no more visits from Rachel and the whole thing was off. Hop Sings world kind of caved in.” Joe leaned forward “Adam, Pa came home in a real odd mood. He’s so angry with himself that he can’t think straight!”

Adam frowned and glanced over at his parent whilst scratching the back of his neck, then he looked at his brothers long faces and got to his feet and walked over to where Ben sat, tapping his fingers on the desk and staring into space.

“Are you alright, Pa?” he leaned closed to look into his fathers face and could see for himself that the question was totally superfluous. “Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked gently

You could try and persuade her to come back.” Ben growled

“You didn’t find her then?”

“No. I even called in and asked Clementine Hawkins and got the rough edge of her tongue as well, so Rachel had obviously got back there and told her that, well, if there was any interest, there certainly isn’t any now.”

“Couldn’t you have waited to see her and talk?”

“She knows where I am, Adam. If there’s any talking to be done, she knows where she can find me.”

“So you didn’t really love her then?”

“Of course, what the dickens are you talking about?” Ben thumped the desk with his fist and then stood up, sat down again , and picked up his pipe, just to keep his hands busy. Adam noticed that his fathers hands trembled slightly and Ben noticed that Adam had, so he put the pipe down and stood up “I’m going out, try and clear my head!”

“That’s a good idea!” Adam said and received a withering look from his father in reply. He returned to sit with his brothers and when the door slammed the three of them winced.

“I think he loved her.” Hoss muttered

“Yeah, I think he did too.” Joe frowned and pulled out the chequers board and began to set up the pieces “Adam? Want to try first agin me?”

“No thanks, Joe.” Adam watched as his youngest brother busied himself with the black and white markers and Hoss came and sat down beside him and picked out the white ones for himself “What did you two think about Rachel? Did you like her?”

“I thought she was lovely” Hoss said with his usual sincerity and his blue eyes looked into his brothers “I know it may be the wrong thing to say, but I liked to hear her talk and pretend a bit that it was my ma I was listening too! Did she really sound like her, Adam?”

“In some ways, from what I can remember.” Adam smiled gently at his big younger brother and looked at Joe “What about you, Joe?”

“Hey, she saved my life!” Joe exclaimed with his hazel eyes gleaming “Apart from which it was clear that she loved pa, and she was honest and kind, and pretty, and I guess Pa has gone and ruined it all for himself!”

“So you wouldn’t have minded if he had married her then?”

“Shucks no!” Hoss exclaimed, plumping down his markers with a frown “But it isn’t worth thinking about now, is it? She looked like one determined lady to me, she just about bolted outa here like a skinned rabbit.”

“Hoss!” Joe exclaimed “Say it right if you have to say a thing, you mean a skeered rabbit about to be skinned!”

Hoss shrugged “Any which way it’s all the same now.” He grumbled

Adam sat back and said nothing, but stroked his upper lip with his forefinger for a few minutes before getting up and walking over to his coat and taking hold of the package excused himself and went to his room.

After lighting the lamps he opened the package and looked at the pile of papers that it contained. He chewed on his bottom lip and pulled up a chair and picked up the first batch of paperwork, all contained together by a pin. A note in her handwriting said:

“Ben,

It is possible, although highly unlikely, that you may receive a demand from a Lars Hanson with regard to a loan taken out by Henry Stoddard, and for which you signed as a surety / guarantor in October 1828. The amount that this would total is now in excess of one million dollars (USA)
Lars Hanson was Olaf Sorensens private secretary and had access to papers that most never knew existed. Olaf and myself were probably the only people who knew about this loan because Henry Stoddard was my father and Olaf promised not to demand payment of it from him due to our marriage.
Lars knew that Olaf would have demanded the full sum from you at any time had I deviated from my agreement with him. I know I am making a long story of this but all I really need to say is that should Lars make any such demand from you, IGNORE it. All the original and duplicates of any correspondence on this matter are attached herewith. My stepson allowed me to take them when I left Norway. Lars may demand this from you but it will be only a fraud (I think this is the right word, but, whatever it is, it will be illegal). If you choose to do so, you can contact my stepson at the above address and he will take steps to deal with Lars on my behalf! Sincerely Freya Sorensen”
Adam leaned back in his chair and smiled slowly, so, after so many years, Rachel had claimed her due reward for her servitude but his face fell when he thought of how Ben would react when he read the note and its attachments. How he would punish himself even more than he was already and very slowly Adam put the papers to one side.
There was a letter addressed to himself next and this he unfolded
“Dear Adam

I have enclosed here a few personal items for you. A letter to you from your mother which she entrusted to my safekeeping, I am so sorry that it has been so long in coming to you. Also a letter from your mother to myself, which I enclose in order that you may understand why the land Title Deeds are now in your name.

My dear, it has been wonderful to have had the chance to meet you at last. All these years long I have wondered how you have grown, sometimes thinking you and your father were dead, and then finding out, from some strange sources, that you were all well.

I can honestly say, Adam, that your mother would have been proud of you, proud to call you her son, proud of the way you have been such a champion for your father, proud of the way you have cared for your younger brothers through some very distressing times.

May God bless you, my dear, and keep you always safe
Your cousin
Rachel”
He re-read this letter very slowly and then realised that the bulk of the package was indeed the documents relative to the land Linda had sold to Freya Sorensen and which had been transferred to him only the day previous. He picked these up and glanced through them page by page and then put them down with misery smoting his heart. The full hearted generousity of the woman made him grieve even more for her departure, and the love she obviously felt for them humbled him.
The next envelope was yellow with age, and mottled in places. He read the inscription on the envelope and felt the tears thicken in his throat when he saw just three words To my son. His hands trembled a little as he very carefully slit open the envelope that she had sealed all those years ago and tilting it a little, allowed the contents to fall slowly onto the desk top.
Photographs and a letter.
There was a photograph as clear and fresh as the day it had been taken of Ben and Elizabeth Cartwright smiling together happily at the camera on their wedding day. A photograph of a young girl with a tall man with a full beard but he knew the girl was his mother and the man obviously Captain Stoddard, his grandfather. He turned the photograph over and read “Father and myself 1820”.
The next photograph was of two girls smiling at the camera one as dark as the other was fair. He noted that there were similarities in appearance, but the differences between them were very marked even apart from Elizabeth dark features and Rachel being so fair. He read the writing at the back which only said “Rachel and myself 1820”
He picked up the letter which as he read made his hands shake and his heart beat faster and more than once he had to set it down to rub the tears from his eyes.
“Dearest dearest one
I am watching the sun setting over the harbour and it is the most glorious sight to be seen. What colours there are and what a beautiful evening. I am watching the sun setting and wondering whether in a few days time I shall be sitting here with you in my arms, my darling. I am watching the sun setting this evening and praying that God spares us many, many evenings such as this – you, your father and myself.
Your father will tell you how we chose your name – Adam. You are OUR first born son. Our little man. Your fathers first born child. Longed for, darling, and much loved.
I wanted to write so much to you, and tell you so much but where would I start? Now I cannot find the words and I feel that there is little time left in which to say to them. Perhaps I will never be able to tell you but I want you to know, little man, that I love you.
I imagine you a man as tall as your father and dark like him. Perhaps you will be a little like me, just a little. I hope you love beauty and poetry, and reading, and music. I hope that you will be strong and healthy and most of all, please God, be happy.
I want to say everything a mother usually has a lifetime to say in this letter, but that just is not possible. I wish I had been there to see you take your first steps, I hope that when you fall, someone is there to pick you up, gently. I wonder what your first words will be…will it be ‘papa’?
The night is dark now, and the moon is shining. So many stars there are tonight, tiny pin pricks of light in blue black velvet and the moon is so full that the light shining through the windows illuminates the room with silver. No doubt you will be seeing many such nights, my dear son.
Good night, sweet-heart. Mother loves you xxxxxxxxx”
He read the letter thrice times over with the tears gushing down his face and dripping unheeded until in the end he buried his face in his hands and wept the tears of the bereaved, tears that had never been shed because he had locked them away, far away and deep in his heart.
The next and last letter was addressed to ‘Dear Rachel’ and he opened it and read it through carefully and then slipped it back into its envelope. He stood up and walked to the window and leaned his head against the cool glass and closed his eyes. Outside his room the floorboards creaked and he knew Hoss was on his way to bed, and he saw the gleam of light angling over the porch as Hoss lit his lamp and he took a deep breath and waited until Joe’s footsteps and cheery ‘G’night all’ ceased from echo-ing around the house. Then he picked up the package and went slowly down to where he would find his father.

Chapter 13
“Coffee?”

Ben looked up and shook his head. He still wore his outdoors jacket. He sat at the desk with his chin cupped in one hand, his face solemn and sad and weary

“Adam?”

“Yes, Pa?” Adam sat down on the chair opposite his father and looked at him very much like a father looks at his child who is about to confess to stealing the last cookie

“I must be the biggest fool in Nevada.”

“Mmmm!”

“No, make it the whole of America.”

“Uh’huh!”

“Oh” Ben thumped the desk “That woman!”

“Rachel?”

“Who else?”

“You should have married her weeks ago!”

“You’re right, I should have done. Why didn’t you suggest that then?”

“It wasn’t my place to say!”
“Adam?”

“Yes, Pa?”

“What do you think I should do?”

“If you really do love her, then go and see her, apologise, listen to what she has to say and then go and get married!”

Ben stared at his son narrowed of eye and a scowl on his face. Then his shoulders slumped forward and he shook his head

“I don’t know,Adam. I never thought at my age, that I would ever feel so much for any woman again. It’s an odd thing, you know, but, I just felt comfortable with her. Right from the first time I saw her.” he looked anxiously at his son “Does that make sense to you?”

“Definitely”

“I do love her, you know!”

“Tell her, not me.” His son responded somewhat cynically

“I don’t know where she is.”
“Pa?”

“Yes, son?”

“Take a look at this!” and he passed over the photograph of the two girls and looked at his father carefully. Ben’s dark eyes widened and then narrowed in disbelief when he saw the picture and to make sure that he was seeing what he thought he saw, he turned up the flame of the lamp. Adam saw the stern features soften and the dark eyes moisten before Ben spoke,
“Where did you find this?”

“Rachel gave it to me.”

“Rachel?” Ben frowned and looked at the photograph again. He leaned back in his chair and touched the face of the dark haired girl and smiled
“Elizabeth…” he murmered “I guess she must have been about fourteen then, if not younger. You can see how pretty she was, even then, can’t you?”

Adam said nothing, but stared thoughtfully at his father until Ben glanced up and saw the stern look on his sons face and frowned

“What’s the matter?” he asked

“Who’s the other girl?”

“What?”

“Pa, who is the other girl?” Adam said very slowly and succinctly.

Ben resumed his perusal of the photograph “This is her cousin, little Rachel Stoddard,” he finally said.

“She must have been – what? – about 8 or 9?”

“Mmm. Yes, that’s right. Elizabeth doted on her. She lived with them for quite a few years after her own mother died.”

“Was she a nice little girl?”

“Very shy and quiet. Elizabeth was the leader, Rachel more or less lived in her shadow. I remember Elizabeth wrote to her almost every week, they were very close friends.”

“Did you see much of her after “ Adam shifted in his chair “after I was born?”

“She came for the funeral and she stayed with us for about two weeks. It was all hazy, I could never remember much about what happened then. I remember though, one morning, she came to me with you in her arms and asked me if I would take her with me so that she could look after us. I said she could not because she was too young for such a journey and she said that I was being rather stupid then, taking a baby with me. I told her not to be so insolent and she looked at me with those big blue eyes of hers and told me that I was too obstinate and stubborn for my own good and then she stormed out slamming the door.”

“Much like today then.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“When you were shouting and bawling this morning and she stormed out …….again!” Adam stood up and placed the package on the desk in front of his father and raised his dark eyebrows “Read these! Good night, pa.” He paused a moment as he pulled an envelope from his pocket “I suggest you read this one first.”
Ben watched as his son mounted the stairs and then looked at the envelope. He sighed sadly when he recognised the writing and frowned when he realised it was addressed to Rachel. He stared at it for a moment and then slowly took the letter out and began to read:
“Dearest, dearest Rachel,
I know that you have just left and I am writing this in haste, before Ben comes home. Remember what we were talking about while you were here? I know you thought I was being very pessimistic, but even so, darling, we have to be practical, don’t we? And we have always shared our thoughts and dreams and plans, haven’t we? All I wanted to do was ask you to share this one with me, just in case something happens and things do go wrong.

Rachel, you are like my very own sister, you always have been and always were and I love you as though you are, as I know you love me, and Ben and how you will love our baby. PLEASE don’t forget your promise. PLEASE remember what you said here this afternoon. I know, I know that you thought it was silly of me to get you to put your hand on the bible but we always used to, didn’t we? And this is so important to me, Rachel, because if anything happens to me then to know that you will be there to look after Adam and Ben will be such a comfort.

It may be, because you are so young, darling, that your father may not let you go with them. But Ben has to follow his dream, you understand that, don’t you? Please, dearest little sister, look after them for me. If ever Adam needs you, if they need help in any way and you can help them, please, no matter what the circumstances, remember me, and remember today and remember your promise.

Apart from all of that, remember I loved you dearly. Your sisterly cousin Elizabeth Cartwright.”
At the bottom of the page was a ps. And here Ben read :
“Rachel, remember when we saw the Cherokee? One of them told me this prayer and now I share it with you, dearest, because you are so young and who knows what road you will walk in this life?
‘When I’m dead cry for me a little
Think of me sometimes but not too much.
Think of me now and then as I was in life,
At some moment that is pleasant to recall,
But not for long.
Leave me in peace and I shall leave you in peace.
And while you live, let your thoughts be with the living”

Ben stared at the slips of paper for some minutes and let them slip from his fingers onto the desk before he buried his face in his hands and uttered prayers of his own, for the dead, and for the living and as he prayed, he wept at the memory of blue eyes and an arrogant little chin thrust forwards in typical Stoddard fashion!
.
Finale. .
He recalled Adam saying that if all else failed Rachel would more than likely be found at her favourite place on the land she had bought from Linda. Remembering the directions he remounted Buck and put spurs to his flanks and galloped out of town as fast as it was safe to go. Once out of town he urged the horse onwards, feeling inside himself that if he were to go slowly and find her gone and then never see her again, then he would not only be desolate but would blame himself for not putting in enough effort to have found her.
Rain began to fall. Soft at first and like a faint mist that one does not particularly notice until soaked through and shivering. Ben turned Buck at the junction where the Ponderosa bordered her land, and urged him onwards.
What happened next was a mystery for one moment he was head down to avoid the rain striking into his eyes and the next the wind was knocked out of him, there was pain in his chest and the sickening feeling as though ones innermost life force was being sucked into a vacuum leaving only total blackness in its wake.
“Wake up, Ben? Please, please, wake up”
Was it rain falling softly upon his face, if it were so, then it fell like soft kisses upon his cheeks !
He blinked and struggled against the desire to remain hidden away in blackness, but her voice seemed the life line upon which to cling and when he looked up he saw her face close to his and heard her voice soft to his ear.
“Rachel? What are you doing here?” he asked in such a trembling voice that he barely recognised himself “What happened?”

“Your horse fell.” she replied simply

“Buck fell?” he sat up and then realised that he had been lying with his head in her lap, and decided that a good groan would suffice to allow his head to return just where it had been. He groaned and closed his eyes and reopened them to look up at her “Rachel, I was looking for you”

“I was looking for you too.” She replied softly

“I wanted to say sorry”

“I wanted to say sorry too,” she smiled but the tears slipped down her cheeks evenso. “I lost my temper and should have stayed to explain to you.” She added “But I was angry, Ben, that you could think I would be so devious and try to harm any of you.”

“I was angry, Rachel, and afraid. I said stupid things because I was afraid that all the things I felt for you had been betrayed and that I was going to lose you like, like I had lost others I have loved.”

“Oh Ben, I should have told you before who I was and why I was here, but I thought that if I did that you would never love me”

He sat up then and turned and grabbed her by the arms and held onto her whilst he looked earnestly into her eyes,
“Rachel, dearest Rachel, why ever would you think a thing like that?” he cried “How could I not love you?”

“Why should you love me, Ben? And if you loved me, knowing then that I was Rachel Stoddard, would you have loved me because my voice reminded you of Inger, or because I was Elizabeths cousin and maybe would remind you of her? Dearest Ben, I wanted you to love ME not shades of others. I wanted you to know me now, not the memory of someone who was forever in the background of your life before, and whom you never really knew. Do you understand what I am saying, Ben?”
He touched her face gently,tracing the line of her cheekbones to her chin, brushing away the wet strands of hair that fell over her face, then cupping her face in his hands he drew her towards him and very gently touched his lips to her own.
“Rachel Sorensen……all those years you cared and thought of us “

“All those years you never even knew I existed.”

“If only you had never walked away that day I told you that you could not have come with us. Who knows what would have happened?”

“That’s all past now, Ben. You have had many happy times and hard times too, and how I felt for you perhaps was not really love, perhaps it was just that you were the something tangible from another lifetime that I could hold onto until it was over, my life or my existence whichever came first. But, Ben, I knew from the moment I first saw you again, that I loved you more than life itself. I wanted you to remember me. I wanted you to look at me and say ‘It’s Rachel Stoddard’ and then to fall in love with me. But you did not do that, you said…”

“I know what I said. Believe me, it was a compliment. I said you sounded like Inger, and it was like sweet music to my ears. Your voice always will be. I said what I said and yet as soon as I saw you I felt something turn inside of me and it was as though I could love you without having to go through all the preliminaries. Oh Rachel, Rachel, never do that to me again. Never walk away and out of my life again. Will you promise me that?”

“I will promise you anything, Ben, anything and everything.”
He held her tight and kissed her again, and her hands touched his face and laughingly she rubbed her cheek against his and held him close and kissed him.

The three horsemen pulled up their horses sharply as they turned the junction and came upon the sight of two adults sitting in puddles of mud, clinging to one another, laughing, kissing, crying, as oblivious to the rain as a duck.
“Heck!” Joe exclaimed, going red in the face “Is that Pa?”

“Let’s get outta here…” Hoss said, turning his horse round sharply

Adam said nothing, but smiled a contented smile. So after all, everyone was young at heart it seems. He turned Sports head and followed his brothers along the track back to the ranch.

“That means they must be in love.” Joe said “Even I wouldn’t sit in a puddle and kiss a girl”

“Surely Pa’s too old to be doing things like that!” Hoss cried, going rather red in the face as he thought of his revered father.

“No one’s too old to do things like that, when they’re in love.” Adam said quietly.

“Do you reckon they’ll get married now?” Hoss asked.

“They’ll have to” Joe said sternly “After all there are three witnesses here who saw their shenanagins back there.”

“They were only kissing and talking and happy,” Adam laughed.

“Yeah, but evenso, it was PA! Doing the kissing and the happy bit.” Hoss said, even redder in the face now. Then he smiled his extraordinary gentle, shy smile “Shucks, that means Rachel will be our ma.”

“Yep, full circle, another Stoddard!” quipped Adam

“Will you marry me?” Ben said as they walked arm in arm and dripping wet to their horses “Say ‘yes,’ Rachel, please.”

“Will you promise not to shout at me anymore?” she smiled

He paused and removed a wet strand of hair from her face and kissed her nose

“Come now, I never shout!” he protested with a soft laugh.

“Benjamin, I love you so much that I can’t even describe how I feel now.”

“Just say ‘yes, Ben.’”

“Yes, Ben”

“Say I will marry you and be your wife.”

“I will marry you and be your wife.” She stood on tip toe and kissed him and felt his arms encircle her into his embrace, close to his heart and she thought “This is where I have longed to be since I was a child. Safe, safe. Loved, loved…” and she kissed him as hard as she could even though the rain fell heavily upon their faces now and rain drops slid into their eyes and into their mouths “I love you, Ben Cartwright”

“I love you, Rachel Stoddard.” He whispered “ I shall never stop loving you, Rachel, my love.” aand he drew her closer, so close that not even the rain drops could pass between them.

The End.

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